Say it Play it

Much of my teaching is based on visualisation, a technique I learnt from my first teacher as an adult pianist and one which I use daily with my students and my own practising and playing as a way of engaging and stimulating the imagination to produce music which is expressive, vibrant and personal. (Read more about visualisation techniques here)

Of course, it’s all very well being able to visualise the sound or movements one wants to make at the piano, but sometimes – often! – you may think you know what you want to do in your head, but it may not be that evident in your playing.  A way to make this more explicit is the ability to articulate our intention for a certain phrase or section or entire piece by describing it out loud.

This can work very well with students where the teacher poses the question and the student articulates his or her thoughts about the music. I do this a lot in my teaching, asking students to explain what they feel the music is about (for them) and what they want to say in it. It works for both children (regardless of age) and adults, and the results are surprisingly positive and often quite colourful. For example, I was working with an adult student the other day who was having some trouble with the semi-quaver runs in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op 14/1. She said she felt they were uneven and that she wanted the notes to “trickle” down the keyboard. After she had said this, she played the same run and it was transformed: immediately the notes were more even and there was a distinct sense of them trickling down the keyboard towards where I was sitting. And in a lesson with a teenage student, who is working on a very atmospheric impressionistic piece, I first asked her to describe to me what she felt the piece was about and to then try and put that description into the music. The results were impressive: her verbal description was very detailed, not only focusing on the broad narrative of the music but the details of individual sections, such as the rising quaver triplets which she felt were “the rolling waves” and the sustained notes in the bass which were “a foghorn or far away tolling bell” (you can hear the piece she was describing at the end of this article). It seems that the more detailed the description, the more vibrant the resulting music.

Psychologists have known for some time that words help us make abstract or fuzzy concepts clearer and the act of describing the action, sound or image out loud seems to make our ideas more concrete and fix them in our working memory. The action is also useful if you are having trouble finding a note, or landing on the correct note in a jump. Anticipate the note in advance by saying it out loud – “I need to land on E”, for example. Or for a tricky fingering scheme, say the finger numbers out loud just before your fingers land on the keys. It also works for rhythmic issues (count out loud) and harmonic progressions. These are all aids to memorisation too.

In addition to reinforcing memory, articulating our intentions and thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task in front of us more carefully and consciously. Putting our thoughts into words thus becomes a powerful tool to aid productive practising.

Sometimes we can act like our own teacher or coach, encouraging us as we play. I admit to doing this quite a lot! Practising the piano can be a lonely activity and being able to encourage yourself through verbal feedback is a very useful activity. So if I play a passage well, I might say to myself (out loud of course), “Yes I liked that” and examine why and what I liked about the passage (also stated out loud). We can also act like our own personal conductor, encouraging the “orchestra” (oneself at the instrument) to “crescendo here”, “pull back here”, “big orchestral sound now” and so forth. Conversely, one can tackle the inner critic with a conversation out loud: I berate myself when I play badly (“Oh that was dreadful! What did you do that for?”) and then examine what happened and how I can put it right (“try playing that slower/more quietly/louder” etc). This turns the negative self-talk into a positive learning tool, thus making practising more enjoyable and productive.

It’s not just about grades

This is an expanded version of a letter by Frances Wilson which appeared in The Guardian on 29 May 2017

As a piano teacher and pianist, I was rather troubled to read this article in The Guardian in which the author, Hugh Muir, admits to having been put off continuing his piano studies by the awful, nerve-wracking experience of taking, and failing, his Grade 2 piano exam.

I commend anyone who takes up the piano as an adult learner. As my own teacher regularly states, “If it was easy, everyone would do it!” (and this statement refers to all pianists, professional or amateur, adult or child). Playing the piano is a huge and complex feat of coordination and it doesn’t necessarily get “easier” as one grows more proficient, only that one develops more technical proficiency, knowledge and a personal toolkit of skills to enable one to get around the instrument and organise sound into music. But playing the piano is also enormously rewarding and enjoyable too, bringing hours of personal satisfaction and pleasure as well as known therapeutic benefits.

Sadly it seems that Hugh Muir is “confusing the satisfaction of his examiners with the ability to learn and play the piano” (Mark Polishook). The article places an undue focus on the process of taking grade exams, and we hear little of his pleasure in the instrument or the joy of simply “playing” the piano. Too often, people – teachers, students, parents – conflate learning the piano with grade exams. Many students take graded music exams each year, and many students gain pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Passing a music exam (which, by the way, is harder than passing a school exam, since the pass mark is higher) can bring a great deal of personal satisfaction and can spur one on to greater endeavour. For many, exams are a useful benchmark of progress and can provide a focus for continued study. But for some students, an over-emphasis on taking exams means their piano studies are very narrow: if they are not given the opportunity to explore repertoire beyond the exam syllabus, by the time they reach Grade 8, students who have been on an exam treadmill will have learnt only 24 pieces (3 pieces per exam) which, in my opinion, is hardly a well-rounded musical education. And an overly strong adherence to the graded system for pieces can deter students from exploring new repertoire – a case of “I am only Grade 3 and that is Grade 5 repertoire, so I won’t be able to play it!

