I am particularly proud to have recently been awarded the Autism Friendly Award by the National Autistic Society, in recognition of the “exceptionally high level” of autism friendly provision I provide for my piano students.
I was the first piano teacher to receive this Award and, at the time of writing, am the only piano teacher in Wales to hold it.
A recent lesson with a young beginner got me thinking about something that has fascinated me for many years: the art of illusion.
Is it our job, as musicians, to simply create something, whether that’s a story, an emotion, a landscape, or a dramatic effect, or is it our job to also be magicians, to create illusions, even to cheat?
Alfred Brendel has talked extensively about the ability of the piano as an illusionist, because of its immense range and its capabilities in terms of timbres and sonorities. Do you want your music to sound like a choir? With the right combination of imagination and technical understanding of the instrument, the piano can do this. Do you want your music to sound like a voice, accompanied by a harp? In the right hands, the piano can do this too.
It never fails to amaze me of the capabilities, not only of the instrument, but of my often very young students, to grasp the concept of the piano as not simply being a ‘piano’, but of being far more than simply the sum of its parts. I have a wonderful enduring memory of a teenage student who was working through a Mozart sonata (forgive me, I forget which one, I’m terrible at these things…) who ‘orchestrated’ the entire piece, not only in his head, but managed to somehow emulate the different timbres of the instruments through the touch he was using. It gave his performance an extraordinary and rather beautiful (and possibly unique) interpretation, and yet, everything he did was a trick of the mind, to get his listener to believe it was a clarinet here, strings there, a solo flute there, and BOOM!there is the Tutti.
Daniel Barenboim has talked, both in his publicly available recorded masterclasses, and his book Everything is Connected, of the art of creating an illusion of a crescendo on a single note at the piano – a musical concept that is technically impossible as the piano string, once struck, can only ever decay. But what a pianist does with the notes surroundingthat single note can make a listener believe that the note in question is, indeed, getting louder.
And so we return to my young beginner from earlier this week. We were doing nothing as complex as orchestrating a Mozart sonata or attempting to create a mind-bending illusion of a crescending (if that is even a word) single note. No, my student was struggling with a marked crescendo that was only of a single bar in length, but needed to travel from a pianoto a fortefor the full dramatic effect. She couldn’t quite manage to get every right hand quaver along the route louder than the last. Or even most of the quavers louder than the last. So I suggested we cheat a bit, and use the left hand, which only had 2 accompanying notes. What if she were to onlyget louder using those two notes, would that make the music sound like it was actuallygetting louder much more gradually? Could she be like the magicians that Brendel and Barenboim were talking about? Well, she tried it, and after a couple of runs through, go the hang of it, and the effect was magnificent. She created an illusion of a gradual crescendo.
But here’s the real kicker.
In learning this little snippet of magic, after a few more attempts, my student inadvertently managed to actually create a true gradual crescendo. Sometimes, when we turn our focus to something attainable, and something a little (if you’ll excuse the cliché) outside of the box, a different sort of magic happens, and we manage what we originally thought we couldn’t do.
The ABRSM have just announced they are in the process of revamping their piano scales and arpeggio syllabus. The biggest change is that there are less elements required at each grade, which is particularly striking at grades 5-8, where currently candidates need to be able to play all keys at grade 5, with the inclusion of both types of minor scales at grade 6.
This current scale syllabus creates a challenge for any student in terms of practice load at grade 5 and above, but beyond that, there is something fundamental that the ABRSM have tapped into about the purpose of exams. And that is the validity of the assessment itself.
In simple terms, the validity of an assessment is a measure of whether or not (or by how much) the assessment is actually measuring what it set out to measure. An excellent example of this is the still-fairly-recent outcry about the new GCSE English language exams, which require large quantities of set texts to be memorised as the exams changed from being open to closed book. The assessment is supposed to measure a school child’s ability with the English language, but this change meant that it was measuring, for a large part, their memorisation skills. The validity of the GCSE exam was brought into question, and for this reason remains to this day a bone of contention amongst secondary school educators, parents, school children, and the Department of Education.
But how is the new GCSE English language syllabus related to the ABRSM Scales and Arpeggio Syllabus?
