Music Appreciation – holiday homework exercise

image from cheezburger.com

Over the summer holiday, some of my students did a piece of homework designed to encourage them to listen to, and (hopefully) enjoy and appreciate classical music. Far too many people think classical music is boring, difficult to listen to, or only suitable for clever people. Wrong. Classical music is full of variety, of moods, textures, sound ‘stories’ – there is, quite literally, something for everything in the great oeuvre of classical music.

Children are often more receptive to music than adults, partly because they haven’t had a chance to develop pre-conceived ideas about what they will and won’t like. Many of my students (whose ages range from 7 to 14 – not including adult students) have learnt 20th-century repertoire by composers such as Bartok, Kabalevsky, Stravinsky and Pärt, and have really enjoyed it. The atonal nature of some of this music doesn’t seem to bother them in the least; in fact, some have commented that they really like it because it seems “a bit jazzy”.

For this piece of homework, I gave the students five pieces to listen to. They were to listen to all the pieces and then select one to write about (see the original post here). Their written responses were to be based on these questions, which were phrased to get them to really think about what they had been listening to:

  • What do you think this music is about?
  • What kind of pictures/stories does the music suggest to you?
  • What things do you really like about this piece?
  • What don’t you like about this music?
  • Do you think hearing this music will inspire you to listen to another piece by this composer?

I promised my students that I would put some of their responses on my blog, and here they are:

‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner

Since aircraft were not invented when this piece was written, it can’t be about helicopters* or planes. Instead, it might be about some sort of mythical character or creature. It suggests large creatures or beings. It is fast and exciting (unlike most classical music). It really paints an image. It is quite repetitive and needs to add something new.
(Laurie)

(*Laurie knew of the iconic scene from the film Apocalypse Now! in which a squadron of Huey helicopters fly into a Vietnamese village with Ride of the Valkyries blaring from speakers mounted aboard them.)

‘Autumn’ (3rd movt) from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi

The clue is in the title, so I think this piece is about Autumn time. The kind of pictures that this piece suggests to me are of people running along the pavements in the autumn, there is a strong wind and leaves have fallen off the trees and are now on the ground. I usually like really fast and enthusiastic pieces, so I love this. This piece goes from loud and fast to quiet and slightly slower. It makes me look forward to the arrival of autumn. What I don’t like about this piece is that I find it rather repetitive near the beginning, but except for that, I love this piece. I will definitely listen to the rest of The Four Seasons. (I chose this piece over and above the others because when I was studying for my Grade 1 exam, I chose to play this piece! (Tilde)

‘Morning’ from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg

I think this piece is about morning in the springtime. I imagine young baby deer running around, birds flying. When the music gets louder and more dramatic, I see big trees with deer running through them. The music is relaxing and interesting. (Lottie)

I think this music is set in the morning in the country. It reminds me of a small cosy cottage on the Isle of Wight. I like this music because it is soft, gentle and relaxing. There is nothing I don’t like about this music. Yes, I would love to hear more music from ‘Peer Gynt’ (Sam)

Teachers: please feel free to use this as a template for a similar piece of ‘music appreciation’ homework/study.

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Piano students’ visit to Handel House Museum

The double-manual reproduction Ruckers harpsichord at Handel House Museum (photo: Matthew Hollow)

My colleague Lorraine Liyanage (of SE22 Piano School) organised a half-term trip for some of our piano students to Handel House Museum at 25 Brook Street, London W1. This was the home of composer George Frederic Handel from 1723 until his death there in 1759, and the place where he wrote some of his most famous music, including the ‘Messiah’, the coronation anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’, and the ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’

The Museum runs a comprehensive education programme for primary and secondary children, students, and scholars of Baroque music. Our visit included a full tour of the house in the company of a cheerful and enthusiastic guide, who had plenty of stories and anecdotes to amuse the children; dressing up in Georgian costume; and – the highlight (for me at least!) – a chance to play a copy of a beautiful 18th-century Ruckers double manual (two keyboards) harpsichord.

