You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing

The desire for perfection surrounds us in our modern society. “Getting it right” and “being perfect” are inculcated in children from the moment they enter the formal school system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded are “wrong”.

Many piano students carry this need to be perfect with them when they come to the piano and can easily grow frustrated with their playing if it is not note-perfect. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable – because we are all human and we make mistakes. And by making mistakes, we learn. People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is achievable and positive.

I encourage all my piano students to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for excellence (within their own capabilities), for expression, musical colour, vibrancy and a sense of “ownership” in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part. Many students say to me “the examiner will mark me down if I play wrong notes”. In fact, examiners are looking for playing which displays musicianship and musicality, expression and communication. Of course an accurate performance is desirable, but it is not the be all and end all.

I go to many concerts and hear many pianists, amongst them some of the finest on the international piano circuit. I have heard memory lapses, smeared scales, muffed chords, but I have also heard a wealth of exciting, memorable and truly amazing performances. I have also heard note-perfect performances which lack personality, with no discernible connection between audience and performer, are over-thought, or just plain dull.

How to be amazing:

  • Know your pieces well (the result of careful, thoughtful practising). This is also good insurance against performance anxiety
  • Think about the special character of each of your pieces. What images or stories does the music suggest? “Tell the story” of the music to your audience using dynamics, articulation, clearly defined phrasing, and a vibrant sound
  • Play with confidence and poise (this makes your audience feel confidence too). If performing before an audience, even if only at home to family and friends, don’t scurry shyly to the piano and never pre-empt your performance with negative comments such as “I played this so much better at home” etc.
  • Before you play, take a few moments to prepare yourself. Don’t rush into the opening bars of the piece. Instead hear the music in your head, imagine your hands playing the notes. Remind yourself what the piece is about, for you, and think about how you wish to communicate this with your audience.
  • Banish negative self-talk while you are playing and remain focused on the music. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a deep breath in and exhale slowly to pull your focus back to the music.
  • Gain pleasure from your music and enjoy playing it, to yourself and to others. Music was written to be shared!

People go to concerts to be transported away from the every day. They enjoy the emotions which music inspires in them, and the sense of communication between performer, the music and listener.

Be amazing – at home when you’re practising, in front of others when you’re performing, but above all, enjoy your music!

Celebrate every pass, merit and distinction

Now is the season of piano teachers up and down the country expectantly waiting for the sound of exam results dropping through the letterbox or into their email inbox. The summer season for graded music exams is the busiest and results are coming in thick and fast. It is cheering to see from colleagues’ posts on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs that students are achieving excellent results in their grades. Of course we want to celebrate our students’ successes in achieving a Merit or a Distinction in their piano exams, but we should also pause to consider the value of a pass. It’s not “just a pass”. As my colleague David Barton expresses eloquently in his own article on this subject:

We’re very focussed these days on results. I am conscious that when I send my own pupils for flute, piano or singing exams here in Lichfield, or in Sutton Coldfield, it is the result rather than the experience which is at the forefront of their minds. Children are driven to succeed at school, and adults the same at work; there are targets to be met every step of the way. Whilst when I was having lessons as a child, I and most of my friends would have been happy to pass an exam, more and more people are now hunting for that elusive merit or distinction mark. There is a lot of talk from parents, particularly online, about exam results; there’s an inevitable competitive edge. It can be disheartening for pupils who’ve worked very hard for their exam to be made to feel that they have somehow fallen short of the standard by not achieving either a merit or distinction. But let’s stand back and look at the wider perspective.

If we think about most HE level exams and assessments, the pass mark is often 40%. For graded music exams, the pass mark is normally around 65%. This means that any candidate achieving even just the pass mark has ensured that well over half the material presented was commendable.