The answer is in the question of assessment validity. Is the current scales & arpeggios element of the grade exam system actually measuring what is sets out to measure? And does that change when we look at the new syllabus?
The current syllabus is very key heavy, by which I mean that candidates need to learn a lot of different keys at each grade, far more than other instruments, and far more than other exam boards. I’ve already mentioned that at grade 5, a pianist needs to be able to play all scales and arpeggios in all keys, with the addition of the ‘other minor’ at grade 6. This is an enormous feat of memory for many students, students who are often more than capable of understanding keys, playing scales when not overburdened with too many at once, playing and identifying them inside pieces, playing them with good technique, and playing them when given time to process the tonality of the key asked for. This, however, is not the same as needing to memorise this quantity, retain them, and recall them at speed, without context, and under time-pressure. Grades before grade 4 can also have this effect with many students. This sort of difficulty with memory is not an absolute problem, it is a relative one, and the burden, or load, of scales and arpeggios at lower grades is still high.
The focus on the need for an excellent memory is something which many musicians take for granted. We should be able to recall all scales and arpeggios easily and effortlessly. We should be able to play concertos from memory. We should be able to pick up an instrument and play something. We should, we should, we should, we should….
Well, I have a dirty little secret to tell you. I can’t remember key signatures. Nope. Really can’t. I’ve been playing the piano for nearly 40 years, teaching for over 20, I have a music degree, a postgraduate diploma, several teaching qualifications, an Advanced Certificate, and I’ve been performing since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and reading music since almost that young. I use mnemonics to remember the order of the sharps and flats on the page, and a handy little second and third system to remember what they mean, depending on whether they music is in major or minor. I do this very, very, VERY fast, so it looks like I remember it, but I really, really can’t.
I also can’t play much from memory. Stick me in front of a piano with no music and it’s like a wall comes up in front of my brain. Neither can I remember opus numbers, keys of pieces, dates of composers, names of students (sorry!) oh I could go on…
Memory is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Because I tell you what I can do: I can play scales, in every key, really well. I also have students who can do the exact opposite of me. They can remember their pieces like they never even needed the score in the first place, but can they remember more than 4 scales at once?
I digress though.
Validity. What is the current assessment actually testing? Memory. It is testing memory. It is also testing evenness, and balance, and knowledge of keys, and understanding of tonality, but, and I cannot write this in enough boldface, only if the candidate can actually recall the scales well enough for them to be marked appropriately.
Is the answer then to ‘dumb down’ the exam syllabus?
Absolutely not. This is nothing to do with dumbing down. This is, at last, the ABRSM facing the 21stcentury square on and modernising their syllabus to reflect up to date understanding of human behaviour, research on assessment, and general good exam practice. It is finally accepted that it is no longer good practice to simply test a candidate’s ability to do something by testing their ability to recall something, and this is a good thing, for everybody.
Exams as Curriculum
Will this affect the teaching of scales and arpeggios in general?
I find this highly unlikely. The type of teacher who only teaches scales according to the exam syllabus is, of course, probably going to only teach the new syllabus, which is a sad state of affairs indeed, and something we teachers need to continue addressing.
But even if this were to happen, the current syllabus stops requiring all keys after grade 6, instead opting for a select few keys in various incarnations of thirds and sixths. I have not heard an argument against both the new curriculum and the old one, to the effect that the ABRSM should insist on an all key approach to be continued through from grade 5-8, just in case some teachers stop teaching E major after grade 7 (which I can well imagine some do.)
Scales are Important
Why learn scales anyway?
To save my typing fingers, and because Lisa Devlin, London clarinet teacher, has already written something far better than I could have said, I’ll direct you to this post Please have a read of it 🙂
Student led teaching is the concept that, rather than a student coming to a lesson and a teacher having a pre-organised lesson plan and sticking to that plan, come what may, the teacher reacts to the student’s needs, wants, or spontaneous creative moments.
It is important for any student to be listened to, and I very much doubt any teacher would disagree with me here, but student-led teaching goes one step further, and suggests that the student has a far greater degree of control over the content and style of their lessons. In effect, they have ‘ownership’ over their lessons. This makes the relationship between teacher and student more evenly balanced in terms of the power structure.
