SingTrue – a brilliant new app

As I’ve said before, I have come to the conclusion that there are three things which are vital in order to be able to sing well. These are:

critical listening [ears]singtrue2

good breathing [voice]

confidence [mind]

Last term I took on the challenge of teaching a young member of our sports staff to sing. She revealed over lunch one day that not only could she not sing, but that she was terrified of singing. I found this hard to believe – she seemed like the confident type to me! So it was with great surprise, when she came for her first lesson, that I discovered that she really was completely traumatized even by the prospect of singing, to the point where she was reduced to a quivering wreck. Genuinely so. I won’t forget that lesson, ever.

Over the coming weeks we coined the term ‘humming lessons’! It quickly became apparent that our main difficulty was simply going to be able to get her to make any sound at all, never mind dealing with any pitching issues. And when, eventually, she managed to hum a note, it became clear that her ability to pitch was as bad as I’ve ever encountered (that’s bad, by the way). Wow, what a project!

On the whole, without practice things don’t get better. Using a knife and fork is tricky at first. And if as a trumpet player your tone is a little rough, it doesn’t actually get any better unless you practise regularly. And if you haven’t sung for the best part of *15 years since being publically humilated in front of the rest of the class in Year Five, you won’t have had much practice at pitching notes accurately.

Several months ago I was contacted by Christopher Sutton from, who was planning on designing an app to help people to sing. He had encountered our Choir who can’t sing project on my blog, and wanted to tap into my experience. I had my doubts; after all, probably the biggest part of this whole initiative depends on me! The whole confidence thing is tackled by me getting alongside each individual and saying ‘Come on, I believe you can do this!
targetEnter SingTrue, launched next week for iPhone/iPad, and in a word, brilliant! No surprise that there are three modules – ears, voice, mind. I have been amazed (and flattered) to see so many of my little teaching tricks – and those of others too – incorporated into this clever piece of software. I’ve been been playing with the app for the last few days (official release date 21 October) but it has suddenly dawned on me that there is one potentially huge problem with my teaching; me! I’m there, in the room, with my pupil. And therefore the whole confidence element is a problem. In many instances it’s not insurmountable, and in fact most boys just get on with it. Girls generally find this more difficult though, and in the case of this pupil, I realise now that I was getting in the way! I think this is a great app. I wouldn’t want to be replaced by an app, but it does allow those who’ve had no practice to have a go, without fear of being heard by anyone – however encouraging their teacher might try to be.

*Insert your own number if this story sounds all too familiar. Sadly, I often encounter people, many in their forties or fifties, who have never sung because they were told as a child that they couldn’t. And so they haven’t :(

Why is a piano like a calculator?

Well, if you press the right keys it will give you the right answer. [That's not a joke by the way - I hope I'm funnier than that!]

The fact is, a calculator is a really handy bit of kit, but quite often we can find ourselves using it to add up stuff which we could readily do in our heads, but frankly it’s just easier to get the calculator to take the strain from our brain.

It’s the same with sight-singing. Asked to sing a major third above a given note, it’s all too easy to say that’s too difficult to work out and reach for the piano. But I think we can work it out. It’s like mental arithmetic. In order to do this we need to do a few sums in our head using our inner hearing. Perhaps I imagine singing a major scale to myself and stop on the third note.  Or maybe I sing the first two notes of ‘While shepherds watched’, knowing that this also makes a major third.

I sometimes wonderKeyboard Keys Close Up whether children think that pitching notes is some sort of unfathomable mystery! How should I know where that note is? Well in maths we have systems for working things out, which we are hopefully taught from an early age, and which we then have drummed into us for years to come. 12 x 3 = 36. I happen to know that one now, but if I do forget it I have various strategies for working it out; on my fingers maybe [I call that Mostyn maths, but that's another story], or in columns on a piece of paper or visualised in my head. So when I ask someone to sing the A above middle C, I’m not just expecting them to pluck it out of the air. Someone with perfect pitch can. Or else someone who knows their theory knows that C up to A is a major 6th, and remembers that’s the tune to ‘The day thou gavest’ – they can do pitch it too. Or someone who can sing up the major scale, rather like moving up successive positions on a number line; they can find it too.

But someone who has only ‘worked it out’ by playing the A on the piano and then singing it, what of them? Well they didn’t work it out. They cheated! They used a calculator in the non-calculator paper!

