Posts Tagged music

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.


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The Practice Project – Bach, episode 1

This is the first of the video uploads of my own practice session. I am working on the Fantasia from Bach’s Partita No.3 in A minor, and videoing all my practice sessions on this piece from the beginning to its completion.
The videos are completely unedited, except to delete small insignificant sections (e.g. to answer to door, or grab a cup of tea etc.). You can see my practice methods, my mistakes, my repetitions, my improvisations, my at times desperately slow tempos.
This first episode is roughly 20 minutes long, and is very much about discovering the music for the first time… the notation, the counterpoint, the general ‘feel’ of the piece. I am not worried too much in this session about playing accurately, I am just getting an idea of what Bach has written, and where the technical ‘black-spots’ are. My fingering is pretty much guessed throughout, and there are a great many wrong notes, stumbles, hesitations, tempo changes, etc. Despite this, there are moments when I am feeling confident enough with my knowledge of the music in small areas to begin a little elementary experimentation with articulation, dynamics, shape, and general musicality.


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The Practice Flowchart

The Practice Flowchart was borne out of, again, watching students struggle with making enough progress from week to week.  I had many discussion with students, discovering not just how long they practice for, but how they practice, and whether they were working as effectively as they could be.

The flowchart was conceived when asked myself what I actually do when I’m practising.  To be more precise, I asked myself specific questions, and made a chart out of my answers…

  • How do I decide what to practice?
    • I sometimes have some ideas already in mind when I first sit at the piano, but if I don’t then I play through the music whilst listening critically, and make decisions then.


  • How do I decide how to split it into sections?
    • I very quickly work out how much I can manage at one time that would give me a reasonable challenge without making it feel like an impossible mountain to climb.   Sometimes that’s as little as a bar, or even half a bar.  More often, it’ll be a phrase or group of phrases, or a single hand, or a single voice.  Sometimes my sections can be thought of as horizontal sections rather than vertical (i.e. an entire left hand, rather than a single bar of something). 
    • Sections are often worked out on the hoof…. I’ll be playing through something, and when it gets to a point where I’m not achieving what I want to, I isolate the problem area and treat that as a section.


  • How do I know when something is ‘good enough’ and when it needs more work?
    • This is an interesting one because I wasn’t really sure of the answer until I sat down at the piano and practiced with this in mind.  The results rather surprised me; I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. 


  • What do I do when things are not going well?
    • Another interesting one.  I’d be lying if I said that I always achieve what I set out to do; sometimes (often!) things just don’t work. Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance. This part, I think, is so important it’s worth mentioning twice…

‘When I cannot do something after repeatedly trying it, I walk away’.

Once I had these answers worked out, designing the flowchart was easy; it really is just a graphic illustration of these questions and their answers.

The ‘confidence score’ section is vital for a student to understand; that they are scoring their playing not on how it sounded, but on how they felt when they played it.  This is probably particularly important at the beginning of a piece, when the sounds we are making are so departed from the sound of a performance (because of slow tempo, or hands separate, or the tiny size of a section, or the isolation/separation of voices), that the student has to understand that they are rating how well they felt they knew what they were doing at the specific task they were working on.  For instance, if a student is working on simply getting the notes correct, they may play with faltering rhythm, but this does not matter, as the goal is notes, and nothing else.   You will also notice, that 8/10 is an excellent score; students should not feel they have to aim for a 10 (remember that Practice Makes Perfect is just a myth, and a destructive one at that.)

The walking away is a vital lesson for a student to learn.  Frustration is a horrible feeling, and isn’t helpful for anybody.  The flowchart has an escape loop slotted in – so if something isn’t working after 10 times of trying, a student should find something else to do…

You can always come back to something that didn’t progress, or that got better but was still not well enough ‘known’ to feel confident!


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The Practice Pie

This is the first instalment of The Practice Project, and I’m going to kick-off with the Practice Pie.  This is designed for students who don’t practice enough, or who practice a lot of one thing but never move forward with other skills.