Of course, this doesn’t mean us teachers shouldn’t have plans. And it certainly doesn’t mean our lessons are disorganised, chaotic, without clear goals, or leaves our students without clear progression paths and ourselves in a panic about what to teach next.
So what exactly is student led teaching? And what is it not?
Student led teaching is asking a student to choose their own repertoire from a selection of pieces a teacher offers. It is also teaching a student music they may bring themselves to the lessons, even if this isn’t something you would normally teach.
Student led teaching isn’t expecting a student to choose their own repertoire from the entire extensive repertoire in existence.
Student led teaching is picking up on a student’s enthusiasm for a new scale/arpeggio/transposition that they may have partially figured out by themselves, and helping with it, even if it this is not something you would normally teach at this point.
Student led teaching isn’t expecting a student to randomly choose their own scales and/or technical exercises.
Student led teaching is following through on a student’s creativity and/or distraction through other instrument/media (maybe you have percussion, or other scores lying around within easy reach) as long as this is within your boundaries of what is acceptable in your studio. For example, in my studio, any student is free to rummage through my percussion box, but they are not allowed to pick up my recorders and ukele, as these are my own personal instruments. They are also free to look through any scores they can easily get to, but they have to ask for any that are difficult to reach, to ensure their own safety.
Student led teaching isn’t allowing a student completely free rein over your teaching studio, your instruments, and your equipment.
Here’s an example of a teacher-led section of a lesson:
The teacher asks the student to play through the piece that has been practised all week. It is fairly new, so not terribly proficient, and hands together work is a struggle.
The student plays through hands separately, then tries hands together. It goes very wrong, because of the newness of the piece.
The student gets frustrated and then distracted by percussion toys by the piano, picks a few up and starts mucking about with them.
The teacher gently guides the student’s attention back to the piano, and guides through different techniques for putting hands together.
Student achieves some hands together playing and is able to go home and practise.
Note that none of this is poor teaching practice, and although the description is brief, the teacher is clearly being positive towards the student, not admonishing them for their frustration, simply guiding them back to the task in hand, and helping with whatever techniques they generally use in this situation, which has the end result of the student achieving hands together playing.
So how could this scenario be different in a more student-led lesson?
It might start off the same, remembering that the teacher still has some degree of structure and planning with the lesson, to give the both student and teacher security and a clear path of progression.
Therefore, the first part would be the same:
It is at the point where the student moves towards the percussion box, however, that the lesson would shift.
Understanding why the student has done this is important in helping to guide what to do next.
The student is frustrated and wants to stop what they are currently doing. But crucially, they have not got frustrated with making sounds, otherwise they would have stopped completely, perhaps expressing verbally an “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard”, or the old classic “how long before the lesson finishes?”. The student wants to continue, they just need a new medium, and in a simple non-verbal (probably sub-conscious) move, they have communicated how they wish to do this.
And so, the teacher, rather than guiding the student back to the planned task, joins the student at the percussion box, and asks them which is their favourite percussion sound.
The teacher then picks up some percussion themselves, and together they play with different sounds for a while.
The teacher then asks the student to use their instrument to sound out the rhythm of the right hand of the piece they are learning. Once they have done this, they teacher asks the student to do it again, while the teachers sounds out the rhythm of the left.
Teacher and student then swap hands (and instruments too, if the student wishes).
Once the student has got the hang of this, the teacher asks the student if they can sound out the rhythm, hands together, using both percussion instruments.
Teacher suggests different variations, and asks the student to suggest their own too: perhaps the teacher can play one hand on the piano while the student sounds out the other on percussion? Perhaps teacher and student try alternate lines, or bars?
Finally, the teacher asks the student if they are now ready to try playing hands together on the piano.
Interestingly, it as this point, that the student may say no, and it’s important to realise that this is fine. This might simply mean that their at home practise is to try and get the percussion hands together at home, which would mean that two elements, those of rhythm and of co-ordination, are well and truly practised in for the following week. This means that there may sometimes be less immediately obvious tangible ‘results’ from a student-led session than a teacher-led session. However, learning in this way empowers a student as they are always learning in the way that works best for them, at a pace that works best for them, in a medium that works best for them, in an environment that works best for them. And ultimately, this can only be beneficial for a young musician.
