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!

 

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Invention

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.

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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.

Gentle encouragement

A tale in two parts:

Our informal concerts at Monkton are just that – informal, a safe space for our pupils to venture into the realms of performing to a small audience.

Lunchtime Concert pupils 2In a world which is increasingly obsessed with perfection, it can be difficult for our young people to step up. Recently I asked a pupil whether he would play in a lunchtime concert, and his response was a very firm ‘No, I can’t’. When I enquired a little further, he was absolutely adamant that he is not good enough. I could see that he was clearly troubled, so I quickly withdrew the invitation – ‘don’t worry, nobody’s going to make you play in a concert if you don’t want to’.

I caught up with him again in his saxophone lesson a few days later. He’s a great lad – in the past few months he has ‘discovered’ practice, and that it works! Since then he has made really significant progress, and he has started going along to Concert Band too. A real success story.

I pointed out to to him that it is his teacher’s job to sort out problems – squeaky notes, dodgy rhythm etc. But that the average listener would quite simply respond with ‘Hey, I didn’t know you could play the sax, that was great.’ I reiterated that nobody is going to force him to play in a concert; finding your own voice means deciding for yourself that you want to do something, and I have all too often seen the disastrous results of a child being forced to perform in a concert. Why would you do that to someone? However, I did tell him that it was my hope that at some point he would find the courage within himself, and push himself up onto that stage. Even if it took another two years for him to get to that point…

He came to find me five minutes later to say that he wanted to play in the next concert! What a star – that will have taken him real courage.

Part two:

Last week I was guest adjudicator at a prep school music competition. The first class was a song class and unfortunately one girl (aged 11/12?) forgot her words mid-song. I’m pretty sure that half of the audience of parents were quietly singing along with the solo piano to help her to pick up the words again, me included! Despite welling up, she maintained her composure until the end, but my heart went out to her – such a traumatic experience.

The next class was the woodwind class,  and the same girl played her flute beautifully. Nice recovery. And in the final class of the morning, I’m pretty sure that she was a part of as many as four ensemble items, and ended up winning the class, and deservedly so! I guess her day turned out okay after all!

I was bowled over by this little girl’s resilience. Her final performance was so engaging, and she had clearly heeded my advice in that first class of the morning, despite being so upset. Surely a star of the future, if not in singing then in life!

An inspirational week of singing

It has been a busy but extremely fulfilling week, and one which has been truly inspiring.

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Chamber Choir with Dominic Peckham

Dominic Peckham spent the day at Monkton last Friday, and both senior and prep schools were transfixed by his dynamic and engaging style, as well as his moving account of the formation of the National Youth Choir of Kenya. The whole school was left in no doubt that singing brings people together in a way that little else does. In the afternoon he worked with four of Monkton’s choirs, including an improvisation workshop with our senior Chamber Choir which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen! He has opened our eyes and ears to new possibilities, and there was much talk of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the London A Cappella Festival. It was a genuine privilege to spend the day with such a fantastic musician and teacher.

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Genesis Choir at The Holburne Museum

On Wednesday the Genesis Choir gave their second public performance, at a fundraising event held at the Holburne Museum in Bath. The Garden Cafe has a vibrant acoustic and the choir was thrilled to sing in a venue which did so much to enhance their sound, and this helped their confidence hugely. We sang two songs – Singin’ in the Rain and Here comes the sun, both warmly received by our audience. I am so proud to be a part of this project, and to see how the confidence of each of the choir members has grown in the past six months is simply amazing. I don’t think I could have taken this on without the experience that I have gained working with The Choir who can’t sing at Monkton.

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Chapel Choir outside Bath Abbey

The following day our Chapel Choir sang evensong at Bath Abbey, the first time we’ve done this since I’ve been at Monkton. Anglican chant is not standard repertoire for the average Monktonian but they did a wonderful job with the psalm, as well as Dyson’s Mag & Nunc in F and the anthem Love Divine set by Howard Goodall, which we had worked on with Dominic a few days before. This will have been the first ever experience of choral evensong for many in the choir, and they really rose to the occasion.

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Francis Faux

On Friday we were visited by Joseph Fort, Director of Choral Music at King’s College, London, who came to hear a few of our sixth formers sing before heading off to Prior Park to work with their Chapel Choir. In the evening we took several of our pupils to hear them perform Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil. As well as being sublime music, it was great for our students to see and hear a real live university choir!

