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

Encouraging evaluation, reflection and self-critique in practising

Play always as if in the presence of a master

Robert Schumann

The ability to self-critique, evaluate and reflect on one’s playing during practising and in lessons is a crucial skill for musicians, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practise” and self-regulation, which enables us to practise productively and deeply.

Around 95% of my teaching involves showing students, young people and adults, how to practise. Many students are “surface practisers”: that is, they play the assigned repertoire from start to finish, but do not take time to reflect on or evaluate their playing – the sounds they are making and hope to make, why a certain passage is causing difficulties etc. Students who practise like this often feel that having got to the end of the piece they have “done” their practising. As a consequence, lessons and subsequent practising sessions may feel frustrating because progress/improvement is slow.

I admit that I probably practised like this for quite a lot of the time when I was having lessons as a child and teenager, and it was only when I returned to the piano seriously as an adult, after a break of nearly 20 years, and started taking lessons with a master teacher that I learnt and understood the benefits of deep, reflective practising. It quickly became apparent that this kind of practising was far more productive: the most noticeable benefit was that I was able to learn repertoire much more quickly and, more importantly, retain it once learnt. It also made me far less reliant on guidance from my teacher, enabling me to work independently for long stretches of time between lessons, which in turn motivated me to keep going.

During lessons, my students are now very used to being asked simple questions to encourage self-reflection and self-critique: “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” “How do you think you should practise that section?” When I first instituted this practice of self-critique in lessons, most students focused on the negative aspects of their playing, highlighting mistakes or telling me that they “played it better at home”, and were reluctant to indicate areas which they felt were good or successful. Now they are used to finding positives first, giving themselves a virtual “pat on the back” for playing well. This approach is empowering for the student, because it builds confidence, which then makes analysing those aspects within the music which need more detailed attention a far more positive experience, rather than an exercise in flagging up errors, which can be dismotivating. When this activity becomes routine in lessons, so it should also be habitual when practising between lessons, from simple statements like “I really liked that passage” or “I’m pleased with the expression I brought to that section” to more detailed analysis of how to make significant improvements in the music. By working in this way, students become less reliant on a teacher’s guidance and develop independence in learning processes and confidence in their own abilities.

Schumann’s quote at the beginning of this article is particularly pertinent: there is no point in “surface” or repetitive practising without concentration, but there is every point in practising attentively and mindfully, as if your teacher (“master”) were listening. When practising alone, be your own “master” and question everything you do. Why repeat that passage? What was wrong with it and what are you trying to improve? Going through a piece and working on the most problematic or tricky areas slowly and deliberately is an effective strategy, one which is used by professional and highly advanced musicians. Accomplished performers at every level also tend to have a clear auditory “vision” of the piece in their mind as they work on it and continually assess their progress against this vision. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working like this is that one does not need to spend hours and hours at the piano: because it’s about quality rather than quantity of practise.

As one grows more adept at self-evaluation, reflection and self-critique, one is able to set clear, achievable and appropriate goals for each practise session (some people like to keep a record of these in a notebook, referring back to them and updating them as daily practising progresses) and build incrementally upon each small improvement (“marginal gain learning”).

Recording and filming practice and performance is another key tool in evaluating progress. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. And don’t just listen once: use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range. Video is helpful too, for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance. Thus we are able to separately ourselves, emotionally, from our music making and take errors less personally, which allows us to maintain a positive mindset and keep the habit of practising enjoyable and stimulating.

…the real pleasure of practice lies in engaging in a creative dialogue with the music, and thus getting closer to it.

– Steven Isserlis, cellist


My own teacher, Graham Fitch, advocates the use of a “feedback loop” which encourages self-evaluation and reflection. More on the Feedback Loop

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Indian Raags for piano – made easy

If you’ve always wanted to play traditional Indian classical music (“raags” or “ragas“) on piano but have no idea how to start, look no further than composer John Pitts’ new book Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy. This neat volume is a spin-off from John’s popular and acclaimed How To Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano, a comprehensive manual containing 24 raags, all newly composed by John within the raag genre, with detailed contextual information about the genre, step-by-step instructions to play each piece to enable pianists more used to playing western classical music to get started.