We’re going to need a bigger boat…
Student led teaching is a fascinating, and huge subject, one that is far too big for a single blog post. I have not mentioned the young student who loves playing scales and since transferring to me is learning every scale in every key, in multiple articulations, rather than just the exam syllabus, because that’s what he loves to do. Neither have I mentioned the advanced student who was struggling with a Mozart sonata, and in an attempt to vent his frustration and annoy me (it didn’t work…) transposed the first phrase into a new key. Of course, my immediate reaction was “Great! Can you transpose the rest into that key? And 4 other keys as well?”, which we spent the rest of the lesson doing, much to his surprising enjoyment.
And finally, my teaching studio has a very high proportion of neurodiverse piano students, which means those who are autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic, dyscalculic, or who have ADHD. And I count myself amongst the neurodiverse tribe, too, which means I learn and retain information differently from the typical person (and undoubtedly teach differently from the typical teacher!).
As students, we are in particular need of lessons which reflect our musical, sensory, social, and emotional needs and wishes, however these shift during the course of a lesson. Student led teaching not only helps to respect this, but can be a practical and simple way of putting an intuitively supportive environment in place.
I am getting a growing number of enquiries from parents of autistic children (and autistic adults) looking for piano lessons*. But how does teaching an autistic learner differ to teaching a non-autistic learner? Or perhaps a better question would be, how does being an autistic learner differ from being a non-autistic learner?
The first thing for any teacher to understand is that autistic students are not a homogenous group. There is no ‘autistic piano method’. As a teacher working with autistic students, you may come across learners who are non-verbal, communicate through echolalia (repeating phrases or sounds), can’t-get-a-word-in-edgeways-chatty, socially anxious, quiet, noisy, sound-averse, shy, confident, instantly good readers, struggle with notation, have great aural memories, have poor aural memories, highly creative, thrive on accuracy and detail, you get the idea…
None of which actually answers the question of learning and teaching.
Except in a way, it does.
Autism still has a lot of stigma attached to it, and a great deal of myths. Language is important too, and many autistic adults (who it should be remembered were autistic children once) are now saying that professionals working with autistic children need to look beyond the commonly used ‘deficit’ or ‘medical’ model of comparing autistic behaviours to non-autistic behaviours and marking anything different as ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ and in need of ‘intervention’. Instead, we should be supporting autistic people where they need support, and understanding autistic ways of communicating, socialising, and self-care, as being different to non-autistic, but not necessarily problematic.
All of which should give a small idea of how to approach teaching through an ‘autistic lens’, i.e. from the viewpoint of the autistic learner, rather than from a point of a professional providing piano lessons with supporting ‘interventions’ or ‘behavioural management strategies’.
The following 10 points may help:
- Autistic children can experience high levels of stress with new environments, and the experience of new piano lessons is one of them. It may take your autistic learner far longer to settle into lessons than a non-autistic learner. If you offer a trial period as standard, it’s worth you considering extending this for autistic newcomers.
2. Also regarding stress and anxiety, your new autistic learner may not learn anything constructive at all in the first few weeks, as the barrier of experiencing new environment and new people (i.e., you) may be a hurdle that they need to get used to before they are able to begin the process of learning. Be extra patient.
3. Autistic children do not always express emotions in ways which non-autistic people do. For instance, I have two students currently who, when stressed with the prospect of being asked to do something that is new and potentially quite tricky, self-soothe by playing glissandos, or playing every note on the piano. This is a form of ‘stimming’ (self stimulating behaviour) and is a way of dealing with emotions. It is important that students are allowed to express themselves however they choose to do so.
4. Autistic children may need frequent breaks during the lessons so they do not become overwhelmed with environment, sensory input, or demands of tasks. For very young children, this may need to be scheduled in with a visual timer app on a phone and a pictorial timetable, so that the child knows they have an upcoming break. The parent/carer, if in the lesson, needs to be on board with this so they do not think the child is simply wasting time.
