Please don’t ban the smartphone…

How often do we read that smartphones have no place in lessons? That students need to have them turned off and deposited well away from their instrument?

But what exactly is so bad about the ubiquitous smartphone?

This video was recorded during a lesson, with the intention of emailing to my student later in the day. And not only was it recorded live during lesson time, but it was quietly left to upload to YouTube during the lesson itself, ready for sending the link to the student’s parent later.  Which I may do, oh, from my smartphone.

Smartphones are part of our lives, and love them or loathe them, they are here to stay.  So rather than maligning them, why not teach our students to use them? Encourage them to record themselves (video, not just sound, so they can watch posture, fingering, placement etc.), use YouTube and SoundCloud for listening, even bring their own tablets to lessons so we can record practice ideas and tips directly onto them.

And yes, I freely admit I counted a bar wrong, but as we all know, mistakes happen, and they aren’t the end of the world.

 

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 lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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The Practice Project: Bach Fugue XVI in G minor

It’s been a while since I posted on the Practice Project.  Too long, really.   And the initial idea of posting and captioning all practise sessions of the Partita turned out to take so long to set up, it was an impossible task.

I haven’t given up though, just changed tack slightly.  I’ll be posting practice sessions as regularly as I can, so that students (not just mine) can see how practice works for professionals; how we make mistakes, how we don’t care when we do, how we work in small sections, how we sight-read through entire pages or pieces, how we laugh, sing, have fun, sweat, get annoyed and frustrated.

This is not the first practice session for this fugue, but it is very near the beginning of the learning curve.  This recording was taken after a brief preliminary session at the weekend where I worked out a few voices and got the gist of the melody (the subject, in fugue-speak)

My method of working fugues is to isolate the individual voices, then play them in pairs in whichever hands come easiest, then in trios, then in the full quartet.   At the same time, I am working out how to make the voices sound the same when I play them with the required hands as when I play them with ‘simple’ hands (i.e. when working with two voices, how can I make the right hand play two voices concurrently with the same balance as when I play the alto in the left and the soprano in the right?)

The catch is that I have a very low boredom threshold for working out niggly fingering, partly because I think my suspected dyspraxia makes this type of work excruciatingly difficult, so I need to skip about a lot between different practice techniques to hold my interest.

Unfortunately, the quality of audio is not brilliant; this was recorded on my iPhone, as anything else requires a fairly large shift of furniture to set up my laptop and mic.  The piano is truly beautiful, but the phone video function is its nemesis.  

 

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 lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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The Oxford Reading Tree and 1984

Like many professional instrumental teachers, I have a large proportion of students (a significant majority, to be slightly more specific)  who transfer from other local teachers at various stages in their musical education.  Many of these (again, a sizeable majority) have one glaring omission in their background; a lack of repertoire.

But why is repertoire so important? And what is being taught instead? And crucially, what does a student miss out on when repertoire is neglected?

But perhaps the first question should be, what is repertoire?

The easiest answer is ‘pieces learned’.  Repertoire is the musical equivalent of a bookcase of read novels, a half-completed kindle, a stack of non-fiction magazines and newspaper articles. Repertoire is the Oxford Reading Tree and it is 1984, it is a dictionary and a thesaurus, a children’s encyclopaedia, the collected works of Roald Dahl, and A Brief History of Time.  If we learn to read by reading, then so we learn to play music through playing more music.  Each time our students learn a new piece, they learn something new, whether that’s a technical skill, an interpretation, an understanding of genre, or a practice or collaborative technique.  Without large volumes of new pieces, the number of new skills generated slowly erodes until student progression starts to stagnate.

And so to the second question: what is being taught instead?

