Category Archives: teaching

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!!

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. (RenĂ©e 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.


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.

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.

Developing a vision

In May 2012 I posted this vision statement. At the time, this was completely new territory for me. I had ideas – lots of ideas – but articulating them in a way which would allow others to share in that vision has never occurred to me. With hindsight that now seems ridiculous! More importantly, I have been surprised at how central this simple vision – “enabling every pupil to find their own voice – has become to everything that music@monkton stands for. And I believe in it wholeheartedly.

slbookThis Thursday I had the great privilege of going to the official launch of Paul Harris‘ latest book, Simultaneous Learning, the definitive guide. It is, quite simply, a brilliant book by a brilliant man; and at the heart of Paul’s teaching philosophy are these four things:

  • Teach pro-actively
  • Teach through the pieces’ ingredients
  • Make connections
  • Empower, don’t control or judge

I really can’t recommend Paul’s teaching highly enough, and I would encourage anyone who teaches music to read Simultaneous Learning. And that’s largely because his style of teaching focuses on exactly the same things that I am so passionate about! Engage, Enthuse, Enquire, Equip and Empower.

I feel extremely honoured to have written the Foreward for such an important book, and it is extremely exciting for music@monkton to be associated with Paul Harris in this way. Well what are you waiting for? Order a copy now!

How to teach aural tests: don’t!

With just six days to go until her Grade 8 exam, I gave my piano pupil her first lesson on the aural tests; in fact, her first lesson on ABRSM aural tests in two years. She will pass the aural with flying colours*, one of those candidates where the examiner will smile to herself and think “at last, a real musician!”

To be fair, she is an able pupil. But my point is that my aim has always been to teach her to be a musician first and foremost, not just a pianist.

LBSinging back the bass line is not a problem for her. She can sing just about every line in every piece which she has learned, so why should a simple Grade 8 aural test phase her? Not only that, but when we learn a new piece, she fully expects to be asked to sing the melody whilst she plays the bass line, or the other way around. From memory. Well why not? It’s not easy the first time of course, but five years down the line it has simply become a skill which she has developed and now takes in her stride. Having memorised sonata movements by Scarlatti and Beethoven, and a harmonically complex Brahms Intermezzo, how hard can a simple tonic/dominant bass line be?

Identifying chords, cadences and modulations? Don’t you need to be able to do that to play Beethoven? On one level, I suppose not. If, however, you are looking to develop the musician as well as the pianist, then it’s vitally important that we learn the implications of chords and modulations, and indeed the entire harmonic structure of a Classical sonata movement – or any other piece for that matter. Drawing out these instincts should begin in the very first lesson, not  a month before the exam when we realise we haven’t looked at the Grade 8 aural tests yet! And yet I regularly see students at this point, to ‘do’ the aural test bit, who just look blankly at me when I mention the word modulation. Realistically, what chance have they got? It’s just too late.

Sight-singing? Ok, so she has had the advantage of singing in our a cappella Chamber Choir for the past year or so, and so holding her own vocal line, whilst still challenging, is nothing new. And she is perfectly used to pitching intervals; in every piano lesson I will ask her at some point to sing the third in this or that chord. Grade 8 sight-singing tests are strongly harmonic; you can learn to sight-sing by pitching alone, but it is so much easier if the pupil has good harmonic understanding. See above. Sight-singing is not guess work, far from it – it requires understanding. And understanding is laid down over time, not in a few desperate last minute aural classes.

Features of the music/style and period. We talk about these things all the time – no really, all the time! I don’t generally say ‘Let’s go from the top of the second page’, but rather ‘Let’s go from the second subject’ or ‘Let’s pick it up at the beginning of the G minor passage.’ Where’s that? ‘Good question!’ Develop an enquiring mind; in my experience, students enjoy being challenged.

I run aural classes each term to give extra support to our instrumental teachers, and yes, some straight forward exam technique can turn a daunting task into a very simple one. But the best way to teach aural, I believe, is in the context of the instrumental/singing lesson. In this way it becomes an integral part of their learning, not some extra chore to be dealt with in exams. They will also become self-sufficient, thinking musicians.

[*Postscript – marks just in, full marks for the aural tests, and a distinction overall! :D]

How to practise, part 2: Style of lesson = Style of practice

I was looking back on some notes which I took in a recent talk by Paul Harris, and came across this: style of lessons = style of practice. I can’t believe it’s been sitting unnoticed in my notebook for the past few months – such a significant statement.

I love it when a pupil comes to a lesson and, almost before they are through the door, have their score open saying I’ve been having trouble with this bit here, can you help me with it? It shows that they have identified a problem, which in itself is a good thing, and that they know that I will be keen to help them fix it. But the lesson should not be just for fixing problems – it should be to teach the pupil to fix the problems! From my perspective, many problems are easy to fix; but the best way to make practice effective is to teach our students how to problem-solve; in the lesson, with us to guide them. Not just for the sake of solving whatever issue they have, there and then, but rather with a view to giving them the thinking skills to tackle anything which comes their way. The last thing we want is for them not to be able to use their practice time because they don’t have the confidence and strategies to have a go for themselves. In my book there is nothing better than a pupil who is willing to have a go at solving a problem for themselves. Nothing.

The other issue with using the lesson just to solving problems and fix mistakes on the students’ behalf is that the lesson itself surely then becomes a series of corrections. That’s wrong, did you notice? Let’s fix it. It all sounds very positive, very constructive, but reading between the lines surely we’re saying you don’t seem to be able to fix it yourself, I’ll have to do it for you. This is not empowering, far from it. It tells the student that they can’t do anything by themselves, and that much of what they bring to lessons is wrong, and is duly criticised. Ouch.

Some of the most effective tools in any lesson are the most simple questions: where is the problem? exactly what is the problem? how can I fix this? has that done the trick, is it better now? I ask these in every lesson, all the time. Demanding maybe, purposeful definitely, but I can direct the lesson in such a way that the student eventually finds that, having asked the right questions, the outcome is a successful one. I ask these questions so often in lessons that eventually they can’t help but find themselves asking the same ones during their own practice time. And finding solutions too.

My lessons are in many ways just a more energised or energising practice session. My pupils come each week having asked questions of themselves all week – so there is plenty of opportunity for praise in the lesson. And at the same time, plenty of chance to influence their practice for the following week too: what did you try here? has it worked? how about thinking of it like this? The last suggestion is, of course, the perfect opportunity to offer some new ideas, but even then it is as part of a collaborative effort between teacher and pupil. All the time, we are both working towards the same goal, and all we ever need to know is are we getting nearer to that goal? But is shouldn’t be me who does all of the work, far from it.