Ode to a melody

music@monkton

ABRSM has announced recently that it will be removing melody-writingfrom the Grade 5 theory paper.I’m worried.

My first encounter with ‘theory for theory’s sake’ was at the age of 10, when all of a sudden my piano lessons changed; instead of sitting at the piano, we spent several weeks sat at a table in Mrs May’s front room and wrote things down. I remember the front room being very dark, and the whole experience being very strange. I passed the Grade 5 theory exam [just] and things went back to normal, thank goodness ….

I now have a steady stream of Grade 5 theory pupils of my own! Some come utterly clueless, and it is a delight to be able to switch the lights on for them. For others, it’s a question of formalising many of the things which they already vaguely know, and teaching them how to approach the…

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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.

Stop-Start

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During a conversation in a recent lesson with one of my students, she told me that her previous teacher would stop her every time she made a mistake and ask her to correct the error before continuing. She admitted to me that she found this habit irritating and I asked her what effect it might have on her playing. “It stops you playing with flow“, she replied.

She’s right, of course. Like the person who continually interrupts when you are trying to explain something, or read a presentation, the teacher who continually stops a student to correct mistakes is interfering with the “flow” of the music. Students will also stop themselves to correct mistakes, a pattern I am trying to correct by encouraging students to “play through” their pieces when they come to play for me at their lessons. Unfortunately, such habits are hard to shift, especially when kids today exist in a school culture which insists on “right answers”, and the ticking of the correct boxes.

Music is different. It is the “flow” of music – the sense of a narrative unfolding – which makes it appealing and engaging to listen to and audiences, examiners (and teachers!) would far rather hear a complete performance with a few errors or slips than stop-start playing which seems hesitant and disjointed. My students don’t believe me when I tell them that most audiences don’t even notice minor errors and that even the finest pianists in the world make mistakes. We are all human after all! I prefer students to play right through a piece before we go back over it together to work on details. An alert student can usually highlight where errors occurred and will know how to correct them, and I encourage my students to be active listeners who can make a mental note of any slips while they are playing, knowing they can check them afterwards.

There is another good reason why stop-start playing is not recommended. Musicians, like sportspeople, use procedural memory (more commonly called “muscle memory”), part of the long-term memory which is responsible for knowing how to do things, i.e. memory of motor skills (for example, to play arpeggios or whole pieces or music). Repetitive practise trains the procedural memory and when done correctly it enables us to store a set of movements in our memory. It is this memory function that enables us to land on the right notes at the right time, to complete that scalic run accurately, or to play a series of chords, and so forth.

If we always stop at the same point/s in the music, the procedural memory remembers this and the stopping points become embedded in the memory. So when you go to play the piece, you will always stop in the same places, thus creating hesitations in the music which interrupt the flow. The avoid this I encourage students to play through, skimming over mistakes. Some find this exercise quite difficult, which is an indication of how engrained the need to correct errors can become. I also encourage students to practise in a variety of ways: to do careful, detailed practise to make problematic sections secure; and to play their pieces through without stopping (this is particularly helpful when preparing for an exam or other performance). During performances in lessons I do not stop students while they are playing: I always prefer to hear a whole piece, even if there are some errors, than a stop-start “performance”.

Let’s Play Piano! No excuses!

There is absolutely no need to regret not having learned to play an instrument simply because it is truly never too late to do so. Sure, people like to tell themselves that they’re too old for learning something new, but that’s just not true because we never actually cease to learn new things.

The only thing that stands in the way of you playing the piano is making the conscious decision to learn how to play. To avoid the hassle of finding a piano teacher and rearranging your schedule to commit to lessons, piano-teaching apps such as flowkey exist.

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Learning the piano has never been easier or more comfortable than it is in our day and age. Although no app can fully replace an experienced piano teacher, flowkey comes pretty close! flowkey teaches you all there is to know about playing the piano and reading sheet music in the comfort of your home. All you need to get started is a computer (PC, Mac, laptop) or tablet (iOS and Android) and your instrument (piano, digital keyboard, etc.). Open the app in your web browser or download the app for your tablet, sign up, and you’re all set.

HOW TO BEGIN YOUR MUSICAL JOURNEY

Signing up for flowkey is a quick and easy process. You answer three questions to enable the app to categorize your level of experience and create a specific learning plan just for you, and you’re all set to go. The way the app works is simple: you choose a piece of music and start learning it. “But how does that work,” you might ask, “if you have no experience reading sheet music?” Ah, not to worry: the app’s player not only shows you the sheet music that “flows” across your screen but also a bird’s-eye view of a professional pianist’s hands, playing the music. These keys are even highlighted with bright colors to make it easier to follow along visually.

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One very helpful feature of flowkey is that it provides you with real-time feedback while allowing you to learn at your own pace. You don’t have to be shy or embarrassed to repeat a difficult section an extra time: flowkey is a friendly piano teacher that accommodates you and adapts to your desires and wishes. Speaking of wishes, if there’s a particular song or piece of music that you’d like to learn which isn’t available in the flowkey library, you can always contact the support team to request your song wish which then gets recorded and released in one of the upcoming monthly song releases.

