At the Piano With……Jill Owen

40_5983What is your first memory of the piano?

Hearing my Dad playing Bach chorales and chorales he used to compose.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I always thought I’d teach and I’m not sure any one person inspired me to teach but rather my love of the piano that I wanted to pass on.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The most significant teacher was a lady who taught me when I moved to the first year of sixth form at the age of 16. She helped me to understand how to phrase music and I suddenly improved when I started with her.

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

The most important influences on my teaching are the last two teachers I had combined with my own unique approach. Most importantly I respond to the individual pupil as I teach ages 6-80yrs!

Tell us more about your Adult Intensive Piano Course…..

I created the Adult Intensive Piano Course after I taught adults at the City Lit Institute and I could see there was a gap in the market. Adults in London want to learn new skills and learn quickly. I wrote all the music and text. It takes a complete beginner in 5 one to one one-hour lessons to playing a Grade 1 piece and playing from music. I’m a stickler for reading music! The course also suits adults who’ve learned in the past and need a refresher and I can tailor a course to the standard of any pupil.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect my students to practice often and in small amounts. I also expect them to feel at ease and happy with the lessons and to talk to me if they are not. I mostly desire that they enjoy the lessons and are progressing well. I enjoy teaching adults because they are doing it for themselves and it is great to be a part of the joy it brings and fun they have in learning and playing the piano.

With children I feel it’s very important the parents are on board and understand the importance of practice whilst I still make lessons fun. Especially at a young age the child needs a parent or someone to sit and help with practice. If the parent expects that I do all the work at the lesson, it simply won’t work!

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

Exams, Competitions and Festivals are not for everyone. Some of my pupils take exams and indeed need that piece of paper and Grade to have their achievement validated. For others they feel they’ve been there and done that with exams over the years and the stress is not worth it! I’m happy to be flexible and usually I know pretty early on which approach is going to suit the pupil. I think the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment is a good thing: I have adults who do this and it can also be a good trial for exams.

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

I think it’s important to stress to both beginners and advanced students that music is fun, that it is a unifying language through which we can express ourselves in a unique and positive way. We can also learn valuable life skills such as discipline and team work as learning an instrument can help concentration and of course it is very good for the older brain….the possibilities for playing with other musicians and making friends are endless once you can play to a certain standard.

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

Teaching and performance definitely are linked. As a performer one is always learning something new, even playing the same piece each time can bring up a fresh idea/something not previously seen. Having been both a performer and teacher all my life I think one can bring the performing into teaching and vice versa. We should always be learning and striving to educate ourselves also as teachers as we can always find new ways to teach, new influences and by attending courses for teachers and conferences etc…

Essentially we are always learning and then we can pass that on. Most importantly for me with music in any form, it moves me and bring me great enjoyment. This is what I try to pass on to my pupils.

Jill Owen is a pianist, piano teacher and composer based in Stoke Newington, north London. She studied piano accompaniment at The Royal Academy of Music, London, and is the creator of The Adult Piano Course, a fun and unique course for adult beginners now in its 10th year.

www.pianocourse.co.uk

 

 

 

Practising the Piano Online Academy goes live

Those fortunate enough to have studied with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch will be very familiar with his intelligent, insightful, inspiring and highly accessible approach to piano playing. The internet allowed Graham to share his expertise and knowledge initially via his very popular and readable blog ‘Practising the Piano‘. This was followed by the hugely successful eBook series. Now Graham’s tried and tested methodologies are taken to the next level with the Practising the Piano Online Academy, a comprehensive library of lessons, video masterclasses, articles, and other material combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials are presented in an intuitive, interactive and accessible manner, and provide a comprehensive range of resources to support pianists of all levels, and piano teachers too. The result of many years of experience teaching at the highest level in specialist music schools, conservatoires and universities around the world, and privately, Graham draws on his own practice tools, strategies and techniques, which he has tested and refined in his work with students of varying ages and levels of ability, to offer a significant new online learning resource.

