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Can’t wait to sing!

Although I am trained principally as an organist and pianist, it has dawned on me in recent months (too much enforced thinking time perhaps?) that it is singing which has become my obsession. Not for myself, but for others. More than that – when someone told me a few weeks ago that I was first and foremost a musician, I surprised myself at how passionately I defended myself as being a teacher before I am a musician. Wow, what has happened to me?!

Don’t get me wrong, I am at my most content seated at a piano, really I am. But more often than not, and for longer than I care to remember, I have used my keyboard skills almost exclusively in the context of teaching – accompanying or rehearsing with a student, aural training, piano lessons, choir rehearsals. 

When I arrived at Monkton, nearly 12 years ago now, it quickly became apparent that singing was going to be the best way to connect with the school, and in the early days of the ‘Choir who can’t sing’ I would spend countless one to one hours each week with boys who for some strange reason had discovered that singing made them feel good; this was a most remarkable discovery for me too. And at the same time, accompanying the school in Chapel became all the more wonderful too. I have always loved leading a congregation in singing hymns – there is a difference between playing hymns and leading singing – but with a new batch of enthusiastic singers downstairs, this was different. For some of the boys, short of ideas on what we could sing in our lessons, I would pick a hymn which they knew, and so when that hymn conveniently came up in Chapel a few days later I would look down from the organ loft and catch their eye, just to encourage them to go for it! And if there were a few of them in a group, they would look up with big grins and sing with renewed enthusiasm!

I have always considered it to be a huge privilege to lead the school in whole school singing practice every fortnight, and these morning rehearsals afford an amazing opportunity to encourage the whole school in the value of singing together. I love unpacking hymns, showing how so often the music enhances the text – “musical evangelism” I call it. They might be sleepy at 8.25am, but by 8.35am it’s a completely different picture. Just before they leave for their first lesson of the morning, I remind them that ‘when we get to the high note at the end of the penultimate line in this hymn in Saturday Chapel, make sure you go for it!’ And as the moment approaches, I love to watch how many pairs of eyes glance upwards as they remember…  

On the day before everyone went home in March 2020, we had a final Chapel service at which we sang I cannot tell (to the tune Londonderry Air). I have genuinely never heard a congregation of teenagers sing with such heartfelt passion – every one of them, as far as I could tell. They realised that this was a significant moment, and they seized it. Something quite remarkable happened in those few moments. I hope none of them ever forget it. 

As ‘master in charge of ensuring that the school realises that singing is one the most amazing things which they do together’ it is hard to describe how much I have missed playing hymns in Chapel over the past year or so. It may still be a while away, but just as in the last few days we have begun to rediscover a few simple pleasures as some restrictions have been lifted, I’m beginning to get excited about getting everyone excited about singing together again. And maybe, just maybe, when that day comes Monkton will lift their voices with the same conviction as they did last March as they realise again just what an extraordinary joy it is to be able to sing together. 

But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is King!

International Piano Recital Series 2018

2018 is going to be an exciting year, as we launch our first International Piano Recital Series. We have a wonderful Steinway piano, a stunning venue, and a line-up of six extraordinary pianists. What’s not to like?!

Full details of the series can be found at and tickets are now on sale at Please note that tickets are now sold out for our first recital, by Valentina Lisitsa on 2 March, so please book for the other recitals now to avoid disappointment. There is a 15% discount if you order tickets for four recitals or more.

Piano Recital poster A4 FINAL 2 (1)

Effort counts twice

I have been reading a really thought-provoking book by Angela Duckworth, called Grit, subtitled Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success. I have long held the belief that talent isn’t everything, and Duckworth backs me up – yes! The idea which really struck me between the eyes is this – that effort counts twice. Duckworth’s theory is most simply put in the form of two equations:

talent x effort = skill

skill x effort = achievement

Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.”

Impressed onlookers often miss the distinction between talent and skill. My personal stance is that we all have talent in whatever particular field. For some people that talent is already at the surface, visible to all, whereas in other cases it is buried and we might need to go digging for it. In some instances, we’re going to need to dig deep!

But however small that talent might be, with effort we can grow it. And with a lot of effort, we can achieve amazing things and we will even surpass the person with more talent but who puts in less effort. Plugging a couple of numbers into the first equation illustrates the point:

talent = 5, effort = 1 yields an achievement of 5

talent = 1, effort = 3 yields an achievement of 9

Now I know that’s a bit simplistic, but my point is that, with hard work, we can raise our skill level. And after that, we’re on a level playing field with the ‘talented’ person, with effort once again being the determining factor as to how highly we achieve.

As a musician I have easily clocked my 10,000 hours, and whether you subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule or not, there is no doubt that a substantial amount of deliberate practice (ie effort) has furnished me with some excellent skills. Am I talented? Well in many respects I just don’t think that’s relevant! I have worked hard, but very few people have seen all of that hard work – they just see the end result and jump to the conclusion that skill equals talent.

It’s a dangerous conclusion to reach. Effort is the critical factor, the one which is going to make all the difference. Many students are far too quick to write themselves off musically; they assume that notation is a cryptic, tricky language, and claim not to be able to sing, but actually the problem in most instances is that they simply haven’t realised that it takes effort.

Fortunately, I’m not interested in teaching talented pupils! Sure, they have a head start I guess, but for me the real joy comes in those lightbulb moments when a pupil realises that the outcome doesn’t just depend on whether they’ve been dealt a good hand, but that actually it is their own actions which are going to make a significant contribution to their future success.

