Reading list

Not a very exciting post this – just a list of the books that I have read over the past couple of years or so. Not sure what this list says about me, other than that I have an ongoing fascination with certain topics: memory, synesthesia, thinking, teaching  and numbers.

Carey, Benedict. How we learn. 2014.
Chabris, C & Simons, D. The Invisible Gorilla. 2010.
Cytowic, R. The man who tasted shapes. 1993
Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit. 2012.
Gladwell, M. Blink. 2005.
Gladwell, M. The Tipping Point. 2000.
Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. 2008.
Gladwell, M. David & Goliath. 2013.
Harris, P. Simultaneous learning. 2012.
Harris, P. The practice process. 2014.
Harris, P. The virtuoso teacher. 2012.
Johnson, S. Who moved my cheese? 1998.
Kahneman, D. Thinking fast and slow. 2011.
Luria, A R. The mind of a mnemonist. 1968
Marsh, H. Do no harm. 2014.
Mlodinow, L. Subliminal. 2012.
Mlodinow, L. The drunkard’s walk. 2008.
Rusbridger, A. Play it again. 2014.
Sacks, O. The man who mistook his wife for a hat. 1985
Syed, M. Bounce. 2010.
Walker, S. The undefended leader. 2011.

Permission to sing badly

Instrumentalists have a lot to deal with when learning a new piece of music. Not only do they have to read the notes – both pitch and rhythm – but they also need to deal with the technical demands of playing them, which amongst other things may include fingers, arm movement and breath control. If they are finding the rhythm difficult, I’d like to suggest that we can make it a lot easier by removing the technical aspect, at least temporarily.

Can you juggle whilst riding a *unicycle? If you can’t do either, what are the chances of you learning, simultaneously, to do both? One of these alone would be quite enough to be dealing with, and you’d really need to be a master of each skill before you contemplated putting them together.

So if it’s understanding the rhythm of a piece of music which is causing the difficulty, put the instrument down! It seems so obvious, if you consider the unicycle scenario, and yet how many of us fail to do this? Perhaps it depends on whether we see ourselves principally as an instrumental teacher or a music teacher…. Fixing the rhythm is a musical problem.

The trouble, though, is this –  we do have a significant problem if we put down the instrument, because now we’re going to have to ….. SING! Most teenagers would naturally run away at this point, but I have a solution which seems to work really well; permission to sing badly!

In order for rhythm to be secure what we really need to do is internalise it – and singing is just an outward demonstration of what is going on inside our head. For this purpose the singing doesn’t need to be perfect, but the important thing is to learn the rhythm without having to focus on something else at the same time.

Earlier this week I was working on Ian Clarke’s Sunstreams with a flautist:


In this passage, there are a lot of notes to concentrate on playing. Up until this point her pulse had been rock solid, but all of a sudden in bar 24 it just disappeared and everything went very vague; it’s as if the volume had been turned right down on her internal metronome so that she was no longer aware of it.

First step: put down the flute. We then re-established the pulse, and made sure that she knew where each of the crotchet beats fell – she’s a quick student, so no problems here. And then we sang it – badly, but in time. Without inserting a sound file it’s difficult to describe bad singing, but basically you need to put enough inflection in the voice to show the rise and fall of the pitches, but with none of the precision need to sing it properly in tune. In effect it’s like an aural sketch – near enough to be recognisable, but without the need for all the detail.

With just a couple of repetitions she had built for herself an aural sketch of what this passage should sound like, in time. So when she picked her flute up again and played, it was, unsurprisingly, in time, because she now knew what she was aiming at.

This technique works so well, and I put it down to pupils enjoying having permission to do something badly! We so often feel judged on the quality of our singing, and indeed it’s a very personal thing. But to ask a student to singing badly, in this context at least, removes that pressure, because you’ve actually given them permission to get it sort of wrong, and where’s the stress in that? And they also see, almost instantly, how much easier it can sometimes be to learn without the complications of controlling the instrument as well.

*Funnily enough, not long after I’d written the first draft of this article, a pupil came to find me, with one arm in a sling, to say that he wouldn’t be able to go to his saxophone lesson – because he’d fallen backwards off his unicycle!!

Chamber Choir: developing the vision

In May last year our newly formed Chamber Choir gave a short recital, and looking back now I can see that, despite being a fairly low key event, it marked a big step in the development of our music department, certainly from a choral perspective.