Music exams are hard. Maybe they have dumbed down slightly from when I took mine in the 1970s and early 80s, but graded music exams are still challenging, not least because the student is required to take the exam alone, and to perform to an examiner whom they have never met before. For some students, children and adults in particular, this can be an incredibly daunting prospect, let alone processing all the notes and being able to play the assigned music in an expressive and meaningful way. Alongside the repertoire, there are scales, technical exercises, sight-reading, aural tests: taken all together, these elements create a very comprehensive test of one’s musical ability. Teachers can help their students perform confidently and with poise by assisting them in the preparation of their pieces and technical material, by offering advice on stagecraft and performance anxiety, and be reassuring them that it is about the whole experience, the chance to show off one’s playing to someone else, rather than the end result which is an important part of one’s musical development.

So every result is worth celebrating and teachers should congratulate their students, whatever the mark achieved. (I would like to congratulate my students Jessica, Vicky and Daniel who achieved Merits and a pass in their exams this summer.)

Further reading:

Why a grade 1 pass is a superb result (article by David Barton)

What is Grade 1? (article by Rebecca Singerman-Knight)

What is Grade 1?

Originally posted on Piano with Rebecca Singerman-Knight:

“I am constantly surprised by how hard Grade 1 is”

As part of my continuing professional development I belong to an online community of piano teachers.  Each month we research a specific topic, attend an online seminar (‘webinar’) and discuss the topic in our online forum.   This month the topic was the ‘piano framework’ and – in particular – what skills and concepts need to be in place before entering a Grade 1 examination.

I have blogged before about the pros and cons of piano students taking graded music exams (click here).  However, what really struck me by researching this topic further is quite how hard Grade 1 actually is!

Reviewing the set pieces of the main examination boards’ current syllabuses, we can see that a Grade 1 student needs to show a grasp of the following skills and concepts:

  • Keys of C, G, D and F major…

View original 359 more words

Casio EPTA one-day workshop for piano teachers

Casio and EPTA London SE region join forces again for another workshop for piano teachers.

The event takes place on Sunday 27th September 2015 at The Warehouse, a venue close to Waterloo Station and will include the following sessions:

Presentation by the creators of the Yohondo app for iPad – the fun bite-size way to learn piano pieces

Posture clinic with BAPAM physiotherapist Drusilla Redman

All that Jazz with composer Heather Hammond

Presentation by composer and piano teacher Rosa Conrad

and plenty more to interest and inspire piano teachers, including demos of the latest Casio digital pianos and keyboards, and an opportunity to network with others in the piano teaching profession.

The event is open to all (discount for EPTA/ISM members). To book tickets please visit

A helping hand

We know that practising hands separately in the earliest stages of learning a piece is very important – and goes on being important even when the music is well known. It is often worth returning to separate hands practise to make sure certain sections are secure or to highlight particular aspects of a section, such as an interior melody embedded in the left hand or the voicing of specific phrases or chords, or to test one’s memorisation.

Sometimes sharing a single stave of music between the hands offers a useful way of voicing and shaping a phrase or section. I’ve been doing this with the left hand part of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 to help me create a particular effect in the bass line – the first beat is detached and the second and third beats are marked as a drop slur, with the third beat becoming the lightest beat in the bar. By practising the drop slur with the right hand, I’ve been able to experiment with a more precise articulation of this section which has helped enormously when I play the bassline with the left hand alone.


I tried this technique recently with a student to enable her to voice the opening of Einaudi’s ‘Ombre’. After the introductory chords, a quaver figure is introduced in the left hand over descending sustained semibreves. Ultimately, one should aim to play this with the left hand alone, but in the early stages it is worth taking the quavers in the right hand. This serves two purposes: it brings focus to the long sustained notes, which form a simple melody in their own right and underpin the entire piece; and allows one to shape the quavers so they are played both evenly and musically.

ombre copy

Another way of using one hand to help the other is to play a tricky section in unison. By introducing the other hand to the picture, the weaker hand feels more supported and playing a section in unison creates a more confident sound which in turn can bring greater security to a section. I’ve been doing this with a triplet figure near the beginning of the Schubert Sonata (bars 13-15). The right hand is more secure here, and when the left hand joins in at bar 14 it can sound ragged and out of time. To remedy this, I play the whole section in unison, giving a little extra weight to the first note of each group of three. Then I cross my hands and practise it again (I was pleased that when asked to do this by my teacher, I pulled it off successfully first time, which shows that section is now well known).

