Improving musical literacy

Our Chapel Choir is un-auditioned. My approach for a long time has been that anyone can come along, and it doesn’t matter whether they read music or not. My objective has always been for them to engage with singing, and that hopefully they’ll pick up a bit about reading music as they go along.

Who have I been kidding? Let’s take a very straightforward and regular rehearsal instruction: “We’re going from the beginning of the second system on page 4.” Whilst some will work it out, there are others who have long since made up their minds that this music-reading business is not their thing, that they just don’t get it; not unlike Charlotte Gill I suspect. They’ll drift along, happy to follow the crowd, but left to their own devices they are never going to become fluent sight-readers. On the contrary, they’ll learn to be expert followers of others, and that is all.

We had an excellent training day at the beginning of the academic year, with formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam. I came away with the realisation that I had almost no evidence whatsoever that our choristers are learning anything about reading music in our choir rehearsals!

Time to put that right.

When I was a chorister we had a training scheme, a series of progressive tests, each of which resulted in getting a coloured drawing pin by our name on the test board. Until now I had thought this was probably too specialised for our Chapel Choir, but with a little reworking I have come up with a set of fourteen ‘dot tests’ which I introduced to the choir a fortnight ago. The response has been extraordinary!

  • Note names
    Name notes on the stave (treble clef for Soprano, Alto and Tenor, bass clef for Bass).
  • Follow the score
    Be able to follow a vocal score with your finger, including identifying the part which you sing and tracking it when it changes lines or goes over the page.
  • Solfa names up
    Be able to recite solfa note names up the scale at a steady tempo, no hesitations.
  • Sight read no jumps
    Starting at C, to be able to sing next door notes up or down as directed, with fluency.
  • Sing octave scale
    To sing a major scale with accurate tuning
  • Solfa signs
    To know the solfa signs for doh, re, mi, fah, soh, lah, ti, doh
  • Intervals (on stave)
    To recognise intervals (3rd, 5th etc) written on the stave
  • Sing arpeggio
    To sing a major arpeggio with accurate tuning
  • Intervals above
    To sing the following intervals above a given note: minor 2nd (semitone), major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, minor 7th
  • Recognise major/minor
    To recognise triads as major or minor
  • Solfa names down
    Be able to recite solfa note names down the scale at a steady tempo, no hesitations.
  • Sight read rhythm 1
    To clap a short rhythm from notation. Simple note values: crotchets, quavers, minims, dotted minims.
  • Sight read jumps
    Starting at C, to be able to sing notes up or down as directed, including leaps of up to a fifth, with fluency.
  • Sight read rhythm 2
    To clap a short rhythm from notation. Complex note values: dotted crotchets, rests and ties.
  • Intervals below
    To sing the following intervals below a given note: semitone, major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, minor 7th.
  • Sight read hymn tune
    To sight read a simple hymn tune from notation.

IMG-5341Some of the more simple tests take literally 30 seconds to do – naming notes, or identifying major or minor triads. If they’re not quite up to scratch, they get maybe a minute of my time to point them in the right direction, and they can come back again once they think they’ve mastered it. This offers the potential for quality teaching time – albeit brief – for every member of the choir on a regular basis.

All of the tests focus on making connections between the notes on the stave, familiar aural ‘sound bites’ (major scales and arpeggios), a tiny dose of theory and some tonic solfa. One of the problems with persuading reluctant readers to take on notation is that they can’t see the practical benefits of it, so it is absolutely imperative that we join it all up for them. Each of these tests is a bitesize part of the bigger picture, and once they have just a few of them mastered they quickly begin to see how it all fits together.

With 45 members of choir, and 14 tests, that’s 630 tests to be getting on with! We got through more than 80 in week one, and everywhere I go I am now being plagued by pupils who want to learn a little bit more about reading music. Some will need chasing down, whilst others are already testing each other with the do mi so game. And as the dots spread, I can see exactly who knows what. As an ongoing initiative I am hopeful that this will transform the literacy of our Chapel Choir. Watch this space!

