Sight-reading – are we making it up as we go along?

I am a keen chess player, but I wouldn’t rate myself as particularly good. My dad taught me to play chess when I was young – although I suspect that a more accurate way to describe it would be that he taught me how each piece moves, and to take care not to lose pieces too readily (although this still happens even now!) To be perfectly honest, I find the whole concept of teaching someone how
to play chess – that is, how to really play – a bit of a mystery. I think I’ve learned a few things over the years, mostly by trial, error and humiliating defeatchess pieces, and I’m still hopeful that the more I play the better I’ll get. But I have no doubt that what I really need is some quality teaching if I am to significantly raise my game.

When it comes to sight-reading music, I wonder how far different our approach is? Read the key signature, choose a steady tempo, keep going if you can. Perhaps with some (unhelpful?) comments along the way – “that should be F#”; “nearly; well done, keep going!” And probably the least helpful of all: “okay, not bad, let’s do some more next lesson.”

To make a significant difference to the level of our pupils’ sight-reading, two things need to be happening. The first is that it needs to be taught. We need to give our pupils plenty of strategies to help them along the way, so that they feel able to make progress rather than just struggling through yet another sight-reading test in the vain hope that it might be better this time. I believe that the real key here is understanding, and not at a superficial level either. Aural skills are also vital, so that the student can use her ears and her musical experience in addition to simply reading the notes; in my experience, once a student can hear the key signature, they are beginning to sight-read much more effectively. A clear understanding of pulse is critical, and if this hasn’t clicked with the student yet (forgive the pun), then this needs addressing first – without it, reading all but the most basic of single line rhythms is fraught with difficulties. Even the most simple of strategies can make a world of difference if we take the trouble to share them – take nothing for granted!

The second thing which needs to be happening is practice, and lots of it; the more you read, the more fluent you will become, especially if in the meantime there is good teaching taking place alongside. I will quite often hand a Grade 2 sight-reading book to a Grade 5-ish pianist with instructions to play through every test before next lesson – or even better, learn every test. It can be a huge confidence builder, and can also give us the opportunity to go back a few spaces if necessary, and point out some of the basic elements of the music. Simple harmonic patterns are generally easier to identify in the more elementary tests, and once introduced can really help musical understanding as things get more difficult. Easier tests can also be easier to sing, and if you can sing it, you can play it!

Teaching our pupils to sight-read is empowering, and yet we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of our teaching time on repertoire. Whilst the average 15 year old child might have spent x hours reading words, both in school and at home, it is worth considering how many hours that same child might have spent reading notes. For the average child, it is likely to be very significantly lower. We need to take this into account, and continue to take every opportunity to nurture their basic understanding of how music is put together – otherwise a huge gulf appears between what they can ‘perform’ and what they can actually understand and read.

Piano Festival 2014

As I have continued to wrestle with the whole issue of music practice, perhaps the most common question which has come around again and again is this: what motivates children to practise? There are a few possible answers, but one is of course to have a target to aim for.

For some, an exam is the obvious target, and although these are important, I often feel that they can in some way be a bit of a let down. As I write, I have just finished a second day of music exams in which I have accompanied no fewer than twenty students (including nine Grade 8s). Although they have been really enjoyable, I can’t help feeling that all this preparation just to sing or play to one person, who sits looking necessarily critical and scribbles for most of the time, is a bit of an anti-climax, even when the exam goes really well.

By contrast, I was hugely inspired by a book which I read during half term, Play it again by Alan Rusbridger. Although this is principally an account of how Rusbridger went about learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in the sameplayitagain year The Guardian took down The News of the World, Rusbridger returns again and again to the theme of amateur vs professional music making. In short, if we play the piano, it can be hugely enjoyable to hear other people play, and in many respects it doesn’t matter whether they are better or worse than us; we share the common experience of knowing what it feels like to play, of what is difficult, of what it is like to be crippled by nerves when we perform for others, of how much work goes into preparing a performance. Or even just hearing a piece which we really like and thinking ‘I wonder if I could play that?’

