Joanna and the Piano – Gavin Thomson

Written in the present tense with all the breathless stream of consciousness of a bright, excitable 10 year old girl, Joanna and the Piano is part time-travelling fantasy, part comment on modern family life.

When her father is made redundant, Joanna is forced to leave the city home and friends she loves to start a new life in an Elizabethan country house. While waiting for the WiFi to be installed, she and her father discover a beautiful Bösendorfer grand piano. Released from storage, the piano is installed in the living room for Joanna to play, and almost as soon as her fingers touch the keys, the mysterious Herr Mozhoven (get it?!) appears at the front door to give Joanna piano lessons.

Of course these lessons are not the usual tedious fare of scales and pieces: instead, under Herr Mozhoven’s tutelage, Joanna embarks on a series of time-travelling adventures – to the First and Second World Wars, and to the Victorian and Georgian eras. The piano becomes the agent of these intriguing and exciting adventures.

The narrative is imaginative and fast-paced, mixing creative ideas with delightful fantasy and escapism, and observations on modern family life with insights into bygone times. Joanna is a charming, sympathetic personality, her character well defined and easy to identify with.

Joanna and the Piano is self-published by the author (via Amazon’s CreateSpace platform). It’s a nicely produced though the text could do with a proper copy-edit (this won’t bother kids though) and while I appreciate why the author chose to alternate black and white pages (a nice nod to the piano keyboard), the white text on black paper is not very easy on the reading eye. The text might also benefit from some illustrations. These quibbles aside, this is an enjoyable and exuberant read which will appeal to young readers aged 8-12.

Introducing ‘Piano Teachers’ Hour’ on Twitter

Guest post by Barbara Kennedy
When I made the switch to piano teaching, following a career in administration, one of the biggest surprises was that I missed the face-to-face interaction with colleagues. I had not anticipated just how isolating piano teaching could be. I now see around 35 students (and families) a week and I thought that would be satisfactory. However, although I don’t lack for human connections, it’s not the same as being able to chat with people doing the same job, sharing our joys, frustrations, and advice. 
I’ve been fortunate to find a wonderful group of teachers and musicians on Twitter who have given me a huge amount of support, not just in teaching but also in other areas such as health, gardening, and gin selection. We’ve celebrated birthdays, successes, and achievements, and propped each other up through illness, setbacks, and crises of confidence. 
Social media seems to have become a really useful tool for sharing ideas and support. For me, the options for meeting with other teachers are limited and often result in high expenditure plus loss of income. That’s why I set up Piano Teachers’ Hour on Twitter in 2017. This is a weekly discussion group for piano (and other instrumental) teachers. It provides us with a space to chat about various professional issues, whilst connecting with individuals who work in a similar area. My hope is that it will give support to piano teachers of any length of service who may need advice or are simply interested in a particular area.
The sessions are semi-structured, with topics released prior to each half term. I try to include a mix of issues in each period, and our attendees often provide ideas of what areas to talk about. In April-May 2018, for example, we discussed teaching composing skills, GDPR, the music of Debussy, safeguarding basics, and ran two focus groups for the Music Commission. Previously subjects have ranged from repertoire for various stages or seasons, invoicing, teaching dyslexic students, exam prep, and ‘me time’. 
One obstacle to arranging these virtual meet-ups is finding a suitable time. As the organiser, I’ve plumped for a time that I can make. Mid-day on Wednesday is a nice treat for me. It’s usually my quietest teaching day, so I have time to prepare in the morning. Its also a nice signifier for the middle of the week; not long til the weekend. However, this time doesn’t suit everyone each week and therefore I also summarise the discussions afterwards in a blog post. This is open to anyone, and people can comment on the blog to carry on the discussion. You can visit this blog, and find details of our past and upcoming discussions here: www.pianoteachershour.wordpress.com
If you haven’t attended Piano Teachers’ Hour yet then we would really encourage you to do so. Members of the network tell me that the discussions have been very valuable to their work and enjoyable. I’ve certainly found the sessions useful and they have given me the confidence and techniques to try out new things in lessons (e.g. composing). Whilst social media isn’t an exact substitution for a physical work place, staff room, or conference, it does replicate some of the elements of connection and interaction that keep me, personally, going until the next event. 
Piano Teachers’ Hour runs weekly on Wednesdays at 12:30pm (UK term-time – Oxfordshire based). You can join in by using the hashtag #pianoteachershour and following the Twitter account @pianoteachershr

Barbara Kennedy is a musician offering piano lessons and music theory tuition in Didcot, South Oxfordshire. In addition to Piano Teachers’ Hour, Barbara also runs and develops  music education projects: piano TRACKS which provides a range of tools to help piano teachers support and assess their students.

