Category Archives: musings

general thinking space!

What does the word ‘dynamics’ mean?

It’s a pretty common experience for me to hear concerts or competitions in schools where a large number of young soloists play one after another, and at one such event recently I was struck by the simple fact that some perform and others play; some are instantly compelling and just ‘have it’, whilst for others the whole experience can be pretty soulless.

Some find the whole ‘playing an instrument thing’ easier, undoubtedly, but I think what really sets them apart is that they have already made a connection that music is about being expressive. These are the ones that we might call talented. The others are not untalented – they just haven’t made that connection yet. I believe that they can, and of course their teacher has a big part to play in this. I have a piano pupil who, on paper, has it all – perfect pitch, brilliant sight-reader, secure technique and great work ethic. What more could you want? Well, as yet, she still plays rather than performs. If I ask her to play piano she’ll do that, but it can sound … well, dull, if I’m honest. Quiet, but no expression. She has talent, but some of it still needs unlocking. We’ll find it in due course, but in order to get there we need to make lots of connections with music being expressive.

Wikipedia tells us that “dynamics means how loud or quiet the music is.” Please no! Actually the word piano (p) translates as soft, which is so much more expressive. But still not specific enough in my book….

What would we normally understand by the word dynamics, in a different context? Wikipedia again:

dynamics: the forces or properties which stimulate growth, development, or change within a system or process.

Well done Wikipedia, that’s much more like it! Dynamics is a much bigger word than ‘how loud or soft?’ If we walked into a room and encountered a red-faced person shouting at someone else cowering in the corner, would we describe the dynamics in the room as loud? Angry, uncomfortable, tense, volatile maybe, but to describe the dynamics as loud would make for a pretty lame description, and even strong wouldn’t really do the job in this context.

mfSo, back to my piano pupil. I could instruct her, in great detail, to play each bar in a particular way – begin quietly, crescendo here etc – but who am I kidding? I know that this isn’t the way to draw out her musicianship. Worse, sadly, she might not know that; she could end up giving a very ‘musical’ performance and not have the first idea why – she’s just following my instructions. That would not be empowering teaching.

So I’m going to try an experiment this term: I’m going to ban the use of the following words in my lessons and rehearsals –  soft, piano, loud, forte – and instead use words like vibrant, energetic, punchy, reverent. In doing so, I hope that my students will be clear that music is always about being expressive in some way, and that dynamics is not just another element of the performance to be remembered along with the correct notes and fingerings.

Paul Harris’ new series of flashcards, Practice Starters (published by Faber) include this wonderful little exercise –

Play the last note or chord of a piece you’re learning. Now play it:

Abruptly       Calmly      Dying away-ly      Magnificently      Triumphantly

Nonchalantly       Happily       Unhappily      Surprisingly      Finally

These are dynamic words, and they will encourage your pupils to think expressively and creatively.

By way of a foot note, yesterday I had a rehearsal with a sixth form student ahead of her forthcoming Advanced Certificate diploma. She is an excellent singer, although in her own words, she over-thinks things, and I suggested that perhaps some of this might be getting in the way of giving a real performance. We talked briefly about the dynamics of the song. Not the volume – the real dynamics in the room which the character in the song is trying to convey, which is this case was joy. “Don’t think about support, intonation, vowels, just focus on the joy part.” The difference was dramatic, quite literally, and she knew it – a thrilling experience for both of us.

 

Can you sing? Apparently, 34% of people can’t!*

This October I sent a short questionnaire, Can you sing? to the whole school. More specifically, to all pupils at our senior school, and staff of both senior and prep schools.

singing survey

*Sorry about the sensational title! This figure comes from a sample of 359 replies [69% of the pupil body returned the questionnaire] but nonetheless it is a significant number of people, and the data makes for fascinating reading.

My initial intention was to discover how many might call themselves tone deaf, and I’ll come to that in a moment; but what has shocked me is this: 44% have been told by someone that they can’t sing. And in response to the question ‘Can you sing?’ (answer either yes or no), 34% said no, they can’t sing.

I wonder how many of those 122 people who say that they can’t sing have come to that conclusion because they’ve believed someone who has told them that, even if it might not actually be true. Of course teenagers can have a tendency to be down on themselves, and so that figure of 35% might be exaggerated: but then again, look at the numbers for our adult population – 31% of Monkton staff also say that they can’t sing. In a recent assembly our headmaster, Richard Backhouse, talked about the importance of developing into the person we want to be, not into the person which other people want us to be. Thought-provoking, as always, but not easy when those around us can have such a big influence on us, perhaps more often than not without us even realising it.

