Play with

If you were to give a toy car to a small child, what would they do with it?

img_2342Perhaps the doors open, and the bonnet? But if you open them too far, they snap off and then you can’t put them back on again! Maybe the plastic seats inside rattle a bit if you shake it. If you’re really lucky, the tyres are rubber rather than plastic, and you can take them off and chew them! And if you break the wheels, the metal axles can bend, and they’re sharp too. The paintwork chips if you drop it lots, and you can make all sorts of exciting dents in the dining room table if you bang it hard enough.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot – you can drive it along the floor too!

We can learn an immense amount from watching the way that young children play. Whilst we [wise grown-ups] generally use objects for the purpose for which they were designed, children don’t always do that. In short, they investigate. They aren’t constrained by convention or by good manners. Any sensible adult knows that a banana is for eating, but a toddler won’t think twice about squashing it and plastering their face and hair with it! Creative play is how they learn about the world.

Why should this be any different when it comes to learning to play a piece of music? We [wise teachers] know how the music goes and how the instrument works, but rather than teach our pupils how to play it, I think we need to encourage them to play with it. To take it apart, chew bits of it and then try to put it back together again!

I suspect that it’s all too common for a teacher to ask a pupil what they’ve practised this week, only to discover that what the pupil has actually done is just play. In this context, playing is not a good thing. It suggests a lack of purposeful engagement with the process, and a rather hopeful stance that simply by playing we will get better. On the other hand, the word practice is rarely a word which fills our students’ hearts with joy either! [Whilst writing this, I have just stumbled on this excellent article by Roberta Wolff, which encourages us to have a rethink about the word practice. It is well worth a read.]

In response, I’d like to offer the alternative, to play with. Whereas to play and to practice, in a musical context, both tend to imply that things need to be correct, to play with suggests almost the opposite. Just as there are no rules for a child at play, to play with a piece of music suggests that the pupil is free to make their own investigations without being so concerned about things such as right and wrong. Of course, if we are careful in our teaching we will always have things set up in a way where they will find what we want them to find!

Telling is not teaching, and the best learning comes from exploring the very limits of our experience and understanding. To finish, a short account of Evelyn Glennie’s first percussion lessons: “He sent me home with a snare drum, but no stand and no sticks. I started tapping it and pinching it and scraping it, and the next week he asked how I’d got on. I said I didn’t know. He said: “Now create the sound of a storm. Now create the sound of a whisper.” Suddenly I had this picture I had to put into sound. This opened up my world. It was the best lesson I ever had. After that it was just constant exploration.”

 

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Practice: New tools

I have just stumbled across an old blog post on practice. There are many reasons why our pupils don’t practise – busy school lives and mobile phones being the ones which spring quickly to mind – but I still believe that the biggest problem is when practice feels like a waste of time because it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

I often find myself explaining to a pupil that the practice technique which they used when they first started out – the “play it over a few times and it will get better” method – just doesn’t work any more. It was fine when their pieces were maybe a single line consisting of a few crotchets and minims, but now that they are playing music which is more complex, the “have another go” approach is simply no longer effective by itself. They need more tools.

“How are you going to practise this bit?” is a question which I ask in every lesson, often more than once. Not an instruction, “practice this bit.” It’s a question – “how?” Not delivered in a way which demands a correct answer, but rather an invitation to share ideas, together. Perhaps it’s “what could we do here?” – we need them to know that we’re just as interested in solving the problem. What we are not doing is putting our pupil on the spot and insisting that they give us a correct answer; that’s not going to help!

The difference between an instruction and a question at this point is critical, and has the potential to change the entire teaching/learning environment there and then. Because we are about to get a glimpse inside our pupil’s head, and see exactly what tools they have at their disposal.

Often the first response is that they’ll play it over a few times and hope it will get better. Notice the hope – the lack of assurance might be a hint at their underlying fear that it might not make a difference…

Ok, and what else could you try? Scarily, some students are already out of ideas, but most will come out with well, I could play it slowly. Excellent, and how does that help? If your student now draws a blank, don’t panic – this first venture into their practice world has already been extremely worthwhile! But we’ll need to ask ourselves, how on earth are they going to use their own time constructively if this is all that they have at their disposal – to play it a few times, perhaps slowly, and hope it gets better? And just as significantly, why bother? It won’t take them long to work out that practice makes little or no difference, so where is the incentive for them?