5. A young autistic child (pre-teen certainly) may need to be taught by ear, either fully, or just temporarily, even if they are perfectly capable of reading notation. This may be because the additional barrier of the notation is simply one barrier too many, on top of an already overwhelming environment of sensory overload, task demands, and very possibly tiredness after a day at school.
6. An autistic child may be unable to handle you sitting near them at the piano, or playing the piano at the same time as them or near them – this is due to sensory overload, either aural or physical. If so, it is worth recording demonstration tracks on a laptop, possibly on a loop, that can be played away from the piano, at a quieter volume that the child is comfortable with.
7. An autistic child may enjoy repetition much more than you do! And they may wish to return to continually pieces that they know well, particularly in the beginning, sometimes repeating them continually throughout the lesson. As their teacher, you need to allow this, as this is your student enjoying the learning process. Mix their repetition with occasional new tasks, rather than barring old pieces completely.
8. Some autistic children are extremely demand avoidant, and some have a diagnosis, or identification, of PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). This avoidance of demand means your student becomes extremely stressed and anxious when faced with demands from you (even ones you believe to be mild and completely reasonable) and you may also get reports from their parents/carers that practising is quite a challenge at times. It is absolutely crucial to understand that demand avoidant children are not being manipulative, difficult, or naughty. Instead, they are faced with extreme anxiety and stress when they feel out of control and under pressure of being ‘told what to do’. These children need an abundance of positive reinforcement as their confidence is often on the floor, and lots of choice to prevent them feeling backed up against the wall. For example, rather than giving them a piece to practice, play them 3 pieces and ask them to choose which one they would like to learn. Rather than asking them to play the right hand first, ask them whether they want to try the piece first, with which hand (or both) or whether they want to listen to you demonstrate it again. Choice, choice, choice.
9. An autistic child may not be able to sit well on a piano stool, or perhaps not at all at first. It may be that you start off with the piano stool completely out of the way and your student stands to play, gradually introducing the stool as lessons slowly progress. Equally, your student may feel uncomfortable at the piano without their coat on, or a hat. If so, this is probably a sensory necessity or a comfort, and needs to be respected, even if it looks unusual to you.
10. If your autistic student comes into the lesson when your studio is empty, and that changes due to a timetable change, let the parents know as soon as practicable. Your student may be completely thrown by the presence of someone unknown (another student, and potentially their parent and/or sibling also) coming and going as they get to their lesson, and this might cause significant distress and anxiety.
To create an autism friendly learning environment, we as teachers need to be looking at our teaching through the lens of autism, rather than simply trying to make our autistic students fit in with our usual practices. We need to step into the shoes of our autistic students and walk around in them for a bit, then adapt our teaching accordingly to be as constructive, positive, and supportive as we possibly can.
And in doing this, we can help to create a society with a truly inclusive music education system.
*I have based this on autistic children as the majority of my students are children, but most of what I have written could easily be applied to adults as well.
Another post on exams! (I know, I know, but the number of times the subject of ‘but, but, EXAMS!’ crops up with new or transferring students is, sadly, increasing.) This post originally comes from a private email I wrote to a parent, but has been edited to transform it into an ‘open letter’ to all parents and students.
Exams really are quite useful things, and many (if not most) of my students enjoy preparing for and sitting them, but they are far from the learning method that they are often used as. To give you some idea, at the time of writing, I have nearly 50 students on my books, and only three of them are currently working towards a practical exam (with a further one working towards sitting his Grade 4 Theory in March). The other students are learning repertoire, and developing their skills in this way.
I should mention at this point, that it is not necessary to take every grade exam. Again, with my long term students, you would find that the vast majority of them skip grades (in order to spend additional time learning different styles, genres, and technical skills). It is also worth bearing in mind that, should a student rarely work at music away from an exam syllabus, once they have passed grade 8, most of them haven’t a clue how to work towards anything from that point forward, as their only method of progression has now gone. You may be interested to know that I work with a great many post-grade 8 students who have only rarely learnt non-exam pieces, and they are, without exception, wholly unprepared for how to cope at this point. I appreciate this is not a way of learning that you are used to, but learning repertoire and understanding music is the key to not only progressing, but realising full potential, and perhaps most importantly, really enjoying the piano.