Arguably, ‘Can you sing?’ might be understood in a number of different ways. Maybe the implication here is ‘Are you allowed to sing?’ In other words, do those around you enable you to sing by allowing you to express yourself, or do they, either deliberately or otherwise, resign you to keeping quiet until singing becomes something you ‘can’t do.’

If it’s not bad enough being told that you can’t sing, 56 people (16%) in this sample described themselves as tone deaf. Of those, 10 have been ‘diagnosed’ by their parents, 25 by friends and 10 by …. their music teacher. How depressing. Sadly I know all too many people who have been silenced by those closest to them. Perhaps they think it’s funny, but I’ve seen reactions from boys in the Choir who can’t sing which would suggest otherwise. Please don’t ever tell anyone they can’t sing – you might just be sentencing them to a life without all of the richness which singing brings.

Wikipedia will tell you that about 4% of the population suffer from tone deafness, aka Congenital amusia. Don’t believe it. I’d love to know where this statistic comes from – maybe it’s the proportion of people who think they are tone deaf. But I’m up for proving them wrong either way! Of the 56 in my survey, 19 say that they’d love to be able to sing, and 26 describe themselves as ‘hopeless’. From my experience with the Choir who can’t sing and others,  I’d be very surprised if most of these aren’t prepared to permit me to give them a slightly more professional opinion on their ‘diagnosis’.

Not sure when I’m going to find the time to do this, but the plan now is to see as many of these so-called tone deaf people as possible, and to see whether I can bring that supposed 16% down to a realistic much less than 4%. I’ll report back in due course….

music@monkton – enabling every pupil to find their own voice

Why do we sing together?

Yesterday evening Monkton’s Choir who can’t sing did a flash mob during supper! Pupils realised something was up when the strains of the intro to “You raise me up” became audible over the usual background conversation noise in the school Dining Hall, which has a very lively acoustic. A few boys stood up to sing the first phrase, and then a few more, and then a few more until about 25 boys stood in various groups around the hall, singing for all they were worth. I admire their courage so much.

Several of them told me afterwards, as they have done many times before, that choir rehearsals are genuinely the highlight of their week. And they mean it. Of course I agreed that they were the high point of my week too, but then I found myself questioning whether that’s entirely honest. After all, Chamber Choir rehearsals are also the highlight of my week …. and so are Monkton Combe Choral Society rehearsals on Tuesday evenings. And many of the members of these choirs feel the same way too.

Singing is a complex thing. It makes us vulnerable. If you stand face to face with someone, even a good friend, and ask them to sing, chances are they’ll decline the invitation. Singing is deeply personal. Hence the many people who tell me that they can’t sing – it’s a safety mechanism: what they really mean is “I don’t want to share that with you.” Sadly, for all too many it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; they tell themselves that they are inadequate, that they can’t sing, and so they don’t. How many other aspects of their lives suffer the same fate?

Last week I took singing practice at our prep school, and for one of our warm ups I had them stand and do ‘jazz hands’. Of course, that’s actually a silent activity, since waving your hands doesn’t make any noise. Very swiftly the whole school became aware that not only were they, individually, being silent, but that they were collectively silent. It was a very powerful moment. In Choral Society last Tuesday we rehearsed the chorus Since by man came death, which is unaccompanied and which requires very carefully attention to tuning. We sang softly, not because Handel asks for it to be soft, but so that we could listen to each other. Their tuning was superb. Singing in a choir is not about people singing at the same time; it’s about singing together. The result on Tuesday was thrilling, for all of us. The Monteverdi Choir might sound better, but nobody missed the extraordinary intimacy of ninety people making themselves vulnerable to each other  – by singing together.

Herein lies the magic of singing in a choir. It’s not just the music (although of course that’s also an important factor). It is, I believe, to do with finding our own voice, and in knowing that those around us are equally prepared to make themselves vulnerable to us as well. There are few things which come closer to defining being human.

I was deeply upset by a series of articles in the press earlier this year; whilst adult choirs seem never to have been more popular [thank you Mr Malone and others!] it really worries me that our children are not being taught to sing. I am gradually working my way through the entire pupil body at Monkton, literally one by one, and although I love every moment, ultimately it is immensely depressing to discover just how many boys don’t know the basic mechanics of how to sing a single note in tune. What has happened? If there is a single argument to put singing back into the curriculum, for our children to sing every day together, it is this: to enable them to discover and develop their self-confidence and their sensitivity to others. I believe that our children need this more than just about anything else.