Perhaps their current tool kit consists of things which they have been told will work – repetition and slowly – but they’ve never even considered why they work. And now these techniques don’t seem to work, so maybe it’s me, maybe I’m just no good. Again, with such a bleak outlook, why bother?

We need to persuade them to be just a little bit more inquisitive. So here goes, a gentle nudge – come on, why does playing slowly help? …. Because it gives me more time to think about what’s coming next? Hooray!

It may be that, with this pupil, you’ve done enough tough questioning for one lesson! That single answer has opened a door and will allow you to discuss the merits of having enough thinking time to play fluently, and to explain why slow practice can be good, rather than just state that it is good. We have given them one small but achievable new strategy – in this instance just a hint at the idea that thinking ahead can be useful.

 

Above all, we need to talk about practice in our lessons. A lot.
How was your practice this week?
Has it made a difference?
Why don’t you think that worked?
What else could you try?
How are you going to practise this bit this week?
All of these are questions which both the teacher and the pupil need the answers to. The teacher, so that we can guide them towards ever better strategies, and our pupils, so that they are building an increasingly effective set of practice skills which will, in time, equip them with everything they need to succeed. Practice will become a series of challenges which they know they can overcome, and above all, they will be able to see that their efforts make a difference.

I believe that, other factors aside, there is a direct correlation between knowing that practice is effective, and time spent doing it. Worth thinking about!

International Piano Recital Series 2018

2018 is going to be an exciting year, as we launch our first International Piano Recital Series. We have a wonderful Steinway piano, a stunning venue, and a line-up of six extraordinary pianists. What’s not to like?!

Full details of the series can be found at monktonrecitals.com and tickets are now on sale at bathboxoffice.org.uk. Please note that tickets are now sold out for our first recital, by Valentina Lisitsa on 2 March, so please book for the other recitals now to avoid disappointment. There is a 15% discount if you order tickets for four recitals or more.

Piano Recital poster A4 FINAL 2 (1)

Effort counts twice

I have been reading a really thought-provoking book by Angela Duckworth, called Grit, subtitled Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success. I have long held the belief that talent isn’t everything, and Duckworth backs me up – yes! The idea which really struck me between the eyes is this – that effort counts twice. Duckworth’s theory is most simply put in the form of two equations:

talent x effort = skill

skill x effort = achievement

Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.”

Impressed onlookers often miss the distinction between talent and skill. My personal stance is that we all have talent in whatever particular field. For some people that talent is already at the surface, visible to all, whereas in other cases it is buried and we might need to go digging for it. In some instances, we’re going to need to dig deep!

But however small that talent might be, with effort we can grow it. And with a lot of effort, we can achieve amazing things and we will even surpass the person with more talent but who puts in less effort. Plugging a couple of numbers into the first equation illustrates the point:

talent = 5, effort = 1 yields an achievement of 5

talent = 1, effort = 3 yields an achievement of 9

Now I know that’s a bit simplistic, but my point is that, with hard work, we can raise our skill level. And after that, we’re on a level playing field with the ‘talented’ person, with effort once again being the determining factor as to how highly we achieve.

As a musician I have easily clocked my 10,000 hours, and whether you subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule or not, there is no doubt that a substantial amount of deliberate practice (ie effort) has furnished me with some excellent skills. Am I talented? Well in many respects I just don’t think that’s relevant! I have worked hard, but very few people have seen all of that hard work – they just see the end result and jump to the conclusion that skill equals talent.

It’s a dangerous conclusion to reach. Effort is the critical factor, the one which is going to make all the difference. Many students are far too quick to write themselves off musically; they assume that notation is a cryptic, tricky language, and claim not to be able to sing, but actually the problem in most instances is that they simply haven’t realised that it takes effort.