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The bottom line is that flowkey is a great tool for people of all ages and levels. The songs and courses are meant for both beginners and advanced piano students who can take on the challenge of learning a difficult Chopin prelude or perhaps completing the “Chords & Pop Piano” course to improve their improvisation skills. The best way to start (or continue) your musical journey and test out this revolutionary method is to try it out for yourself!

Find out more

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Adventures in Interpretation

There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience

Graham Fitch, ‘Practising the Piano’

I recently did an interesting exercise with all 12 of my students (young people whose ages range from 13 to 17) in which we examined and played a short piece of contemporary piano music by British composer Paul Burnell called ‘Just Before Dawn’. At this stage, I gave the students no more information about the piece.

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On first sight, the music looks both incredibly simple, yet also slightly confusing since there is only one stave with an arrangement of notes whose tails point both up and downwards. Most early and intermediate piano students probably have not encountered a score like this before. Initially, I asked each student to sight-read the music (the notes are not difficult). This in itself presented a challenge to a couple of students who found their left hand creeping down into the bass to play the notes whose tails pointed downwards. At this point, I simply highlighted the fact that there was only one stave marked with a treble clef and then left the student to work out how the notes should be shared between the hands.

After the piece had been played through once, I read the student the composer’s programme note for the piece

The music attempts to evoke a magical time just as as summer day is about to break, but when the stars can still clearly be seen in the sky

I then asked the student to play the piece again with the composer’s description in mind. The result was 12 distinct versions of the same piece – descriptive, expressive and personal. I then asked each student how they felt the composer indicated particularly aspects, such as the rays of the sun or the stars still visible in the sky. Some students felt the dotted minims with fermatas represented the sun, while others thought these notes were the stars still twinkling in the sky. One student referenced John Cage when we were discussing the simplicity of the music (this student “performed” Cage’s 4’33” at one of our concerts); the same student couldn’t believe I was playing ‘Just Before Dawn’ in a concert the day after his lesson and queried why one would play something “so easy” in a public concert. This led on to an interesting conversation about what constitutes “difficult” or “easy” music and what kind of music is “appropriate” for public performance (the subject of a forthcoming blog article).

I found the exercise really interesting (and I hope my students did to), for it offered an intriguing insight into the notion of musical “interpretation” and how one’s personality, perception, musical knowledge/musicality, life experience etc comes into play when we make music. As I said to each student, “there is no right way, I’m simply interested to hear what you make of this piece”. When I went to perform the piece in a public concert, my students’ individual performances and views of the music came to mind and I found myself shaping the music in a different way.

I am looking forward to repeating this exercise with some adult pianists at a later date.

Download the score of ‘Just Before Dawn’ here

Explore more of Paul Burnell’s piano music here

 

Picture this

Using visualisation techniques in playing, performing and teaching

Visualisation techniques have been used by sports people and sports psychologists for some time now to enable the tennis player or athlete, the golfer or cyclist to prepare for a match-winning shot or prize-winning sprint. The technique involves imagining an ideal scenario and positive outcome to achieve one’s goal. Musicians are now using similar techniques to create better results and more vivid, expressive music than physical practising alone can achieve. Visualisation techniques also have a role in coping with anxiety and can help create a sense of inner calm before a concert or important performance.

Shaping phrases

Use one’s mind’s eye, and ear, to imagine the shape and sound of a particular phrase, its arc and its conclusion. Picture the movement of fingers, hand and arm flowing through the phrase, hear the phrase internally, play the phrase in your head and only when you are completely comfortable with the “inner aural picture”, play the phrase on the piano. Listen closely, and note the physical sensations of playing the phrase (the pads of the fingers touching the keys, the flexibility of hand and wrist, the movement of the forearm, breathing). This information provides expert, personal feedback to enable one to play the phrase in the same way each time. Gradually, just as in repetitive physical practice, brain and body learn the sequence of movements and expected sounds to recreate the phrase, and the habit of visualising the music before one plays becomes almost intuitive. This kind of visualisation can also be done away from the piano: imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear, while in your mind’s eye imagine the fingers playing each note, tackling that tricky fioritura or complex passage, and shaping the music. You don’t even need the score to practise like this.

Colouring sound

A passage may call for a certain instrumentation – the brightness of brass, the warm sonority of woodwind, plucked ‘pizzicato’ strings, the lucid cantabile of the human voice. Take a moment to hear the sound internally, play it through in your mind – “imagine the sound” – and then play the passage. I use this technique very frequently in my own playing and teaching, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the sounds heard in one’s head can translate to the desired sounds on the keyboard. It reminds one that the imagination is a very powerful tool: the only limit to visualisation is the constraint of one’s imagination.