Simply swapping the parts around tests brain and fingers and will demonstrate whether a passage is truly known. Try incorporating some of these techniques into your practising – you will be surprised by the results.

More on this subject here

Symmetry in Practice

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

The curse of the pushy parent

Guest post by A Piano Teacher

Anyone who teaches will know the type – and those of us who teach privately will know the type very well. The pushy parent – sometimes also known as the Tiger Parent – whose demands seem to take up far more time than anyone else’s, whose child/children require special treatment, and who generally creates far more work for the teacher than is really necessary.

The pushiness manifests itself in a number of ways and there are distinct “types” within the genus of Pushy Parent. There is the one who is determined to squeeze every ounce of value out of the lesson fees, who demands refunds for missed lessons (despite the teacher’s studio policy that there are no refunds except for lessons cancelled or missed by the teacher), who queries increases in lesson fees, and who – guess what – regularly pays late. This parent will also often call, text or email the teacher at unreasonable times of the day, outside “office hours”, and expect an immediate response.

Then there is the parent who demands their child is “fast-tracked” through exams, despite the teacher’s firm assurances that attainment in music comes through consistent, careful study, not jumping onto that exam treadmill and notching up the grades.

Another “type” sets herself and her child up in competition with another child (and parents) who may be having lessons with the same teacher. Grade exams, student concerts and music festivals become hard fought contests and if little Johnny or Emily doesn’t achieve a Distinction, or win first prize, the fault lies firmly at the feet of the teacher. Such parents will often ignore the advice of teachers regarding exam or festival preparedness and will withdraw the child from lessons to seek a teacher who will fall in with their wishes.

Then there is the parent who “re-teaches” the child between lessons, because she believes she knows better than the teacher. This can create quite serious difficulties for teacher and student, as the student receives confused signals, and sometimes what the parent is teaching is just plain wrong!

Of course parents want their children to do well and to succeed, and a good teacher will appreciate this and will support and encourage the child to the best of his/her abilities. And some children actively thrive on being pushed, if it is handled in the right way, with realistic targets accompanied by plenty of praise and positive endorsements. But sometimes the pushy parent’s behaviour and attitude can have a detrimental effect on the child by placing unrealistic expectations on him/her: if the child does not meet these expectations he/she can feel demoralised, disappointed and lacking in motivation. Such behaviour can also increase a child’s anxiety, sometimes to the point where they will be so overcome with nerves in an exam, concert or festival situation that they are unable to perform successfully.

It strikes me that a lot of this pushy behaviour stems from the parent’s own issues which in some cases can be traced back to their own childhood. Perhaps they were also pushed relentlessly by their own parents and the behaviour is simply “learnt”. Or perhaps they are making up for some failing or lack in their own life by living their life vicariously through their children.

As teachers we have a responsibility to manage the expectations of our students and their parents. If we do not feel a student is ready to take Grade 1, or indeed Grade 8, we need to explain this to student and parent. Some parents seem genuinely not to understand the amount of time, commitment and application that goes into learning a musical instrument. We rely on parents to reinforce our messages about practising and to ensure practising is undertaken between lessons. This leads to noticeable progression in the student, and they can then draw satisfaction from seeing improvements in their playing and musical understanding.

Fortunately, in my experience, pushy parents are in the minority (though they do loom larger than life when they are being particularly difficult!), and most are pleasant to deal with, are supportive of what I am trying to do, and treat me with respect.

Further reading:

Parents, Parents, Parents, Parents

Aspirational parents condemn their children to a desperate, joyless life

How to increase your kid’s performance anxiety (not that you’d want to)

The Virtuoso Parent

Changing the Vocabulary

wordle 3

The way we interact with our students, and the language we use with which to communicate with them, can have a profound effect on how our students react to our teaching and their own attitude to music making. Young people in particular can be highly sensitive to the kind of words teachers use, and as teachers we are often afforded an esteemed position by our students. To enable our students to succeed, to feel encouraged and supported, we need to choose our words carefully.

