House Music Festival, 2014

My first five years as Director of Music at Monkton have flown by. In 2009 I inherited a music department which was, in physical terms, little more than a shed; in fact, when it was built in 1959, the ground floor was the bikeshed! Being involved in every detail of the planning and building of the new Music Centre has been the most extraordinary experience, and indeed a huge privilege. However, exciting as this has been, the real challenge was always going to be to turn an educational vision – “enabling every pupil to find their own voice” – into a reality. Reflecting on this year’s House Music Festival, just three weeks into term, it is clear to see that things are really beginning to move in the right direction now. And with the addition of two new music staff, Peter Wilson-Lambert (Assistant Director of Music) and Richard Mainwaring (Recording Studio Manager) we now have plenty more hands to carry that forward. There are exciting times ahead.

The Choir who can’t sing has, in retrospect, played a much bigger part in all of this then I ever imagined it would. Those boys who, in year 10, sang in the choir at the black tie dinner to celebrate the opening of the new Music Centre, are now in year 13. In House Music two years ago, Grove House took this model and surprised everyone by giving one of the stand-out performances of the evening with When you say nothing at all. The following year two of the other boys’ houses followed suit (although the Nutfield girls won the Vocal Ensemble), and this year, all four boys houses presented a house choir with a minimum of three parts. Most of them were boys who rarely, if ever, set foot in the music department, but all of them were totally committed to standing on stage and singing in front of the whole school. Many are ‘graduates’ of the Choir who can’t sing! Three years ago, even the weakest performance from last Saturday night would have won them the Vocal Ensemble trophy. Except that the bar is now higher – much higher. Farm’s rendition of Hey Yah by Outkast on Saturday night was simply amazing.

The House Songs were not only wonderfully entertaining but really well sung too! It’s a funny time of year, the run up to House Music. Wandering around the school campus at 5.15 on a Monday afternoon, you can hear riotous whole house singing coming from the Dining Hall, the Bewick Lecture Theatre, the Chapel and Assembly Hall, with The Beach Boys merging seemlessly into Chaka Khan or ELO! Five years ago, the girls took their singing very seriously, as they still do, but there were great swathes of boys in each house who really weren’t prepared to play ball. This Saturday night I watched the most unlikely boys giving it their all.

farm ELO

Saturday’s winners, Farm House, singing ELO’s Mr Blue Sky

What I love most about Monkton is seeing young people learning to be themselves, learning to be content with who they are, and being confident to express that. And if you listen to the cheer from the capacity audience at the end of the Farm boys’ performance of Hey Yah (and yes, this is taken straight from the live performance on Saturday night) I think you’ll agree that this says it all.

How to teach aural tests: don’t!

With just six days to go until her Grade 8 exam, I gave my piano pupil her first lesson on the aural tests; in fact, her first lesson on ABRSM aural tests in two years. She will pass the aural with flying colours*, one of those candidates where the examiner will smile to herself and think “at last, a real musician!”

To be fair, she is an able pupil. But my point is that my aim has always been to teach her to be a musician first and foremost, not just a pianist.

LBSinging back the bass line is not a problem for her. She can sing just about every line in every piece which she has learned, so why should a simple Grade 8 aural test phase her? Not only that, but when we learn a new piece, she fully expects to be asked to sing the melody whilst she plays the bass line, or the other way around. From memory. Well why not? It’s not easy the first time of course, but five years down the line it has simply become a skill which she has developed and now takes in her stride. Having memorised sonata movements by Scarlatti and Beethoven, and a harmonically complex Brahms Intermezzo, how hard can a simple tonic/dominant bass line be?

Identifying chords, cadences and modulations? Don’t you need to be able to do that to play Beethoven? On one level, I suppose not. If, however, you are looking to develop the musician as well as the pianist, then it’s vitally important that we learn the implications of chords and modulations, and indeed the entire harmonic structure of a Classical sonata movement – or any other piece for that matter. Drawing out these instincts should begin in the very first lesson, not  a month before the exam when we realise we haven’t looked at the Grade 8 aural tests yet! And yet I regularly see students at this point, to ‘do’ the aural test bit, who just look blankly at me when I mention the word modulation. Realistically, what chance have they got? It’s just too late.