Not many children have the opportunity to play a harpsichord in the course of their musical studies, unless their school or teacher owns one (Lorraine has a bentside spinet in her home, which her students are allowed to play). For those studying Baroque repertoire, right from Grade 1, it is important to understand what kind of instrument this music was written for. Introducing Baroque repertoire to children is a chance to explain that the modern piano they are learning on is very different from a Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart or Bach-era instrument. It is also an opportunity to explain the evolution of the piano from its beginnings in the early part of the 18th century, and to find out more about other keyboard instruments. I also believe that an understanding of how the harpsichord, or spinet, works, and sounds, is crucial to one’s understanding of Baroque keyboard music. For example, composers such as Handel and Bach, and even Mozart, were writing for an instrument with a much smaller range (4 to 5 octaves). Ornamentation and other decorative features were often used to create sound to make up for the fact that the harpsichord has very limited sound ‘decay’ – unlike the piano – as well as to create the illusion of a forte.

Each of our young performers played a short piece of Baroque music, and was then treated to one-to-one tuition by Handel House’s harpsichord expert, Claire. She encouraged the children to experiment with different types of ‘attack’ (touch) and to experiment with the effects which can be achieved by playing the upper manual (played on its own it’s slightly quieter). Claire then performed Handel’s Air and Variations, commonly known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. Lorraine and I played short works by Rameau and Bach respectively, and finally my adult student, Carrie, tried Handel’s ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’.

It was a fascinating and very enjoyable visit, one I would recommend to any piano/keyboard teacher who wants to introduce their students to the variety and excitement of Baroque music.

For further details of Handel House Museum’s educational programmes, please visit the website:

www.handelhouse.org/learning

My review of Handel House Museum

G F Handel – Air With Variations, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ (link opens in Spotify)

Introducing…….Music@Monkton

I have recently come across an excellent blog for music teachers, written by George Bevan, Director of Music at Monkton Combe School, an independent co-ed boarding and day school near Bath.

In a series of well-written, thoughtful and accessible posts, George explores aspects such as productive practising, ‘teaching’ not ‘telling’, empowering and enthusing students, encouraging excellence, and lots more. This is an excellent resource for music teachers, both in schools and private instrumental tutors.

Do take some time to explore this blog:

http://musicatmonkton.wordpress.com/

Follow Music@Monkton on Twitter @musicatmonkton

The new music centre at Monkton Combe School

Be prepared! Getting ready for your piano exam

Here is some advice to help you prepare for your piano exam, at whatever level.

  • You should aim to be ready for your exam at least two weeks ahead of the exam date. By this time, your pieces will be thoroughly learnt and finessed, and your technical work (scales and arpeggios, technical exercises etc) should be very secure. Last-minute learning is never a good idea, as it can make us panicky and may lead to additional nerves on the day.
  • Your practising in the weeks leading up to the exam date should take now take two forms:
  1. Detailed practising to make sure everything is fully covered in your pieces. Be especially careful to note dynamics and articulation, ornaments, and any other features of the pieces which need to be highlighted in performance. Any uncertain passages should be gone over slowly and carefully to make sure they are fully learnt.
  2. Practice “playing through” without stopping to correct mistakes. Get into the habit of “performing” your pieces and think about how you want to transmit the music to the audience. Always think of an exam as a performance (rather than something to be tolerated and “got through”!). How do you want to “tell the story” of the music? What images, moods and emotions do you want to convey to the audience?
  • Your teacher will help you practice aural training and sight-reading in your lessons, but you can help yourself by listening to music at home. See if you can hear the beat/pulse of the music and practising clapping to it. If you have another musician in the family, ask them to play a short rhythm on the piano which you should clap back. Or get them to play a few notes for you to sing to. When listening to music, keep your ears alert for interesting features, such as changes in dynamics or articulation (staccato, legato etc).
  • Your teacher should do a few “mock” exams with you so you are familiar with the format of the exams. ABRSM exams usually begin with technical work, then the pieces, then sight-reading and aural. You will feel confident and prepared if you know what to expect in the exam.
  • If you have a tendency to suffer from performance nerves, discuss this with your teacher. We all have different ways of dealing with nerves, but one of the best ways is to know that you are well-prepared, so that even a slight slip or error in your playing will not throw you off course in the exam. I also use deep-breathing and positive thinking techniques to help with nerves. But remember – it’s ok to feel nervous! And a little bit of anxiety on the day can make you play better.
  • In the last few days before the exam, don’t over-practice! At this stage, it is possible for mistakes to creep into your pieces and it can then be very difficult to unlearn them. Enjoy playing your pieces, keep your technical work fluid and accurate, and look forward to performing your pieces to the examiner.
  • On the day: arrive at the exam centre in good time. The steward will tell you where to wait – and don’t be shy about asking to use the loo if you need to! Make sure you feel comfortable before you go into the exam room. Many exam centres have a practice piano: do use it, but only if you want to. However, I would not recommend playing your entire programme of pieces in warm up. Some light exercises, a few scales and maybe the beginnings and endings of your pieces.
  • In the exam room, be poised and calm. Adjust the piano stool height if you need to, and make sure you feel comfortable before you start. If you are feeling nervous, take a deep breath before you start and as you breathe out, allow your hands to float onto the keyboard into the position for the first piece. Or, if you are starting with scales, take a moment to think about the starting position. Don’t rush.
  • During the aural and sight-reading sections of the exam, if anything is unclear, don’t be afraid of asking the examiner to repeat an instruction or question. And in the sight-reading exercise, keep going not matter what!
  • Remember: the examiner wants you to do your absolute best and is not there to trick you or trip you up. Play with a sense of enjoyment, as a performer
  • And finally….. GOOD LUCK!!!!

Useful resources:

A helpful article by concert pianist and teacher Graham Fitch on exam preparation

My Turn Next – a booklet on exam preparation from the ABSM

ABRSM Mini Guide to Exams

At the Piano With……David Barton

What is your first memory of the piano?

I don’t think I’d really come across the piano seriously until I started school. I was very lucky to go to schools where music was a valued and important part, not just of the curriculum, but of the life of the school. At the infant school I attended, the headmistress was musical, and the deputy head played the piano; after I’d seen her play, I was hooked! I started lessons shortly after, and nearly 25 years on, I’m still in touch with that teacher; I’m always pleased to be able to go back to her and say “You’re the one who started it all off…”

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Like many teachers, I ‘fell’ into teaching almost by accident. When I was in the 6th Form at school, I was asked by a friend at church who knew I played whether I’d be willing to teach her daughter. Reluctantly, I agreed, and within a couple of years, several other pupils had come via the same route. Initially, I didn’t see teaching as a job, or even a career; the inspiration for teaching didn’t come until several years later when I no doubt concluded that maybe it was a good idea! Although it’s had many ‘ups and downs’, I’m glad I made the decision to continue, and I still thoroughly enjoy it. I was lucky to have had good teachers at all the schools I attended and I suppose that my inspiration would rest with several of them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

There have been so many… As I mentioned earlier, I attended schools where music was seen as important; whether the teachers were musical or not was largely irrelevant as they all supported and encouraged us, whatever we chose to do. The larger-than-life music teacher at the grammar school I attended certainly proved a lot about the value of music. In the days before any sorts of government initiatives, he found no problems in organizing school concerts several times a year; 90% of the boys, right through from Years 7 to 13 took part in the choirs who sung. Although I had some misgivings about the academic side of his teaching, there was no denying his passion for music and I feel very grateful for having experienced such an inspiring foundation to my musical studies.

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

It has to be the pupils themselves; without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Their enthusiasm, commitment and enjoyment have shaped my teaching over the past 11 years, and I’m enormously grateful for the support they’ve given me.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I have always been concerned that learning an instrument should be about more than the weekly one-to-one lesson. Some of my most memorable experiences have come from events such as concerts and workshops in which pupils have had the chance to work with and share their music with other pupils. In addition to these, there will also be particular pupils who’ve been both significant and memorable (not always for the right reasons!). It might have been their personalities (giving the sight-singing test back to examiner and saying “I don’t like this one, can I have another one” must surely rank high on the list!) or their individual achievements.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Whilst I know not all teachers feel the same, I thoroughly enjoy teaching adults; currently, around 80% of my pupils are adult learners. They do present their own particular challenges and it’s often necessary to take a different approach to the one you might take when teaching children. I’m always very conscious that as well as the time and financial outlay required for learning an instrument, there’s an enormous emotional investment to be made too. Many adults, particularly those coming to it later in life, have already been successful in their chosen careers; starting again learning something from scratch requires an almost infinite amount of patience (also on the part of the teacher too!). It can be very frustrating, and as a teacher, you have to strike the balance between enjoyment, encouragement and progress.

What do you expect from your students?

Above all, to get anywhere with learning an instrument, you have to be committed; there is no denying that enjoyment and progress will be lacking for those whose music doesn’t feature regularly in their everyday lives. I’m keen that all pupils take some responsibility for their learning; after all, for most, the lesson itself accounts for a tiny percentage of the time in each week. Overall, I want to ensure that pupils remain adaptable, that they’re open to new ideas and that they retain a willingness to experiment.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Generally, not all pupils wish to take exams and I entirely respect their decision. That said, and without me exerting any pressure, I’ve come across very few who don’t wish for an independent assessment of their ability at some stage or another. We are very lucky that there are so many options out there in terms of external assessments. While a large number of pupils still follow traditional graded exams, many have opted for other assessments such as the LCM Leisure Play exams and the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment. I want any exam taken to be as positive an experience as possible, and therefore it’s very important to match the requirements of the pupil to the exam most suited to them. I am very clear though that I do not teach to exams; where required, I use exams along the way as a benchmark for progress, but they do not form the basis for my teaching.

For me, I have never seen music in a competitive sense and so I have mixed feelings about festivals and competitions. As a child learning the piano, these weren’t things I was exposed to and consequently, they’re not something I’ve explored with my own pupils. Unfortunately, even when I’ve sought to look into these options further, I heard too many negative stories which only went to further put me off! I’m sure there are some fantastic festivals and competitions out there… For me, music is a sharing activity, whether that is playing in an exam, performing in a concert or simply entertaining family and friends.

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

For me, above all, the most important concept, whatever the level, is that the learning should be enjoyable. That’s not to say that it’s always going to be easy and that we’re only going do the things the pupil wants to do, but that we should never lose sight of the wider enjoyment of not just our chosen instrument, but of music in a much more general sense.

I am particularly concerned that beginners need a good grounding in basic musicianship. The ability to understand, explain and experience such basic concepts as pitch, pulse and rhythm is hugely important and paves the way for far quicker progress in the future. I’m particularly interested in the way in which Dalcroze and Kodaly principles can be introduced into the individual lesson, and whilst I don’t advocate any one method over another, I feel that they have an important role to play. In terms of the piano itself, a solid technical foundation is important; this is what I lacked when I had lessons. Such basic concepts as posture, hand shape and arm weight will provide the pupil with a real solid basis for future progress.

When it comes to more advanced students, this becomes a harder question to answer. The important concepts which need to be imparted will largely depend on their own particular needs at that time. Generally, as pupils progress there is likely to be a greater emphasis placed on interpretation and musicality. There’s still a lot of technical work to cover, and as the pieces become more demanding, the more pupils need a solid technical foundation to support and underpin their playing.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

The most satisfying part of the job has to be seeing pupils achieve things which they didn’t think were possible. This is particularly the case for adult learners where the littlest step forward is often a huge milestone. I have always been concerned that above all, pupils should be enabled to reach their potential: for some it will be that elusive Grade 8 distinction, and for others it might be simply playing a piece in front of other people.