This article is inspired by a recent discussion on the Piano Network UK Group on Facebook, to which I belong. A member posted the following:

I suppose we’ve all had that student who no matter what we do our say just will not practice. Here’s something that seems to have worked: change the word. Don’t ask them to aim at “practising”, ask them to aim at “progressing”.

For many young piano students, the word “practising” has negative connotations, no matter how positive the teacher is in their approach to practising. It suggests dreary hours at the piano, hacking through scales, exercises and dull pieces. It reeks of tedium, of effort without reward or achievement.

As teachers we know that regular practising equals noticeable progress, but our students don’t always see it that way. By simply changing the vocabulary, we instantly explain the purpose of practising – progression. “Progression” suggests forward movement, advancement and achievement.

For younger students, the word “play” is even better: because “play” suggests “fun”. And I want all my students to gain pleasure from playing the piano. “Play” also suggests playing for enjoyment, and I often point out to my students that they don’t have to be practising (sorry, that word again!) their assigned pieces and exercises to be doing useful and, more importantly, enjoyable work at the piano.

Another word which can cause major problems and is related to progression is “difficult”. In his book ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ and accompanying lectures, acclaimed educator (and I might add a fantastic and inspiring communicator), Paul Harris debunks the “myth of difficult”. Again the word can suggest something impossible, or at least very hard. Instead, try “challenging”. Instantly more positive, this word suggests something that can be attempted and that is achievable.

When a student grumbles that one of their peers is “better” (because they have reached a higher grade) I point out that they are not better, simply more “advanced” (and I also point out that playing simple repertoire really well is actually highly skilled).

Children often come to the piano with the idea that their playing has to be perfect and that they must not play any wrong notes. I believe this is ingrained in children from the moment they enter primary school, where their school days are governed by ticks for good work and red crosses for incorrect answers, and where they are required to reach targets which are set by unseen forces higher up the education hierarchy. Perfection is unattainable. Instead I encourage “excellence”: in this way, each and every student can find their own personal state of excellence.

The way we give feedback to our students is also crucial, and should always be couched in positive terms. When we give praise it should be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety. We should praise what the student is doing or their effort, not their ego or talent. Praise followed by criticism is not helpful. Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.

Examples of appropriate and appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”

“that was really accurate/musical”

“That practising has really made a difference”

This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing

When giving critical feedback, the correct vocabulary becomes even more important:

Examples of negative feedback:

“you played that chord wrong”

“your playing is inaccurate/unmusical/unexpressive”

“you are not working hard enough”

By personalising the criticism, we make it more harmful. Domineering or bullying teachers who feel frustrated by their students will often pile negative criticism onto their students to big up their own ego and to make the student feel even smaller. This is a form of transference and should be avoided at all costs, no matter how frustrated we may feel by a student’s lack of progress.

Instead, we should use a non-personal form of words – and actions – which involve both teacher and student in the solution to the issue:

“let’s see if we can work out why that chord wasn’t quite right”

“how do you think we could make the piece sound more expressive?”

We should also be mindful about our use of vocabulary when teaching adult students. Adults can be adept at “reading between the lines”, drawing inference from something the teacher may have intended as a throw-away comment. Adult students often lack confidence, often a hangover from an unpleasant experience with a domineering or overly negative teacher as a child, and this can make them highly sensitive.

We should use positive vocabulary in all of our teaching, and also allow students to challenge us if we make sweeping statements which cannot be backed up by solid evidence, in the score or elsewhere.

Simple, positive changes to the kind of vocabulary we use when interacting with our students can have a transformative effect on their approach to their music making, their attitude to practising (“progress”), their enjoyment of music and, above all, their confidence.

Related articles:

The Virtuoso Teacher with Paul Harris

The Heart of Teaching: What it Means to be a Great Teacher

Practise buddies

cropped-images-3.jpgThe other day one of students told me she had “practised with a friend” during the half-term break. She and her friend had set up their iPads and played to one another via Facetime (Apple’s equivalent of Skype). “It was such fun!” my student beamed. And her mum added “And the practise time was much longer too!”. I urged my student to continue to practise in this way, as enjoyment in one’s practising can often make the process more productive and pleasurable.