With this in mind, we are really looking at a minimum of 1 year after sitting a grade exam before even beginning work on the next one. It is possible that once this time has passed, a student may be past the level of the next grade up, in which case, we would either begin the one following that, or spend a little more time developing skills to get him or her to that point. A typical progression ‘through the grades’ for my students is often – grades 1,3,4,6 then 8, with the remaining grades skipped.
As a good guide for you to refer to, a student should be completing an absolute bare minimum of one entire book of repertoire ‘between exams’. Bear in mind that for students who skip exams, this doubles. However, this volume of repertoire is rarely taken from one single book, as this, also, is too restrictive. This means that most students have 1 or 2 books on the go at once, and they roughly complete half of each book before moving on. This guide also includes duet books (duets are particularly important for piano students as it is often the only time they learn any collaborative playing skills). For example, I would anticipate that a student who has just taken grade 4 would need to learn roughly half of a compilation book (ABRSM compilations or Lenehan KeyNotes are good for this), and roughly half of something else (possibly a Microjazz volume, or the Walton Children’s Pieces for Duet, which are excellent and great fun to play) before looking at the possibility of grade 5, and more so if we decided to skip this. I appreciate this is very new to you, but once they are over the initial shock of learning non-exam pieces, my students all massively enjoy playing ‘normal’ repertoire, and they learn far more in terms of musical understanding and technical skills than if they were to work towards exams with only brief moments of respite.
I appreciate that parents often wish for their children to sit another exam as soon as possible after their previous one, but if I can draw your attention to other methods of measuring attainment, which you may not be aware of, this might ease your mind. I hold a yearly concert for my students (in the Summer Term), which all students are invited (but not pressured) to perform at, with many students who are not confident about performing choosing to perform a duet with me instead of a solo piece. Last year, this concert was held at Cardiff University concert hall, and was a great success, with nearly 250 students / parents attending. There is also the opportunity to perform at the South Glamorgan Festival for Young Musicians which is held every May bank holiday. Here, there are both competitive and non-competitive classes available. At the risk of repeating myself, attainment can also (indeed it should be) measured by completion of a new piece, by a technical difficulty surmounted, or a new understanding of a musical problem. [Edit… colleague and friend, Phil May, made the additional (and rather brilliant) suggestion that with so many people owning iPads, laptops, and smartphones, parents could record their children performing each finished piece, not just for posterity, but perhaps to send to relatives. This would help in creating a tangible way of seeing progress without the need for exam certificates.]
Unfortunately, the world we live in now has become very much an exam-oriented one for children, with graded music exams being a not-insignificant part of this. But focussing too much on exams in music is hugely detrimental to students, and leaves a great many young musicians, even gifted ones, without necessary technical skills and musical understanding, and often leads to a loss of enjoyment in learning music (which is heartbreaking to watch).
I am happy to answer any questions you may have on this topic – it is one which I discuss frequently so I genuinely do understand parental (and students’) concerns! You might also be interested to know that having students staying away from exams does not mean they perform badly when they do sit them. I have a 100% pass rate for grade exams (theory and practical), and my students have won awards from the ABRSM in the past for achieving exceptionally high marks (my most recent being a young boy of 12 years’ old who achieved the highest Grade 8 mark in Wales for the year, and also won a 4 figure scholarship award from the ABRSM to pay for his studies).
Lastly, I’d like to direct you to my soundcloud account. I have uploaded various repertoire for students. The eventual idea is that this database covers the ‘core’ repertoire books which my students use, but it is very much a work in progress as recording and uploading takes a huge amount of time. https://properpianofingers.com/2015/05/19/the-repertoire-project/ and https://soundcloud.com/lynnephillips/sets/the-repertoire-project_main
Very best wishes,
Another of my ‘in bits’ videos – this one is Burgmuller’s Barcarolle (Op.100, No.22). A beautiful piece which requires a great deal of focus on the cantabile quality in the right hand balanced against a delicate left hand accompaniment.
Soundcloud recording of the same piece:
And if you want to listen to the whole book of Burgmuller etudes (well worth a listen!), with a few exceptions left to record, the playlist can be found here: