This summer has seen me working on a few smaller projects – mostly getting together some strategy sheets for ABRSM theory exams, but also working on some different styles of ‘notebooking’ for helping students to organise their practising.
ABRSM grade 4 Strategy Sheets are designed to act as revision aids, and to help with revisiting topics covered in lessons. Although they are not extensive enough to teach the topics if a student has not already covered them, they do go into some depth with how to work through each subject area, and include several clearly bullet-pointed step-by-step guides on how to approach each question.
Practise Charts for absolute beginners and slightly more intermediate learners are designed to help students with organising not only each practise session but also to organise their week. These are simple charts, clearly coloured, with room for a teacher to jot down key points to work on. These are particularly useful for beginners who find struggle with organisational skills, or with remembering specific goals for their music.
If you would like the original Powerpoint documents of the Practise Charts, do feel free to email me and request them; the PDF files are locked, but the Powerpoint can be adjusted for each student and each situation.
All three learning resources can be found permanently under the Student Resources tab
What is your first memory of the piano?
I first learnt to play the piano when I was very young and living in Vermont, USA. I have a distinct memory of my first piano – a vast white upright with a black-leaf Art Nouveau design on the front. I can remember learning Mary Had a Little Lamb on black notes, and I have a very clear recollection of my first teacher, us sitting next to each other on the piano stool, me marvelling at not just her piano playing, but also her incredibly long hair!
It got me thinking all morning (as I often do) about the different reasons why children (and adults, but today I’m particularly thinking of children) learn musical instruments. It also got me thinking about the volume of parents who ask me, “Is it worth it for my child to do this?” And it’s that particular question that leaves me bewildered every time I hear it.
Perhaps the answer lies in the fallacy of ‘not being worth it’. Perhaps, if I fiddle about with the subject matter, I could demonstrate my bewilderment…
“It’s not worth your four year old playing with crayons, he won’t go to Art College.”
“Stop your daughter from joining that netball squad, she won’t be good enough to get into the Olympics.”
“Pack away that telescope, your son is not in the top percentile of young scientists who are likely to win a Nobel Prize.”
“Don’t let your daughter go to that creative writing group, she’s not that good at English, so it’s a waste of her time.”
Perhaps the above statements are technically true (it’s unlikely that every child in the netball squad is going to win an Olympic medal) but these (admittedly fictional) children obviously get something out of their groups or their activities. Should they stop because it might not be ‘worth it’?
The four year old playing with crayons is having fun, he’s being creative, and it gives him a sense of accomplishment when he’s finished each masterpiece.
The netballing teenager gains fitness, camaraderie, social skills, a sense of pride when her team wins, an ability to deal with failure when they lose, enjoyment, and an hour running around letting off steam.
The boy with the telescope achieves a sense of personal accomplishment and enjoyment in his wonder at the stars, confidence in his own abilities, and independence in his learning.
The girl attending the creative writing group is learning how to work by herself, and to practise independently. She feels pride in her finished articles, and her self esteem is boosted by the positive encouragement from the group leader and the rest of the group.
And the piano student?
It’s always worth learning an instrument, as long as it’s a process that is enjoyed.
Which topic is frequently neglected? Which topic is all too often starved of attention? Which subject is repeatedly only dragged out when its presence is required in order to make the rest of the house look pretty?
The neglected, the unloved, and the much maligned, music theory.
But why is theory given such a second class status in musical education? Why is it so often poorly taught, and regarded by students as nothing more than a stepping stone to get past that Grade 5 ABRSM block?
Relevance is the biggest issue in theory tuition today.
