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

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

 

At the Piano with Dylan Christopher

98588What is your first memory of the piano?

My very first memory of piano is sitting quietly, listening, and watching my older brother’s lessons. He was playing a simple piece of music in a five-finger position, but I liked the sound of it, so I would listen carefully to what he played, working it out by ear later at home. This happened a few times until on one occasion my Mother heard me rehearsing, mistaking my playing for my brother’s, which now retrospectively speaks volumes for his playing, and why he ultimately stopped. She arranged for me to start lessons.

I was four.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspired might be the wrong word, but I was inspired to start teaching by my secondary school music teacher, Ian Claydon, and Sue Rowley who delivered A-Level music during my sixth-form studies.

By the time I reached secondary school, I had already achieved my Grade 6 and was working towards my Grade 7. As you can imagine, first-year music was somewhat – to be diplomatic – uninspired (sorry Ian!), being a mixed ability class. Ian kept me occupied by letting me help other students. Before long, I was the second point of call in the class if Ian was unavailable.

When Ian retired as the Head of Music, Sue Rowley, his successor invited me to teach a few lessons to younger students during my free periods in sixth-form. It was unpaid work as a mentor, but I soon grew to love it. After sixth-form, I took a gap year and officially became a peripatetic tutor at the school. Before long, I had established my first teaching practice traveling to my students across Greater London.

I took it upon myself to ‘get qualified’ so I enrolled in a three-year music degree programme, gaining my teaching qualification a year later. While studying I met my (now) wife; when we graduated, we went into business together, teaching from our home in Colchester, Essex, which we have now been doing so for seven years.

Time really flies when you’re having fun!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I have had relatively few teachers that would be considered master-pedagogues, but one, in particular, changed my life significantly.

A remarkable woman, inspirational person, and phenomenal pianist, Lesley Young was Head of Keyboard at Colchester Institute since the early nineties until retiring in 2016. She would be considered my first ‘real’ piano teacher; that is not to detract from other teachers that I had received lessons from previously while young, but the ‘real’ here is only to differentiate the difference between a general music teacher and a piano teacher.

She valued more than anything else the psychological intelligence of her students, helping us to understand what our mind is doing while we play.

A stock phrase she would often say in lessons was:

Everything we do at the piano is cerebral; before we play a single-note, we must understand what our mind is doing.

Feel, think, then act.”

Three years of study was not enough to learn all this person had to offer me, but in this brief time, she found my Dyslexia and helped with referrals and a diagnosis. She was the epitome of clarity after years in a fog.

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

This is a tough question; nothing exists in isolation, so everything is influential. My life, my experiences, my teachers, and my own personal life-lessons learned, influence every element of my teaching. As teachers, we deal in the business of shaping human beings, which we can all agree is a continual process of growth and learning; our students grow, and we do also.

If anything, the actual teaching of my students has taught me the most. Each student that is taught influences the next lesson. It would be arrogant as a teacher for me to believe that what we have learned regarding our craft as practitioners are more important than the human being we have sitting before us. We can learn a lot from our students, in particular, some of the more challenging ones.

So as oxymoronic as it may sound, my students influence my teaching; and quite drastically so. When reflecting on my teaching from 2003, in comparison to my teaching now in 2017, what amounts to a few thousand hours of teaching, the one overwhelming influential difference over that time is exposure to students, their unique difficulties, then reflecting and helping them overcome them.

What do you expect from your students?

Respect, reason, patience, discipline and obedience; however, they are almost dirty words in today’s society.

The piano – or for that matter, the larger subject of Music – arrives from a time when people had to be disciplined. It took a considerable amount of time to do anything; usually, by hand, and without shortcuts. This meant the person working at it needed to have patience and more importantly the discipline. To learn anything requires a person to be reasonable, and able to listen and carry out instructions. My students are welcome to disagree with me, I actively encourage it as makes for interesting discussions. However, if they simply refuse to carry out my instructions there is little point to the interaction.

Today, particularly in western countries, we as teaching professionals have to contend with student-centric learning, which in itself is not bad, however, it does create problems. If you give a child the open choice of eating what they want, they would likely indulge in something fatty or sugary … for every meal; which is damaging to long-term health. As teachers, parents or guardians, it is our responsibility to teach them that you need the discipline to resist these impulses. Before reaching this point, we must teach obedience to trust out guidance due to experience and longevity.