Yesterday, a Saturday ‘Open Door morning’ with numerous families visiting the school, the Chamber Choir had a workshop with Francis Faux and the Noctis Chamber Choir. As well as singing to each other (we performed The King’s Singer’s I’m a train!) we rehearsed pieces by Morley and Ola Gjeilo together, and this culminated in the performance of the Gjeilo piece in whole school chapel at the end of the morning. So thrilling for us to join up with such a fine choir, and although I say so myself, I thought we sounded fantastic!

Looking back, I’m not sure I planned a week like this – several of these events were rescheduled, so it is largely coincidence that they all came together in such a short space of time. But it has made me reflect on how important it is to connect our pupils up with the outside world. We can work hard with them in choirs in school, but it is seeing the likes of Dominic and Francis in action, and aspiring one day to be in NYCGB, a university choir or a local chamber choir, which will really fire them up for the future.

Finding courage

I remember a piano pupil, many years ago now, who wouldn’t sing in her lessons. I tried week after week, ever so gently, to try to persuade her to sing even the quietest of notes, but the more I tried the more of an ordeal it became for her. She came close several times, and I do believe that she wanted to – but in the end she just couldn’t bring herself to make a sound. Like getting to the end of the diving board but ultimately lacking the courage to take the plunge…diving2

Due to the whole of year 9 being away on a trip, only five year 10 girls came along to the Choir who won’t sing rehearsal last week, a group of five good friends. All exhibited the very same tendency described above, something which I have seen countless times in girls ever since. When I asked one of them to sing, her first response was to turn to her friend and say ‘No, you go first.’ No, you go first.‘ And so on. Eventually, one of them managed to sing back a note: it was almost inaudible, but a triumph nonetheless. Each in turn summoned up the courage, except for the one who was quite clear that she couldn’t sing – at which point one of the others produced a video on her phone of the girl singing along with her friends, full voice, to a pop song! Her cover blown, and with assurance from me that this was evidence that she could sing, she too sang a very quiet note back to me. Success!

Fifteen minutes later they were all singing Somewhere over the rainbow at the tops of their voices, faces about three inches from each other, and loving every moment of it. Perhaps they’d forgotten that I was there. Or perhaps they’d jumped off the diving board and realised that actually this was really good fun after all.

These girls love to sing together. But ask them to sing to each other and everything changes. Singing together draws us closer, but singing alone instantly invites judgement from others, and that is a scary place for the huge majority of teenage girls – even, it seems, amongst good friends. This choir isn’t really about the singing, because I know, and they know, that they can sing. It’s about finding the courage to be an individual when life is saying it’s safer to keep your head down.

One of the two pupils in my original tone deaf project, when I asked her why she wanted to be able to sing, said this: I reckon if I can sing in front of someone, I can do anything. My hope is that in time the choir will become a place where more girls can realise this particular dream. In the meantime, Alex, here are five more!

Singing with the homeless

Back in April I was asked whether I might be prepared to form a choir to sing at the Genesis Trust‘s 21st birthday celebration, which takes place this coming Thursday at The Forum in Bath. The Genesis Trust works with the homeless and needy in Bath, and is an amazing set-up; so of course, I said yes!

After all, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to take a little something of what I have learned at Monkton and put it into practice in the wider community. There is no doubting the transformational nature of The choir who can’t sing, and I was genuinely excited at the prospect of sharing that a little further abroad. The reality was rather different….

I think there were about 16, maybe 20 people at the first rehearsal. A mixture of clients – people who have had their fair share of struggles in life, and volunteers, big-hearted people who give freely to the former group, whether by helping out with the soup run, life skills, or one of the many other activities which the Genesis Trust runs each week.

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Photographer: Artur Lesniak/arturlesniak.com

The first rehearsal was, I think it’s fair to say, a steep learning curve for all concerned! The vast majority had never been in a choir before, so the very concept of a rehearsal was new to them. They talked, they sang when I was trying to demonstrate something, and they continued singing even when I gestured for them to stop. And the concept of unison singing was lost of them, with any number of them clearly being woefully inexperienced singers. It felt a little like the blind leading the blind, or perhaps the blind leading the deaf….

It’s difficult to know quite what to say when you’re trying to shape a vowel, and meanwhile someone wants to open a theological debate on the difference between a ‘wretch’ and a ‘soul’! Then again, there are people in this choir who find themselves in a place where life is really tough, but who in this hour on a Wednesday afternoon find a release that I can’t begin to comprehend. Music is a real leveller, and here I have seen people who, despite battling with life, are getting alongside others perhaps more fortunate than themselves and are inspiring them to achieve things which they didn’t think they could manage.