Teaching isn’t as rosy as perhaps people think it might be! Private teaching is a lonely business, and this combined with the inevitably unsociable hours means that it’s hard to maintain any kind of work-life balance. People often tell me how wonderful it must be to be able to do something I love, to be able to work from home, and to be able to pick and choose my work as if choosing from a menu…I doubt that many have experienced the world of self-employment. The uncertainty and lack of stability which this brings can be overwhelming. For 99% of pupils, music lessons are a luxury, and when money’s tight, it’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside. As a teacher, you have to attempt to be everything to everybody; you’re not just a teacher, but also an accountant, marketing specialist, record-keeper, researcher, mediator and a whole host of other things too…it’s hard work!

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I suppose that in a very twee sort of way, I enjoy teaching music which inspires pupils. I want them to enjoy the pieces they’re learning and I want to ensure that each piece presents something with which they can engage with. In terms of my own playing, I enjoy a whole host of things; if I like a piece, I’ll probably learn it but very rarely do I get fixated on having to play all the works of one single composer. For many years I was led to believe that you weren’t a ‘proper’ pianist if you didn’t play ‘this’ sort of music, or music by ‘that’ composer. Now I enjoy the music for what it is and am not in the slightest bit bothered about whether I’m considered a ‘proper’ pianist! At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying the piano music of Ernest Moeran which is much-neglected!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

I suspect it’s a generation thing, but I don’t really have favourites. I’m probably more interested in the music, and will simply look for a recording which I like. I rarely buy recordings because it’s a particularly artist. Come to think of it, I’m the same with concerts; I look first at what’s being played, then at who’s playing it! I’ve seen many pianists over the years, but for me, the versatility and sensitivity of Imogen Cooper stands out.


David Barton runs a busy private studio in Lichfield, Staffordshire where he has taught flute, piano and singing for the past 11 years. In addition, he is a piano accompanist and composer, with music published in the UK, USA and Canada. More information about David’s work can be found at www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk

Keeping exam repertoire fresh

With exams looming this term, students may be feeling as if they have been living with their exam pieces for aeons. I remember this feeling well, the same pieces of music facing me at my lessons, week after week…..

Nothing beats being well prepared for an exam: knowing your repertoire inside out, being entirely secure with technical work, and well practised in sight-reading, aural, musical knowledge and other components of the exam (depending on which exam board you are using) are sure-fire ways of avoiding too many exam nerves on The Day, and can guarantee a trouble-free, and, hopefully, Distinction- or Merit- worthy performance.

Some of my students have been living with their exam pieces for a year. When I did my Diploma last winter, I had been living with some of my pieces for nearly two years, yet I went into the recital room for the exam full of excitement about my pieces and keen to present them to the examiner

But what if, as the exam date looms, you feel bored with your repertoire, heartily sick of it, and desperate to learn something new? How do you keep the repertoire alive and ‘fresh’ for exam day? Here are some tips:

  • Try to remember what you liked about the pieces when you first heard them. What made you select these particular pieces for your exam?
  • What excites and interests you about these pieces?
  • What “stories” or pictures do the pieces suggest to you?
  • How will you present these pieces to the examiner? What aspects would you like to highlight in your performance?

When the exam appointments are confirmed I will be doing this exercise with my students, getting them to write down a few lines in answer to each of my points. This will help them focus on their repertoire and will ensure they think about what they playing, instead of just “typing” the notes, and will hopefully result in well-thought out performances on the big day.

Good luck to all students who are preparing for exams this term!

An earlier article from my other blog on my diploma repertoire

An article by pianist Graham Fitch on how to keep repertoire alive