Category Archives: musings

general thinking space!

Upgrade vs the perils of cognitive strain

How would you fancy a new ‘processor’? An instant upgrade, which gives you the ability to read music at x3, x5 or even x10 your previous capacity. Sounds good eh?

I had a wonderful break-through with a piano pupil towards the end of last term. He is a fine musician and clearly loves playing the piano, but he is also a classic example of a student who enjoys playing, but not so much the work involved in getting there!

He is very bright and is not afraid to read, and perhaps surprisingly, therein lies one of his weaknesses; he reads everything, all of the time, until such point as the music is ‘in the system’ and muscle memory has taken over. In itself the reading part is fine, but it’s hard work on the brain, reading all that data all of the time, and this is the part which he doesn’t enjoy. My teaching focus with him has always been to find ways to engage his intellect, so that the practice process itself becomes interesting and challenging to him, rather than just a chore to be accomplished. To quote Daniel Pink (Drive, 2009) “The joy is in the pursuit more than the realisation. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.” 

So how about that upgrade then?

We have been working on the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E major, op.14/1. Having asked him to prepare a section of the movement, I was disappointed to find that he had come back, as ever, able to play the notes, but not really having learned them; and not just that, but complaining that he just couldn’t get excited about having to learn all those notes. I’m not surprised – once the cognitive strain sets in (and it doesn’t take long) it’s not much fun.

beethovenop14no1

So how about using another resource in addition to reading; memory perhaps? Bar 58 is in b minor, and it really is just arpeggios. Let’s look at the detail: the first falling arpeggio shape starts on F#, and then it’s just three more falling arpeggio groups, all starting on B but an octave lower each time. The final one rises again. There are 25 notes in these two bars, 25 bits of data. But we can reduce that to 5, at most.

Bars (60-61). The bass falls by a step (and indeed that pattern continues through to bar 66). What kind of chord is this? A dominant seventh on D – but note that the fifth (A) is missing. Apart from that, it’s the very same shape as bars 58-59, and even starts on the same note, F#. Nice pattern 🙂

And then bars 62-63. G major [perhaps not surprising following the D7 chord.] The same shape as before, so all we need to remember is that the RH starts on a G. Bearing in mind that everything else is the same as bars 58-59, I’d go so far as to suggest that these 25 notes can be reduced to ONE detail only; the RH starts on a G. Bars 64-65 is another dominant seventh, as before with the fifth (F#) missing.

These eight bars have now become an intriguing memory game. There may be a little bit of thinking still to do, but nothing like the cognitive strain required to read all of those notes at speed; in fact, we’ve opened up an entirely new set of skills. No reading needed at all, which incidentally frees up the eyes to see some of those patterns which we’ve found. The joy is, it has taken him all of about 5 minutes to take all of this in, it’s engaged him fully, and the work is done! And now he’s keen to continue into the next passage and apply the same method.

footnote
The key here is in actively looking for patterns, and without a working knowledge of theory a student is never going to unlock this upgrade. ABRSM may have dumbed down their grade 5 theory exam of late, but the requirement to pass it in order to progress onto the higher practical grades remains very sensible. Teaching theory needs to be an integral part of every instrumental lesson.

*footnote to footnote
Over the past few weeks the change in this student’s learning is so evident. He has moved from reading to actively seeking patterns, and he is now using his memory as an active strategy rather than it just being a passive by-product. Upgrade most definitely achieved!

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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!

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!

Finding courage

I remember a piano pupil, many years ago now, who wouldn’t sing in her lessons. I tried week after week, ever so gently, to try to persuade her to sing even the quietest of notes, but the more I tried the more of an ordeal it became for her. She came close several times, and I do believe that she wanted to – but in the end she just couldn’t bring herself to make a sound. Like getting to the end of the diving board but ultimately lacking the courage to take the plunge…diving2

Due to the whole of year 9 being away on a trip, only five year 10 girls came along to the Choir who won’t sing rehearsal last week, a group of five good friends. All exhibited the very same tendency described above, something which I have seen countless times in girls ever since. When I asked one of them to sing, her first response was to turn to her friend and say ‘No, you go first.’ No, you go first.‘ And so on. Eventually, one of them managed to sing back a note: it was almost inaudible, but a triumph nonetheless. Each in turn summoned up the courage, except for the one who was quite clear that she couldn’t sing – at which point one of the others produced a video on her phone of the girl singing along with her friends, full voice, to a pop song! Her cover blown, and with assurance from me that this was evidence that she could sing, she too sang a very quiet note back to me. Success!

Fifteen minutes later they were all singing Somewhere over the rainbow at the tops of their voices, faces about three inches from each other, and loving every moment of it. Perhaps they’d forgotten that I was there. Or perhaps they’d jumped off the diving board and realised that actually this was really good fun after all.

These girls love to sing together. But ask them to sing to each other and everything changes. Singing together draws us closer, but singing alone instantly invites judgement from others, and that is a scary place for the huge majority of teenage girls – even, it seems, amongst good friends. This choir isn’t really about the singing, because I know, and they know, that they can sing. It’s about finding the courage to be an individual when life is saying it’s safer to keep your head down.

One of the two pupils in my original tone deaf project, when I asked her why she wanted to be able to sing, said this: I reckon if I can sing in front of someone, I can do anything. My hope is that in time the choir will become a place where more girls can realise this particular dream. In the meantime, Alex, here are five more!