The answer to this is usually ‘grade exams’.  Don’t get me wrong, grade exams can be fantastic tools if handled well and used sparingly, but in our exam-oriented culture, they are often used as a teaching syllabus rather than as occasional goals to aim towards.  And dare I say it, but in the hands of unprofessional teachers, they have been known to be used as a sole teaching method, right through from grade 1 to grade 8.  Imagine the equivalent in literary circles… a child working through the Oxford Reading Tree, then only being allowed to read 24 books in total before A-levels. That’s not 24 novels in English classes, but 24 books in total.  That’s less books than are currently sitting on a single shelf of my bookcase.

And yet it happens.  I continually work with students who have simply not played enough music to be able to cope with the level they are currently trying to play at, and it shows; they are missing general musicianship skills, technical fluency, and understanding of musical context.

But all is not lost…

Time and patience are required, but this missing information can be learned.  And the solution is surprisingly simple; to play more repertoire.  A student in this position (or, to be honest, any student) should not concern him or herself with whether a piece is difficult enough, or whether it is the ‘correct’ grade, only whether it is new, interesting, enjoyable, approachable, and achievable.  I have grade 8 students who play grade 5 pieces, and grade 4 students who play grade 1 pieces.  After all, when you are choosing a book, do you put it back if the language is not difficult enough?

So next time you’re thinking of learning three pieces for a grade exam, or hedging about buying a new score because it seems like an unnecessary expense, perhaps you might reconsider, and make a start on building a well-read, if somewhat metaphorical, bookcase.

 

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.moonfuit.com 

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The Practice Project; Deconstructing Beethoven

Deconstruction is something that I find myself teaching more and more in lessons.

Deconstructing is the process of separating the various components of the music; a sort of elementary analysis. Although this video is showing how to deconstruct the 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata (a deceptively complex piece), this technique can be easily applied to any piece of music. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that deconstructing is just as useful with beginners as it is to more advanced students. Although advanced students can (and should) be introduced to musical layers, voicing, linear progressions, harmonic sequences and cadences, beginners will also benefit from this type of thinking. Musical concepts are only as complex as the music allows them to be, and so simple music will restrict themselves to very simple structures and patterns.

So what is the point of all of this? On the face of it, it looks like teaching in this manner can only succeed in making more work for the student, not less. But, in reality, understanding the music is a shortcut to learning and memorising the notes, and understanding the dynamics, the performance directions, and ultimately the music itself.

After all, how do we as performers know how to balance the three parts in this sonata if we do not know how to play them and shape them individually?

How do we know the direction of the music if we do not know where the cadences lie, or where the music modulates?

How do we memorise it if we do not know which key we are playing in and which key we will be playing next?

How do we realise the relationships between the sections if we do not know precisely what is happening in each section?

How do we know how to colour the music if we do not understand what exactly what the music is doing at any point in time?

I have already posted a video demonstrating how improvisation can help in the learning process. Deconstructing Beethoven show clearly how a basic grasp of harmonic theory, analysis, and their practical applications are invaluable in practising.

 

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.moonfuit.com

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The Practice Project – Motivating Young Beginners with The Jigsaw

I teach many young children, and the vast majority of them would have problems practising if they were simply expected to repeat bars over and over until they have got the hang of them. So how do we, as teachers, motivate young beginners?

We know that young children learn best through the medium of play, and we know that the best way to motivate a child in lessons is to engage them with games and puzzles (the best theory books for youngsters are often full of sticker games, and puzzles, and the students barely know they are doing any actual work when they do the exercises).

But what games work for practising? And which ones work well enough to be continued independently at home?

As part of The Practice Project, I will be exploring different practice games for younger children.  The first in this series is The Jigsaw.

If we think for a moment about how we manage to do jigsaw puzzles, we can see a close analogy with learning music;

  • We look for the outline, or the corners
  • We put small chunks together first
  • We attach the smaller chunks to other smaller chunks, making bigger sized chunks
  • We attach the big chunks together by finding smaller connectors, or bridges

How would this work with music?