New ABRSM piano syllabus released

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the Teaching Notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus rather than a detailed analysis.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does depress me to see a dull little piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972 still appearing in the syllabus), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, the board promises “a complete refreshment of repertoire” and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades: in practice this approach feels more like a gesture than a real attempt to create a syllabus to suit piano teachers and students in the 21st century. The supporting tests remain unchanged with sight-singing, that part of the aural test that everyone dreads, still intact, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the early grades (1-3) tend towards very “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists. It it almost as if the ABRSM thinks only children learn the piano, and the only concessions to early to intermediate adult learners are Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s ‘A Memory of Paris’ (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ ‘Anatolian 08’ (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s ‘Dream’ from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a broader range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM appears very concerned to maintain its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength of offering a syllabus which aims to combine rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website. The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information


Postscript:

Following some rather heated discussion online about the new ABRSM syllabus, I’d like to make the following observations:

  • I would urge teachers – and students – to select a syllabus which works for them. Adult students in particular may not wish to submit to sight-reading and aural tests and for this reason I recommend the Recital Grades from London College of Music. As mentioned earlier, the LCM repertoire is, in my opinion, the best across the three main boards, with plenty to appeal to adult learner of all abilities.
  • The graded exams (and for that matter Diplomas) across all three main exam boards are all regulated by OFQAL and accrue exactly the same UCAS/academic points (Grades 6-8).
  • Be aware that there is a lot of snobbery surrounding exam boards: many people consider the ABRSM to be “better” or “the best” for a variety of reasons, and dismiss Trinity and LCM without even examining the syllabuses.
  • An exam syllabus should not be used as an exclusive framework for teaching and teachers should include other repertoire to give students a broader appreciation of music
  • Personally, I favour a flexible approach to learning and teaching – and this includes an exam format – which enables students of all ages and abilities to play to their strengths.

Trinity College London

London College of Music

‘Under the Rowan Tree’ by Robert Peate

Following in the footsteps of Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok and Dmitri Kabalevsky, British composer Robert Peate has created a delightful collection of piano miniatures for children. Like Bartok’s For Children and his Mikrokosmos, Peate’s pieces are both imaginative and educational, and range in difficulty from very easy (pre-Grade 1) to more challenging (cGrade 3/4). The early pieces are written in simple 5-finger positions, but utilise dynamics, contrasting articulation, accidentals and the pedal to create interesting and characterful music, which will appeal to children while offering teachers opportunities to explore technique, expression and contrasting styles. There are also duets to play with a teacher, parent or older sibling or friend.

Inspired by the birth of his son Rowan, Peate’s pieces have evocative titles which are immediately appealing to young pianists – Sleepyhead, Cheeky Chappie, Sunrise, Steps to the Stars, Music Box. I particularly liked the more impressionistic pieces such as New Moon, By the Sea and Wind on the Water, and all the pieces offer much scope for expressive shaping and musical imagination.

This is a very welcome addition to contemporary piano literature for children.

Order Under the Rowan Tree

The Three H’s of Practicing

On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As pianist and renowned teacher Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.”

To me, this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.

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Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone” or a flow state. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions.

Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality (SB)

Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come

Seymour Bernstein, ‘With Your Own Two Hands’ (Schirmer, 1981)

 

 

 

 

Teaching notes for the new ABRSM piano syllabus

9781786010759_1I am delighted to be a contributor to the teaching notes accompanying the new ABRSM piano syllabus, to be released early next month.  The Teaching Notes, which are produced to accompany each syllabus, offer guidance on all the pieces in the syllabus and each note is divided into three areas of learning/teaching: Musical Context, Technical Challenges and Performance and Interpretation. The notes are not intended to be prescriptive, nor to tell the student how to play the pieces, or the teacher how to teach them, but simply to offer some suggestions for aspects such as fingering schemes, expression and interpretation, together with contextual information.

As a teacher and pianist, I found writing concise (c250 words of average), focussed notes on the pieces an interesting and stimulating challenge – from both a teacherly and writerly point of view. In order to do this, I played through each of the pieces I was assigned to write about: some I knew already – because I had played them myself or taught them – others were unfamiliar, especially in the early grades. I enjoyed thinking about how I would approach each piece as a teacher and highlighting aspects which students might find challenging or where their musical imaginations could take flight.

The other contributors to the Teaching Notes are Murray McLachlan, Fiona Lau and Andrew Eales and I’m honoured to be in the company of such respected and experienced pianists and teachers.

 

Exam-obsessed?

