Why do you want to take a piano exam?

This a question I believe we as teachers should all be asking our pupils. It came up in conversation between myself and my friend and teaching colleague Rebecca, and we agreed that in future all students should be asked to consider this question.

Why?

Because it is all too easy for teachers to become complacent about exams and for students to submit studying for grade exams without considering exactly why they want to take them.

I want to get to Grade 8 before I leave school

This was from one of my teenage students. He didn’t elaborate on this statement, and at the time (about 2 years ago)  I didn’t challenge him. As I recall, I think I was quite impressed by his determination. He sees exams as things to be attained and ticked off the list so that one can move onto the next one……

Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, I really like the music – and because my mum wants me to do it

This is more encouraging, but the last comment worries me. Studying music should come from a passion and a willingness to engage with the subject in a mindful way. It should not be about notching up achievements which parents can parade as a kind of trophy or used for bragging rights

I don’t know

This student hadn’t really thought about the question at all…..! In this instance, one might wish to question why the student is taking piano lessons at all. Are they having lessons because they genuinely enjoy learning the piano, or because they are simply complying with parental wishes?

Here is my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight on this subject

I’ll only enter students for exams if it something that they really want to do. When the subject arises (“when am I going to do an exam?” or “when are we going to start working on Grade X pieces?“) I’ll ask them if they want to do an exam and, if so, why. I’ll make it very clear to them that they don’t have to do it – it’s not like school, where they have to sit exams whether they like it or not! Clearly I’ll also involve the parents in these discussions, especially with my younger students – but ultimately I have to be convinced that the student themself wants to do it.

Answers such as “all my friends do them” or “my parents expect me to” or “dunno” really don’t cut it for me. They won’t be motivated to work hard, and there is a real possibility that the process of preparing for the exam will put them off the piano altogether. However if the students come up with some or all of the following answers then it’s all systems go!:

– they want something to aim for and know that they work best when a specific goal is in mind

– the opportunity to learn 3 contrasting pieces to a very high standard

– the sense of achievement that comes with working hard towards a goal and then succeeding,

– the discipline it provides in preparing not just the pieces but for the scales and supporting tests

– they are taking (or thinking about taking) music at GCSE or A Level and believe that a graded exam will help towards this

Clearly they also need to be prepared to put in the work, and I make it clear that regular, probably daily, practice is essential. We then enter a few months of ‘exam boot camp’ – after all, if we’re going to do it we are going to do it properly!

Once an exam is done, I won’t allow the student to go onto the next grade until some specific non-exam objectives are met. Typically this involves spending one or two terms on a “X-piece challenge” in which we both agree a target number of pieces to learn to a reasonable (but not necessarily exam) standard. This provides a real contrast from the process of working on only 3 pieces – and really broadens their repertoire. Some students may also want to include their own compositions in the target. Only once the target is met will we discuss whether or not to start preparing for the next exam – and of they want to then the question is asked again!

In the affluent leafy suburbs of London where Rebecca and I both teach one quite often comes up against parents who demand that students are pushed into exams simply to notch up those results. Sadly, many parents, and some students, do not appreciate that with a complex art form such as music it takes time and effort (practising, engagement with that art form) to acquire the necessary skills to be able to take music exams. As the longstanding and highly experienced cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly notes in her article in the latest edition of ‘Music Teacher‘ magazine, today music lessons are viewed by some parents as a commercial transaction: “Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product” [exam success]. Teachers are expected by such parents to produce students capable of passing exams, yet the parents (and students) are not prepared to put in the effort to ensure practising is done. They focus on the exam as the end result, without appreciating that application and engagement are crucial in achieving that result, and instead, as Alison says, “instrumental music has become talismanic for middle-class achievement and accomplishment“.

I am fortunate that any students whose parents exhibit these attitudes have now left my studio (from the child whose mother asked me to “fast track him to Grade 5” – this was a pre-Grade 1 student – to enable him to apply for a music scholarship to a smart private school, to the parent who told me anything lower than a distinction in her daughter’s Grade 4 exam would be “unacceptable”), and I am blessed with a group of very engaged and committed students, who not only want to progress and achieve in their musical studies, but who also understand (in part, I hope, through my coaching and encouragement) that studying and playing music can bring huge pleasure and satisfaction.

My teaching philosophy is founded on a wish to encourage and support my students as individuals, but I will always question the student (or parent) who, on completion of one exam, wants to embark on the journey to the next one straight away.

