Category Archives: teaching

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.



Sight-reading – are we making it up as we go along?

I am a keen chess player, but I wouldn’t rate myself as particularly good. My dad taught me to play chess when I was young – although I suspect that a more accurate way to describe it would be that he taught me how each piece moves, and to take care not to lose pieces too readily (although this still happens even now!) To be perfectly honest, I find the whole concept of teaching someone how
to play chess – that is, how to really play – a bit of a mystery. I think I’ve learned a few things over the years, mostly by trial, error and humiliating defeatchess pieces, and I’m still hopeful that the more I play the better I’ll get. But I have no doubt that what I really need is some quality teaching if I am to significantly raise my game.

When it comes to sight-reading music, I wonder how far different our approach is? Read the key signature, choose a steady tempo, keep going if you can. Perhaps with some (unhelpful?) comments along the way – “that should be F#”; “nearly; well done, keep going!” And probably the least helpful of all: “okay, not bad, let’s do some more next lesson.”

To make a significant difference to the level of our pupils’ sight-reading, two things need to be happening. The first is that it needs to be taught. We need to give our pupils plenty of strategies to help them along the way, so that they feel able to make progress rather than just struggling through yet another sight-reading test in the vain hope that it might be better this time. I believe that the real key here is understanding, and not at a superficial level either. Aural skills are also vital, so that the student can use her ears and her musical experience in addition to simply reading the notes; in my experience, once a student can hear the key signature, they are beginning to sight-read much more effectively. A clear understanding of pulse is critical, and if this hasn’t clicked with the student yet (forgive the pun), then this needs addressing first – without it, reading all but the most basic of single line rhythms is fraught with difficulties. Even the most simple of strategies can make a world of difference if we take the trouble to share them – take nothing for granted!

The second thing which needs to be happening is practice, and lots of it; the more you read, the more fluent you will become, especially if in the meantime there is good teaching taking place alongside. I will quite often hand a Grade 2 sight-reading book to a Grade 5-ish pianist with instructions to play through every test before next lesson – or even better, learn every test. It can be a huge confidence builder, and can also give us the opportunity to go back a few spaces if necessary, and point out some of the basic elements of the music. Simple harmonic patterns are generally easier to identify in the more elementary tests, and once introduced can really help musical understanding as things get more difficult. Easier tests can also be easier to sing, and if you can sing it, you can play it!

Teaching our pupils to sight-read is empowering, and yet we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of our teaching time on repertoire. Whilst the average 15 year old child might have spent x hours reading words, both in school and at home, it is worth considering how many hours that same child might have spent reading notes. For the average child, it is likely to be very significantly lower. We need to take this into account, and continue to take every opportunity to nurture their basic understanding of how music is put together – otherwise a huge gulf appears between what they can ‘perform’ and what they can actually understand and read.

What is an arpeggio? do mi so warm-up

I often begin my piano/musicianship lessons with a little mental warm-up, and one of my favourites is this: I sing a note (do) and ask the pupil to complete the major triad, first with mi (the major third) and then so (the fifth). Although most students know full well what a major arpeggio sounds like, plucking one out of thin air, unaided, can be surprisingly difficult at first. This is a great way of developing inner hearing; I ask the pupil to imagine the sound of an arpeggio, or perhaps even to put their fingers over the keys and imagine playing it. Somewhere inside their head is that ‘sound bite’ of an arpeggio, and often is not so much that they don’t know the sound, but more a question of not being able to recall it. Once they have found it, I go on to sing a variety of different pitches and ask the student to sing mi and so above it.

do mi so

Once they have the hang of this, I move the goalposts by singing them so, and asking them to sing down the rest of the major triad, mi and do. This is more of a challenge; we are used to hearing/singing arpeggios from the root upwards, but not from the fifth downwards. Most find do first, and then fill in the gap with mi; with the more able student I will insist that they sing so, mi, do (in that order) which might mean doing some ‘sums’ in their head before presenting their final answer out loud. The ultimate challenge is for me to sing the third (mi), and for the pupil to find the root (d0) and the fifth (so).

Most students are surprised to discover that a major triad consists both of a major third (from do to mi) and a minor third (from mi to so).  It is this element – learning to distinguish between and to pitch major and minor thirds, up and down – which makes this such a focusing exercise, and it’s what I like to call musical mental arithmetic. Arpeggios needn’t just be meaningless technical exercises – far from it in fact; adding this aural/theory/solfa dimension immediately gives them so much more value.

With a piano pupil this might be a three minute ‘game’ (fun eh?!), with a musicianship pupil it might lead into some sight singing exercises – after all, once we know where do, mi and so are, we have a strong internal framework for finding other notes; la is just above so, ti is just below do etc. Solfa is such a useful tool, and having used it now for the past couple of years in my teaching, I would never choose to be without it. Most noteworthy, if you’ll forgive the pun, is that at no point does either pupil or teacher even need to touch a musical instrument. In my book that is proper aural training.