The initial purpose of writing here at music@monkton was to chart the development of a music department. In particular, changing aspirations, not just of those falling within the immediate reach of the music department, but for the wider school community as well. Over the past five years singing has been a primary focus; the Choir who can’t sing has engaged the wider school community, as have whole school singing practices, and both of these have had a considerable impact in raising the standard of singing in the House Music Festival. At this level, the most important seed to sow in changing those aspirations has been this: anyone can sing [- enabling every pupil to find their own voice.]

At the same time, at a higher level, the Chapel Choir has gone from strength to strength, and last year I was finally able to form the Chamber Choir, an elite group of sixth form students, many of whom arrived at Monkton at the same time as I did. Don’t misunderstand the word elite here: few, if any, of the founder members of the Chamber Choir had any experience of singing choral music outside Monkton. By elite, I mean the best that we can offer, and more importantly, something for others to aspire to.

The self-imposed brief for the Chamber Choir is very clear – to stretch our most able musicians. This year’s choir has consisted of eleven pupils and two staff, and all of the repertoire which we have covered has been a cappella. And although we have a piano to hand, most of our rehearsal time is also unaccompanied, and so from the start the pupils have to work out for themselves what is going on [aka sight-reading!] The joy of rehearsing in this way is that it forces everyone to focus not only on their own line, but also on the wider context of harmony [vital for intonation] and line in the rest of the choir as well; it sharpens the listening skills and the mind like little else. Our hope is, of course, is to be able to give high quality performances; but this outcome is surely secondary to the learning process itself.

The aspirations of the choir are already very different from those they started with in September. In rehearsal, they expect me to expect them to keep going, so if they get lost it is their responsibility to do their best to join in again. If they’re really struggling I’ll throw them a line, but there is certainly no ‘note-bashing’ in this choir. It’s an exciting way to rehearse; spontaneous, motivating and purposeful.

We have given a number of notable performances this year; in Bath Abbey, Bath’s Salvation Army Citadel, Wingfield Church, the annual MidSomerset Festival, our Summer Concert, and most recently in a concert with Monkton Combe Choral Society. Our first piece in this concert was Philip Stopford’s If ye love me, and I think it’s fair to say that I have never stood before a choir which looked so focused ahead of a performance; a remarkable and thrilling experience which I will genuinely never forget.

We have also formed a Junior Chamber Choir this year, ten boys [!] and ten girls, mainly year 10 and 11, all of whom aspire to progressing up to the main Chamber Choir. Mr Wilson-Lambert is doing a fine job with them, and I’m excited that this first group have a head start on their older peers; our senior Chamber Choir in two years time could be very exciting indeed.

Moving with the times, we haven’t made a CD this year, but you can hear our Chamber Choir here on SoundCloud. Please do feel free to forward to friends!

Directed practice – a guiding hand


Alan Hazeldine

As a student I had the good fortune to cross paths with Alan Hazeldine, an inspirational conductor and a generous teacher. In the year or so that I was accompanist to the North London Chorus [my first concert with them was Bach’s B minor mass] I learned a huge amount from him, but this single idea stands out above all else.

Alan held out his left hand, palm facing upwards:

In one ear, I have what I can hear at the moment, in rehearsal; and in the other ear [waving his right hand] I have what I want it to sound like. And all I am doing in rehearsal is matching up what I can hear with what I want to hear.

As he said this last sentence, he carefully put the palms of his hands together. So simple.

This is how I rehearse, be it choir or orchestra, but it is also how I practise. In fact, this is how I have always practised. I’m not sure whether I was ever taught to practise or whether it has just come instinctively, but many pupils do need guidance. Some need lots.

I suspect that one of the biggest problems with practice is that pupils lack the aural picture of “what they want it to sound like.” In Alan’s picture, they have their left palm held out, but have nothing to match it up to – in other words, their practice is aimless. If they can’t hear the goal – whether that be an evenness of tone, or even just the correct notes, how can they know what needs to be adjusted to improve their efforts?

This is a complex area. Many students hack their way through sight-reading without the faintest idea of what is going on around them. Why? Because they can’t hear what they are aiming at, so nothing that they play has any context; they can’t really tell whether it’s right or wrong. The solution: teach them to sight-sing, and then they will be able to hear what they see.  Then they will be able to match up what they play [left hand] with what they hear in their head [right hand].

I have inherited a pupil who struggles to read the dots on the page. He can read them, but he has developed other strategies to avoid doing so if he can help it! So when it comes to reading new music, the first stage needs to be for him to pick his way carefully through the score, and build for himself an aural picture of what the music sounds like; put another way, he first needs to create that right hand, so that in his subsequent practice he knows what he is aiming for.