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

 

Further reading

Exams don’t make musicians

Why take a music exam?

 

5 common misconceptions about pianists and piano lessons

Guest post by Javen Ling, founder of Alternate Tone Music School, Singapore

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“I do not have the potential to be a great pianist as I don’t have long, slender fingers”

Long, slender fingers do not necessarily make you a better pianist. While longer fingers may be an advantage in playing certain repertoire with large stretches, short, fat fingers are also an advantage when it comes to playing other music

Some of the world’s greatest pianists have small hands and stubby fingers. Instead of worrying about how your genetics have not provided you with your ideal fingers, start to work developing your technique and learn to accept your physical limitations. If a piece of music is not particularly well-suited to your hand, find a way to work around it. Every pianist eventually has to learn to live with their limitations and adapt to them.

Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no specific type of finger size or length that determines your potential.

“When I start learning a new piece, I should work from the beginning to the end”

Typically, most people will learn the piece from beginning to end and continuously practice until they can play the entire piece well. The problem with this method is having the discipline to push forward when music gets harder to play. As you approach a section that you’re unfamiliar with, you might be tempted to stray away from that and repeat the part in which you are comfortable with, rather than working on the difficult sections.

The most efficient way is to learn the most difficult sections first. This allows you to spend more time on the most difficult sections, rather than avoiding them or leaving them until later in your practicing. Thus when you start learning a new piece, scan through the composition, and determine which section/s appears the most difficult and start working on it first. As you become familiar with the harder section, you will tend to practice it more and under practice the easier sections.

“I don’t see any need to practice hands separately”

Professional pianists continue to practice hands separately even after playing a piece for 25 years or more! Many people are usually taught to practice hand separately first in order to reach their end goal of playing their hands together.

The benefit of practicing your hands separately is that you can focus on note-learning, technical sections and nuances of voicing and phrasing that might be overlooked if you practice hands together. So don’t forget about practicing separately once passed the initial phase of learning a passage. Use it as a tool to polish and improve your playing.

“Never look down at your hands when playing”

Most piano teachers encourage their students not to look at their hands. Firstly, this activity can slow down their learning, especially sight-reading skills as it inhibits them from looking ahead in the score. Secondly, students should not be too reliant on looking at their hands to find the right keys. Thirdly, the action of continually looking up at the sheet music and down at your hands can make you dizzy and might make it difficult to keep track of where you are at in the music.

An occasional glance down at the hands is PERFECTLY FINE. The trick is to not move your head too vigorously, but rather to just glance down at your hands quickly before looking back up at the sheet. By that I mean keeping your head perfectly still and just look down your nose at your hands. Lastly, of course, you should know the sequence of the keys well enough to locate them easily!

“I can easily learn the piano on my own”

With YouTube and Google, it is easy to pick up any skill via the Internet.

You can certainly teach yourself about music theory, history and techniques via the internet; however, a teacher’s experience is invaluable in helping you to improve your playing skills and technique, and advise you on common mistakes. In the long run, this will probably save you time and accelerate your learning.

Many people think that by taking piano lessons you have to go through graded piano exams. That is not the case. It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are interested in becoming a piano teacher or a piano professional, then it is advisable to take exams and diplomas. However, if you just want to learn for leisure, you don’t need to take exams and you can play repertoire which you enjoy, whether classical music, jazz or pop. Alternate Tone music school in Singapore specialises in teaching contemporary music and offers personalised lessons, which means you get to play your favourite music no matter what level you’re at!

If you’re still convinced you can get there without any professional help, that’s absolutely fine! There are many great and talented musicians who did not undergo any formal training. But in my opinion, the piano is definitely harder to learn on your own because of the structure of the instrument and its repertoire. If your goal is to play well, I definitely recommend having a good piano teacher to guide you through your piano studies.

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At the Piano With……Jill Owen

40_5983What is your first memory of the piano?

Hearing my Dad playing Bach chorales and chorales he used to compose.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I always thought I’d teach and I’m not sure any one person inspired me to teach but rather my love of the piano that I wanted to pass on.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The most significant teacher was a lady who taught me when I moved to the first year of sixth form at the age of 16. She helped me to understand how to phrase music and I suddenly improved when I started with her.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

The most important influences on my teaching are the last two teachers I had combined with my own unique approach. Most importantly I respond to the individual pupil as I teach ages 6-80yrs!