A great deal of theory lessons are taken up with making sure that a certain grade exam is passed (usually grade 5), rather than attaching understanding to the practical side of the lessons. A good example is the common way of teaching key signatures – by writing out a chart with the cycle of fifths, and writing out how the majors and the minors fit into this chart. This works in an exam setting (of course it does), but if we assume a student is sitting at the piano and looking at a piece of music with a key signature of six sharps, do we really expect him or her to grab a pen and paper, write out a long-winded graph, and after scribbling away finally work out the key? Or would it be better to teach that the major key will be a semitone above the last sharp? Is it better to give a student a multiple set of theory exercises to write out and work through? Or are more skills gained by grabbing a copy of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, and working out the keys of each piece (without using a pencil, even once). Grade 4 ABRSM asks for knowledge of the primary chords. And yes, our students can work out the chords by knowing that they are in root position, so they can simply read the bass line, but in reality that isn’t going to get them very far in music. Why not teach from the start to work out the entire chord? It doesn’t take long. In exam terms they will have to do it anyway, and in non-exam terms, they will also have to do it anyway.
Again, we come down to relevance. How relevant are we, as teachers, making theory to our students? How often do we have students who have passed their grade 5 theory (often with distinction), but have no clue how to work out the key of the piece of music they are playing?
But what about those students who are not taking ABRSM grade exams?
Theory, as part of a continual musical education is vital to all students. However, there is a point at which we do have to look at people who are not interested in ABRSM exams or in pursuing music as anything other than playing the piano as a hobby, and wonder whether taking the whole grade 5 syllabus is worth it, and in these cases, I think it is well worth thinking about teaching theory in a more topic based method. Does a student need to know about keys? Undoubtedly yes. Does he need to know about the viola clef? Possibly, depending on his other musical interests, or any compositional curiosity. Does she need to know about trills and ornaments? Most definitely. But is anything gained by using an exercise book rather than lots of repertoire? Probably not.
Questions I regularly ask myself when teaching theory…
1) Do I teach theory as a essential part of music education?
2) How is theory relevant to each student?
3) How can I teach theory in a relevant way to each student?
4) Does my individual student need the exams or just the knowledge?
5) How can I integrate theory and practical for my student?
Theory is not just an exam, it is a relevant part of music.
“There’s no such word as can’t”. *
How often did we hear this from our teachers when we were younger? Or from our parents? And how often were we left with a feeling of frustration and the knowledge that, actually, there is such a word as ‘can’t, and sometimes, it’s exactly the word we need?
- “I can’t play this piece.”
- “I can’t play it hands together.”
- “I can’t get the fingering right.”
- “I can’t voice the fugue.”
- “I can’t improvise on that theme.”
- “I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.”
If our reply to all of the above is, “Yes, you can”, or “There’s no such word as ‘can’t”, we only leave a feeling of irritation and inadequacy in a student who is adamant (and quite correct) in their assumption that they ‘can’t do it’.
How do we change this around? By adding a single word – ‘yet’
Negative language such as “I can’t play this piece” is destructive. Telling somebody they have to say they can do something when they obviously can’t is just as destructive, only serving to reinforce a feeling of failure by not allowing a student to voice their concerns and feelings.
Insisting on the use of the word “yet”, however, can turn a bad situation around…
- “I can’t play this piece yet.”
- “I can’t play it hands together yet.”
- “I can’t get the fingering right yet.”
If we ask the student to also work in a “but”, and a solution, then we have turned a destructive situation into a positive experience.
- “I can’t voice the fugue yet, but with some more very slow work this week, I will be able to manage it.”
- “I can’t improvise on that theme yet, but if I spend a few minutes each day mucking about with it and not stressing out about being perfect, I will be able to manage something small by next lesson.”
- “I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto yet, but I have only been learning for a year, so that’s fair enough! If I keep having lessons, keep practising, and keep enjoying the piano, I might be able to play it one day!”
Can’t is indeed a word. It’s a perfectly valid word. Sometimes it’s even the right word. But it should never be used in isolation.
*Disclaimer – Grammatically speaking, can’t is a contraction; cannot is the correct syntax. Congratulations and a grammar sticker to anybody who spotted this.
Ain’t colloquialisms just champion?
Imagine for a moment that you are starting out on the journey of learning the piano. You find yourself a quality instrument, you find an excellent teacher, you buy your first book or two, and you begin going to your lessons.
You enjoy your lessons and you get on well with your teacher. You both feel that you are progressing well; you feel confident, you have fun practising, you look forward to polishing your current pieces and beginning something new.
