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.

When reading isn’t enough – developing inner hearing

You would imagine that having a piano pupil who can sight-read well makes teaching them a real joy. Well, yes it does in some ways, but in others it can be quite challenging. Here is Plato on the subject:

If men learn to write, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.

As our pupils progress, it’s a fact that some of the learning methods which they have used very successfully in the past can cease to be as effective as they once were. However good their reading is, there comes a point when it’s not enough, and we need to bring other things into play as well.

I posted an article recently on teaching a Bach Two-part Invention. Despite my pupil being quick to see how the music is put together, the reality is that playing a piece like this hands together presents some very real problems. Looking at the music vertically, there is a lot of information to take in, and I mean a lot. Too much even. The solution? Don’t read.

fmriSince the advent of FMRI scanning scientists have been able to observe brain activity in considerable detail. Interestingly, if you monitor the areas of the brain which are in use when a musician plays his instrument, the scans look almost identical to those done when the same musician imagines playing their instrument. Wow! I believe that this little bit of information adds weight to how I would approach putting the A minor Invention hands together.

In short, play the right hand and sing the left hand! Singing badly is fine – just the rhythm and the general melodic shape. It’s an engaging task for the pupil, and although it is easier than diving in hands together, it is by no means straightforward. But once they can perform a few bars or so in this way [and the other way up too] the benefits are clear: the left hand part is being run from a different system – not just reading, but something internal (or to go back to Plato, something “from within themselves.” And now, when we play the left hand, it is not just reading which is going on – it’s running directly from something internal as well, reducing the cognitive strain which would be present from reading two lines simultaneously.

The ideal is that eventually everything is internalised, and that reference to the dots on the page becomes less and less necessary. So why is that so many of our pupils still have the notes on the stand weeks or even months into learning a piece of music? Teaching in this way develops so many aspects of musicianship – co-ordination, aural skills, memory, inner hearing, the lot – and it’s so important that we are doing all that we can to empower our pupils to think for themselves. And, ironically, it also improves their sight-reading!

 

Invention

Earlier this term I began teaching Bach’s Invention in a minor, BWV 784 to one of my piano pupils. This is the beginning of her second term of lessons with me, and although she is a bright and diligent pupil, her tendency when learning a new piece is still simply to begin at the beginning and do her best to play the notes. The analogy which I often use is that of an intrepid explorer hacking her way through the dense jungle armed only with a machete – she’ll get there in the end – wherever there is – but it’s not going to be pretty! And when she does arrive at her destination, she’ll probably have little or no recollection of any detail of the journey along the way.

We can do better than that. Bach wrote these pieces to teach his pupils not only how to play, but also how music is put together. Why should we not do the same?

First of all, what key is it in? Pupil, being on the ball, answers A minor.
How does she know? There is no key signature, and there are G#s – which are the raised 7th. Good knowledge. [And how do I know it’s in A minor? From the title at the top of the page – “Invention in A minor”!]
And what is the other chord which Bach is most likely going to use? The dominant.
Excellent answer, and what is the dominant in this key? E. Finish your sentence….  E major. Good, the dominant in a minor key is major, because of the raised 7th.

Now, can you play me an arpeggio of A minor, just an octave up and down? Here’s the pulse. Of course she can. And now four whole beats worth, in quavers, but now you can change direction whenever you like. [Quick demonstration, with the pulse still going]. Again, it’s a straightforward task for her. And now the same, but this time let’s include some passing notes so that we have a mix of steps and thirds. No problem.

We quickly do the same in the dominant, and before long we are changing fluently between tonic and dominant every four beats, complete with a single bass note per bar in the left hand.

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Now, and only now, do we look at the music in detail for the first time. Machete-style, she would have hacked away, one unrelated note at a time – such an unrewarding and largely meaningless task. But now she can see the arpeggio shapes instantly, and realises that the notes which aren’t in the arpeggio must be passing notes. So they make sense too. We notice that the E major arpeggios are actually dominant sevenths.

Going onto the second line (still playing RH only) she is quick to notice that everything is made of arpeggio shapes. How often does the chord change? Twice every bar. And then she notices that there is a sequence; her ears are also helping to guide her along what is looking more and more like a clear path, even though she has never been down it before. Observe, the circle of fifths in action rather than just presented as cold, dry theory – at last, we have found a use for it!

Now she plays through the left hand, and quickly notices that it is copying the right hand – imitation. And half way through bar 6, having noticed the same melodic shape but now starting on a different note, she observes that we have modulated – to C major. How’s that related? It’s the relative major.

This has probably taken about 10 to 15 minutes, but she now has a really good idea of the lie of the land of the whole piece. Initially it looked like a jungle, with huge areas of impenetrable semiquavers, but now that she can see the harmonic outline (and knows what to listen for) the way forward is just so much clearer. It is so much easier to learn when we understand how the music is put together.

Gentle encouragement

A tale in two parts:

Our informal concerts at Monkton are just that – informal, a safe space for our pupils to venture into the realms of performing to a small audience.