Our Piano Festival began on Saturday afternoon with a visit by Peter Donohoe, who quite by chance happened to be playing at the Holburne Museum in Bath on that same evening – the penultimate recital in a series in which he is playing the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas (the final one is on 5 April, see you there!) This was no formal recital, and indeed over the course of an hour and a half Peter gave us some extraordinary insights into subjects as diverse as Soviet Russia in the 1980s, perfectionism, memorising music, the perils of Wikipedia, and the inability of a modern-era London cabbie to get from the Southbank to Paddington Station without a satnav! He hadn’t even decided what he was going to play to us before he sat down at the piano, and after playing Beethoven’s op.101 he asked for requests; Chopin’s Ballade no.4 followed, and then the first three pieces in Brahms op.118, and then to finish, Scriabin’s Sonata no.5 (Peter’s own ‘request.’) And in much the same way as when Andrei Gavrilov visited last term, it was just an amazing privilege for us to enjoy hearing a world class pianist in such intimate surroundings. Peter’s relaxed what would you like to hear? approach was just about as far removed from a professional recital as you could imagine, but so much more engaging and personal. Just wonderful!

And so to Sunday’s Piano Festival, a full 4 hours of piano playing. Classes were designed to ensure that everyone had a chance to play – hence the Band Class for those who prefer to pick out chords (complete with drums, bass and vocals), a Duet Class for those who were reluctant to play by themselves, the Over 24s Class (!), and even the b.1809-10 Class – music by Mendelssohn and Chopin! Most of the classes included members of staff playing alongside pupils – some exceptionally proficient, others less confident. My hope was for our young pianists to realise that playing the piano is something which lots of other people do too – their History teacher plays Khachaturian no less, and our new Deputy Head is partial to a bit of Mendelssohn! Unlike competitive music festivals, most of our afternoon was simply about playing to each other, and I was absolutely delighted by the number of pianists who put themselves forward – nearly forty in total. All had clearly prepared for their performances, and their combined effort in aiming for their individual targets has been to participate in an afternoon which has given so much encouragement to everyone present. Yes, playing in public can be scary, but managed carefully it can inspire us to persevere too.

Huge thanks must go to our adjudicator for the afternoon, Melanie Spanswick, who had some excellent advice for everyone who played, and who judged the only competitive part of the day, the final Piano Prize Class. Our six ‘finalists’ were Livvy Belchambers, Fiona Boddington, Cora von Siemens, Paul Karamura, Dan Watt and Freya Elsy, with Fiona’s performance of March from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons chosen as the winning performance. The prize for the best newcomer went to Gabriella Watt from our own Monkton Prep School who played the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata.

monkton piano

How to practise, part 1

Over the past couple of months I have been immersing myself in the whole issue of music practice. I don’t have all of the answers, but I have had a few lightbulb moments, the first of which is this: just do something!

Inevitably there are always some pupils who will practise regularly, either because they are self-motivated or simply obedient. At the other end of the scale, there are some who just do nothing. It might seem obvious, but this group just aren’t going to make progress at all – how could they? So without even thinking about how effective their practice time might be, I have started at the bottom with the simplest of targets – do something… anything! This approach has a process driven outcome. In other words, success can be measured just by doing it. One of the most difficult issues with practice is that we have to address our shortcomings on a moment by moment basis, which I am certain must be the single reason why most people don’t enjoy it that much. But if the target is just to show up, get the instrument out of the case and blow down it for ten minutes, it’s actually going to be quite difficult to fail.

With this in mind, we now have a sign in book in the Music Centre, and pupils are asked to sign in and out each time they come in to practise. The same rules apply as above; some are keen and sign in like clockwork, and others won’t, or forget, or don’t see why they should. A few, after six weeks of term, don’t even know that the book is there….!

Now I did say that I’ve been immersing myself in this…? Each week I go through the sign in book and add up how much practice each pupil has done! It’s not an exact science by any means, but over the course of six weeks it has given me an extremely good idea of the practice habits of every pupil in the school, and they know this – and so do their teachers.

