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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.
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:
This YouTube video is the second in my ‘…in bits…’ series, a collection of tutorials where I follow the completed piece with hands separate videos, voice separate, slow, with and without ornamentation, whatever I think could prove useful.
With pieces such as the Krebs, it is invaluable to not just go straight in with the ornaments, but to learn the music without any decoration as if that version were a piece in its own right; i.e., the musical equivalent of being able to see the woods despite the trees. I don’t teach this technique because ornaments are scary (they’re not), or because they are difficult (again, they’re really not!), but because they are only ornamentation, and unless a musician can understand the main body of the music in its plainest form, they have no chance of understanding it with added fiddly bits.
What I missed on this collection, and I regret not adding in, was an even more stripped back version which my students have been learning. The Krebs, indeed all music, can be stripped back to basic harmony or simple melodic lines, and it is incredibly useful to learn this unornamented version, rather than just obvious one we read on the page. I might add this in later; it’s certainly been fascinating for me to see how my students have been stripping this piece back in different ways to me and to each other.
This upload of J.S.Bach’s Invention No.1 in C (BWV 7720 is a little different. In addition to uploading the finished soundcloud recording, I have uploaded a video to my YouTube channel, where students can see how to ‘build’ the invention from scratch, (starting with no ornaments and hands separately) into the final performance.
As with all my recordings, it’s really important to understand that these are not meant to be definitive versions, but are more like a tool; something to kick start a student into getting to grips with a musical narrative, or more accurately, one version of a musical narrative.
With the Bach, however, this is perhaps even more important. Bach wrote for harpsichord, not piano. My dynamics and my articulation are my own, and are just an idea to draw on or listen to. In fact, to be totally honest, I’ve been playing this particular Invention for many years, and I think I play it with as many different interpretations as years I have been teaching it. This recording is particularly legato; I’m not convinced I like this (in fact the more I listen to it, the more I dislike the final version) but it’s what I was working on at the time, and so in the spirit of spontaneity, it’s what I have recorded.
Please do not copy this recording, or indeed any of my Repertoire Project recordings. Listen to them, enjoy them, use them for ideas, love them, hate them, do whatever you like, but remember that part of being a musician is being creative; we were never meant to be mimics. There’s far too much interesting music to make to spend valuable time just copy and pasting.
For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com