Category Archives: teaching

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!



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.


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.

Cambiata – the changing voice

Here’s the next chapter in my desire to enable every pupil to find their own voice. The last few weeks have seen an amazing series of personal discoveries, largely through reading some of Dr Martin Ashley’s extensive research both here and in his book Singing in the Lower Secondary School. Don’t be put off by what sounds like a rather unexciting title – this is a must read for everyone who teaches music. The issue – how to keep boys singing.

Voices don’t break, they change. The problems with getting 13/14 year olds singing are numerous – it’s embarrassing, it’s not cool, and many claim not to be able to sing. But actually, that last claim is quite legitimate. As the voice changes the accessible vocal range is massively reduced (and less reliable) and is also very specific. So if you don’t choose repertoire very carefully, they actually can’t sing it because it’s outside their range. This seems so obvious now that it has been pointed out.

We have a healthy number of year 10 boys in the Choir who can’t sing, but the fact is that some of the songs we have been singing go too low for them at the moment. And my solution has been ….? Well, I’ve just ignored the problem with a ‘Don’t worry if you can’t get down there just yet.’ How is that helping them to find their voice? It isn’t. The actual solution is to have them sing in a range which they can manage; it might only be in a range of a perfect fifth, but that’s fine. And it’s a beautiful sound, and unusual. Unusual because we don’t often hear our 14 year olds singing.

At the moment, the few boys who do sing treble in the Chapel Choir move down the SATB structure as their voices change – but this doesn’t work, and never really has. Alto is right in the gap where they quite possibly have no notes at all; tenor goes both too high and too low and the changing voice it too unreliable to cope with this. We’re asking them to sing in a place where they have little or no voice. I’m guessing they stay because they feel loyal to the choir and are hanging on, looking forward to the day when they can sing properly again. It’s far from ideal, but it’s what we do anyway, perhaps because it’s all we have or know.

cambiata rangesI’m reluctant to change the Choir who can’t sing format because it has worked really well, but at the same time I’m keen to explore the possibilities of getting, and keeping, our younger boys singing in a choir with the line-up specified here. Look out for Cambiata Choir, coming soon! I put together a quick arrangement of Fields of Gold yesterday [which we sung through with the Bevan family choir!] and a certain 14 year old sounded just gorgeous – although of course I’m biased. But he did really enjoy it, not least of all because he could sing it.

Meanwhile, what about the girls? I think it’s fair to say that Monkton girls have probably felt a little neglected with all my attention on getting the boys singing, but Ashley has something to say here too. Doubtless encouraged by popular vocal models, many only use their modal (speaking) voice – in short, they don’t even realise that they have a singing voice! This is certainly an issue to be addressed, unlocking the girls’ singing voices: again, the problem is going to be persuading them that it’s a safe and exciting place to be. Challenge to self accepted!

In the meantime, composers of both educational and choral music, take note – there is a big gap in the UK market for repertoire for changing voices choirs.

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.


Top trumps

Every child has played top trumps at some point: let’s face it, so have most adults too. Whatever your favourite theme – cars, superheroes, dangerous animals – they all work in the same way. Each card has a score for certain characteristics, and the highest score wins.

top trump

Here’s how a game might sound –
Player 1: Height, 182cm
Player 2: Height, 191cm. I win!
Player 1: Oh no, you’ve got Clark Kent haven’t you?!
[Player 1 is a real geek, and has memorised all of the data on all of the cards!!]

I’ve been thinking lately about devising top trump cards for my piano pupils. None of them are superheroes, or even dangerous animals (!) but they do have a variety of rateable skills. Self-assessed (that’s important and I’ll come back to that), a pupil card might look like this:


sophie smithMy point is this – why is the pupil calling note reading when that’s the weakest number on their card? Surely they’d have a better chance calling on the memory category.

Player 1: Note reading, 33
Player 2: Note reading, 98, I win!
Player 1 (geek): Oh that’s not fair, you must have Mr Bevan!
Player 2: I am Mr Bevan!!

Let’s take an example. A pupil is reading through a piece of music, perhaps for the second or third time, and is still struggling to read the notes. Some are on leger lines, it’s in A major and she keeps forgetting that there are G#s in the key signature. In short, her note reading is pretty weak (33 in fact). Time to draw on a different skill instead. How about memory (90)? After all, having played it through a couple of times now, she ought to have some recollection or either how it felt to play, physically, or maybe visually.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we ignore reading skills altogether; we should be trying to develop all of these skills all of the time. [In this respect, my analogy to top trumps breaks down, as (hopefully) all of these numbers gradually increase as our pupils progress.] What I am suggesting is that we should be encouraging our pupils to draw on a variety of skills rather than just one. When it comes to learning new notes, I find that it can be a huge encouragement when our pupils realise that they don’t have to rely entirely on their reading skills. Discovering that memory, aural or even guess work can give an additional boost to their reading skills, which in turn may well boost their self-esteem.

For me this has also been a really helpful tool for encouraging pupils to make an honest (if approximate) assessment of their general musicianship skills. There is no harm in getting it out in the open that Susie’s note reading leave a little to be desired – we both know that anyway don’t we? But it’s also a lovely opportunity to let her know that you agree that her memory is terrific, and that we should be looking for more ways to use that, since it’s clearly one of her real strengths.

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:


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!!