Mental arithmetic takes practice, and as a core subject our pupils spend a great deal of time each week crunching numbers in some form or other. Hopefully in their heads, which encourages them to develop their skills of retaining and retrieving information, which is of course a transferable skill. In contrast, how much time do our musicians spend doing the equivalent mental ‘arithmetic’, developing their inner hearing skills? Our instruments, be it flute, piano or guitar, need technical mastery of course, but I think we need to be wary of spending all of our time ‘tapping in the data’ and enjoying the instant answers, and perhaps need to spend more time working on the real stuff.


Learning to sing, one step at a time

One of the things which I have found time and time again with people who can’t sing is that you really can’t take for granted that they understand how up and down works! More specifically, getting them to sing the correct note back is one thing, but then we get to the really tricky bit – how far is down?!

I have a new ‘project’ this term, a sixth former who wants to learn to sing. I heard her early last term, and at that point she was having real difficulty in singing back a note even remotely close to what I had sung to her. However, in just ten minutes she made huge progress, taking on board the three things which appear to me to be so vital – critical listening, good breath support and confidence. So what impressed me immediately when I saw her this Friday was that she had clearly mulled these things over since the summer, to the extent that she was generally able to sing back a random selection of single notes pretty accurately. A bit out of tune perhaps, but close enough for the moment!

Having established F (above middle C) as her ‘go to’ note, I set out to extend this down the scale from soh to doh. So I asked her to sing down a ‘step’. [Remember, her pitching is still unreliable.] I sang her an E flat, and she sang me …. a middle C. A perfect fourth down – that’s miles out!

The trouble is, she doesn’t know how far a ‘step’ is. If the scale is seen as a ladder, she clearly has no idea how far apart the rungs are! It might appear extraordinary, but for those who struggle, we simply can’t assume that they know how the scale works. ‘Down a step’ is a vague concept, as vague as asking someone to move ‘one’ to their left. One what? One inch? One metre?

After a little more ‘calibration’ we eventually managed to start singing down five note scales – soh, fa, mi, re, doh. And here’s the interesting bit; although she now had a pretty good feel for how far a ‘step’ was, she still ended up too low by the time she reached the bottom of the scale. And the reason why? Because there is a semitone between fa and mi.


What sensible scale, outside the realms of music, has a different distance between two points in an otherwise equal pattern?! Crazy! So actually, despite her lack of experience, I found myself admiring the combination of her logic and her new-found pitching skills. And once I’d pointed out that, for some strange reason, one of the ‘rungs’ in the major scale is smaller than the others, she quickly grasped the concept and her five note scales dropped rather beautifully into place.

How many young instrumentalists play scales and remain completely unaware of this strange phenomenon of tones and semitones? Quite a lot at a guess – they don’t need to know, because their instrument does the hard work for them. I think that’s a shame. And I also think it’s quite ironic that my new student, equipped with this little piece of knowledge, is beginning to make fantastic progress with her aural skills, and in some ways might already be seen as ahead of the game.

I can’t hear it when I play it

I have taken to sticking post-it notes on my piano, and noting down some of the things which my pupils say in lessons which I think might come in useful, perhaps for another pupil. One such note has been up there for several months now – it says “I can’t hear it when I play it.”

Sometimes coordinating everything when we play the piano can take so much mental effort that we just can’t spare any thought for what comes next. It’s like our field of vision is reduced so that we only see the moment which is happening right now, the very chord which we are desperately trying to decypher. Not unlike a young child reading a long and complex word like

i - ma - gin - a - tion

So much focus goes on processing each individual syllable that the sense of the word is lost completely. But suppose we gave the child the first bit – imagine – and then asked them to read the a – tion bit. Being able to hear the bigger picture would enable them to read with relative ease.

So today with my piano pupil I asked her to consider this: “can you hear in your head how the next little bit goes?” The answer was a clear yes. So then we played the phrase again, and this time I asked her to make sure that she was thinking ahead and hearing the next bit before she got there, not as she played it. Success!

There is a fine balance between learning to play the notes and learning to hear the notes. Personally I think that just playing the notes can be overrated, especially if this is at the expense of everything else. Training the ears should come first.