Lunchtime Concert pupils 2In a world which is increasingly obsessed with perfection, it can be difficult for our young people to step up. Recently I asked a pupil whether he would play in a lunchtime concert, and his response was a very firm ‘No, I can’t’. When I enquired a little further, he was absolutely adamant that he is not good enough. I could see that he was clearly troubled, so I quickly withdrew the invitation – ‘don’t worry, nobody’s going to make you play in a concert if you don’t want to’.

I caught up with him again in his saxophone lesson a few days later. He’s a great lad – in the past few months he has ‘discovered’ practice, and that it works! Since then he has made really significant progress, and he has started going along to Concert Band too. A real success story.

I pointed out to to him that it is his teacher’s job to sort out problems – squeaky notes, dodgy rhythm etc. But that the average listener would quite simply respond with ‘Hey, I didn’t know you could play the sax, that was great.’ I reiterated that nobody is going to force him to play in a concert; finding your own voice means deciding for yourself that you want to do something, and I have all too often seen the disastrous results of a child being forced to perform in a concert. Why would you do that to someone? However, I did tell him that it was my hope that at some point he would find the courage within himself, and push himself up onto that stage. Even if it took another two years for him to get to that point…

He came to find me five minutes later to say that he wanted to play in the next concert! What a star – that will have taken him real courage.

Part two:

Last week I was guest adjudicator at a prep school music competition. The first class was a song class and unfortunately one girl (aged 11/12?) forgot her words mid-song. I’m pretty sure that half of the audience of parents were quietly singing along with the solo piano to help her to pick up the words again, me included! Despite welling up, she maintained her composure until the end, but my heart went out to her – such a traumatic experience.

The next class was the woodwind class,  and the same girl played her flute beautifully. Nice recovery. And in the final class of the morning, I’m pretty sure that she was a part of as many as four ensemble items, and ended up winning the class, and deservedly so! I guess her day turned out okay after all!

I was bowled over by this little girl’s resilience. Her final performance was so engaging, and she had clearly heeded my advice in that first class of the morning, despite being so upset. Surely a star of the future, if not in singing then in life!

An inspirational week of singing

It has been a busy but extremely fulfilling week, and one which has been truly inspiring.

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Chamber Choir with Dominic Peckham

Dominic Peckham spent the day at Monkton last Friday, and both senior and prep schools were transfixed by his dynamic and engaging style, as well as his moving account of the formation of the National Youth Choir of Kenya. The whole school was left in no doubt that singing brings people together in a way that little else does. In the afternoon he worked with four of Monkton’s choirs, including an improvisation workshop with our senior Chamber Choir which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen! He has opened our eyes and ears to new possibilities, and there was much talk of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the London A Cappella Festival. It was a genuine privilege to spend the day with such a fantastic musician and teacher.

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Genesis Choir at The Holburne Museum

On Wednesday the Genesis Choir gave their second public performance, at a fundraising event held at the Holburne Museum in Bath. The Garden Cafe has a vibrant acoustic and the choir was thrilled to sing in a venue which did so much to enhance their sound, and this helped their confidence hugely. We sang two songs – Singin’ in the Rain and Here comes the sun, both warmly received by our audience. I am so proud to be a part of this project, and to see how the confidence of each of the choir members has grown in the past six months is simply amazing. I don’t think I could have taken this on without the experience that I have gained working with The Choir who can’t sing at Monkton.

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Chapel Choir outside Bath Abbey

The following day our Chapel Choir sang evensong at Bath Abbey, the first time we’ve done this since I’ve been at Monkton. Anglican chant is not standard repertoire for the average Monktonian but they did a wonderful job with the psalm, as well as Dyson’s Mag & Nunc in F and the anthem Love Divine set by Howard Goodall, which we had worked on with Dominic a few days before. This will have been the first ever experience of choral evensong for many in the choir, and they really rose to the occasion.

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Francis Faux

On Friday we were visited by Joseph Fort, Director of Choral Music at King’s College, London, who came to hear a few of our sixth formers sing before heading off to Prior Park to work with their Chapel Choir. In the evening we took several of our pupils to hear them perform Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil. As well as being sublime music, it was great for our students to see and hear a real live university choir!

Yesterday, a Saturday ‘Open Door morning’ with numerous families visiting the school, the Chamber Choir had a workshop with Francis Faux and the Noctis Chamber Choir. As well as singing to each other (we performed The King’s Singer’s I’m a train!) we rehearsed pieces by Morley and Ola Gjeilo together, and this culminated in the performance of the Gjeilo piece in whole school chapel at the end of the morning. So thrilling for us to join up with such a fine choir, and although I say so myself, I thought we sounded fantastic!

Looking back, I’m not sure I planned a week like this – several of these events were rescheduled, so it is largely coincidence that they all came together in such a short space of time. But it has made me reflect on how important it is to connect our pupils up with the outside world. We can work hard with them in choirs in school, but it is seeing the likes of Dominic and Francis in action, and aspiring one day to be in NYCGB, a university choir or a local chamber choir, which will really fire them up for the future.