TED Talk – The power of passion and perseverance

Ode to a melody

ABRSM has announced recently that it will be removing melody-writing from the Grade 5 theory paper. I’m worried.

My first encounter with ‘theory for theory’s sake’ was at the age of 10, when all of a sudden my piano lessons changed; instead of sitting at the piano, we spent several weeks sat at a table in Mrs May’s front room and wrote things down. I remember the front room being very dark, and the whole experience being very strange. I passed the Grade 5 theory exam [just] and things went back to normal, thank goodness ….

I now have a steady stream of Grade 5 theory pupils of my own! Some come utterly clueless, and it is a delight to be able to switch the lights on for them. For others, it’s a question of formalising many of the things which they already vaguely know, and teaching them how to approach the exam in a disciplined way.

I always cover the basics in order: circle of fifths, scales, intervals, transposition, triads. Once a student has mastered these, we’re nearly there – just a few bits and pieces to add, including time signatures, musical terms and clefs.

But so far, all of this stuff is just knowledge. It amazes me how little some students know, despite in some cases having had instrumental or singing lessons for several years; and it’s no wonder, if little or no theory has been referred to during lessons in that time, that the Grade 5 theory exam has such a bad name for itself – there is a lot to cover and it’s a sizeable mountain to climb. Many are asking the question: why, all of a sudden, am I being hauled through all of this, when it’s never been relevant to me before now?

It’s a very reasonable question. Once they are through the other side, of course, they can see exactly why it is relevant. Then the question is why was I never told any of this before now? Scales, for instance, are no longer a mystery. If you don’t understand how key signatures work, scales are a nightmare; twenty-nine seemingly random notes to remember for each [two octave] scale. My goodness, is it any wonder that to some, scales are a punishment? It doesn’t need to be this way!

I digress.

The very last thing which I teach in the Grade 5 syllabus is the melody-writing. At last, a chance to make a connection between theory and musicianship. A chance to demonstrate to the candidate that knowing all of this stuff is deeply relevant to their instrumental/singing studies. And this is the part of the exam which ABRSM is removing.

It’s a theory lesson – no instrument to hand – so we just have to use what we have: ears, voice, hands.


“Ok, let’s sing the part of the melody we’ve been given.”

The response to this is generally something along the lines of I can’t or You have to be joking – but I’m not joking.

Let’s make it easier and just clap the rhythm. In the given example that might mean clapping just quavers initially, having first set the pulse, and then seeing whether the student can work out how the dotted quaver/semiquaver part works. And we even get to talk about 6/8 time, two beats in a bar! And then we sing: it doesn’t need to be great, just accurate enough to pitch the major third, the perfect fifth, and back down each note of the scale. This is such valuable teaching time, and often it is the first time that it dawns on a student that they can read and hear music without their instrument. It can take some working out of course, but even that is valuable learning – sight-singing is not something which you either can or can’t do, but a skill which has to be learned.

We also cover phrase structure, key and modulation, sequence, and dynamics, and how all of these elements combine to make a melody work well. It is always a joy to see the lights coming on as a student makes the connections between all of these things. 

A recent Telegraph article accuses ABRSM of dumbing down. For my part, I can’t see why removing the only truly musical part of the exam “brings musical education into the modern era.” It will just make it easier. It’s a slippery slope, and my worst fear is that having now taken this backward step ABRSM will consider following the lead of other boards by removing singing from the aural tests, using the same kind of criteria to justify their decisions. 

I await the new-look Grade 5 theory paper with trepidation. 

Band Night

We certainly have a diverse range of musical opportunities for our students at Monkton. At the same time as preparing for our production of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas this term, we are also gearing up for our eagerly awaiting Band Night on 5th March.

Here’s a video collage of last year’s event, which features a song by Harry (then in year 10). We had nine bands in total, ranging from a year 8 girl band to a couple of sixth form bands who had also written their own material. Plus a few staff too!

Dido & Aeneas

I’ve heard that one of my predecessors, Harold Jones, used to put on operas during his time as Director of Music at Monkton. Was I dreaming or did I hear Boris Godunov mentioned? Surely not?!

Either way, it’s a long time since Monkton produced a opera, and so we are very excited to be staging Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas this February. It’s going to be in an unusual venue too – St Michael’s Church in Monkton Combe, which will add further dramatic potential to our production.

Tickets are now available via our online booking form here.



An interview with pianist John Lenehan

Meet the Artist……Keith Snell, pianist

Meet the Artist……Keith Snell, pianist.

This is a ‘must see’ interview with pianist Valentina Lisitsa and my former RCM classmate, Melanie Spanswick.

Melanie Spanswick

I am delighted to introduce my new series of interviews with established classical artists. They will appear on my YouTube channel as well as this blog and are informal conversations with some really fabulous musicians. The series starts with Ukrainian pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, who I interviewed earlier this week in Cardiff.

Valentina was born in Kiev and began playing the piano aged just three. Whilst studying at the Kiev Conservatory she met her husband, pianist Alexei Kuznetsoff,  and the couple performed regularly as a duo winning the Murray Dranoff Two Piano Competition in 1991.

As a soloist Valentina has performed in all the major concert venues around the world including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Musikverein and the Wigmore Hall, and she has performed with many of the world’s greatest orchestras. Recent collaborations include  partnering violinist, Hilary Hahn, most notably in a recording of the 4 Sonatas for violin and piano by Charles Ives…

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