These things take time, and we can undoubtedly find shortcuts. The easiest is to provide that right hand ourselves, to be in possession of what we know to be the goal, and to guide our student towards that. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with this strategy: what does the student do when we are not there? This method works fine in lessons, when indeed we can be fooled as we see their progress in front of our own eyes, but what about when they are practising alone? And what about when they move on?

My preference is not to find shortcuts, but to give them a hand in working out how to learn for themselves. It takes time and patience to teach our pupils how to direct their own learning rather than simply to follow our lead, but the rewards are so much more enduring.

Sight-reading hurdles

I have been working with a pupil recently on sight-reading, ahead of his forthcoming trumpet exam, and in particular I’ve been trying to encourage him to keep going at all costs. However, much as I have tried to persuade him to do this, I find that each time that he goes wrong, he stops to correct the mistakes. To his credit, his practice skills are pretty good; he is able to identify his own errors, and goes back to correct them. But try as I might to persuade him not to stop – to just keeping going – he can’t!

It has dawned on me that for much of the time we actually encourage our students to do the exact opposite, to stop in order to put things right; so is it any surprise that he does it in this context too?! After all, he’s just doing what I would usually ask the rest of the time – which is actually a good thing!

Charlie MaggsBut for a sight-reading test, we need a different approach. Don’t correct the mistakes! In fact, it’s not unlike running a hurdles race (although I need to stress that I speak with very little first hand experience!) In the hurdles the athletes quite often hit the barriers – sometimes they wobble, sometimes they fall over (the hurdles that is, hopefully not the athletes!) but what they never do is go back and have another go. They just keep going, sometimes leaving a trail of destruction behind them. It doesn’t matter – once the barrier has been hit, it’s too late to do anything about it, so they just keep running to the finish line. In some ways, it’s quite satisfying to make mistakes and then to almost literally run away from them!

And it’s the last bit – the idea that for once it’s actually correct to ignore the mistakes – which has made the difference with this pupil, and I think he has actually found it surprisingly liberating to be allowed to plough on without fear of recrimination! The ideal, of course, is that there are no mistakes, but failing that being allowed (or even encouraged) to ignore any mistakes has been quite …. fun!! Sssshh, don’t tell anyone!! ;)

Musical Glue

kristyI am delighted to publish my first ever guest post, by Kristy Swift. A natural teacher if ever I met one, Kristy has such a delightfully inquisitive approach to learning, both for herself and for her pupils.

T-Rexes and Musical Glue

Like most kids, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I spent hours in my Dad’s workshop, building model T-Rex skeletons from hobby kits. Assembling the “bones” was fun, but it was no use building T-Rexes if they were only going to collapse again. Once I had everything in position, I needed to keep it there.

A quick trip to the hardware store usually solved the problem. There were many adhesives available, but the best one came in two tubes. It was fun to squeeze each ingredient onto a piece of card, stirring them with a toothpick to cause a chemical reaction. This created something stronger than the original parts; something that would really stick.

I didn’t grow up to become a palaeontologist, though. I fell in love with music instead. However, I often think of those model T-Rexes, because musical concepts are a lot like those fiddly T-Rex bones. You need exactly the right mental glue to make them stick, and you create the best glue by combining several ingredients.

I recently met someone with an incredible recipe for “musical glue”. His name is Paul Harris, and he teaches so proactively that every moment of the lesson becomes fun, achievable, and likely to stay in the student’s memory. Earlier this year, he spoke at Faber Music in London and generously shared his methods.

Paul’s website maintains that teaching music is “incontestably, one of the most fascinating and stimulating of all professions.” His multi-layered approach replaces the master-apprentice model (“Let me tell you what’s wrong with you”), with something more collaborative and fun (“Let’s break this into achievable components and enjoy all of them”).

What are these achievable components, then? If a piece is sight-readable, it just means we’re familiar enough with its patterns to perform it without much rehearsal. What if we used this concept of “pattern-familiarity” as the basis for all of our teaching? We could immerse students in the patterns of any given piece, before they see the piece itself. If we explore the patterns in a variety of ways, they will stick like glue.

“Lovely Moon, Shedding Silver Light…”

I decided to try Paul’s approach with one of my vocal students. This particular girl needed a piece for her Grade 7 ABRSM exam. Given her sensitive and expressive nature, I thought she might appreciate Bellini’s Vaga luna che inargenti (Lovely Moon, Shedding Silver Light). The song is filled with unrequited longing, like a mini operatic aria. However, the Italian text is sometimes a stumbling block, particularly in combination with Bellini’s syncopated rhythms. Nevertheless, the song’s touching spirit more than justifies those challenges.

