This, the third book by Murray McLachlan’s for Faber Music on piano technique, takes a more leftfield approach to piano playing and piano technique, tackling esoteric, psychological and philosophical issues such as visualisation techniques, inspiration, musicians’ health and well-being (including dealing with performance anxiety), career development, and encouraging independent learning and interpretative decision-making. This non-traditional approach is underpinned by the premise that we should love the piano and its literature, and always seek joy and creativity in our practising and learning. If this sounds like a New Age self-help book for pianists, be assured it is not: McLachlan, an internationally-renowned pianist and teacher, writes with intelligence and authority based on his own experience as a performer and teacher and many years spent in the industry, and his approach is pragmatic and practical, offering wisdom for pianists, whether professional or amateur, students and teachers.
I particularly liked the chapters on finding flow in practising, visualisation techniques (something I use in my own teaching and playing), avoiding dogmatism (in teaching and interpretation) and stepping beyond urtext editions to find one’s personal voice at the piano. The book does not need to be read straight through and indeed I have enjoyed dipping in and out of random chapters. The text is eminently readable with clearly-presented musical extracts.
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…
It cannot have escaped the notice of many of those inside the piano teaching profession that a noisy and at times acrimonious debate is raging, once again, over the sensitive issue of touching students, specifically children, as a pedagogical device in the course of piano lessons. I am not going to go into the specific details of one particular discussion thread – those of you who use Facebook are probably already familiar with it. Nor am I going to discuss the opposing views expressed in this thread; I am simply offering some thoughts on this difficult area based on my own teaching practice and discussion with a number of piano teaching colleagues.
There is a wealth of published research demonstrating the value of touch in human interaction. Touch defines relationships between human beings from the moment a baby is born, and positive touch continues to be important to a child’s development throughout the early years. For instrumental teachers, and indeed singing, dance and sports teachers as well, touch can help improve a student’s technique, how to hold or play an instrument correctly, how to breathe, use the correct posture and protect against tension or injury. In its own guidelines the UK Government describes touch as a “necessary” activity in instrumental teaching.
Now, largely in response to the online debate, the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) has issued a revised Safeguarding Code of Practice regarding child protection which runs somewhat counter to the Government guidelines:
“Any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations. The best advice is to avoid touching your pupils and to develop strategies for teaching through demonstration and modelling. If a teacher feels that touching is essential to their pedagogic style, they are to obtain prior permission in writing from the parent and pupil, and will encourage a parent/guardian to attend the lessons. However, it is not appropriate to touch a child on the trunk of the body unless there is a justifiable reason (eg to administer first aid).”
European Piano Teachers’ Association, 24 July 2017
There are a number of problems with this statement, on which a colleague of mine, with many more years of experience than I, makes the following, considered response:
We have a revised policy from EPTA, which keeps the sensible advice of obtaining written agreement and encouraging parental attendance/involvement, but which precedes it with an ill-advised statement that can only be described as fear-mongering, rather than fact. The idea that the teacher who gently corrects a dangerous wrist position, with permission, with proper explanation, and with the parent present, could be mistaken by the child or parent for an abuser is simply bizarre. Has this happened, ever? In 25 years of teaching, training and observing other teachers on three continents, I’ve certainly never heard of such a thing happening.
There are two problems:
1. These statements stigmatise ordinary piano teachers who are doing a wonderful job – the very people that EPTA should be supporting
2. And secondly, conflating these issues, in my view, rather trivialises the experiences of those traumatised by genuine abuse. How disappointing that EPTA now writes policies predicated on fear rather than fact. They are very out-of-step with the Department of Education at this point, and I rather feel they have seriously let down the piano teaching profession on this occasion.
Private music teachers already suffer a hefty degree of suspicion in the light of the abuse scandals at specialist music schools and colleges, and so we must do our utmost to demonstrate that we work with transparency and good practice at all times. This may be through seeking formal written permission to use touch in lessons from the parents of our students (which could be incorporated into one’s studio terms and conditions) or by discussing the issue of touching for pedagogical reasons with parents and students in advance. For the record, I don’t touch students in the course of my teaching. Never have, and probably never will. It is just my policy and while it is not ideal, I manage by using clear instructions and demonstration (I might occasionally ask the student to feel my hand or arm to understand arm weight).