Tell us more about your Adult Intensive Piano Course…..

I created the Adult Intensive Piano Course after I taught adults at the City Lit Institute and I could see there was a gap in the market. Adults in London want to learn new skills and learn quickly. I wrote all the music and text. It takes a complete beginner in 5 one to one one-hour lessons to playing a Grade 1 piece and playing from music. I’m a stickler for reading music! The course also suits adults who’ve learned in the past and need a refresher and I can tailor a course to the standard of any pupil.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect my students to practice often and in small amounts. I also expect them to feel at ease and happy with the lessons and to talk to me if they are not. I mostly desire that they enjoy the lessons and are progressing well. I enjoy teaching adults because they are doing it for themselves and it is great to be a part of the joy it brings and fun they have in learning and playing the piano.

With children I feel it’s very important the parents are on board and understand the importance of practice whilst I still make lessons fun. Especially at a young age the child needs a parent or someone to sit and help with practice. If the parent expects that I do all the work at the lesson, it simply won’t work!

What are your views on piano exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams, Competitions and Festivals are not for everyone. Some of my pupils take exams and indeed need that piece of paper and Grade to have their achievement validated. For others they feel they’ve been there and done that with exams over the years and the stress is not worth it! I’m happy to be flexible and usually I know pretty early on which approach is going to suit the pupil. I think the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment is a good thing: I have adults who do this and it can also be a good trial for exams.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

I think it’s important to stress to both beginners and advanced students that music is fun, that it is a unifying language through which we can express ourselves in a unique and positive way. We can also learn valuable life skills such as discipline and team work as learning an instrument can help concentration and of course it is very good for the older brain….the possibilities for playing with other musicians and making friends are endless once you can play to a certain standard.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

Teaching and performance definitely are linked. As a performer one is always learning something new, even playing the same piece each time can bring up a fresh idea/something not previously seen. Having been both a performer and teacher all my life I think one can bring the performing into teaching and vice versa. We should always be learning and striving to educate ourselves also as teachers as we can always find new ways to teach, new influences and by attending courses for teachers and conferences etc…

Essentially we are always learning and then we can pass that on. Most importantly for me with music in any form, it moves me and bring me great enjoyment. This is what I try to pass on to my pupils.

Jill Owen is a pianist, piano teacher and composer based in Stoke Newington, north London. She studied piano accompaniment at The Royal Academy of Music, London, and is the creator of The Adult Piano Course, a fun and unique course for adult beginners now in its 10th year.

www.pianocourse.co.uk

 

 

 

Lang Lang inspires – a special event for piano teachers

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Lang Lang inspires: a special event for piano teachers
in association with Faber Music

When: Tuesday 14th March 5:15pm – 6pm

Where: The Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Rd, Kensington, London SW7 2BS

There are no shortcuts to becoming a pianist – and no one knows this better than internationally renowned pianist, Lang Lang. Widely credited with encouraging 40 million children to learn the piano, Lang Lang engages with children around the world through his fun personality and imaginative approach to music education.

This exclusive event at the Royal College of Music offers piano teachers the chance to get up close and personal with Lang Lang as he discusses how his own experiences have led to his extensive work in music education and his aspirations for inspiring the next generation of young musicians. There will be an opportunity for you to ask questions as well as to hear Lang Lang play from his Lang Lang Piano Academy series, published by Faber Music.

Secure your free ticket by calling the RCM Box Office on 020 7591 4314, Monday to Friday 10am-4pm, or call into the Box Office in person. Your ticket can be emailed to you or collected from the Box Office. Unfortunately, booking for this event is not available online.

 

(Photo: Detlef Schneider)

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeply into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.

The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation, spontaneity and the assimilation of knowledge – all pretty crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Should you ever put your piano in storage?

It’s a heartbreaking decision many pianists face at one time or another. You have to move to a smaller home – or maybe move overseas for a new job – and you just don’t have space to keep your piano with you. Or it’s simply not practical.

At first sight, the choice seems to be between selling your piano and putting it in storage. Neither option is easy. Naturally, storage seems like the least-worst. At least then you don’t have to part with your beloved piano.

The trouble with storage…..

Storage is far from perfect, however. On the one hand, it can end up costing you thousands per year just to hold onto an instrument that you never play. On the other, the ambient temperature and conditions in many storage warehouses are not optimal for keeping your piano in good condition.