  • We can first make sure we know the outline of the piece (understand structure, identify any repetition, work through hands separately)
  • We then look at polishing small chunks of music (single bars, for example)
  • Attach those smaller chunks together (making 2 bar chunks)
  • We work on building up into larger and larger pieces, by practising the ‘connectors’ (getting from the end of one section to the beginning of the next)

But this doesn’t sound like much fun, it’s not a game!

Or is it?

Just doing the process doesn’t make it fun… What turns this practice method around is making a physical representation out of the piece, and then sticking it all together with tape, turning it into a massive jigsaw.

1)      Cut a piece of paper into small segments – as many as there are bars (or half bars etc)

2)      Number the bars (or half bars) on the score.  You can get engaged in discussions here about which bits are already easy enough to warrant them starting out as larger sections.

3)      Number the corresponding segments (1 segment for each bar, or half a bar etc)

4)      Put the segments in a pile, and gradually work through each one; when one is complete, put it in a separate pile (learning the small chunks)

5)      Pick 2 consecutive segments, practise them together, making sure the transition between the segments is smooth and solid (making a bigger chunk)

6)      Tape the 2 corresponding segments together

7)      Keep going like this, picking two segments, practising them as a single larger one, and taping the pieces of paper together as you go.

 

Eventually, your student will be left with 2 or 3 long segments, rather than the many individual ones they started with.  The challenge to get these last few segments into one becomes achievable and within the student’s grasp.  The final stage of taping the last segments together can often give the young beginner a massive boost of confidence, and a huge sense of achievement.  Get the student to show you their string of paper the following week, comment on the length of the paper, and how much they have done.  If they have not managed the whole thing, keep going with it until it is achieved.

I personally love this method. Unlike any other practice method or game, it gives a clear display of progress that is not only visual, but also tactile.  The child can literally see what they have achieved, and they can feel the length of their achievement, it is tangible to them.  “Look! It’s massive!” or “WOW! I’ve only got 4 BIG pieces to tape together now!”

Try it, I’d love to know how you get on.

 

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.moonfuit.com

 

 

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The Practice Project – Bach, Episode 4

This video is one I shot at RWCMD in between lessons. Although I have been doing these small ‘snatched’ practices for years, it’s only when I started this project that I realised a) how many of them I do, and b) how useful they actually are. This practice, for a ‘between lessons’ one, was quite long; often my mini-practices are less than ten minutes, sometimes literally only a minute or two.
I think this flags up a couple of really important ideas about practising;
The first is that although we all need some sort of practice structure, grabbing five minutes here and ten minutes there at our instrument is just as valid, and that these ‘snatched’ minutes add up over the course of a week.
The second is to do with the goals of these mini-sessions. When I know that I only have 5 minutes, I aim to do something with that time that isn’t too complex – perhaps just working on coordination, or trying to get through the piece without stopping, or doing a very small amount of very slow playing. This simpler style of practising leaves me with one or two smaller goals achieved that I can then ‘tick off’ my mental to-do list, (maybe some fingering that has been niggling at me, or a few bars played at speed) but also just the act of playing the music, for however short a time, leaves it slightly more ingrained than before the practice (the notes are slightly more ‘known’).

So yes, organised practice is excellent, invaluable even, but don’t forget to just wander over to the piano and spend a few spare moments playing some passages here and there, or running through a piece to see what happens.

 

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.moonfuit.com

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The Practice Project – Bach, Episode 3 (Co-ordination)

The third video is 20 minutes long, and is a first attempt to coordinate the two voices correctly (2 hands) into a rudimentary hands together ‘draft’.

I make many mistakes, (a great many.) But because my aim during this session is to learn the musical in its technical sense (coordinating notes), I correct every mistake as I go, making sure I can play each fragment before moving on.
You can clearly see, however, that although I achieve my goal of playing the entire piece ‘correctly’, I often slow down dramatically to do this, and am still unable at the end to play the entire piece through in one go without any errors.

 

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.moonfuit.com

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