The first lesson I teach my students is to listen to what I say and to carry out my instructions even when they don’t think they need to. Without this fundamental element, it is not a lesson, and they might as well not have my input.

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

Exams and competitions serve a function, but they should never be the soul purpose and end-goal of the activity. I often would encourage my students to take part in concerts before an audience than enter for exams or competitions. My reason for this is, when the goal becomes solely to pass an exam or win a competition, it can create an extremely narrow path for learning to obtain a certificate or trophy; this all creating false confidence.

As teachers, we have all encountered the learners who arrive at lessons touting various graded numbers, who then fail to carry out simple tasks, only for them then to avoid responsibility for the gaps in knowledge. This is false confidence; though an exam was passed, the learning was specific to passing the exam, so the validity of the test is always then questionable at best.

I am painfully aware of the irony; myself holding several qualifications, also entering a number of competitions before, during and after studying. However, they were not, and still are not the ends of my learning, but a means to test it. I passed or won, indicating that on that day, at that time, I was ready.

You pass the exam when you are ready, but, you are not ready just because you passed an exam.

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

I spend an insurmountable time with my under-fives working on ‘pulse’. This is often overlooked in transfer students I encounter, or felt unneeded by some newcomers, but, without a pulse, music will always fail to arrive.

Even advanced players can come unstuck if they fail to count measures accurately. This is also a problem with people who profess to not being able to sight-read music. It would be analogous to trying to build a house on an unreliable foundation or to paint on a moving canvas.

An advanced student, who is truly advanced is always willing to go back to basics in order to rebuild. A beginner takes a long time to build anything, so they are always reluctant to lose it once they finally built it. The beginner will also rush ahead in an attempt to catch up, only having to go back and do it again after they realise that there are no shortcuts.

Do you teach adults? If so, what are the particular challenges and pleasures of teaching adult learners, in your experience?

I do teach adults, and it is always a pleasure.

From my experiences, the main challenge I encounter is getting them not to be so hard on themselves, and not to make comparisons to other musicians. The over-compensation that is created from these two actions are devastatingly self-defeating, causing many to give up before they try.

If you are an adult reading this, it is never too late to start learning a new skill; however, be patient and remember you are an adult with responsibilities, don’t compare yourself to others, particularly children.

…and, most importantly, count!

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

Not all performers are teachers, but all teachers are performers.

Every lesson is a performance; to bestow knowledge to another is a defacto performance. Not a single lesson has gone by without me playing the piano; whether it be a single note or phrase, or demonstrating an entire piece.

It would be hypocritical as a teacher to teach a performance art and not perform, yet expect our students to do so. Furthermore, how can we make any claim to know how to teach music to a student if we have not yet discovered it ourselves fully.

That would be like offering advice on how to traverse a vast ocean by boat, without ever sailing, seeing a boat or for that matter, ever seeing the ocean oneself.

Dylan Christopher has established himself as a pianist and music educator in Colchester providing piano lessons, workshops and concert-performance opportunities to aspirant musicians young and old.

dylanchristopher.com

The price of piano lessons 

How much would you expect to pay for piano lessons? Is your choice of teacher based purely on the price they are charging for lessons and whether the teacher offers “value for money”? Or do you consider other factors such as the teacher’s credentials and experience, recommendations or testimonials from existing students?

The problem with private piano teaching in the UK is that it is unregulated and anyone can set themselves up as a teacher and charge what they like. The teacher who advertises via a card in the window of the corner shop might be offering very competitive rates at just £15/hour for lessons, but how do you know if this teacher is any good?

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) publishes an annual survey of fees for private music tuition in the UK which provides a useful benchmark for teachers when setting fees and for prospective students who are looking for a teacher. Don’t be tempted to go with a teacher just because their lesson fees are low or seem very “competitive” (or “cheap”). Such teachers may not be sufficiently qualified/experienced (I have come across people with barely a Grade 6 pass to their name who have set themselves up as piano teachers) and those who charge very low fees undercut – and, more importantly, devalue – the work of established professionals who have undergone specialist training and/or are highly experienced.