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The thinking practiser: who is in control here?

In recent weeks I have been challenging my piano and organ pupils to consider this question: who is in control when you play/practise?!  For instance, when Peter puts a fourth finger on a note when we’ve just spent two minutes discussing why the third finger is a better option, my question is, quite reasonably “So why did you use your fourth finger?” The reply comes “I don’t know.” It’s quite a serious problem. After all, if Peter didn’t decide to use his fourth finger, then who did?! I think it was Sub-Peter.

When we walk from A to B, we rarely even consider the mechanics of such a complex task. We’ve long since relinquished responsibility to our subconscious, which is similarly in charge of tasks such as holding us upright and breathing. If we had to think about each and every one of these things our poor brains would never keep up. Sub-Peter does a wonderful job, and without him we’d be sunk.

But there are times when Sub-Peter doesn’t do so well for us. He can cope with normal walking conditions; but if, for instance, we’re walking on rocky terrain, we’re less confident in leaving things to Sub-Peter. It’s at these moments that Peter himself over-rides, takes back control, to ensure that every step is carefully judged. Then, once we’re back on flat ground, we can once again trust that our subconscious can handle the task.

There is a huge amount to think about when you’re playing a Bach fugue (even just a three-part one!) and in our practice we need to be quite sure that the right person is in charge from the very outset. Sub-Peter makes very quick decisions, but not considered ones, and so it is wise not to hand over control too soon. It’s a fine balance; ultimately we do want to hand over, so that we can play with ease and freedom and without having to think about every minute detail. But only once Peter himself has everything planned out.

 

September

Day One. Some thirty new sixth form students arrive in the Bowerman Hall for a brief introduction to music@monkton. I open with a challenge. “Before we get started, would anyone like to sing to us?”

As expected, their expressions say it all, with you’ve got to be joking written loud across incredulous faces. Nobody in their right mind sings in public, and certainly not on the first day of school when everyone is carefully weighing up everyone else!

And then one lad says yes, he’ll give it a go. Looks of utter shock from the rest of the crowd. This confident year 12 lad comes forward, sits at the piano and sings, rather beautifully as it happens, a song which his brother wrote. And the audience looks on, stunned, amazed and pretty much in awe, and his performance is met with very genuine and enthusiastic applause.

“Now tell me, who would have liked to have had the confidence to do that?” It’s a rhetorical question, but gets to the point of what music@monkton is all about. Because if you have the confidence to sing in front of someone else, what can’t you take on? Singing is deeply personal, and singing in front of others can make us feel very vulnerable, especially in a world which is so quick to judge – a world which teenagers are all too familiar with. And this is what drives me more than anything else: not the desire to turn out brilliant musicians, but rather to use music to enable young people to be happy to stand up in their own skin, to be content to be themselves.

In the first few days of each new academic year, many music departments audition new singers, and the lucky few take their place in chapel choirs, destined for exciting opportunities. Meanwhile, at Monkton, I am actively looking for those who really can’t sing. And sure enough, just half an hour after these new year 12 pupils have left, on their very first day at Monkton, one shy lad reappears to tell me that he can’t sing, and what should he do? Well there is no time like the present, and within five minutes I have taught him how to listen critically, and he has sung back a full range of notes which match mine beautifully. Rehearsals for the Choir who can’t sing don’t start until after our House Music Festival at the end of week three – but he has caught up with me several times in the past fortnight to check when he can start choir.

For me, education involves teaching those who can’t do something to be able to do something. If someone is pretty rubbish at maths, we don’t send them away, never to be seen again; we don’t assess our students and say Great, you’re already good at maths, let’s keep going and then turn the rest away.

Those who already consider themselves to be musicians will generally gravitate towards the music department anyway, and our Chapel Choir [un-auditioned] has a healthy new intake of singers this term. That’s the easy bit. But outside the music department there are young people in abundance who either don’t sing, can’t sing, or in their own heads don’t believe that they can sing, and the potential harvest is huge!

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.”

 

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