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Recognising a gap in the market for a simplified volume, John’s latest offering is aimed at early students (children and adults) and teachers, and provides “an introductory experience of classical Indian music-making”. Attractively laid out, with clear text and clean, easy-to-read music examples, each raag is followed by a short piece incorporating that raag. Each piece offers encouragement to explore and improvise, something I found surprisingly easy once I’d got into the swing of the distinctly Indian sounds (especially the sparkling little runs of notes which imitate the shimmering sounds of the sitar). There are opportunities for teacher and student to play together, and plenty of advice on how to get started with improvising – an area some pianists are reluctant to explore. In addition, there are free MP3s of the music in the book available to download and listen to as additional support and inspiration.

John has made an important contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Indian classical music, and both his books bring this important artform to a wider audience. In addition, he has added intriguing, attractive and engaging new music to the student piano repertoire.

Recommended

Purchase Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy

“I played it better at home!”

If I had a pound for every time a student said this in a lesson, I’d be a rich woman by now! We’ve all heard it, and I know I’ve been guilty of saying it myself occasionally at piano lessons with my own teacher. I’ve even been tempted to put up a sign next to the piano banning this phrase. Why? Because it’s a “given” that we play better at home. Of course we do. I suspect even top flight professionals play better in the comfort of the familiar surroundings of their own home or music studio. And it’s that familiarity that makes playing at home so much easier, less stressful and often more successful than playing in front of a teacher, examiner or audience.

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My own teacher has a nice image of a tightrope to illustrate the different levels of tension and stress we encounter in different playing scenarios. When practising and playing at home, the tightrope is easy to negotiate, very close to the ground, or even right on the ground, and should you fall off, you won’t hurt yourself. But as soon as you leave the familiar, safe surroundings of your own home or music studio to play for or in front of someone else, the tightrope gets higher and the fear of falling (and failing) is that much greater. Perhaps the highest and potentially most risky musical tightrope is the public performance.

My students know me well enough by now to avoid saying “I played it better at home“. There are several reasons why I discourage students from trotting out this phrase before or immediately after they have played a piece or section of a piece to me:

  • I am keen to encourage a positive attitude to one’s music making. I apply this positive approach to my own music making and my teaching. Using techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy I aim to turn negative self-talk into messages of positive affirmation which encourage confidence.
  • While the statement I played it better at home may be true, deciding not to say or even think this is helpful in fostering a positive attitude to one’s playing, which in turn encourages more confident music making.
  • Pre-empting a performance with the statement I played it better at home immediately sets up negative feelings and a greater possibility for errors because your awareness of your anxiety is heightened.
  • The memory of a good performance in the comfort of one’s home can be used to reinforce positive feelings when playing for others – in an exam, audition or concert – and is a useful tool in countering anxiety and encouraging a good performance. Equally, when in a stressful performance situation, imagine you are at your piano at home, feeling (reasonably) relaxed and comfortable as you play.
  • Change the message: rather than I played it better at home, maybe try thinking I played well at home, I have done my practising and preparation and I am ready to play well now
  • In a performance situation, instead of saying I am nervous, trying saying I am excited. This simple change of vocabulary immediately turns a negative message into a positive one.

The adult learner

It’s always pleasing to meet people who play the piano as adults (I am of course referring to amateur pianists as opposed to professionals who play for a living). Some have played all their life; some return to the piano after an absence; and some take it up from scratch as a hobby or personal challenge.

Those of us who teach adults appreciate that the experience can be enjoyable, stimulating, challenging and occasionally frustrating, and requires a slightly different approach from teaching children and teenagers. Adults often come to piano lessons with pre-conceived ideas about playing the piano and their own abilities, ideas which may have been inculcated in them from a young age by a dogmatic teacher or pushy parent, and can be hard to shift. We all carry with us baggage from our upbringing and our past, yet it never fails to amaze me how much baggage some of us carry around from our childhood piano lessons, and it can have a detrimental effect on one’s attitude to returning to or taking up piano lessons as an adult. One of my current adult students (a retired lady in her late 60s) told me during our initial interview that her brother and sister are “proper musicians”, by which I thought she meant they were professional musicians. In fact, her definition of “proper” was that they had completed all their grade exams, and she had not, yet when this lady played some Handel for me, I could tell immediately that she had the kind of musical sensibility that would fall into my definition of a “proper” musician. Another former adult student of mine had been denied piano lessons as a child by her piano teacher mother, who apparently had not had the time, nor the inclination, to teach her. When her mother died, this woman decided to make learning the piano a way of both celebrating her mother’s memory and also proving to her late mother that she was capable of learning the instrument: the lessons, while they lasted, were less about piano music and more about the emotional hang ups this woman had carried with her from childhood. Some adults simply want someone to talk to, and the piano and music become secondary to having someone’s undivided attention and positive or kindly feedback once a week. At £45 an hour, it’s a relatively cheap form of therapy! (Unfortunately, I am a piano teacher, not a trained therapist!)