A school which is learning to sing

When asked by a prospective parent earlier this week whether we have a choir, I found myself quietly pleased to be able to tell her that we have five; and then I realised that actually we now have six – Chapel Choir, Girls’ Choir, the Choir who can’t sing, Chamber Choir, Junior Chamber Choir and, new this term, Year 9 Choir.

It’s been a long climb over six years, but singing is happening everywhere now. The House Music Festival this September was the best I’ve heard, and Farm House choir’s performance of It’s all about you (McFly) made our adjudicator “envious that [he] can’t (quite yet) get a group of lads to sing as well as this.” Chamber Choir sang Stanford’s Beati quorum via in Chapel this Saturday, and the school listened attentively and in silence. I have a real sense that, as a whole school, we are on the cusp of something really very exciting. On the back of House Music, and with more and more pupils in choirs – not least the Choir who can’t sing who are so proud of their newly found voices – I believe that we are approaching a critical mass of pupils who between them could be capable of shifting the equilibrium of school singing.

CWCS Oct15

One of the difficulties with whole school singing until now has been how to persuade a considerable number of boys not to sing ‘in the undergrowth’ [ie an octave too low – in the same way that teenagers speak down here too, and don’t exhibit too much of their emotion through their voices!] A fortnight ago, in whole school singing practice, I managed for the first time ever to get the huge majority of them out of the depths and up into the right range, and the result was thrilling. It has long been my dream that one day it will be the norm for the whole school to come to Chapel and experience the joy of singing together, uninhibited. Perhaps we’re getting close….

To help them along, I’ve set myself a target for the coming months; to voice test every boy in the school. About 80 are either in a choir or else I already know that they can sing, so that leaves about 160 to hunt down, one by one! They all know that I’m passionate about getting them singing, and hopefully they’ll be willing to go along with me on this one. Just a quick assessment to see 1) whether they can sing back a couple of notes and 2) to see whether they can sing something around the middle C mark. And in all seriousness, at the same time I hope to gather a few stats on something which has bothered me for a long time. It is claimed that about 4% of the population is tone deaf, and I simply can’t accept that. I’ve read a few papers on the subject, and there seems to be very little reference in any of them to nurture.

I have had some amazing successes with boys in the Choir who can’t sing, boys who were all over the shop with their pitching who have learned to sing in tune. One School House lad springs immediately to mind, who was incredibly weak to begin with, and now, several years on, sings wonderfully – and happens to have been blessed with a naturally beautiful voice. And another boy who had always believed himself to be tone deaf because he was told that as a child. He sang a full range of notes beautifully in tune, and when I pointed this out, and told him that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his singing, he wept.

I’m looking forward to finding more like him.

Permission to sing badly

Instrumentalists have a lot to deal with when learning a new piece of music. Not only do they have to read the notes – both pitch and rhythm – but they also need to deal with the technical demands of playing them, which amongst other things may include fingers, arm movement and breath control. If they are finding the rhythm difficult, I’d like to suggest that we can make it a lot easier by removing the technical aspect, at least temporarily.

Can you juggle whilst riding a *unicycle? If you can’t do either, what are the chances of you learning, simultaneously, to do both? One of these alone would be quite enough to be dealing with, and you’d really need to be a master of each skill before you contemplated putting them together.

So if it’s understanding the rhythm of a piece of music which is causing the difficulty, put the instrument down! It seems so obvious, if you consider the unicycle scenario, and yet how many of us fail to do this? Perhaps it depends on whether we see ourselves principally as an instrumental teacher or a music teacher…. Fixing the rhythm is a musical problem.

The trouble, though, is this –  we do have a significant problem if we put down the instrument, because now we’re going to have to ….. SING! Most teenagers would naturally run away at this point, but I have a solution which seems to work really well; permission to sing badly!

In order for rhythm to be secure what we really need to do is internalise it – and singing is just an outward demonstration of what is going on inside our head. For this purpose the singing doesn’t need to be perfect, but the important thing is to learn the rhythm without having to focus on something else at the same time.

Earlier this week I was working on Ian Clarke’s Sunstreams with a flautist:

sunstreams

In this passage, there are a lot of notes to concentrate on playing. Up until this point her pulse had been rock solid, but all of a sudden in bar 24 it just disappeared and everything went very vague; it’s as if the volume had been turned right down on her internal metronome so that she was no longer aware of it.

First step: put down the flute. We then re-established the pulse, and made sure that she knew where each of the crotchet beats fell – she’s a quick student, so no problems here. And then we sang it – badly, but in time. Without inserting a sound file it’s difficult to describe bad singing, but basically you need to put enough inflection in the voice to show the rise and fall of the pitches, but with none of the precision need to sing it properly in tune. In effect it’s like an aural sketch – near enough to be recognisable, but without the need for all the detail.