Sight-singing? Ok, so she has had the advantage of singing in our a cappella Chamber Choir for the past year or so, and so holding her own vocal line, whilst still challenging, is nothing new. And she is perfectly used to pitching intervals; in every piano lesson I will ask her at some point to sing the third in this or that chord. Grade 8 sight-singing tests are strongly harmonic; you can learn to sight-sing by pitching alone, but it is so much easier if the pupil has good harmonic understanding. See above. Sight-singing is not guess work, far from it – it requires understanding. And understanding is laid down over time, not in a few desperate last minute aural classes.

Features of the music/style and period. We talk about these things all the time – no really, all the time! I don’t generally say ‘Let’s go from the top of the second page’, but rather ‘Let’s go from the second subject’ or ‘Let’s pick it up at the beginning of the G minor passage.’ Where’s that? ‘Good question!’ Develop an enquiring mind; in my experience, students enjoy being challenged.

I run aural classes each term to give extra support to our instrumental teachers, and yes, some straight forward exam technique can turn a daunting task into a very simple one. But the best way to teach aural, I believe, is in the context of the instrumental/singing lesson. In this way it becomes an integral part of their learning, not some extra chore to be dealt with in exams. They will also become self-sufficient, thinking musicians.

[*Postscript - marks just in, full marks for the aural tests, and a distinction overall! :D]

How to practise, part 2: Style of lesson = Style of practice

I was looking back on some notes which I took in a recent talk by Paul Harris, and came across this: style of lessons = style of practice. I can’t believe it’s been sitting unnoticed in my notebook for the past few months – such a significant statement.

I love it when a pupil comes to a lesson and, almost before they are through the door, have their score open saying I’ve been having trouble with this bit here, can you help me with it? It shows that they have identified a problem, which in itself is a good thing, and that they know that I will be keen to help them fix it. But the lesson should not be just for fixing problems – it should be to teach the pupil to fix the problems! From my perspective, many problems are easy to fix; but the best way to make practice effective is to teach our students how to problem-solve; in the lesson, with us to guide them. Not just for the sake of solving whatever issue they have, there and then, but rather with a view to giving them the thinking skills to tackle anything which comes their way. The last thing we want is for them not to be able to use their practice time because they don’t have the confidence and strategies to have a go for themselves. In my book there is nothing better than a pupil who is willing to have a go at solving a problem for themselves. Nothing.

The other issue with using the lesson just to solving problems and fix mistakes on the students’ behalf is that the lesson itself surely then becomes a series of corrections. That’s wrong, did you notice? Let’s fix it. It all sounds very positive, very constructive, but reading between the lines surely we’re saying you don’t seem to be able to fix it yourself, I’ll have to do it for you. This is not empowering, far from it. It tells the student that they can’t do anything by themselves, and that much of what they bring to lessons is wrong, and is duly criticised. Ouch.

Some of the most effective tools in any lesson are the most simple questions: where is the problem? exactly what is the problem? how can I fix this? has that done the trick, is it better now? I ask these in every lesson, all the time. Demanding maybe, purposeful definitely, but I can direct the lesson in such a way that the student eventually finds that, having asked the right questions, the outcome is a successful one. I ask these questions so often in lessons that eventually they can’t help but find themselves asking the same ones during their own practice time. And finding solutions too.

My lessons are in many ways just a more energised or energising practice session. My pupils come each week having asked questions of themselves all week – so there is plenty of opportunity for praise in the lesson. And at the same time, plenty of chance to influence their practice for the following week too: what did you try here? has it worked? how about thinking of it like this? The last suggestion is, of course, the perfect opportunity to offer some new ideas, but even then it is as part of a collaborative effort between teacher and pupil. All the time, we are both working towards the same goal, and all we ever need to know is are we getting nearer to that goal? But is shouldn’t be me who does all of the work, far from it.



Chamber Choir CD

I am delighted to announce that our Chamber Choir CD is now on sale. Recorded live in the Bowerman Hall on 8th May.

As one parent wrote to me after the concert:
Many, many thanks for such a wonderful concert this evening. I’ve been to a fair few concerts over the years and this one ranks as one of the very best. The quality was superb and the range of pieces was great too. I could have listened for a lot longer.
The CDs are just £3 although of course you can give more as all profits will go to our school charity, The Genesis Trust; please email me to reserve a copy Huge thanks to Ben Thompson on doing a splendid job of recording and producing it!

cd cover

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.