It has been a very enlightening experiment, and there are two things in particular which have become very apparent. The first is this: it puts practice out there, in the public domain. It is no longer a mystery, with teachers and pupils playing weekly games trying to ascertain or cover up how much practice has or hasn’t been done. Remember, we’re not yet addressing the content - just time spent. But with this sort of transparency, practice in on agenda and there is a clear message that everyone should be doing something.

The second is that it is clear to all that a sizeable number of students are really putting in the hours each week – and it is equally clear to me that the ones who put in the hours are the ones who are making progress. And it is good for our younger or less experienced musicians to consider whether our music scholars are just talented, or whether their success might also be due to the fact that they spend lots of time practising.

Choir who can’t sing on SoundCloud

Having just discovered how SoundCloud works, I’ve managed to upload three live recordings of the Choir who can’t sing. If you haven’t read this brief description of the aims for this project, it might be a good idea to do that before you listen….! Enjoy!

February 2012


May 2012


November 2013

A new choir for 2014

In January 2012 Monkton’s Choir who can’t sing came into being, and the last two years has certainly been an extraordinary and transformational learning experience for all concerned, me included. Although the members of the choir have changed – few now remain from the original group – the basic vision remains the same; a safe place for boys to learn to sing, and indeed to enjoy singing. Last term we sang Robbie Williams’ Angels in whole school singing practice, and at the end of term we sang a medley of Christmas songs as part of the Big Band Christmas lunch in the Dining Hall, to great critical acclaim (okay, I made that last bit up, but we enjoyed it!)

There is no doubt in my mind that the project has made a huge and positive difference to the way in which the whole school views singing, but that doesn’t change the fact that in Chapel services our singing is still variable – sometimes teenagers just don’t feel like singing! What is apparent, however, is that the girls have felt left out. So much so that there has been increasing demand for a girls’ choir!

So this term sees the launch of the Girls’ Choir. I’m still not sure what to call it, but I’m pretty sure that it will be different… The choir is open to everyone, regardless of whether they can sing or not, so in that respect they will be the same; but I’m not expecting so many girls who have genuine pitching difficulties, although I am prepared to be surprised on that count. However, I do hope that the choir attracts some girls who are reluctant to sing, due to confidence issues, as this is something which I have discovered to be perhaps even more crippling that a simple lack of elementary pitching skills. Either way, I’m excited to see how things develop as the term progresses; after all, this is new to me too. Before Monkton, my experience with choirs was very much restricted to a largely sacred choral repertoire with choirs who are prepared to read the dots off the page, whereas now I find myself exploring a much more spontaneous style with just the words (and sometimes not even those) and a lot of collaboration from the choir members themselves. “How does it go next?”

Looking back at where we’ve come from (as traditionally one does at New Year), things are unquestionably on the move with regards to singing at Monkton. The Chapel Choir did a marvellous job at the carol service in Bath Abbey in December and are beginning to sound much more refined.

ChoirAtAbbey                                   informal picture of Chapel Choir at Bath Abbey, December 2013

We have a Chamber Choir of some 12-14 voices who sang for the Advent Carol Service at St Michael’s in the village earlier in December, and who are able to tackle more complex repertoire. The quality of whole school singing is on a upward curve, particularly notable in the House Music competition. In addition to this, the Monkton Combe Choral Society, relaunched four years ago, is thriving and now has some 130+ members who come to Monkton every Tuesday to do battle with a major choral work!

My ultimate vision? The whole school, staff and pupils alike, singing full voice in Chapel with great commitment, enthusiasm and joy. Will we ever get there? I doubt it…. but meanwhile the journey is an exciting one!

Piano Masterclass with Andrei Gavrilov

One of the great benefits of having such a fine piano in an equally wonderful hall is that we are able to attract some amazing musicians to come and share their gifts with us. On Monday we had the huge privilege of welcoming one of the truly great pianists in the world, Andrei Gavrilov to Monkton to give a masterclass.