When looking for a piano teacher for yourself or your children, consider the following:

  • What are the teacher’s qualifications (e.g. music degree or BA Ed, teaching or performance diplomas) and other credentials (experience, for example)?
  • Does the teacher hold an up-to-date DBS certficate (crucial in today’s climate of child protection)? The ISM has a directory of registered teachers who are required to undergo a full DBS check before they are added to the register.
  • Does the teacher freely offer references on request?
  • Does the teacher come recommended by existing or former students/parents?
  • Does the teacher invite you and/or your child for an interview or chance to meet in person before you decide to go ahead with lessons?

When considering the amount the teacher charges for lessons, bear in mind the following:

  • Lesson fees should reflect the teacher’s experience and qualifications
  • Lesson fees cover not only the time the teacher is actively teaching but also other factors such as admin (lesson planning, exam entries) and the cost of running their teaching studio (which may include rent, heat and light, maintenance of the piano/s and so forth)

If you are a teacher, consider the above factors when setting your fees and do refer to the ISM fees survey for guidance for the average fees for your area. Be mindful of how people perceive “value for money” – if your fees seem low, people may think you are not a good teacher (this attitude seems to prevail in more affluent areas), too high and you may price yourself out of the market.

 


Further reading

What to look for in a piano teacher

Guidance for parents of young piano students

Guest post by Alexandra Westcott

Learning Piano

Learning music should be fun, but there are processes along the way that can seem like an uphill struggle, especially to a young beginner. However, perseverance through these processes at the start will give a student more freedom at the instrument and, therefore, more fun and a greater ability to express him or herself, which is why they come to the piano in the first place. After a number of years teaching it has been very apparent to me just how fundamental parental support is to the student’s progress, not just how far that student will go, but even whether they will get off the starting block or not.

These notes are offered to parents to remind them that they can be hugely instrumental (excuse the pun) in harnessing their child’s enthusiasm for music. Their support will encourage positive progress to emerge as a result of curiosity and fun as well as perseverance. The home sessions and the learning process itself become a journey of discovery, and a young student’s goal to be able to play the piano is achieved a lot quicker than thoughtless time spent ‘going through the motions’.

I will say, firstly, that I hate the word ‘practice’. A couple of the many dictionary definitions are ‘habitual performance’, and ‘repeated or systematic exercise’. You cannot do either unless you KNOW what it is you are doing! So a session at the piano is about LEARNING until such a time when KNOWING is reached. Then follows playing, and perfecting, both with an always curious and enquiring mind. All time spent at the piano should have attention and concentration so as to incur clarity of the text and freedom of muscles; unmindful drilling and repeated practice doesn’t make perfect, unless you can include perfect mistakes and a perfectly awful technique! Engaging, absorbing and attentive study at the piano makes for thoughtful and expressive playing, takes a lot less time, and is a darn sight more interesting along the way!

And while all this sounds like hard work, it doesn’t have to be. On the contrary, getting involved will add a fun and interactive element to what can sometimes be a struggle in the early stages when there is so much new material to absorb and digest. I have a countless number of ‘games’ I play with my students (see link below) and I’m sure your child’s teacher will have their own (usually they are a fun way of learning notes/listening games/creative games) so include these in the sessions at home.

Scheduling

A very young student will need help in managing their schedule so that they fit in their regular sessions at the instrument. And while this may sound obvious, it doesn’t always happen. There is no way with school/playtime/after school activities/supper/homework/friends/tv etc that a young child will have the discipline to put aside time for the piano. The number of students I have had over my 25 years of teaching who were prodigious and passionate enough to sit at the piano for hours on end on their own I can count on the fingers of one hand (and that doesn’t include the thumb!). Having a parent help schedule the time, and gently discipline the child to keep to this schedule, can be an enormous benefit when there are so many other distractions.

How often?