Fortunately, I’m not interested in teaching talented pupils! Sure, they have a head start I guess, but for me the real joy comes in those lightbulb moments when a pupil realises that the outcome doesn’t just depend on whether they’ve been dealt a good hand, but that actually it is their own actions which are going to make a significant contribution to their future success.

TED Talk – The power of passion and perseverance

Ode to a melody

ABRSM has announced recently that it will be removing melody-writing from the Grade 5 theory paper. I’m worried.

My first encounter with ‘theory for theory’s sake’ was at the age of 10, when all of a sudden my piano lessons changed; instead of sitting at the piano, we spent several weeks sat at a table in Mrs May’s front room and wrote things down. I remember the front room being very dark, and the whole experience being very strange. I passed the Grade 5 theory exam [just] and things went back to normal, thank goodness ….

I now have a steady stream of Grade 5 theory pupils of my own! Some come utterly clueless, and it is a delight to be able to switch the lights on for them. For others, it’s a question of formalising many of the things which they already vaguely know, and teaching them how to approach the exam in a disciplined way.

I always cover the basics in order: circle of fifths, scales, intervals, transposition, triads. Once a student has mastered these, we’re nearly there – just a few bits and pieces to add, including time signatures, musical terms and clefs.

But so far, all of this stuff is just knowledge. It amazes me how little some students know, despite in some cases having had instrumental or singing lessons for several years; and it’s no wonder, if little or no theory has been referred to during lessons in that time, that the Grade 5 theory exam has such a bad name for itself – there is a lot to cover and it’s a sizeable mountain to climb. Many are asking the question: why, all of a sudden, am I being hauled through all of this, when it’s never been relevant to me before now?

It’s a very reasonable question. Once they are through the other side, of course, they can see exactly why it is relevant. Then the question is why was I never told any of this before now? Scales, for instance, are no longer a mystery. If you don’t understand how key signatures work, scales are a nightmare; twenty-nine seemingly random notes to remember for each [two octave] scale. My goodness, is it any wonder that to some, scales are a punishment? It doesn’t need to be this way!

I digress.

The very last thing which I teach in the Grade 5 syllabus is the melody-writing. At last, a chance to make a connection between theory and musicianship. A chance to demonstrate to the candidate that knowing all of this stuff is deeply relevant to their instrumental/singing studies. And this is the part of the exam which ABRSM is removing.

It’s a theory lesson – no instrument to hand – so we just have to use what we have: ears, voice, hands.

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“Ok, let’s sing the part of the melody we’ve been given.”

The response to this is generally something along the lines of I can’t or You have to be joking – but I’m not joking.

Let’s make it easier and just clap the rhythm. In the given example that might mean clapping just quavers initially, having first set the pulse, and then seeing whether the student can work out how the dotted quaver/semiquaver part works. And we even get to talk about 6/8 time, two beats in a bar! And then we sing: it doesn’t need to be great, just accurate enough to pitch the major third, the perfect fifth, and back down each note of the scale. This is such valuable teaching time, and often it is the first time that it dawns on a student that they can read and hear music without their instrument. It can take some working out of course, but even that is valuable learning – sight-singing is not something which you either can or can’t do, but a skill which has to be learned.

We also cover phrase structure, key and modulation, sequence, and dynamics, and how all of these elements combine to make a melody work well. It is always a joy to see the lights coming on as a student makes the connections between all of these things. 

A recent Telegraph article accuses ABRSM of dumbing down. For my part, I can’t see why removing the only truly musical part of the exam “brings musical education into the modern era.” It will just make it easier. It’s a slippery slope, and my worst fear is that having now taken this backward step ABRSM will consider following the lead of other boards by removing singing from the aural tests, using the same kind of criteria to justify their decisions. 

I await the new-look Grade 5 theory paper with trepidation. 

Lovely Day

In case you haven’t yet seen it on YouTube, here’s our latest Monkton Ukes video, Lovely Day, filmed on the beach at Weston-super-Mare!