The Practice Pie works by taking an average half hour practise session and splitting it into its component parts; for my students this usually boils down to one or two pieces, a study or two, and some scales & arpeggios.  The Practice Pie is meant to be flexible, not just for actual content, but length of content as well (for example. a young 6 year old beginner would not be expected to practice for a full 30 minutes, and probably would not have enough repertoire to cover that 30 minutes even if they were, whereas a more advanced student would need considerable more than 30 minutes to progress).

The idea of the Pie is to make a practice session as accessible as possible by seeing it as small do-able chunks rather than one enormous inaccessible pie.  Students who balk at the idea of 30 minutes hard graft are often more amenable to the idea of working for a timed 5 or 10 minutes on something.  (I advise students to use a timer here, so they can get a real sense of achievement when that timer goes off for their 5 minutes work – but it has to be set for each chunk, not the whole session as a whole… remember the importance of accessible, achievable and do-able).

  • ‘Chunk it down’ – break the practice into accessible sections
  • Time it! – Use a timer to stay motivated, and to give regular breaks and a sense of achievement
  • Be flexible – Adjust the Pie to suit the needs of the individual student
  • Break it up – Nobody set a law that says 30 minutes practice has to all be done in one go – use the Pie to keep track of a practice that is done in different sections throughout the day

Coming Soon –  The Practice Flowchart, and the first video of my own practice sessions.


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The Practice Project

I’ve been on a bit of a mission lately, as most of my students would tell you if they had the chance, to get students not just practicing more, but practicing effectively and efficiently.  And I think the mission, so far, is a success.  Or at least, it’s a successful start to an ongoing mission.

So what does that mean? ‘Practising effectively and efficiently’?

To explain this, we have to walk a few steps back to the beginning of the story – to the lessons, and the students’ progress (or lack of).

These are the problems I am confronted with every single day of my teaching….

  • Students who don’t practice enough
  • Students who practice enough without it appearing to do any good
  • Students who progress a huge amount in lessons then seem to almost go backwards during the week
  • Students who practice enough but practice the wrong thing

But for each of these students (and there are a great many that fall into one of these categories), most of their problems stem from this….

Students don’t know how to practice

And this is because….

Students are not taught how to practice

The solution has everything to do with the last sentence; that students are not taught how to practice.  This makes the problem, and the solution, my responsibility.

Hence the mission.

So what are the reasons why students don’t practice well?  (I’m assuming here that the students genuinely want to have piano lessons, they are playing repertoire that they enjoy, they get on well with their teacher, and they are not under any type of external pressure that is playing havoc with their self-esteem or confidence.)

Apart from the obvious lack of taught practice skills…

  • They are scared of making mistakes
  • They get bored of repetition
  • They have unrealistically high expectations of themselves
  • They have unrealistically low expectations of themselves
  • They believe the myth, ‘Practice Makes Perfect’
  • They feel frustrated when they don’t get something right first time
  • They feel upset and stupid when they don’t get something right first time
  • They think I always get everything right first time
  • They have never been asked to work autonomously on anything before
  • They got away with very little practice at the beginning and have not adjusted to their more advanced repertoire.

So, onto the Practice Project; a project that will see me blogging various articles on practicing over the coming months, posting videos of my own practice sessions, and posting resources to help students get the most out of their own practice sessions.

I have multiple aims here –

  • To replace the ‘practice makes perfect’ myth with the real aim of practise; ‘practice makes permanent’.
  • To not only post my mistakes via the video footage, but to actually highlight them,  showing to students how many mistakes we professionals actually make, and how we deal with them, and most importantly, that mistakes are okay!
  • To give as many different practice strategies as possible, including improvisation, and explain their uses.
  • To encourage breaking pieces up into small workable sections – making practice more accessible and ‘do-able’.
  • To post resources to help with practice timetabling and strategies.

I hope I achieve what I set out to do – to enable students of all abilities and ages to develop autonomous, effective, and efficient 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 

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Bad Language



“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?


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A Different World



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.




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

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