This depends on the age of the child, their stage in learning, their own enthusiasm, their concentration span, and the quality of the time spent at the piano. In the very early stages when the fundamentals are being absorbed, as long as there is an understanding of what is being learnt, then little and often is probably best. As things become more complex then a little more time is needed to reach a mental understanding of what is being learnt, and a correspondingly increasing amount of time is needed to physically absorb it both into the mind and into the fingers. Personally, I think it is important to have days off built into a schedule so there are guilt free non-piano days, rather than schedule practice every day and then ‘not get around to it’, but at the same time I know for some students it works to have it so ingrained into their routine, like cleaning their teeth, that they come to the piano without question and just get down to their work. It works differently for different families so decide what is right for your and your child.

How Long?

The same constraints apply with regards age, standard, level of concentration etc. It will be different with each student. In any case though, allow for periods of ‘fiddling’ and games on top of the homework that a teacher sets, either within the practice session, or maybe in a second daily session. For instance, covering the set practice in the morning then leaving the pupil to do whatever takes their fancy in the evening – improvising, games, messing about finding tunes etc. Ideally when new technical habits are being formed then even the fiddling should be mindful, otherwise the good work undertaken in the set time gets undone as old habits take over when concentration is elsewhere. However, paramount is an enthusiasm and curiosity for the music and instrument so it is vital for a pupil to have time at the piano in ‘discovery’ mode!

Offer Moral support

As a solo instrument it can be lonely and isolating for a young child in a room on their own when they are struggling with the early stages. Having the encouragement and close proximity of a parent can be a positive support to their experience, quite apart from the practical help that a parent can provide.

Be another pair of eyes and ears

The time at home is the time when technical habits are learned and ingrained, A parent will need to go over the teacher’s notes, ensure that everything gets done and gets done well. Ask the teacher for clarification at the end of the lesson if you don’t understand anything.

There can be complicated and complex reasons why we do things, or don’t do things at the piano in a certain way, that a parent might understand but that a young child might not. Plus, it is very hard to monitor yourself and how you do things at any age, let alone at 6 or 7. Your child’s teacher will have given exercises during a lesson to help develop good fingers and technical skills. You should be able to ask as often as you like for demonstrations. As practice is about developing habits, short very focused bursts at technique is better than long protracted sessions with concentration slipping. Once you have understood what your child’s teacher is asking, do pay great attention to helping your child achieve it, with gentle encouragement, and helping them observe when they do things correctly as well as incorrectly. This is the only way good habits can be learned and ingrained and a good technical foundation means that time won’t have to be spent later on correcting bad habits which themselves hold up a musical progression (i.e. tense fingers won’t have the necessary freedom for the expression, facility, velocity and sensitivity required by more advanced music).

Lastly, try to be a reminder of what the teacher wants, rather than a judge, as this will undermine their confidence and can dampen their desire completely.

Encourage regular reading of new material

I have a number of activities that help with reading that I suggest students and parents do at home and I’m sure your teacher will too. I was very late to being a good reader but wow, the joy from being able to pick up a piece and make a fair crack of it is huge. Plus, being a good reader makes learning new music so much quicker and less painful! Later on of course, (as if you need further encouragement to add in this skill to your offspring’s practice), it opens doors to joining bands/ accompanying/duets etc etc.

Fun!

As I said before, do include games. If you need some inspiration you can find some here http://www.alexandrawestcottpiano.co.uk/resources-for-parents/

Make sure you include things to help with learning the notes on the piano, learning notes on the stave, listening (aural) awareness, memory, creativity and theory.

Other supportive activities

Other things you can do to support your child’s musical life is to play a wide variety of music around the house, attend concerts (there are lots of concerts aimed specifically at children where they can play the instruments etc), check out the internet for interesting bits of information about composers they are studying or listen to fragments of other pieces by the same composer. Write stories or draw pictures while listening to (any) music. Listen to tapes of stories of the great composers.

Notes to remember

Music is an expressive and communicative art so a student needs to feel comfortable with themselves, and allowing them an inquisitive mind and lively ear, and the freedom to translate their expressions to sounds, is vital in their growth as musicians. It is challenging but necessary to encourage them without judgement so that they feel free to explore the colours and sounds of the instrument without feeling censored, but are guided in areas where there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (i.e. note). Finally, I’m a great fan of rewards, but when extra motivation is needed make sure the rewards are for trying rather than for getting it ‘right’. Sometimes the road to getting things right is rather long so boosts along the way can give the encouragement needed to continue.