Buddying up with a practise partner can add variety to your practise. With the technology available these days, it is possible to connect via Skype or Facetime, as my student did, or you could simply invite a friend round and play to one another and offer feedback on each other’s playing (I do this quite regularly with a teaching colleague and a friend from my piano group). For children in particular, making practising fun is crucial to their progress, but for pianists of all ages and abilities, having a “practise buddy” can make practising more interesting. When I was working towards my first diploma, a friend of mine was also working towards hers and we shared several of the same pieces in our programme. To check in with one another and discuss how we were getting on made each of us feel more supported, that we weren’t working in isolation. If you are working towards an exam, diploma or audition, the opportunity to play for someone else, other than your teacher, should not be missed: just one more person in your piano room can raise the bar of your anxiety and will help you think about how you want to project your music to your listeners.

There are also a number of practise buddy apps available for smartphones and tablets which offer encouragement and support to young musicians. Further details here

Forte Online Practice Buddy

Practice Buddy – a fun way to get kids to practice their musical instruments. Teachers and parents manage settings within the app.

The benefits of recording your piano lessons

Make the most of your piano lessons by recording them. There are a number of benefits in doing this, not least the ability to recall word for word and note for note the interaction between you and your teacher, and the chance to listen again to comments, suggestions and passages which you went over during the lesson. Piano lessons, especially at an advanced level, can be very intensive, covering a lot of detail, and it is impossible to take in and remember everything the teacher says to you during the lesson, even if you write notes as you go.

These days you can purchase a decent yet reasonably inexpensive handheld digital recorder or even use the voice memo function on your smart phone to achieve a useful recording, and this has the benefit of being a permanent record of your lesson.

A friend of mine from my piano group, who studies with the same teacher as me, explains why he finds recording his lessons so useful:

I revisited a Rachmaninov prelude today after not playing for it for 5 months. I was having the usual problem spots and vaguely remembered how to practice them from a lesson I had last year. Wasn’t having the same effect though and it brought up more questions than answered which I jotted down to ask at the next lesson. But of course then with the power of my iPhone recordings I thought I’d check to see if I’d missed something. Firstly I was amazed at how much I’d forgotten over the last year. (I could barely remember some parts of the lesson in the same way as i’d forgotten a lot of the piece) but was a very chuffed practicer as it happened to be a 90 min lesson going into a lot of detail how to solve all the issues I was having. But as a bonus it covered technical recommendations that I’d forgotten as well. Basically it was like having the lesson again but with the ability to pause and practice the suggestions, so it structured my practice time really well. Extremely handy for pieces you’re looking to resurrect and to avoid unknowingly boring your piano teacher by going through the same things all over again!

I think it is the facility to recall the lesson and pause it to allow one to go over certain sections in detail which makes recording your lessons so valuable. That and the fact that you can store the recordings on your computer to refer back to them. Piano lessons can be expensive: why not make the most of your lessons as completely you possibly can be recording them as well (but always ask your teacher if they are happy to have the lesson recorded).

More on the benefits of recording lessons here

Squeeze every drop out of your lesson by recording it

5 benefits of self-recording

The Well Rounded Musician

A guest post by Pamela Rose

Much is said about nurturing the “well rounded musician”. Examining boards, conservatoires and teachers aspire to nurturing them. What is one exactly? [no fattist jokes please!] For me, it is someone who understands the music they play, visually, aurally and practically; who has connected these 3 elements (or sides of a triangle) such that one element (or side) is always integrated with other two. When they see the music, the tonality, phrasing, harmony and texture, the intervals between notes etc. are all connected and they hear it internally. When listening and playing they see how it might look on the manuscript. The well rounded musician not only plays well but plays by reading and by ear and understands what they read and hear whilst playing.

This is the aspiration. We can no more expect to produce a rounded musician without these elements than we could to produce a chemist who does not know the periodic table!

What’s good about being a Well Rounded Musician?

When students understand it they are more likely to continue learning music and inevitably enjoy music more. Well rounded musicians not only have a life long enjoyment of music, they also have the freedom to choose whichever genre of music they favour and enjoy it to its fullest.