After a year or so, you have a growing selection of (mostly) completed books on your bookshelves; you sometimes go through them and play the pieces you never got around to learning in lessons; you sometimes pick them up and play through some music you learnt and finished a few months previous, sometimes you pick up a piece, and with your burgeoning knowledge of the keyboard and your skill with scales, arpeggios, keys, and rhythms, you mess about with the notes and the rhythm a little, changing bits here and there. Sometimes you do this to unwind after a long day at school or at work, and sometimes you do this after practising your set works. Whilst all this is going on, your teacher is asking you to buy music by composers you have heard of (Mozart, Shostakovich, Haydn, Bach) and ones you haven’t (Kabalevsky, Turk, Norton, Köhler). You begin to understand the difference between different playing styles, and you learn to adapt your music to the composer’s period and genre.
A few more years pass. You play in a few concerts, you learn some Chopin, Bernstein, Grieg, and Telemann. You chat to your friends or your colleagues about music; they ask you what pieces you are learning, you ask them what composers they enjoy playing. You discover a love for the romantic era, you buy a book of Chopin Waltzes and play through them by yourself, knowing that some help from your teacher would be useful, but that it’s also enjoyable to sight read music at home. You tell your teacher that you don’t particularly like playing jazz, and through that conversation you discuss styles of music that you have yet to discover. Your teacher suggests that you buy a compilation of compositions by contemporary composers. You begin working on these; you are fascinated by some of the sounds that you never knew you could obtain from the piano (forearm cluster chords?). You play music that is so easy that you learn it in three days flat, and music that is extremely demanding and takes you months to master. You have fun and you enjoy the repertoire. For you, learning the piano is about discovering new music, and about delving into that grey area between what the composer is requiring of you, and how you are interpreting it.
This is a world without exams. Are you as intrigued as I am by the possibilities here? Are you as excited as I am to have learning new music, discovering composers, and enjoying the piano as musical goals?
Graded music exams are not a bad thing; I work with many children and adults who enjoy taking exams, and I enjoy working with students towards exams. But I do believe that they are generally both overused and misused, and that the need to take too many exams too frequently means that too much gets sacrificed in the push to gain more and more certificates; an enjoyment of music itself, the learning of new skills and sound colours, and an excitement for learning new pieces.
Exams are not suitable for everybody, and the scenario above illustrates how a student will progress without the need for graded exams along the way. But if you do wish to take exams, or your child wishes to take them, please take the idea of this blog post away with you, and have a think about the possibilities of finding a middle ground between lots of exams and none. Progression can be measured in many different ways, and graded exams are only one of them.
My ultimate goal is to have my students disagree with me. Disagree intelligently of course, and with reasoned, well thought-out, constructive arguments. But disagree nonetheless.
Why? Isn’t it my job as a teacher, to impart useful information to my students? Isn’t it my role to give my students the ‘correct’ answers to their questions? Isn’t it my responsibility to explain to young pianists what they should be doing to help their technique, their understanding of their music, their performances?
Well, yes, sometimes. But probably less often than you might think.
I’ll give you a scenario – Student A (let’s call her Emily) sits down at the piano and asks her teacher what she would like to hear today. Her teacher asks Emily to play the Mozart she has been working on all week. She listens, and when she has finished, she tells Emily that she played it very well, but that some dynamics were a little lacking, that her fingering was wrong in the scale passage, that her staccato wasn’t staccato enough, but that the opening phrases were shaped incredibly beautifully and that the fortissimo coda sounded wonderfully exciting and dramatic. Emily works hard, under the direction of her teacher, for the rest of the lesson. Her teacher tells Emily where she has played well, and where she hasn’t. Emily, for her part, listens and adjusts her playing accordingly.
