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