In our hyper-aware, hyper-sensitive times, following the deeply unpleasant revelations of the abuse that has taken place in specialist music schools and conservatoires, we are of course more concerned than ever to protect the children to whom we have a duty of care as teachers. But to infer, as certain commentators in the online debate have, that any teacher who touches a student in the course of a lesson is a potential groomer or child-abuser, is deeply insulting to the profession and the very many highly professional teachers working within it. The vast majority of teachers do not harbour perverse feelings towards children, and most children, even quite young children, are able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching. And do such guidelines actually stop those teachers who have genuinely bad intentions towards their students? EPTA’s statement also ignores the fact that teachers can perpetrate abuse through words or gesture: for example, the teacher who regularly reduces a student to tears or who humiliates a student in front of others in a group lesson.
The sad outcome of this latest debate is that trust and confidence in the teaching profession seem to be the real victim here, rather and, as is often the way in such scenarios, the actions of a few have created a difficult environment for the many to operate in. It strikes me that teachers are now more vulnerable than the children they seek to protect, and in an effort to avoid risk, teachers may become less effective educators.
Much of my teaching is based on visualisation, a technique I learnt from my first teacher as an adult pianist and one which I use daily with my students and my own practising and playing as a way of engaging and stimulating the imagination to produce music which is expressive, vibrant and personal. (Read more about visualisation techniques here)
Of course, it’s all very well being able to visualise the sound or movements one wants to make at the piano, but sometimes – often! – you may think you know what you want to do in your head, but it may not be that evident in your playing. A way to make this more explicit is the ability to articulate our intention for a certain phrase or section or entire piece by describing it out loud.
This can work very well with students where the teacher poses the question and the student articulates his or her thoughts about the music. I do this a lot in my teaching, asking students to explain what they feel the music is about (for them) and what they want to say in it. It works for both children (regardless of age) and adults, and the results are surprisingly positive and often quite colourful. For example, I was working with an adult student the other day who was having some trouble with the semi-quaver runs in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op 14/1. She said she felt they were uneven and that she wanted the notes to “trickle” down the keyboard. After she had said this, she played the same run and it was transformed: immediately the notes were more even and there was a distinct sense of them trickling down the keyboard towards where I was sitting. And in a lesson with a teenage student, who is working on a very atmospheric impressionistic piece, I first asked her to describe to me what she felt the piece was about and to then try and put that description into the music. The results were impressive: her verbal description was very detailed, not only focusing on the broad narrative of the music but the details of individual sections, such as the rising quaver triplets which she felt were “the rolling waves” and the sustained notes in the bass which were “a foghorn or far away tolling bell” (you can hear the piece she was describing at the end of this article). It seems that the more detailed the description, the more vibrant the resulting music.
Psychologists have known for some time that words help us make abstract or fuzzy concepts clearer and the act of describing the action, sound or image out loud seems to make our ideas more concrete and fix them in our working memory. The action is also useful if you are having trouble finding a note, or landing on the correct note in a jump. Anticipate the note in advance by saying it out loud – “I need to land on E”, for example. Or for a tricky fingering scheme, say the finger numbers out loud just before your fingers land on the keys. It also works for rhythmic issues (count out loud) and harmonic progressions. These are all aids to memorisation too.
In addition to reinforcing memory, articulating our intentions and thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task in front of us more carefully and consciously. Putting our thoughts into words thus becomes a powerful tool to aid productive practising.
Sometimes we can act like our own teacher or coach, encouraging us as we play. I admit to doing this quite a lot! Practising the piano can be a lonely activity and being able to encourage yourself through verbal feedback is a very useful activity. So if I play a passage well, I might say to myself (out loud of course), “Yes I liked that” and examine why and what I liked about the passage (also stated out loud). We can also act like our own personal conductor, encouraging the “orchestra” (oneself at the instrument) to “crescendo here”, “pull back here”, “big orchestral sound now” and so forth. Conversely, one can tackle the inner critic with a conversation out loud: I berate myself when I play badly (“Oh that was dreadful! What did you do that for?”) and then examine what happened and how I can put it right (“try playing that slower/more quietly/louder” etc). This turns the negative self-talk into a positive learning tool, thus making practising more enjoyable and productive.
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……
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
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.
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.
When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..
In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.
The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.
For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.
In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).
I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.
All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.
When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.
Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.
For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.
To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!