Andrei has had an extraordinary career and listening to him talk about music, never mind playing the piano, was utterly captivating. As well as the masterclasses he also recorded a video interview with a friend of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has over the past year or so interviewed some 25 world class pianists. Andrei’s interview will shortly be posted here, and is well worth watching! Melanie has also posted a blog following Andrei’s visit on Monday.

For my part, rather than paraphrase what Melanie has already written, a few personal reflections on Monday evening.

fi and andrei rwu

Fiona’s lesson with Andrei, on Chopin’s Nocturne no.20 in c# minor, was actually deeply moving. That might seem like a strange thing to say about a lesson, but over the course of half an hour he opened a door into Chopin’s world which left us feeling almost like we were actually there; the prayer-like sobriety of the opening chords; the middle section being like a memory or a dream, unreal. And the combination of his vivid description and his own mesmerising playing created such a strong image that Fiona’s playing was transformed. It is all too easy for some who can (and Andrei can, all too easily!) to say ‘it goes like this!’ I have seen many masterclasses and lessons where, despite numerous demonstrations, the student still really doesn’t quite know what the teacher is wanting. Not here – Andrei’s musical imagery was so clear that we were all in no doubt at all.

The other moving part of the evening was Andrei’s performance of Prokofiev’s fiendish Suggestion diabolique op.4. There were only about 8 or 9 of us in the audience at the end of the session, and although I have been to many piano recitals in the past, none have really compared to this. He wasn’t obliged to play, but he did play, for just a handful of us – amongst friends if you like – because he wanted to. And what a performance. I was lost for words, and I think I probably embarrassed myself with the look of shock on my face when he finished! Andrei, on the other hand, just jumped up from the piano stool with a big grin, said it was time to go, gave us each a big hug, and made his exit. I have a new hero!

What is an arpeggio? do mi so warm-up

I often begin my piano/musicianship lessons with a little mental warm-up, and one of my favourites is this: I sing a note (do) and ask the pupil to complete the major triad, first with mi (the major third) and then so (the fifth). Although most students know full well what a major arpeggio sounds like, plucking one out of thin air, unaided, can be surprisingly difficult at first. This is a great way of developing inner hearing; I ask the pupil to imagine the sound of an arpeggio, or perhaps even to put their fingers over the keys and imagine playing it. Somewhere inside their head is that ‘sound bite’ of an arpeggio, and often is not so much that they don’t know the sound, but more a question of not being able to recall it. Once they have found it, I go on to sing a variety of different pitches and ask the student to sing mi and so above it.

do mi so

Once they have the hang of this, I move the goalposts by singing them so, and asking them to sing down the rest of the major triad, mi and do. This is more of a challenge; we are used to hearing/singing arpeggios from the root upwards, but not from the fifth downwards. Most find do first, and then fill in the gap with mi; with the more able student I will insist that they sing so, mi, do (in that order) which might mean doing some ‘sums’ in their head before presenting their final answer out loud. The ultimate challenge is for me to sing the third (mi), and for the pupil to find the root (d0) and the fifth (so).

Most students are surprised to discover that a major triad consists both of a major third (from do to mi) and a minor third (from mi to so).  It is this element – learning to distinguish between and to pitch major and minor thirds, up and down – which makes this such a focusing exercise, and it’s what I like to call musical mental arithmetic. Arpeggios needn’t just be meaningless technical exercises – far from it in fact; adding this aural/theory/solfa dimension immediately gives them so much more value.

With a piano pupil this might be a three minute ‘game’ (fun eh?!), with a musicianship pupil it might lead into some sight singing exercises – after all, once we know where do, mi and so are, we have a strong internal framework for finding other notes; la is just above so, ti is just below do etc. Solfa is such a useful tool, and having used it now for the past couple of years in my teaching, I would never choose to be without it. Most noteworthy, if you’ll forgive the pun, is that at no point does either pupil or teacher even need to touch a musical instrument. In my book that is proper aural training.