With just a couple of repetitions she had built for herself an aural sketch of what this passage should sound like, in time. So when she picked her flute up again and played, it was, unsurprisingly, in time, because she now knew what she was aiming at.

This technique works so well, and I put it down to pupils enjoying having permission to do something badly! We so often feel judged on the quality of our singing, and indeed it’s a very personal thing. But to ask a student to singing badly, in this context at least, removes that pressure, because you’ve actually given them permission to get it sort of wrong, and where’s the stress in that? And they also see, almost instantly, how much easier it can sometimes be to learn without the complications of controlling the instrument as well.

*Funnily enough, not long after I’d written the first draft of this article, a pupil came to find me, with one arm in a sling, to say that he wouldn’t be able to go to his saxophone lesson – because he’d fallen backwards off his unicycle!!

Chamber Choir: developing the vision

In May last year our newly formed Chamber Choir gave a short recital, and looking back now I can see that, despite being a fairly low key event, it marked a big step in the development of our music department, certainly from a choral perspective.

The initial purpose of writing here at music@monkton was to chart the development of a music department. In particular, changing aspirations, not just of those falling within the immediate reach of the music department, but for the wider school community as well. Over the past five years singing has been a primary focus; the Choir who can’t sing has engaged the wider school community, as have whole school singing practices, and both of these have had a considerable impact in raising the standard of singing in the House Music Festival. At this level, the most important seed to sow in changing those aspirations has been this: anyone can sing [- enabling every pupil to find their own voice.]

At the same time, at a higher level, the Chapel Choir has gone from strength to strength, and last year I was finally able to form the Chamber Choir, an elite group of sixth form students, many of whom arrived at Monkton at the same time as I did. Don’t misunderstand the word elite here: few, if any, of the founder members of the Chamber Choir had any experience of singing choral music outside Monkton. By elite, I mean the best that we can offer, and more importantly, something for others to aspire to.

The self-imposed brief for the Chamber Choir is very clear – to stretch our most able musicians. This year’s choir has consisted of eleven pupils and two staff, and all of the repertoire which we have covered has been a cappella. And although we have a piano to hand, most of our rehearsal time is also unaccompanied, and so from the start the pupils have to work out for themselves what is going on [aka sight-reading!] The joy of rehearsing in this way is that it forces everyone to focus not only on their own line, but also on the wider context of harmony [vital for intonation] and line in the rest of the choir as well; it sharpens the listening skills and the mind like little else. Our hope is, of course, is to be able to give high quality performances; but this outcome is surely secondary to the learning process itself.

The aspirations of the choir are already very different from those they started with in September. In rehearsal, they expect me to expect them to keep going, so if they get lost it is their responsibility to do their best to join in again. If they’re really struggling I’ll throw them a line, but there is certainly no ‘note-bashing’ in this choir. It’s an exciting way to rehearse; spontaneous, motivating and purposeful.

We have given a number of notable performances this year; in Bath Abbey, Bath’s Salvation Army Citadel, Wingfield Church, the annual MidSomerset Festival, our Summer Concert, and most recently in a concert with Monkton Combe Choral Society. Our first piece in this concert was Philip Stopford’s If ye love me, and I think it’s fair to say that I have never stood before a choir which looked so focused ahead of a performance; a remarkable and thrilling experience which I will genuinely never forget.

We have also formed a Junior Chamber Choir this year, ten boys [!] and ten girls, mainly year 10 and 11, all of whom aspire to progressing up to the main Chamber Choir. Mr Wilson-Lambert is doing a fine job with them, and I’m excited that this first group have a head start on their older peers; our senior Chamber Choir in two years time could be very exciting indeed.

Moving with the times, we haven’t made a CD this year, but you can hear our Chamber Choir here on SoundCloud. Please do feel free to forward to friends!

Directed practice – a guiding hand

alan-conducting

Alan Hazeldine

As a student I had the good fortune to cross paths with Alan Hazeldine, an inspirational conductor and a generous teacher. In the year or so that I was accompanist to the North London Chorus [my first concert with them was Bach’s B minor mass] I learned a huge amount from him, but this single idea stands out above all else.

Alan held out his left hand, palm facing upwards:

In one ear, I have what I can hear at the moment, in rehearsal; and in the other ear [waving his right hand] I have what I want it to sound like. And all I am doing in rehearsal is matching up what I can hear with what I want to hear.

As he said this last sentence, he carefully put the palms of his hands together. So simple.

This is how I rehearse, be it choir or orchestra, but it is also how I practise. In fact, this is how I have always practised. I’m not sure whether I was ever taught to practise or whether it has just come instinctively, but many pupils do need guidance. Some need lots.