Adult learners are often fiercely self-critical, which again can be detrimental to their progress. To constantly criticise oneself or allow the toxic voice of the inner critic to rule one’s practise time and lessons sets up an unpleasant circle of negativity that can be hard to break, and as a teacher one needs to be sympathetic, positive and supportive. Other adult students have unrealistic expectations about their ability and progress and most have issues with confidence and playing in front of other people. Again, patience and gentle encouragement from teacher, along with sound advice on how to practise intelligently to make the music really secure, are crucial in helping adult learners gain confidence.

Many adult learners display a very high level of commitment, largely because they have made the decision to take up piano lessons because they want to. Nobody has told them to do it, and they are paying for the lessons themselves. They are keen for personal fulfillment or a challenge or new focus, and many are conscientious about lesson attendance and practising. Yet they can also feel frustrated if their day job or the exigencies of family life intrude on their time at the piano. One of the key roles of the teacher is to offer advice on practising to enable the adult student to practise efficiently between lessons, even if they have limited time, and to tailor lessons to what is achievable given their other commitments. Other adult students have very regular practise schedules and unsurprisingly these are the students who tend to make more noticeable and faster progress.

Confidence is nearly always a significant issue amongst adult learners, even those who play at an advanced level. The decision to take piano lessons as an adult is an act of great courage, and a good teacher of adults understands and respects this, and appreciates the fear that lurks on its flip side. It took me half and hour of gentle encouragement to persuade a new student (a London black cab driver) to actually sit at my piano at his first lesson, and I had to constantly reiterate that I would be non-judgemental and always positive in my language and approach. Feelings of inadequacy or anxiety about playing in front of a teacher often stem from childhood experiences – a demanding parent with unrealistic expectations or the perfectionist attitude of a teacher, the memory of a bungled performance or a failed exam. A good teacher will be sympathetic and will do his/her best to make the student feel comfortable, encouraging them to play through any errors and not to worry about giving a perfect performance but rather to focus on communicating the music with colour and expression. Taking adults back a few stages to easier repertoire can be helpful too: this should never be seen as an “easy option” but rather an exercise in improving confidence and learning how to make one’s music very secure so that one can play with fluency and confidence. Understanding the physiological aspects of anxiety, which are common to all of us to a greater or lesser degree, can also help adult learners manage their nerves.

Some adult learners are keen to take grade exams as a means by which to benchmark their progress and for the thrill of a challenge; others are happy to play for pleasure and one of the nicest aspects of being an adult learner is the freedom to select whatever repertoire one wishes to play. This does, however, lead to some arriving at lessons with music which is beyond their current capabilities, and so the teacher must be adept at managing expectations without discouraging the student. Sometimes it is possible to find simplified versions of the pieces in question, or the teacher will suggest good alternative. Fundamentally, one is there to support and inspire, not to question the student’s motivation or discourage them, and getting them playing and gaining pleasure from their playing, rather than spending time on dull exercises or technical work, is at the heart of the teacher of adults’ role. It’s not about quantity of notes or notching up grade exams, but the joy of music making and the fulfillment of personal goals.

Just as with younger students, the choice of teacher is very important to the adult learner, and a teacher with whom one feels comfortable is crucial to one’s progress – and vice versa. Every student is different and a good teacher is adept at structuring lessons to suit each individual’s needs and ability. Teaching is a responsibility, at whatever level one teaches or the age of one’s students, and mutual respect creates positive interaction and conversation. Adult amateur piano students demand as much respect (if not more, given the courage it takes to embark on piano lessons as an adult) as students in conservatoire or aspiring professional musicians, and as teachers we should never patronise nor talk down to them. Many are extremely knowledgeable about the music they are learning, others are ready to soak up, sponge-like, the knowledge and experience we as teachers can impart to them. Ultimately, the relationship between teacher and adult student can be intense and long-standing, one which starts as a professional business transaction and develops into a rewarding friendship which benefits both student and teacher.

 

 

Inspiration comes from unusual places

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Meet Ant Middleton – the rather formidable-looking 37-year-old Special Forces veteran (he has served tours in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, and time in the Marines), presenter of TV shows SAS: Who Dares Wins, Mutiny and Escape. Why on earth might I draw inspiration from this former soldier whose life and work seem very far divorced from that of a musician and piano teacher?