For those unable to see Graham personally for one-to-one lessons, the Practising the Piano Online Academy offers an extensive and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which:

  • Illustrate Graham’s methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources such as musical examples, worksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theory, improvisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updated, easily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

Here are a couple of features which I feel are really valuable, especially to those pianists who are studying alone without the support of a regular teacher:

Learning Pieces section – collections of popular or favourite piano repertoire (for example, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, Ravel’s Sonatine and Bach’s WTC, Book 1). Each work is presented as a mini-masterclass or lesson (called a “walk through”) with detailed guidance on specific technical issues, productive practising and some contextual and historical background. There are excerpts from scores and video clips to demonstrate and clarify the instructions. An additional feature for this section will eventually be links to annotated study editions, which will offer comprehensive information on how to approach the music, technically and artistically.

Technique – exercises – jail-breaking Hanon. For devotees of piano exercises, and those who are unsure about using them, this section explains and adapts Hanon’s exercises contained in The Virtuoso Pianist to make them relevant for today’s pianist and teacher. As with the “walk throughs” of pieces, these exercises are accompanied by explanatory video clips and score excerpts.

Practising. Here specific aspects of practising – slow practise, mastering polyrhythms, skeleton practise – are explained and demonstrated, with accompanying video clips and worksheets which can be downloaded to print out or saved to a tablet for use at the piano. In the Mastering Polyrhythms section, for example, the reader is not overloaded with information: instead, the subject is introduced and then explored through separate articles, allowing one to build one’s expertise gradually through intelligent, incremental practise.

Overall, the information is presented in an attractive and easy-to-read format, both on desktop computer and tablet, and the site is easy to navigate with clear menus, search functions and links, plus the ability to bookmark and save material to your personal library. The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an impressive addition to online piano study and piano teaching materials. The site is intended as a growing resource and also integrates with Graham’s blog, ebook series and forthcoming Annotated Study Editions. For more information and to sign up, visit https://informance.biz/products/practising-piano-online-academy/

Highly recommended.

At the Piano with Graham Fitch (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

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Reflections on ten years as a piano teacher

Another term is over, and as my students depart for their summer holidays, I have time to pause and reflect as my piano teaching studio approaches its 10th birthday.

I never intended to be a piano teacher. I worked for ten years in art and academic publishing after leaving university and I continued to freelance in this sector when I stopped full-time work to have my son. But as my son started to grow up and become more independent, I began to consider a change of direction but it had to be one which could accommodate the school day and looking after my son during the school holidays. One day, during the chat that takes places between mums in the playground while they wait to collect their children, a friend asked me if I might teach her daughter to play the piano. “But I’m not a piano teacher!” I said. The friend suggested that I try piano lessons with her daughter “as an experiment, to see if you you both like it. Rosie can be your trial student“. And so in September 2006, I started teaching Rosie, and quickly acquired more students who had heard about me via Rosie’s mum. I have never been taught how to teach and had no clear “method” at the time, only that I was determined to make piano lessons interesting and fun for the children, the absolute opposite of my childhood lessons which had seemed dull and interminable and driven by an exam treadmill. I was pretty sure I could articulate this in a way that would appeal to children:  My teaching studio grew rapidly and by the end of the first year I had nearly 20 students, most of whom had come to me via my son’s primary school. People would come up to me in the playground and say “you’re the piano teacher, aren’t you?“. And indeed by about 18 months into the job, I felt qualified to call myself “the piano teacher”.

I found the first couple of years quite tough. My son was less than happy about other people’s children coming to the house and taking up my time, but I felt it was important for him, as an only child and a boy, to see his mother working. At that time, when I was still a fledgling piano teacher, I took anyone. I didn’t interview prospective students or their parents, because I knew most of them via the primary school anyway. But after a couple of instances where I and the child or parent simply did not get on, I grew more discerning and careful about whom I took on. And after a parent persistently messed me around over dates and times of lessons, cancelling them at short notice and demanding that I reschedule, I introduced a formal contract which put everyone on an equal footing and enabled me to run the studio in a more formal/businesslike way.