Too dry, and many of the parts of the instrument will contract. Too humid, and many of the parts will swell. These conditions could lead to loose tuning pins, loosening or drying out of glue joints, blemishes in the finish, even rusting strings. And an expensive restoration bill when you do finally take your piano out of storage.

One piano shop owner and restorer told us that he was recently given two pianos to restore. Both of them had been damaged by their time in storage. One of them had had all its felt parts eaten away by moths!

A better alternative…….

Now, the ideal humidity level for a piano is around 40%. And while you might want to check with prospective storage providers that they can guarantee this if they take your piano, there is a third option to consider.

Why not give your piano to a shop to rent out for you?

This is a great option that means your piano will be taken care of. Any issues with its condition will be spotted and treated right away – and the shop will take care of them for you. All at no charge to you, because they’ll be paying for maintenance and upkeep out of the money they make on the rental.

Just think – your piano will be properly cared for. You won’t have to shell out thousands a year in storage fees. And, best of all, it will still be yours. So you can claim it back at any time.

If you’re moving to a smaller home, talk to your piano mover to see if they know any reputable shops who can handle this for you. Most professional removal firms will be able to do this if you ask them.

Or you can do a search yourself for local piano shops who may be able to help. Talk to them so you can be satisfied they’ll take care with your piano. The peace of mind and savings you’ll enjoy are sure to outweigh any possible inconvenience.

 

This article was written by Damien Seaman, brand manager of buzzmove.com, a site where people can compare reliable removal companies

 

This is a sponsored post. All information was supplied by buzzmove

Disclaimer: Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio does not necessarily endorse organisations that provide sponsored posts which link to external websites, and does not endorse products or services that such organisations may offer. In addition, Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio does not control or guarantee the currency, accuracy, relevance, or completeness of information found on linked, external websites. However, every effort is made to ensure such information contained on this site is accurate at the time of publication.

Stop-Start

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During a conversation in a recent lesson with one of my students, she told me that her previous teacher would stop her every time she made a mistake and ask her to correct the error before continuing. She admitted to me that she found this habit irritating and I asked her what effect it might have on her playing. “It stops you playing with flow“, she replied.

She’s right, of course. Like the person who continually interrupts when you are trying to explain something, or read a presentation, the teacher who continually stops a student to correct mistakes is interfering with the “flow” of the music. Students will also stop themselves to correct mistakes, a pattern I am trying to correct by encouraging students to “play through” their pieces when they come to play for me at their lessons. Unfortunately, such habits are hard to shift, especially when kids today exist in a school culture which insists on “right answers”, and the ticking of the correct boxes.

Music is different. It is the “flow” of music – the sense of a narrative unfolding – which makes it appealing and engaging to listen to and audiences, examiners (and teachers!) would far rather hear a complete performance with a few errors or slips than stop-start playing which seems hesitant and disjointed. My students don’t believe me when I tell them that most audiences don’t even notice minor errors and that even the finest pianists in the world make mistakes. We are all human after all! I prefer students to play right through a piece before we go back over it together to work on details. An alert student can usually highlight where errors occurred and will know how to correct them, and I encourage my students to be active listeners who can make a mental note of any slips while they are playing, knowing they can check them afterwards.

There is another good reason why stop-start playing is not recommended. Musicians, like sportspeople, use procedural memory (more commonly called “muscle memory”), part of the long-term memory which is responsible for knowing how to do things, i.e. memory of motor skills (for example, to play arpeggios or whole pieces or music). Repetitive practise trains the procedural memory and when done correctly it enables us to store a set of movements in our memory. It is this memory function that enables us to land on the right notes at the right time, to complete that scalic run accurately, or to play a series of chords, and so forth.

If we always stop at the same point/s in the music, the procedural memory remembers this and the stopping points become embedded in the memory. So when you go to play the piece, you will always stop in the same places, thus creating hesitations in the music which interrupt the flow. The avoid this I encourage students to play through, skimming over mistakes. Some find this exercise quite difficult, which is an indication of how engrained the need to correct errors can become. I also encourage students to practise in a variety of ways: to do careful, detailed practise to make problematic sections secure; and to play their pieces through without stopping (this is particularly helpful when preparing for an exam or other performance). During performances in lessons I do not stop students while they are playing: I always prefer to hear a whole piece, even if there are some errors, than a stop-start “performance”.