Classical music is in decline in the UK and I think this is because we don’t emphasise completing the triangle in our teaching. This prevents students from achieving their full potential and in turn restricts their freedom of choice. It imposes limits on creativity, enjoyment and the desire to learn.

For classical music to survive we need well rounded musicians in the UK. We need them to play in orchestras, to be composers and to be teachers, and for creativity to flourish. In educating for these possibilities within classical music, we also create musicians who play jazz, rock and pop with a knowledge of how music works. They are independent musicians who are not limited to copying, based on good aural and practical skills, but are well rounded musicians who bring pleasure to others and themselves.

How do we produce a Well Rounded Musician?

Ideally, musical understanding is integrated aurally and practically from the first lessons. It is not difficult for a child of 5 to read a note on the manuscript, sing its name out loud and play it on the piano at the same time, connecting the notation aurally and practically. Neither is it difficult for a child to understand the format of the tones and semitones in a major scale, and to construct major scales whilst singing and playing them. These are just 2 examples of teaching for the well rounded musician from the start and it can be continued in every lesson.

I wish there was a consensus that we fail our students if we don’t teach notation and theory in a way which connects aurally and practically to the music they are playing. If we fail in this, theory is seen as an isolated and unpleasant necessity whose only benefit is that it gives access to higher grades. If any of these 3 elements (or sides) is missing from a musician’s education, the triangle is broken and we are left with copying, confusion and creative impotence – not well roundedness.

We can teach some theory essentials without notation, like the circle of 5ths, but students will only gain the maximum enjoyment and understanding when they can read notation – the language of music.

Many students, especially those with good aural and kinaesthetic skills (the muscle memory of practical playing skills), play by copying without understanding. I see it often in students who come to me for aural and theory lessons. Although often our most musical students, they can struggle to function happily in orchestras or ensembles where comprehending the score is imperative. They have great difficulty in learning new music by themselves and their sight reading is often poor. Likewise if music theory has been taught but not connected aurally and/or practically, we find musicians who are bound to the manuscript; they read well but are not necessarily creative and can have difficulty understanding what they hear. They are often the ones who find it difficult to improvise and after years of learning they do not readily pick up an instrument and play it without music or memory.

Why isn’t everyone getting it?

Much of our teaching favours 2 sides of the triangle. Those who don’t like to teach or learn notation favour copying and playing by ear; and there are those who teach notation without connecting the understanding that it can offer aurally and practically.

At the Music Education Expo this year the then shadow minister for schools, Kevin Brennan, scoffed at the thought of encouraging all children to learn notation on the basis that he had never learned it yet managed to play in the parliament rock band. Well, I guess that settles it! The audience of teachers loudly applauded his anti notation stance. I had hoped for a more enlightened attitude to music and the arts.

If we think about the English language, the best time to develop a love of reading is when we are young – and the younger the better. If we don’t we may never learn to read at all. So it is with the language of music – notation. The idea of a child not being taught or failing to read English is quite shocking. Strange, then, that we can congratulate ourselves, as governments do, or say that “we have much to celebrate” as the ABRSM did in their recent report, that so many children play music without ever having had a chance to learn to read.

Instant accessibility makes for a popular vote with students, teachers and parents. It has short term benefits but it has no long term future in the production of well rounded musicians, classical music, or generic music in the UK.

Pamela Rose's photo.
About the author

“Having studied piano and voice at the Royal College of Music, I travelled around the world as a pianist/singer for Hilton and Intercontinental Hotels and I was the resident pianist/singer on the QEII.

For the past fourteen years, the teaching of music has become my vocation, my focus and my passion.  I teach in an holistic fashion, integrating practical with aural and visual learning so that these different facets of music are learnt simultaneously. This enables students to understand music as a whole as they learn.

I believe that the understanding of music is the great enabler which allows students to become truly independent musicians.  It is this independence which ensures a place for music throughout life as it liberates the musician within.”

Pamela Rose is the creator of ‘LearnGrade5Theory’, and online platform that enables students to download lessons that will prepare them for the ABRSM Grade 5 Theory exam. For further details, please visit