And that perhaps was the first most important lesson I learnt about running my own teaching studio – that one needs to formalise arrangements to ensure people treat you with respect. This is not a “hobby job” but rather a professional role which I take very seriously.

A few years ago, by which time my studio had grown to 25 students and I had two performance diplomas successfully under my belt, I decided to make some significant changes to the way I organised my teaching: I “let go” the students who were simply coasting, not practising and not really taking their piano lessons particularly seriously; I rebranded myself as a serious teacher of classical music (no more Adele songs!) who carefully selects students via an interview and trial lesson; and I put my fees up. Within weeks of making these changes, I had more enquiries than ever and I began to enjoy real job satisfaction too.

Second lesson: as a freelancer, don’t be afraid of making changes to your working life to suit you and which gives you job satisfaction. A happy teacher is more likely to be a successful teacher.

In terms of the actual teaching, I based much of it on my own very positive experiences with my music teacher at secondary school, rather than on my childhood and teenage private piano lessons. My music teacher was endlessly inventive and enthusiastic and it was his enthusiasm that, more than anything else, I tried to incorporate into my teaching. I felt – rightly – that children and young people, adults too, would be enthused and excited by music if I was enthused by it, and I made sure everyone learnt and played music which they enjoyed, rather than which might be “good for them”. When, in 2008, I started having lessons myself again after a break of nearly 25 years, I was able to distill what I was learning into easily understandable nuggets for my students (something my piano teacher actively encouraged), and I quickly saw the benefit of my own lessons in my students’ playing as well as my own. In addition, I started attending courses and workshops to enhance my professional development, and began to connect with more piano teachers too.

Third lesson: good teachers never stop learning themselves

Now, as my studio approaches its tenth anniversary, my teaching style and approach has settled into one which is relaxed and flexible. There is no “one size fits all” in teaching because all children – and adults too – are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. I know each student’s strengths and weaknesses, what music they particularly enjoy, and how much or little they like to be pushed by teacher. Some want to take exams, others are content to learn music which they enjoying playing. I’ve always been a natural communicator and it’s not in my nature to be overly didactic: I want to empower students by giving them the tools, and the confidence, which encourages self-discovery and independent learning. I have a couple of very musical and talented students, and supporting them with issues such as perfectionism, performance anxiety and the psychology of performance present their own interesting challenges and force me to think outside the box as their teacher and confront my own issues in these areas. All my students are hardworking and enthusiastic about the piano, who are taking lessons because they want to, not because a parent has insisted on it.

I no longer teach very young children or beginners. My students are aged between 11 and nearly 17 and are all early intermediate (Grade 3) to advanced level (Grade 8) players. They are bright and engaged, unafraid to question or challenge me or work things out on their own, which is great because I never want to be the teacher who simply “tells”. For me, teaching is an exchange of ideas, a process of showing, demonstrating, explaining, confirming, questioning….. An inquisitive student is likely to learn more, and more quickly. I encourage my students to find their own individual voice in their music making and to use their developing musical knowledge to help them make judgements about aspects such as interpretation and presentation.I don’t use a set “method” or particular range of tutor books. My teaching is instinctive, responding to each student’s needs and wishes rather than imposing my own opinion and way of doing things on them, and I encourage excellence rather than perfection. My own regular studies with two master teachers, in addition to encounters with other renowned teachers and pianists via courses and masterclasses, has undoubtedly informed my teaching, and will continue to do so.

Teaching has taught me far more than I ever would have imagined about being a musician as I constantly refocus and re-examine what I do and how I approach my own music making. And I think my students are intrigued by the fact that their teacher continues to study and have lessons. Perhaps the most significant thing I have learnt over the past ten years is that learning is a continuous, ever-changing process. It is satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and deeply fulfilling to watch students develop, find their musical voice and tastes and, above all, to gain pleasure and enjoyment from their music making.