We began our warm-up by exploring different vocal colours. I asked, “What is the effect of singing on Ah, Eh, Ee, Oh and Oo? Which one makes a tone that you would call ‘silvery?’ What kinds of pieces might need a silvery timbre?”

Another section of her warm-up included the exact kind of syncopation used by Bellini in the song: firstly, we played with it as “call and response” patterns, and then as a melodic improvisation around the given rhythmic pattern.

The next step was an exploration of how various composers express “moonlight” in their music. (Renée Fleming has an entire album called Night Songs, and of course there’s the eponymous Beethoven sonata!) Let’s not forget Romantic literature, either. I asked some more questions: “How many times have you studied a poem that draws on an element of nature? Quite a few? Fantastic… what does the moon symbolise? Ah… emotional themes. Secrets, unrequited love and loneliness, perhaps? Which movies have you seen that have those elements?”

I was delighted that she had something other than Twilight to discuss here, but I would have accepted Twilight if need be! It’s also worth noting that this conversation took less than three minutes. Completely worth it in terms of the curiosity it piqued. At this point, I took the Bellini book from the top of the piano, and began to open it. My student almost dragged it from my hands. A win for Bellini! Evidently, this kind of lesson plan beats the “sing these dots in order, fail, and let me tell you how you went wrong” model.

Paul Harris, thank you!

Do you like Strawberry Jam?

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is “all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without knowing quite why we know it,” when we rely on instinct rather than our ability to reason. Gladwell is a persuasive writer and I find him compelling. He draws on a huge variety of examples in this book, but nevertheless I was quite surprised when I suddenly found the topic turning to strawberry jam!

In short, jam experts were asked to rank forty-four different jams, and then a group of college students were asked to do the same. How close would their results be? To cut a short story even shorter, quite close it seems: “Even those of us who aren’t jam experts know good jam when we taste it.” But then they asked the students to give reasons for prefering one jam to another. Disaster. “It’s simply that we don’t have any way of explaining our feelings about jam” says Gladwell.

So, how comfortable would you be in describing the texture of jam, or it’s colour intensity, lumpiness or shine?  Food experts can be required to describe as many as ninety categories and sub-categories, each on a 15-point scale! The point is well made – we need vocabulary and huge expertise to be able to do this.

jamNow I’d forgive you for thinking you’d accidentally stumbled across jam@monkton, so I’ll spare you any more detail (you could read Blink yourself, of course.) But here’s my point: how do we teach musicianship? “Even those of us who aren’t trained musicians know a good performance when we hear one.” But teaching musicianship is an altogether different matter. In order to teach it, we need to be able to break down the ‘ingredients’ [reference to jam entirely intentional, Paul Harris suddenly makes even more sense!] so that we can describe to our pupils, accurately, how the music works. Texture, form, structure, harmonic rate, lumpiness, melodic shape….. everything. And as the experts – teachers are experts aren’t they? – surely we should have all of this vocabulary to hand, otherwise aren’t we reduced to the ranks of someone who just knows which jam they prefer? And then, don’t forget, it’s not just the teacher who needs to be familiar with this vocabulary and able to use it – the pupil needs to understand it too. Teacher and pupil need to be conversing continually in the vocabulary of musicians. Anything less, and we’re not really getting any nearer to teaching musicianship. Perhaps just tasting it.

If there is a book, Strawberry Jam – the definitive guide, for jam enthusiasts who really want to know how to move from knowing what they like, to knowing why they like what they like, then I suspect it’s very similar to Paul Harris’ new book, Simultaneous Learning (also, funnily enough, subtitled ‘the definitive guide‘) which teaches music teachers how to teach musicianship. It isn’t enough to be a brilliant musician, and ‘knowing something without knowing quite why we know it’ is not actually going to help our pupils. What I love about Paul’s teaching philosophy is not just how positive it is, for pupil and teacher alike, but that at the same time there is a constant focus on what makes music work. After all, if our pupil can play the right notes but has no idea really how to describe what is happening, is she any the wiser?

The emphasis is on the teacher leading this process, which means that the teacher needs to be thinking about these things too, rather than just knowing them. I find that really exciting; it’s not only about me teaching the pupil, although that is, of course, important! It’s about me learning, all the time, how to translate something which I just know into something which my pupils can understand too.