Well, maybe try and catch some episodes of the aforementioned tv shows on replay or YouTube and see Ant in action. In fact, he’s not your archetypal gung-ho “action man”. I first encountered his particular style of leadership in the Channel 4 series Mutiny, in which he led a group of men on a two month voyage at sea, recreating an epic 4,000 mile expedition in which he took the role of Captain William Bligh, who was forced out onto a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1789 after a mutiny on his ship HMS Bounty. Such a tough and dangerous undertaking required clear-headed, highly focused, strong leadership in order to keep the rest of the crew safe and fully committed to the task in hand. It was an extreme physical and psychological challenge and it made for fascinating viewing. What struck me most about Ant’s leadership style was that although he was nominally “in charge” of the boat, he was not autocratic nor dictatorial. Tasks were delegated to each member of the crew, and each man enjoyed a degree of personal autonomy and responsibility while also remaining part of the team. Ant’s approach was fair and reasonable and he was always willing to listen to someone else’s point of view or suggestions. Those who suffered physical or emotional difficulties were spoken to firmly yet kindly by Ant, and he rarely raised his voice, nor used words like “stupid” or “wrong”. He created a sense of individual and collective empowerment which was palpable and very potent. One observed individual crew members growing stronger, physically and psychologically, during the course of the journey as they constantly tested their capabilities and extended and honed their skills, both physical and mental. I found it compelling and inspiring viewing.

I like to be constantly tested, and I think it’s good

Ant Middleton


I had no formal training as a piano teacher, learning “on the job” while basing my teaching style and approach on what I had learned – and not learned – from lessons as a child and a teenager, and latterly as an adult (studying with high-level teachers), and my observations of and interactions with other teachers (and not just piano teachers). One thing I was determined to do from the outset was teach in a way that made students feel encouraged and supported, as I believe this approach inspires an ongoing will to learn with noticeable progress as the tangible reward for one’s efforts. I try to avoid words like “wrong” or “difficult” (preferring to substitute “challenging”), and I am not the type of autocratic teacher who breaks down a student’s confidence or dominates them with my method or point of view about how music should be learned and studied. Nor am I a teacher who egotistically wants to turn out students who are sound-alikes of me (as Stephen Hough once observed in an interview “If I walk down a corridor in a conservatoire and all the students sound the same, I’d be worried“). I do not “tell”, but rather see the activity of teaching as a way of guiding a student along a learning path that will enable them to fulfil their personal musical goals. I still recall being told by my music teacher at secondary school that I was “not good enough” to audition for conservatoire: it shattered my self-esteem as a musician and it has taken 35 years and two performance diplomas for me to overcome that loss of confidence. I was determined never to allow any of my students to feel like that and to always encourage them in their musical endeavours and dreams.

With 11 years of teaching experience, I have learnt that by giving students a sense of personal autonomy and independent thinking/learning they are more likely to set to the task of learning and practising – and stick at it. In order to encourage autonomy in my students, I challenge them (in the nicest possible way) to make their own discoveries about the music they are learning. Together we explore the score and typical questions in my lessons include: “What do you think this music is about?“, “What might the composer being trying to say here by using this kind of articulation/expression/dynamic?“, “How would you approach this section?“, and “How might you practise this passage?“. This removes the sense of a teacher “telling” the student (and by the way, the word “teach” comes from the Old English word tǣcan which means to “show, present, point out”) and in part passes the responsibility for learning to the student. I also encourage students to challenge and question me, reminding them (and me!) that in music there are often a range of responses and that there is no “right way” nor “one size fits all” approach to learning and teaching.

I would say that 90% of my teaching is actually showing students of all ages how to practise, and the remainder involves the more artistic or creative aspects of piano playing. By giving students a “practising toolkit”, they can practise productively between lessons, confident that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to work out issues and problem-solve for themselves. This kind of practising also ensures that skills become far more quickly “embedded” or internalised within the student, so that aspects of technique, interpretation and artistry become intuitive and a student learns to adapt skills to suit different pieces of music. Above all, it creates a sense of empowerment so that the student develops the confidence to learn without constant guidance from teacher. For me, some of the best moments in my teaching are when a student comes with a piece they have learnt entirely on their own, with no input from me. As one of my former students once said “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I like” – and I would hope that my approach enables students to achieve this.

Sometimes it’s good to step back into the shadows to see exactly where the light is & in what direction you need to travel!

– Ant Middleton