I use the above techniques widely in my teaching as I find that children of all ages, and adults too, respond to and enjoy calling the imagination into play. For young children, asking them to describe what they think a piece is about, what pictures or stories the music suggests to them (while reminding them that there is “no right answer” to whatever they suggest) can enable them create a vivid or expressive sound in their playing and helps them understand that playing music is about communicating their personal vision to others. Many pieces for children have titles which go some way to stimulating the imagination, but within a piece there might be a certain chord or chord progression, a particular crunchy harmony or phrase for which one might create a personal aural picture.

Teenage students also respond to visualisation. A number of my students are also string players and I ask them to imagine how they might bow or articulate a certain passage and to then try and recreate this on the piano. This is particular useful when teaching music by Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven and Schubert (and their contemporaries) for so much of their piano writing is influenced by and reflects string writing.

I also ask students to suggest words which describe the music – not musical terms but other adjectives which spring to mind when considering the piece. Sometimes a student might writer these on the score as an aide memoir. One of my students had an remarkable clear personal narrative for C P E Bach’s Solfeggio which in turn allowed her to play the piece with great variety of expression. For more on descriptive words inspired by music see the wonderful Musical Adjectives Project conceived by Dr Gail Fischler.

Adult students often struggle to achieve the sound they desire, perhaps inspired by the sound of a favourite recording or pianist, and the frustration of not achieving that sound can lead to physical tension. I observed at first hand the power of visualisation techniques at work when on a piano course with a friend of mine. The friend wanted to create a very smooth singing legato in a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. She could articulate, in words, exactly the kind of sound and expressive line she wanted but was frustrated by her inability to achieve this when playing. The tutor asked her to take a few moments to “hear the sound” and see the shape of the phrases in her mind before she played. The effect was immediate and quite incredible – that such a simple exercise could transform the sound so much and so effectively.

Take time before you play to “imagine the sound” – you may be surprised by the results!

Relieving and mental physical tension

One of my teachers has a very simple but immediately useful exercise – to imagine the arms are supported on a hot air balloon. They are floating slowly upwards on a lovely warm cushion of air. When the arms are about forehead height, the balloon is replaced by a parachute which gently floats the arms and hands down into the keyboard. This creates a wonderful lightness and softness in the hands, wrists and forearms and provides the perfect position from which to play and create a good sound.

Another useful image is to picture the arms made of thick rubber bands, without bones, which can move freely. Children find this image quite funny and quirky.

If you are prone to physical tension when you play, first centre yourself at the keyboard, mentally and physically. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the first phrase of your piece – inhale and exhale slowly and as you do, float your hands to the keyboard, hear the first phrase in your head, imagine the movements you will make to play the first phrase, and only when you are ready, play the phrase. Continue to play while visualising effortless playing with a calm and focused state of mind.

In performance

We know that being well-prepared, knowing that we have done our practising, thoughtfully and mindfully, can go some way to allaying the anxiety of performance. Visualisation can help too. Recalling a successful previous performance can be very helpful in creating a calm and focused state of mind ahead of another performance. This may include recalling features such as the decor of the room, the light shining through a window, as well as our own physical and emotional sensations, moods or stories triggered by the music. Such stories or moods are personal to us and may have nothing whatsoever to do with the music, but they are our stories which enable us to bring our music to life with colour and expression.

Sometimes it is helpful to “channel” a musician whom you admire. I used this technique with one of my students who was preparing for auditions for the junior departments of some of London’s top conservatoires. She was, understandably, quite anxious so I asked her to imagine she was her favourite violinist (Nicola Benedetti) and to think “what would Nicola do?” ahead of her performance. We talked about aspects such as good preparation but also stagecraft, poise, deportment and greeting the audience/audition panel.

Managing anxiety

Athletes are masters of “relaxed concentration” and the ability to imagine graceful movement and successful outcomes. We too can use visualisation techniques to launch a successful and convincing performance from the opening phrase to the closing cadence. In the (roughly) 24 hours leading up to a performance, make sure body and mind are rested, free of extraneous thought or activity. In the hour or so before the concert begins, when you are waiting in the green room, run a scenario something like this through your mind: picture yourself calmly leaving the green room and walking across the stage. You pause by the piano to take a bow and acknowledge the audience. You sit at the piano and lift your hands to the piano to begin the first piece. All your movements are calm and relaxed, your mindset is positive and focused. You play the music through in your mind, always aware of your physical sensations. All the time, imagine you are calm and relaxed, free of tension in body and mind. Most musicians have their own personal strategies for managing anxiety, but calling on the imagination can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Whether you imagine you are walking barefoot through a cooling stream or dew-soaked grass or you are watching yourself play with movements that are effortless and graceful, using visualisation can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. It is said that the brain cannot differentiate between “intense visualisation” and reality. So if you close your eyes and play out the role or scenario in your mind of how you want to project yourself, imagining confidence, a vivid and expressive sound, deep communication with your audience, when you actually perform the brain will be relaxed and ready. However, it must not be forgotten that visualisation cannot replace the confidence that comes from hours and hours of intelligent, focused practising.

Inspiration from left-handed pianist NicholasMcCarthy

Further reading

Proprioception and VisualizationPerformance anxiety and pressure relievers