Category Archives: teaching

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:

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!!

Sight-reading hurdles

I have been working with a pupil recently on sight-reading, ahead of his forthcoming trumpet exam, and in particular I’ve been trying to encourage him to keep going at all costs. However, much as I have tried to persuade him to do this, I find that each time that he goes wrong, he stops to correct the mistakes. To his credit, his practice skills are pretty good; he is able to identify his own errors, and goes back to correct them. But try as I might to persuade him not to stop – to just keeping going – he can’t!

It has dawned on me that for much of the time we actually encourage our students to do the exact opposite, to stop in order to put things right; so is it any surprise that he does it in this context too?! After all, he’s just doing what I would usually ask the rest of the time – which is actually a good thing!

Charlie MaggsBut for a sight-reading test, we need a different approach. Don’t correct the mistakes! In fact, it’s not unlike running a hurdles race (although I need to stress that I speak with very little first hand experience!) In the hurdles the athletes quite often hit the barriers – sometimes they wobble, sometimes they fall over (the hurdles that is, hopefully not the athletes!) but what they never do is go back and have another go. They just keep going, sometimes leaving a trail of destruction behind them. It doesn’t matter – once the barrier has been hit, it’s too late to do anything about it, so they just keep running to the finish line. In some ways, it’s quite satisfying to make mistakes and then to almost literally run away from them!

And it’s the last bit – the idea that for once it’s actually correct to ignore the mistakes – which has made the difference with this pupil, and I think he has actually found it surprisingly liberating to be allowed to plough on without fear of recrimination! The ideal, of course, is that there are no mistakes, but failing that being allowed (or even encouraged) to ignore any mistakes has been quite …. fun!! Sssshh, don’t tell anyone!! 😉

Musical Glue

kristyI am delighted to publish my first ever guest post, by Kristy Swift. A natural teacher if ever I met one, Kristy has such a delightfully inquisitive approach to learning, both for herself and for her pupils.

T-Rexes and Musical Glue

Like most kids, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I spent hours in my Dad’s workshop, building model T-Rex skeletons from hobby kits. Assembling the “bones” was fun, but it was no use building T-Rexes if they were only going to collapse again. Once I had everything in position, I needed to keep it there.

A quick trip to the hardware store usually solved the problem. There were many adhesives available, but the best one came in two tubes. It was fun to squeeze each ingredient onto a piece of card, stirring them with a toothpick to cause a chemical reaction. This created something stronger than the original parts; something that would really stick.

I didn’t grow up to become a palaeontologist, though. I fell in love with music instead. However, I often think of those model T-Rexes, because musical concepts are a lot like those fiddly T-Rex bones. You need exactly the right mental glue to make them stick, and you create the best glue by combining several ingredients.

I recently met someone with an incredible recipe for “musical glue”. His name is Paul Harris, and he teaches so proactively that every moment of the lesson becomes fun, achievable, and likely to stay in the student’s memory. Earlier this year, he spoke at Faber Music in London and generously shared his methods.

Paul’s website maintains that teaching music is “incontestably, one of the most fascinating and stimulating of all professions.” His multi-layered approach replaces the master-apprentice model (“Let me tell you what’s wrong with you”), with something more collaborative and fun (“Let’s break this into achievable components and enjoy all of them”).

What are these achievable components, then? If a piece is sight-readable, it just means we’re familiar enough with its patterns to perform it without much rehearsal. What if we used this concept of “pattern-familiarity” as the basis for all of our teaching? We could immerse students in the patterns of any given piece, before they see the piece itself. If we explore the patterns in a variety of ways, they will stick like glue.

“Lovely Moon, Shedding Silver Light…”

I decided to try Paul’s approach with one of my vocal students. This particular girl needed a piece for her Grade 7 ABRSM exam. Given her sensitive and expressive nature, I thought she might appreciate Bellini’s Vaga luna che inargenti (Lovely Moon, Shedding Silver Light). The song is filled with unrequited longing, like a mini operatic aria. However, the Italian text is sometimes a stumbling block, particularly in combination with Bellini’s syncopated rhythms. Nevertheless, the song’s touching spirit more than justifies those challenges.