I suspect that one of the biggest problems with practice is that pupils lack the aural picture of “what they want it to sound like.” In Alan’s picture, they have their left palm held out, but have nothing to match it up to – in other words, their practice is aimless. If they can’t hear the goal – whether that be an evenness of tone, or even just the correct notes, how can they know what needs to be adjusted to improve their efforts?

This is a complex area. Many students hack their way through sight-reading without the faintest idea of what is going on around them. Why? Because they can’t hear what they are aiming at, so nothing that they play has any context; they can’t really tell whether it’s right or wrong. The solution: teach them to sight-sing, and then they will be able to hear what they see.  Then they will be able to match up what they play [left hand] with what they hear in their head [right hand].

I have inherited a pupil who struggles to read the dots on the page. He can read them, but he has developed other strategies to avoid doing so if he can help it! So when it comes to reading new music, the first stage needs to be for him to pick his way carefully through the score, and build for himself an aural picture of what the music sounds like; put another way, he first needs to create that right hand, so that in his subsequent practice he knows what he is aiming for.

These things take time, and we can undoubtedly find shortcuts. The easiest is to provide that right hand ourselves, to be in possession of what we know to be the goal, and to guide our student towards that. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with this strategy: what does the student do when we are not there? This method works fine in lessons, when indeed we can be fooled as we see their progress in front of our own eyes, but what about when they are practising alone? And what about when they move on?

My preference is not to find shortcuts, but to give them a hand in working out how to learn for themselves. It takes time and patience to teach our pupils how to direct their own learning rather than simply to follow our lead, but the rewards are so much more enduring.

Do you like Strawberry Jam?

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is “all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without knowing quite why we know it,” when we rely on instinct rather than our ability to reason. Gladwell is a persuasive writer and I find him compelling. He draws on a huge variety of examples in this book, but nevertheless I was quite surprised when I suddenly found the topic turning to strawberry jam!

In short, jam experts were asked to rank forty-four different jams, and then a group of college students were asked to do the same. How close would their results be? To cut a short story even shorter, quite close it seems: “Even those of us who aren’t jam experts know good jam when we taste it.” But then they asked the students to give reasons for prefering one jam to another. Disaster. “It’s simply that we don’t have any way of explaining our feelings about jam” says Gladwell.

So, how comfortable would you be in describing the texture of jam, or it’s colour intensity, lumpiness or shine?  Food experts can be required to describe as many as ninety categories and sub-categories, each on a 15-point scale! The point is well made – we need vocabulary and huge expertise to be able to do this.

jamNow I’d forgive you for thinking you’d accidentally stumbled across jam@monkton, so I’ll spare you any more detail (you could read Blink yourself, of course.) But here’s my point: how do we teach musicianship? “Even those of us who aren’t trained musicians know a good performance when we hear one.” But teaching musicianship is an altogether different matter. In order to teach it, we need to be able to break down the ‘ingredients’ [reference to jam entirely intentional, Paul Harris suddenly makes even more sense!] so that we can describe to our pupils, accurately, how the music works. Texture, form, structure, harmonic rate, lumpiness, melodic shape….. everything. And as the experts – teachers are experts aren’t they? – surely we should have all of this vocabulary to hand, otherwise aren’t we reduced to the ranks of someone who just knows which jam they prefer? And then, don’t forget, it’s not just the teacher who needs to be familiar with this vocabulary and able to use it – the pupil needs to understand it too. Teacher and pupil need to be conversing continually in the vocabulary of musicians. Anything less, and we’re not really getting any nearer to teaching musicianship. Perhaps just tasting it.

If there is a book, Strawberry Jam – the definitive guide, for jam enthusiasts who really want to know how to move from knowing what they like, to knowing why they like what they like, then I suspect it’s very similar to Paul Harris’ new book, Simultaneous Learning (also, funnily enough, subtitled ‘the definitive guide‘) which teaches music teachers how to teach musicianship. It isn’t enough to be a brilliant musician, and ‘knowing something without knowing quite why we know it’ is not actually going to help our pupils. What I love about Paul’s teaching philosophy is not just how positive it is, for pupil and teacher alike, but that at the same time there is a constant focus on what makes music work. After all, if our pupil can play the right notes but has no idea really how to describe what is happening, is she any the wiser?

The emphasis is on the teacher leading this process, which means that the teacher needs to be thinking about these things too, rather than just knowing them. I find that really exciting; it’s not only about me teaching the pupil, although that is, of course, important! It’s about me learning, all the time, how to translate something which I just know into something which my pupils can understand too.

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.