Graded music exams do have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad range of music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces. But taking music grade exams and pleasing an examiner is artificial and subjective –  after all, an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Exams are not, and never should be, the be all and end all of musical study, and I would challenge any teacher, or student, who believes exams make musicians.

Many adult learners who had piano lessons as children carry with them the memory of taking grade exams, and for some that memory can be uncomfortable or even painful, recalling embarrassment and humiliation in the curious artificial world of the exam room, and opprobrium from teachers, parents and peers. Entering, or re-entering, the world of music exams as an adult can be very stressful, stress which can destroy one’s enjoyment of the piano (as in Hugh Muir’s case). Most adult pianists whom I come across through my association with the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG – a social club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded in 2013) want to play for pleasure, free of the rigour and stress of exams. And why shouldn’t they? Playing the piano is enormously pleasurable and satisfying!

For those who want to improve their playing, a sensitive, sympathetic teacher will offer guidance on repertoire and technical exercises, which can be studied without the need to submit oneself to a music exam. And for those who do wish to take a grade exam, it is worth considering the different assessment options available today. One need not go down the traditional route of three pieces, scales and arpeggios and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests. It is these supporting tests which often cause the most anxiety for adult students, and personally I don’t see the need for an adult learner to be examined in technical work etc if their main motivation for learning the piano is to play for pleasure and personal fulfilment.

The main exams boards have cottoned on to this and the London College of Music offers several options which contain no technical work:

  • Recital Grades for which there are no aural tests: instead candidates perform four pieces and can either choose a fifth piece, or sight-reading or the viva voce assessment. Candidates have free choice of repertoire from a broad syllabus.
  • Leisure Play candidates perform a selection of pieces, which may or may not include an own-choice piece, with no other requirements.
  • And for those unable or reluctant to be examined in person, LCM offer the option of a Performance Award, where the candidate submits a digital recording for assessment.

Trinity College London also offers the Performance Certificate, which, like the LCM Recital and Leisure Play exams, is purely a performance assessment, with no technical work, sight-reading or aural. Meanwhile, the Associated Board’s Performance Assessment offers candidates the opportunity to have their playing assessed and receive feedback. There are no supporting tests and there is no pass or fail.

Piano groups and clubs offer performance opportunities in a non-threatening, non-competitive and friendly environment – in fact, one of the best things about joining a piano club is discovering other people who are also nervous about performing in front of others. Knowing you’re not alone in your anxieties can go a long way to allaying them, in addition to the opportunity to perform in a “safe zone” amongst friends. And for the more adventurous adult pianist, there are many piano courses available, in the UK and abroad.

In short, learning to play the piano is very much not about taking grade exams. It is about exploring the vast and wonderful literature pianists are lucky enough to choose from. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing for friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. Above all, it is about enjoyment. I would urge Hugh Muir – and indeed anyone else who has found the exam process stressful – to consider this before abandoning the piano……

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Pianists at play. Participants at a La Balie summer course


Further reading

Adult piano lessons: never too late to learn?

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

The Adult Amateur

Creative approaches to practising

Routine or “autopilot” practising can kill one’s enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by a preconceived idea and too exclusively goal- or result-oriented. This can lead to frustration and a feeling that you are not progressing as rapidly as you would like to.

Here are some suggestions on how to bring creativity and variety to your practising, to keep your interest and help you progress:

Variety is the spice of life

Vary your approach – if you always begin with scales, try something different, such a deliberately slow practise or beginning your practise session with some studies.

Change the warm up pattern

If you always warm up with scales and exercises at the piano, think about trying some simple yoga-inspired exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging, neck roles and shoulder and wrist stretches. These simple exercises get the blood flowing to arms and fingers and allow you to focus on the task ahead away from the piano

We’re jamming

If your practise routine begins very formally (see above), try some simple improvisation or doodling on the keyboard. You don’t need any special skills to be able to do this – take the inspiration from a handful of notes from one of the pieces you are working on. Experiment with rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tone

Mix it up

If you find concentrating on one specifica area of practising difficult, mix it up and alternate between exercises or scales/arpeggios and sections from your pieces. Throw some listening into the mix, away from the piano, to hear how other pianists approach the repertoire you are working on.

Write it down

If you use a practise notebook to record what needs to be practise, try instead recording what you did in your practise, what you liked and disliked about it, what you felt you achieved. This allows you to focus on what needs to be done next and can be a useful path into your next lesson, if you see a teacher regularly.

Sing along

Singing phrases can be invaluable in helping us shape the music, find breathing space within it and observe nuances such as dynamic shading, articulation, intonation, and tone colour

Hear it live

Going to a concert to hear music you are working on can be really inspiring, and hearing music created “in the moment” of a live performance can offer ideas about how to create drama and nuance within the music.

Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

Dispelling the myth of difficult 

There has been a lively and thoughtful response to an article which appeared in The Guardian on 27 March in which the author declared that notated music is “a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people“. The author, Charlotte Gill, who is neither a musician nor a music teacher, suggests that only privately-educated students can understand music and because it is difficult for most students, it should not be taught in such a formal, or “academic” way in our schools.