We began our warm-up by exploring different vocal colours. I asked, “What is the effect of singing on Ah, Eh, Ee, Oh and Oo? Which one makes a tone that you would call ‘silvery?’ What kinds of pieces might need a silvery timbre?”

Another section of her warm-up included the exact kind of syncopation used by Bellini in the song: firstly, we played with it as “call and response” patterns, and then as a melodic improvisation around the given rhythmic pattern.

The next step was an exploration of how various composers express “moonlight” in their music. (Renée Fleming has an entire album called Night Songs, and of course there’s the eponymous Beethoven sonata!) Let’s not forget Romantic literature, either. I asked some more questions: “How many times have you studied a poem that draws on an element of nature? Quite a few? Fantastic… what does the moon symbolise? Ah… emotional themes. Secrets, unrequited love and loneliness, perhaps? Which movies have you seen that have those elements?”

I was delighted that she had something other than Twilight to discuss here, but I would have accepted Twilight if need be! It’s also worth noting that this conversation took less than three minutes. Completely worth it in terms of the curiosity it piqued. At this point, I took the Bellini book from the top of the piano, and began to open it. My student almost dragged it from my hands. A win for Bellini! Evidently, this kind of lesson plan beats the “sing these dots in order, fail, and let me tell you how you went wrong” model.

Paul Harris, thank you!

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.

Learning to sing, one step at a time

One of the things which I have found time and time again with people who can’t sing is that you really can’t take for granted that they understand how up and down works! More specifically, getting them to sing the correct note back is one thing, but then we get to the really tricky bit – how far is down?!

I have a new ‘project’ this term, a sixth former who wants to learn to sing. I heard her early last term, and at that point she was having real difficulty in singing back a note even remotely close to what I had sung to her. However, in just ten minutes she made huge progress, taking on board the three things which appear to me to be so vital – critical listening, good breath support and confidence. So what impressed me immediately when I saw her this Friday was that she had clearly mulled these things over since the summer, to the extent that she was generally able to sing back a random selection of single notes pretty accurately. A bit out of tune perhaps, but close enough for the moment!

Having established F (above middle C) as her ‘go to’ note, I set out to extend this down the scale from soh to doh. So I asked her to sing down a ‘step’. [Remember, her pitching is still unreliable.] I sang her an E flat, and she sang me …. a middle C. A perfect fourth down – that’s miles out!

The trouble is, she doesn’t know how far a ‘step’ is. If the scale is seen as a ladder, she clearly has no idea how far apart the rungs are! It might appear extraordinary, but for those who struggle, we simply can’t assume that they know how the scale works. ‘Down a step’ is a vague concept, as vague as asking someone to move ‘one’ to their left. One what? One inch? One metre?

After a little more ‘calibration’ we eventually managed to start singing down five note scales – soh, fa, mi, re, doh. And here’s the interesting bit; although she now had a pretty good feel for how far a ‘step’ was, she still ended up too low by the time she reached the bottom of the scale. And the reason why? Because there is a semitone between fa and mi.

mifa21

What sensible scale, outside the realms of music, has a different distance between two points in an otherwise equal pattern?! Crazy! So actually, despite her lack of experience, I found myself admiring the combination of her logic and her new-found pitching skills. And once I’d pointed out that, for some strange reason, one of the ‘rungs’ in the major scale is smaller than the others, she quickly grasped the concept and her five note scales dropped rather beautifully into place.

How many young instrumentalists play scales and remain completely unaware of this strange phenomenon of tones and semitones? Quite a lot at a guess – they don’t need to know, because their instrument does the hard work for them. I think that’s a shame. And I also think it’s quite ironic that my new student, equipped with this little piece of knowledge, is beginning to make fantastic progress with her aural skills, and in some ways might already be seen as ahead of the game.