Now let me give you another scenario – Student B (who goes by the name of Bob) sits down at the piano, tells his teacher that he has been working all week on the Mozart but has a few passages that he could work by himself on, so could they both look at the Bach today instead? His teacher agrees with Bob’s lesson plan, and Bob begins to play. His teacher listens carefully, and when Bob has finished, asks him what he thought of his playing. Bob tells him that he has been struggling with the fingering at the top of the second page, but that he feels he achieved something rather good with the complex articulation in the theme. Bob asks if he can be given some better fingering, and also requests help in working out how to shape the third page, as it is complex and he does not understand how to work it.
Scenario three. Student C (Sarah) sits down at the piano, tells her teacher that her Mozart is all over the shop, but that she disagrees with last weeks’ suggestions on voicing and articulation in the exposition. Sarah’s teacher asks her why she disagrees, and Sarah plays a small section in reply. “You said that the bass should be dominant here, but I don’t think it should be; I think the soprano line should sing out far more”. Her teacher replies that the soprano is merely an accompaniment, and Sarah answers instantly with “No, I don’t think it is, I think it’s a countermelody, listen…”. She plays the section, but her teacher can’t hear the countermelody that she is so adamant is there. “It can’t be a countermelody, Sarah, I can’t hear it”. “No, it’s there, I just need to voice it well enough to be heard” says Sarah, and she tries again, repeatedly working at isolating the melody she is talking about until, eventually, her teacher hears it; a beautiful song soaring high above the bass voice. “Yes, Sarah, I think you’re right, there is a melody there. But you have to be careful to make sure it is heard, otherwise it sounds like an accompaniment that is simply too heavy. Can you work on that to make what you are doing is even more convincing?” Sarah says that she will practise that this week, and in the meantime, can they work on some fingering that has eluded her later in the piece, and also working out the overall structure and form of the piece?
These three scenarios beautifully illustrate how different learning environments can push a student to think for themselves and develop their critical powers at the piano, and how disagreeing with a teacher could be seen to be the culmination of these positive teaching techniques.
Emily has become a passive learner. Her teacher has created an environment for her where Emily is told what to do, and Emily does it. Emily can play very nicely, but when she is on her own, she has little idea on what to do with her music as she has not developed the skill of thinking independently about her playing. Emily relies on her teacher. Emily will be lost without her teacher.
Bob is one stage on from Emily; he needs his teacher to give him constant advice, to tell him what is ‘right’ and ‘correct’ with his music. Bob’s teacher has encouraged Bob to think a little for himself, but he has not given Bob the ‘green light’ to disagree or argue. Bob has, however, developed a few skills to know what needs work on his pieces – he is able to say with confidence that it would be a waste of his teacher’s time to work on one of his pieces as he knows that he can work on it independently for a little longer before he will ‘get stuck’. Bob is on his way to independence.
Out of the three students, Sarah is the most independent from her teacher. Sarah’s teacher has encouraged Sarah right from the beginning to work out her own articulations and dynamics on certain pieces. Her teacher has told Sarah many times during her piano lessons that she sometimes doesn’t like how Sarah has interpreted a piece, but that as long as it is musically valid, then Sarah should be able to perform her own ideas. She has told Sarah that at times, Sarah has come up with some ideas that she herself has not spotted, and she has praised Sarah for her intelligent and knowledgeable interpretations. She has, however, made sure that Sarah plays within certain boundaries, that Sarah understands that she needs to be faithful to the composer’s original intent, and that music needs to be played with sensitivity to its history, its period and its genre. Although Sarah has become an extremely independent learner, and she has the confidence in herself to voice and argue her own opinions on interpretation, she knows that she still needs tuition and guidance. But she has the knowledge and skills from years of questioning and of being questioned to know when her opinions are musically valid and when they are not. She knows this because she is sometimes able to convince her teacher of a difference in opinion through the strength of her playing and through the extent of her musical knowledge, and sometimes she is not. Sarah also possesses the knowledge that if her interpretations cannot be worked convincingly, or if her arguments are too full of holes, that these are times when her teacher’s opinion is quite simply the better one.
So to answer the original questions of what is a teacher’s role? I know mine is to give my students the knowledge and skills to think independently, to have their own thoughts on the music they are playing, to communicate these not just to me, but to any audience they are performing in front of.
I know I have achieved this when they first start to argue with me.