Conclusion

Just to reiterate, after all these suggestions, this is about making music and learning the piano fun, as well as providing a solid technical and musical foundation. Whether or not a student goes through the exam structure, or takes it to GCSE/A level, it is a skill and pleasure that is with them for life, so it seems worthwhile to offer them the best support we can.

 

Alexandra Westcott, BA Piano teacher/Accompanist

Follow me on twitter: @MissAMWestcott

A Fellow of the ISM, Muswell Hill N10 07966 141944

www.alexandrawestcottpiano.co.uk

Author: ‘Piano Teaching as a Career’
“Very readable, clearly laid out, and should be in every piano teacher’s library”

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Pianist for Freefall Jazz
Contact: alexandrawestcott@yahoo.co.uk

LCM piano grade handbooks 2018-2020

LCM_Piano_Handbooks_2018

I was delighted to act as a consultant in the selection of piano pieces for the new London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus and I was impressed with the breadth and variety of music under consideration. When I received copies of the new handbooks, I was pleased to see some of the pieces I had suggested included in the new syllabus.

I am a recent convert to LCM music exams, having heard very favourable reports of both the exam formats and repertoire from teaching colleagues and friends who have taken both Grade 8 and the ALCM first level Diploma. LCM is clearly alert to the changing nature of piano teaching in the 21st century and in addition to traditional graded music exams, the board also offers Recital Grades, Leisure Play, Performance Assessment and the new Concert Diploma. This allows teachers and students to select an exam format which suits them (some students, particularly adult learners, prefer not to learn technical work or undergo the stress of aural tests or sight-reading). Several of my more advanced students have opted for the LCM Recital grade and are very much enjoying the repertoire, as am I. If we are to encourage and support students of all levels and ages, I believe it is important to be flexible in one’s approach to exams and to find an appropriate syllabus and format to ensure maximum enjoyment is combined with progress.

The new LCM piano syllabus is impressive in its variety. Across the grades there is a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, “crossover”, and contemporary classical music, as well as core repertoire from the classical canon, which should appeal to all ages and tastes. In the early grades, there are pieces which will suit adult learners (often a problem in other syllabuses, where there is a preponderance of “children’s music”). Of all the exam boards, LCM is the one which features the most music by female and living composers, including works by Max Richter, Joanna Macgregor, Sofia Gubaidulina, Teresa Carreno, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, and Lera Auerbach. In addition, there are pieces by perennially popular composers of accessible and interesting piano exam music, including Pam Wedgwood, Christopher Norton, June Armstrong, Ben Crosland and Elissa Milne.

The handbooks are very well-produced with robust covers and high-quality thick cream paper (very similar to the paper used in Henle Urtext editions). The books are slightly larger than the previous LCM piano handbooks and the typesetting of the music is very clean, uncluttered on the page with clear markings. Each piece is accompanied by a note which gives background information on the composer and the music and guidance on how to explore and shape the music for performance. It is particularly gratifying to find these notes are written by active concert pianists (such as Daniel Grimwood and Zubin Kanga) who are thus able to offer expert experience on how to approach the music in performance.

In addition to the pieces and notes, each handbook contains all the relevant technical work for each grade, two studies, guidance for the Discussion (viva voce) element of the exam, including sample questions, sample sight-reading pieces and notes on the aural tests, all of which should ensure candidates are fully prepared and means teachers/students/parents do not need to purchase additional books of scales and arpeggios or sight-reading exercises.

The new LCM syllabus is valid from 2018 until the end of the summer exam season 2021.

Further information about LCM piano exams, including the complete piano syllabus

A few highlights from the new syllabus:

Grade 1

Quasi Adagio from For Children – Bela Bartok

Grade 2

The Lonely Traveller – Evelyn Glennie

Grade 3

From the Rue Vilin – Max Richter

Grade 4

When Rivers Flowed on Mars – Nancy Telfer

Grade 5

In the Owl’s Turret – Liza Lehman

Grade 6

Railroad (Travel Song) – Meredith Monk, Forest Musicians – Sofia Gubaildulina

Grade 7

D’un jardin clair – Lil Boulanger, Bloodroot – Rachel Grimes

Grade 8

Desdémona – Mel Bonis