A growth mindset – semiquaver stamina

How often do you find yourself thinking I could never do that? I’m generally someone who is prepared to do my best to work through things, but there have often been things which have held me back because I simply haven’t believed that I could overcome what have seemed at the time to be insurmountable difficulties. Two years ago I set about changing this. In preparing for the dipABRSM piano diploma, I systematically broke down the whole concept of memorisation in order to learn an entire 35 minute programme of solo piano music from memory. It worked! But not without a huge amount of time invested in the process. And more importantly, discovering the belief that I could find a way to overcome a seemingly impossible barrier.

This process has had the most amazing impact on my learning since then, and when I encounter problems I now look at them in a completely different light – not I can’t do this, but wow, this is a tricky one, but there must be a way somehow, and I’m not going to rest until I find it. Now that I’ve tried and tested this on me, my main focus is to pass on this knowledge to our students; to help them to discover that nothing is impossible. In the words of Paul Harris, to dispel the ‘myth of difficult’. If I can’t do something, it’s only because I haven’t worked out how to solve it yet.

I’ve been working with one of our music scholars recently on a Bach flute sonata [E minor, BWV 1034] and one of the things which has eluded her until now has been the epically long semiquaver passages in the final allegro.

e minorIt looks like a physical stamina issue; by half way through the second system, she is beginning to flag. But actually the real problem is that every time she fails, a little bit more of the fight goes out of her, to the extent that, when she begins the passage she doesn’t ever believe that she’s going to get to the end in one piece. The biggest problem is that it’s not a physical or even just a techinical issue, but a mental one – her self belief. Without that, she’s never going to succeed.

So the solution is to start at the end. We play bar 7 and the first note of bar 8. Just that much. Nothing difficult here. We play in dotted rhythms, all the usual games, and also from memory. Now we play bar 6 (including the first note of bar 7 to make the join) in the same way, and then we join those two bars together. Surprisingly then, there is no problem with bars 6 and 7; the only reason that they are difficult is that they follow three or four of similarly relentless semiquavers. Played on their own they’re absolutely fine, and so practising bars 6 and 7 for a while begins to break the failure cycle.

Put another way, bars 6 and 7 are a little like the sprint finish at the end of the 1500m. Every time we run, the race falls apart as the whole field come streaming past in the final straight. Sensible training would surely include some focused work on the sprint alone.

Back to the passage, we practise bars 5 and 6, and then 4 and 5, and 3 and 4; and then 5, 6 & 7, and then 4, 5 & 6 etc. It all works fine, and the notes are not difficult. Then finally 3-7, the whole race. And first time, she nailed it. Completely nailed it. Moreover, bars 6 and 7 were thrillingly exciting, and I could hear in her sound that as she neared the end she knew, she believed that she was going to get to the end successfully. Musically this added a whole dimension too, with that growing sense of urgency [not rushing, just energy] giving real forward momentum to the phrase.

One of my greatest regrets (being very honest here) is that it has taken me so long to work out that nothing is too difficult. I have spent the best part of twenty five years looking at certain pieces of music and thinking no, I couldn’t play that. That’s a long time wasted! Still, there is plenty of time ahead, and most importantly to me now, plenty of time to instil in a generation of Monktonians and others that they can. This is the joy of teaching – I hope I can make a difference.

Developing a vision

In May 2012 I posted this vision statement. At the time, this was completely new territory for me. I had ideas – lots of ideas – but articulating them in a way which would allow others to share in that vision has never occurred to me. With hindsight that now seems ridiculous! More importantly, I have been surprised at how central this simple vision – “enabling every pupil to find their own voice – has become to everything that music@monkton stands for. And I believe in it wholeheartedly.

slbookThis Thursday I had the great privilege of going to the official launch of Paul Harris‘ latest book, Simultaneous Learning, the definitive guide. It is, quite simply, a brilliant book by a brilliant man; and at the heart of Paul’s teaching philosophy are these four things:

  • Teach pro-actively
  • Teach through the pieces’ ingredients
  • Make connections
  • Empower, don’t control or judge

I really can’t recommend Paul’s teaching highly enough, and I would encourage anyone who teaches music to read Simultaneous Learning. And that’s largely because his style of teaching focuses on exactly the same things that I am so passionate about! Engage, Enthuse, Enquire, Equip and Empower.

I feel extremely honoured to have written the Foreward for such an important book, and it is extremely exciting for music@monkton to be associated with Paul Harris in this way. Well what are you waiting for? Order a copy now!

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.