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Ukulele Club began some seven years ago as a way of drawing in pupils who might not otherwise darken the doors of the music department – no previous experience required, just a willingness to learn and an ability to not take yourself too seriously!

I think it’s fair to say that when our amazing new music building opened in 2012, complete with recording studio suite, it was on the understanding that we were going to have to grow into it. We’ve done that now, and at times we are overflowing…

Our studio, run by Richard Mainwaring, is central to so much of what we do. As well as teaching Music Technology (currently BTEC) in the sixth form, and recording GCSE and A level performance and composition coursework, we have numerous additional projects on the go at any time.

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Recording session for ‘Lovely Day’ with Alex and Millie

Our latest Monkton Ukes video isn’t just the result of a day filming on the beach – far from it. Initially Mr Mainwaring put together a backing track, and then gradually replaced elements with live tracks, including trumpets, saxes, strings, ukuleles, vocals, bass and yes, Meg’s delightful recorder playing! The studio offers an amazing learning experience for our musicians and a superb insight into how a recording session works. Playing along with the soundtrack with headphones on, and then listening back, it is really exciting to see and how their line fits into the bigger project. The best thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that this kind of project allows anyone to contribute, from novice to seasoned pro, and to be a part of something which they can be really proud of. Just another way of ensuring that every pupil has the opportunity to get involved.

Here are a few more of our films: Uptown Uke, Happy, You raise me up

 

Don’t talk bananas

nanaFrom the outset, my wife and I have always spoken to our children in full sentences. So for instance, at meal times “Would you like a banana for pudding, or shall I see whether we have some yoghurts in the fridge?” A baby is not going to pick up all of the nuances in this sentence, but they know the context, which is that after the orange mushy stuff comes something sweeter! So they will latch onto the word banana, reach out both hands and say ‘nana’. They might not know what the fridge is, what the word pudding means, or that they were given a choice – but if we use this language consistently, they soon will.

I’m not a language acquisition expert, but having raised four sons (our youngest is now fifteen) it is very clear that this approach has done them no harm. They are bright boys, which helps, but they all have large vocabularies which these days they use to great effect to put their parents in place when necessary! They are also grammar pedants, all of them, which I love!

Why would we teach our instrumental lessons any differently?

In a recent article published in the ‘Opinion’ pages in The Guardian, Charlotte Gill perpetuates the myth that reading music notation is difficult.

This is a cryptic, tricky language that can only be read by a small number of people.

Sadly, it is an opinion shared by many.

I began learning the piano – and to read music – at the age of five, and remember it being an exciting adventure. And undoubtedly the single most important factor in my rapid success was this: nobody told me that it was difficult.

I know countless teenagers who tell me that they can’t read music, and it’s clear that the problem is that they don’t believe that they can. Amongst them are bright, able pupils, and fine musicians at that, but the whole music theory thing is just too much of a hurdle for them to overcome. It doesn’t help when everyone around them – peers, teachers, even Guardian journalists – are telling them how hard it is. It’s like we’re whispering in their ear “That wall is really high, you’ll never get over it.” A small number of people will see that as a challenge but the majority, it seems, will decide against it.

What frustrates me immensely is the teachers who seem to navigate around the theory issue, like they also are afraid that it is too difficult for their pupils to understand. We run the risk of raising a generation of musicians who can ‘get their grade 8’ and yet at the same time giving them permission to remain in the dark about the most basic of musical concepts. What kind of teaching is that?

If I tell a pupil that we need to make sure that “the quavers are nice and even here”, is this going to send them into a flat spin? Are they going to throw the toys out of the pram and tell me that my teaching is ‘too academic’? I doubt it. In this context I’m talking about technical control, and the reference to quavers might even go unnoticed. In the same way, I refer all the time to apparently ‘cryptic’ things like semitones, triads and even parallel sixths as if they are perfectly normal and natural things, which of course they are; if we use the language of music theory consistently in this way, they will soon learn what it means. We sing too, because that’s not difficult either, and like notation, it’s another tool which is incredibly useful in developing the all round musical abilities of our students. Let’s give our pupils the chance to have it all; not leave them frustrated that they were never given the opportunity.