I was very happy to add my name to a still-growing list of signatories (which includes internationally-renowned musicians such as Sir Simon Rattle and Stephen Hough) to an open letter written in response to the article by pianist and musicologist Ian Pace in which he states that the author’s claim “flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds. As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge”

As I have written on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, music notation is in fact not that difficult to learn, if taught well, and most children, whose brains are receptive and open to new things, can pick it up fairly quickly. What has troubled me about Charlotte Gill’s assertion (which seemed to be founded only on the fact that she found sight-reading difficult at school), in addition to the accusation that the ability to read music is somehow “elitist”, is the peddling of the idea that if something is difficult or challenging children and young people, or indeed adult learners, won’t be able to do it and therefore it should not be taught in school. Some teachers skirt around the issue of teaching music theory and notation for this very reason, and in doing so they are depriving students of an incredibly useful tool for understanding the nuts and bolts of music and denying them access to a wonderful universal language. This form of dumbing down is yet another worrying example of the anti-intellectualism and suspicion of learning and the acquisition of knowledge that pervades society today.

In my limited experience teaching piano privately to children and teenagers, and through my son’s unhappy journey through primary and secondary education, I have formed the impression that too much teaching in our state schools has been reduced to “tick-box teaching” which involves a fair amount of spoon-feeding of bite-sized information to students, largely to enable them (and their teachers) to cope with the ridiculous amount of testing which goes on in UK state schools today. Sadly, while such spoon-feeding may bring decent exam results and desirable league table positions for schools, it also robs children and young people of the opportunity or ability to think independently, creatively and critically – all skills which are part and parcel of being a well-rounded, thinking individual.

In teaching notation – and indeed in all other areas of teaching – I believe we need to dispel “the myth of difficult” – that is, if we tell students that something is difficult before they begin, the difficulty is inculcated in them from the outset and the task seems that much more onerous/impossible. One significant yet very easy way to achieve this is to change the vocabulary – that is, not to preface a lesson in music theory or the first stages of learning a new piece of music with words like “difficult” or “hard”, but instead to find positive words to describe the task. I don’t use the word “difficult” in my teaching (“there’s no such thing as difficult” is something my students hear regularly from me), nor indeed in my own musical studies: I find it discouraging and dismotivating, with a danger of setting off the cycle I have described above.
Most students, children and adults, enjoy a challenge, and children in particular are generally very open to new processes and ideas. In the teaching of notation to very young children, there exist a number of methods and systems which make the process great fun – see for example, Dogs and Birds – and a quick Google search brought up many simple yet fun and creative “methods” developed by music teachers to engage children’s attention and fire their imagination, including music dominoes and musical cupcakes And once we have engaged our students, the process becomes that much more straightforward.
In addition, when our kids are subjected to dumbed down teaching and anti-competitive attitudes (my son’s primary school sports days promoted the “everyone’s a winner” mantra and were consequently very dull events) in our schools, there is something rather gratifying about engaging with an activity which takes time and effort, and most children actively enjoy it. (It is for this reason, in my experience, that many young people actively relish the challenge of taking music grade exams as well.)

If it’s too hard, I won’t be able to do it!

Many people can’t read music because they don’t believe they can, that it is simply too difficult for them to grasp: they have been peddled the idea that it is “difficult” by teachers, peers, and parents, and such a negative, defeatist attitude simply convinces them that they won’t be able to do it. But good, intelligent, and positive teaching encourages confidence and self-belief – it turns “I can’t” into “I can!” and makes learning to read music a valuable and practical tool which gives access to a common language, develops fully rounded musicians, and sets us on a wonderful voyage of discovery.
I’d like to close this article with some notes I took at one of the ‘Virtuoso Teacher’ seminars presented by acclaimed educator Paul Harris


Dispelling the “myth of difficult”

  • Changing the vocabulary
  • Learning how to achieve
  • Removing obstacles
  • Encourage through a thorough, meticulous and supportive approach
  • Ensure that the quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work.
  • Lessons become positive with a spirit of discovery.


Further reading:

Ian Pace’s response to Charlotte Gill’s article in The Guardian includes a link to the original article, his open letter and links to other articles written in response.

ABRSM launches teacher feedback panels

ABRSM has today (29 March 2017) launched a recruitment drive for ‘Teacher Voices’, its new customer feedback panel. The music education organisation is looking for 500 teachers from a wide range of backgrounds from across the UK to take part in a series of online polls and surveys.

The results and insight from the feedback panel will influence the development of ABRSM exams, apps, books and events. It’s an opportunity for teachers, including classroom, peripatetic and private teachers, to share their views on ABRSM and the music education sector in the UK.

Jeremy Phillips, ABRSM’s Commercial Director:

“We’re constantly reviewing our current services as well as developing some really exciting new ones. We wanted to create an ongoing feedback channel for teachers to share their thoughts and ideas with us. Teacher Voices provides an opportunity for them to help shape those developments.”

The recruitment for the teacher panel and ongoing management are being run by an independent research company who will ensure that all feedback remains anonymous. To register interest in ABRSM’s Teacher Voices panel, please sign up at www.abrsm.org/teacher-voices.

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Source: ABRSM press release

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

 

 

 

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.