The longer I teach (over 11 years at the time of writing), the more anti-exams I have become. For many – teachers, students and parents – exams are the visible benchmarks of progress, not just in music but in education in general. Children and young people are constantly tested, almost from the moment they enter school, and our society is now thoroughly geared to measuring of progress through objective standards or metrics (or “box ticking”). Exams and a structured curriculum are efficient from a teaching point of view as they can help students and teachers measure and compare progress, and the music exam structure allows students to sample music from different periods and genres, improve their technique etc. Many students take graded music exams each year, drawing pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument: I wouldn’t every wish to denigrate nor deprive students of these achievements – I went through the entire graded music exam system myself as a child and teenager and I drew a lot of satisfaction from it.

But we now live in a culture which is overly obsessed with attainment, competition and grading: the exam certificate is symbolic of “talent” but not necessarily indicative of actual talent, merely an ability to fulfil the requirements of the exam syllabus.  By the time I’d completed all my ABRSM grade exams at 16, I was a competent pianist, but those grade exams did not truly feed nor foster my musicianship and musicality – that came from exploring music by going to concerts and the opera, listening to my parents’ LPs or Radio Three, and my O and A-level music classes, where I learnt how to read and harmonise figured bass, how to compose a simple song accompaniment and how to analyse musical works in detail. I also played the clarinet as a teenager and this gave me the opportunity to learn how to transpose.

All this reminds me of a conversation with my driving instructor on the day I passed my driving test (in my early 30s, after three attempts). He shook my hand, gave me the official piece of paper and then said “Now you’re going to learn how to be a real driver.” Pianist and piano teacher Dylan Christopher expresses this perfectly with reference to music: “You pass the exam when you are ready, but you are not ready just because you passed an exam.” (read Dylan’s At the Piano interview here). What Dyan is of course saying is that grade exams do not necessarily make musicians. Students whose music tuition only follows the exam path may reach Grade 8 having learnt only 24 pieces of music – hardly what could be describe as “varied repertoire”! Nor does this route offer much opportunity for broadening a student’s musical horizons or developing an appreciation of music.

Unfortunately, a lot of parents believe graded music exams are Very Important (interestingly, those who took music exams as children themselves are often less concerned about their own children “doing the grades”). Many don’t really understand that the proper study of music is very broad, far broader than the narrow confines of the exam syllabus. In addition, there’s a lot of competition at the schoolgate, especially if you live in an area populated by high-achieving, ambitious people, as I do (read more on this here), and this competitiveness inevitably filters down to the children: not only are kids being tested to within an inch of their lives at school, they are also being pushed to take music exams by their parents…..

A recent encounter with one of my advanced students reminded me uncomfortably of how exam-driven/exam-obsessed young people are today. Her piano practise time has been eroded by the demands of school work (she is working towards the International Baccalaureate at a respected private school in SW London) and she has not progressed as far as I had hoped with current Grade 8 repertoire (though I am fairly relaxed about this). By the time she enters the Upper Sixth in September, her primary focus will be her schoolwork and university applications (which is how it should be). But she is adamant she wants to take Grade 8 because, to paraphrase her, she wants the “complete set” of graded exams.

This to me is not a valid reason to take an exam. If she had said “Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, and I really like the music”, I would have been more sympathetic to her decision. But does she really need that Grade 8 certificate to validate her pianistic abilities? I don’t believe she does. She is very musical (she also plays the ‘cello and is involved in drama and dance too), she plays with expression, poise and confidence, and is able to work independently. These abilities are not going to disappear if she doesn’t attain Grade 8. She is already playing Grade 8 and early Diploma repertoire, and I think anyone hearing her would agree she is a very competent and sensitive musician.

Rather than go down the narrow exam route, this student has a number of other options if she wants to put her music before another set of ears and receive formal critical feedback on her playing. She could have her performance assessed by a more senior colleague of mine or she could do a Performance Certificate (Trinity College London offers this option) or a Performance Award (London College of Music – info here). Alternatively, she could continue to work on and play the varied repertoire she enjoys (she’s currently playing a Chopin Waltz and late Nocturne, one of Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances and Gershwin’s The Man I love – all pieces which offer plenty of technical and artistic challenges), and go on to learn and enjoy other music which will stretch her and allow her to explore the wider piano repertoire. Personally, I feel this approach is far more beneficial to her ongoing musicianship and musicality than the highly artificial process of a formal exam, where one is playing to satisfy a set of criteria set out by the exam board (more box ticking) and the examiner’s personal tastes (to a certain degree).

It’s very encouraging to see music exam boards responding to the changing wishes/needs of music students, particularly adult students, who may want the challenge of taking a music exam without all the technical work and sight-reading/aural tests (the London College of Music Recital Grade for example is a performance-based assessment, with a viva voce). Imaginative syllabuses with a broad range of repertoire and alternative exam formats now offer prospective candidates a far wider range of exam options.

There is no “right way” of course, and as a teacher it is my role to advise and support my students, whichever path they wish to follow.

 

 


Further reading

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

Grade Exams Don’t Make Musicians