It has been humbling to see these people put their trust in me as the weeks have gone by, but even more wonderful to see them put their trust in each other. Several weeks in, I asked the choir whether they were concentrating purely on what they were doing, or whether they had a little spare capacity to listen to the person next to them; on acknowledgement of the latter, I pointed out that this surely meant that someone else was listening to them! I’ve written about it elsewhere, but there is something about the shared vulnerability of singing together which is difficult to compare to anything else, and we have found this in the Genesis Choir. Lots of it.

Last week we sang Amazing Grace together, and one choir member stood with her eyes closed as she sang. I found it extraordinarily moving. She is someone who doesn’t make eye contact easily, and yet here she was, eyes shut, and her whole face so animated, so clearly expressive. Life is tough – but here she inspires those around her.

Thursday is going to be rather daunting for us all. I’ve reminded the choir that the process is much more important that the outcome, but I think it’s still going to be potentially quite overwhelming for them. Please pray for us! In the meantime, I keep asking myself whether I will have fulfilled my obligation by putting forward a choir for this celebration, or whether the Genesis Choir should continue to meet after Thursday. Trouble is, these people – each one of them, regardless of their ability to sing or not – have got under my skin.

Singing update: we’re making progress

It’s been ages since I’ve posted a blog here. Why? Well, partly I guess because as a music department develops, there will be times when it is just a question of allowing time for things to bed down and become established. There has been a lot of change, and looking back, the past year has been a great time as we have watched so many things taking shape. And also, it’s just been ridiculously busy and there is only so much that one can do….!

Always a worry at the beginning of the new academic year is what state the whole school singing will be in. Our outgoing year 13 gave a great lead in this regard, not least in supporting the Choir who can’t sing in great numbers. Singing in Chapel at the end of last term reached a seven year high, and fortunately the year below have realised what a fine legacy we have built up, and they have managed to maintain the energy into this new year.

And so to House Music last Saturday. For the first time, all four boys houses put forward a House Choir of real quality; all choirs in at least three parts, sung sensitively and with evident enjoyment by the most unlikely of boys across the school. Something has happened here – it really is perfectly acceptable for pupils to sing, and to take pride in singing at Monkton.

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Needless to say, the girls’ choirs in House Music were excellent. So then, why is it that in Chapel the boys sing with commitment and enthusiasm, whilst on the whole the girls don’t?

Part of the reason, I fear, is due to me having spent the best part of five years focusing on boys’ singing! The starting point was that boys can’t sing, or don’t know how to sing, and I really do think that through the Choir who can’t sing we have gone a long way to disapproving that in a way which is very clear for the whole school to see. The boys’ choirs in House Music have shown that ordinary, not particularly musical boys can sing, and sing well, and the majority have come to the conclusion that they can too. And they’ve proved themselves right. In fact, no boy at Monkton really has a leg to stand on in arguing against this case now.

This positive attitude to singing  is spreading fast this term. In our year 9 classes we have already – in week five – broken through the traditional non-singing attitude of young teenagers. They are new into the school, but having experienced House Music first hand they already seem quite happy to assume that singing is fine, and they’re getting on with it, boys and girls together in class. Here comes the sun [complete with ukuleles!] And it doesn’t end there: today the entire play cast for this term’s senior production came together to learn a vocal arrangement in four part harmony. Nobody tried to sell me the ‘I can’t sing, sir’ line – they just got on with it.

Nevertheless, there is no doubting that in my enthusiasm to get the boys singing, I haven’t really asked the same question of the girls. In fact, I had kind of assumed that girls can sing. But actually, some of them can’t. And many of them won’t. Enter the Choir who won’t sing! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure this is going to work. We had our first rehearsal last week, with about 16 girls, and one of the girls just wouldn’t sing. [For the others, we started by spreading out in the room, closing eyes, and turning around very slowly as we sung, so that nobody would be able to identify who was singing what.] But I found myself getting quite frustrated with our non-singer. I asked her if she could scream – she said yes. But she wouldn’t!! But then again, that is exactly the kind of pupil who I am keen to get alongside; for whatever reason, she doesn’t feel able to express herself with her voice, and it’s very unlikely to be a musical or even a vocal problem, and very much more likely to do with her self-esteem. Enabling every pupil to find their own voice. My hope is – and it may take another five years – that this new choir might be able to do the same for the girls as the boys’ equivalent has. If it does, our pupils at Monkton will have found something very special indeed.