For further information about my teaching studio please visit www.franceswilson.co.uk

Further reading

The Performing Teacher

New resources for pianists, piano teachers and parents

A couple of useful new resources for pianists, teachers and the parents of piano students which have come my way recently.

818099The first, Piano Exercises, is a DVD by Mikael Pettersson, a Swedish concert pianist based in the UK. The exercises were created by Mikael to help pianists develop their technique to play without tension and with accuracy and fluency. Mikael’s approach is straightforward: the exercises are demonstrated clearly  by Mikael himself with useful close-up shots of the hands and fingers, but while the format may look simple, the exercises encourage the development of sophisticated technique including wrist and forearm rotation, lateral arm movement, speed and accuracy when coping with leaps, rapid scale patterns, and glissandi. The DVD can be used by more advanced pianists independently of a teacher, or by students with the assistance of teacher, and can then be incorporated into a regular practise regime. More information/download the exercises

51rtft-uaul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Encouraging students to practise is of course a crucial part of the piano teacher’s role, and if the students are children teachers rely on the parents to ensure practising is done between lessons. Understanding how to practise productively is important for both students and their parents who supervise the practising and a new book by Peter Walsh, an Australian pianist and piano teacher, offers practical advice for parents of piano students. In The Non-Musician’s Guide to Parenting a Piano Player, Peter covers aspects such as encouraging an interest in the piano, choosing the right instrument, choosing the right teacher and creating the right learning environment at home. In addition, the chapters on practising are particularly helpful. Many parents (and also quite a few students!) think practising is simply playing through the pieces or scales. Peter explains the purpose of practising and how parents can assist their children in practising efficiently, productively and enjoyably. This includes advice on how much time to allocate to practising, posture at the piano for children and teenagers, encouraging concentration, how practising can be subdivided into sections covering technique, revision and rehearsal and exam/performance preparation, using a simplified version of Josef Hoffman’s “practice pie-chart” to explain these aspects. This section of the book is particularly useful as it demonstrates that parents do not need to have specialist musical knowledge in order to support their children in their practising. There is also a section on preparing for exams and performance. The back of the book contains a list of FAQs and a simple glossary of musical and technical terms. The overall approach is non-specialist and accessible. Recommended.

New books for pianists from Trinity College London

It’s good to see Trinity College London extending its publishing programme to include more books for pianists, including collections of pieces from beginner to advanced level, and a compilation of piano exercises, selected from past exam syllabuses, all of which offer excellent resources for teachers and students alike.

Raise the Bar is a new series of graded pieces from Initial to Grade 8 showcasing favourite repertoire from past Trinity exam syllabuses. Edited by acclaimed teacher, pianist and writer Graham Fitch, each book contains an attractive selection of pieces in a range of styles and periods. Teaching notes for each piece are included, highlighting aspects such as technical challenges, structure, rhythm and expression, and each book contains a summary at the back containing the composer, title, key, time signature, tempo markings and characteristics of each piece. There is a good range of music to suit all tastes and the teaching notes can be used as a springboard for further discussion between teacher and student or a basic starting point for independent study. These books provide useful additional repertoire for students preparing for exams or simply for playing for pleasure and broadening one’s repertoire and knowledge of different style of music.


Piano Dreams is an attractively-designed series of books containing pieces for beginner and early intermediate pianists composed by Anne Terzibaschitsch. The pieces will particularly appeal to younger children with their imaginative titles and fun illustrations. Programmatic text weaves elements of story-telling into the pieces to stimulate the player’s imagination and encourage more expressive and colourful playing. There are notes on each piece highlighting aspects of technique or expression. In addition to the solo pieces, there are two books of piano duets in the same format.

I am a big fan of Trinity’s Piano Exercises which students learn as part of their grade exams. The exercises are designed to develop particular aspects of piano technique and many directly relate to pieces in the exam syllabus, offering the teacher the opportunity to introduce students to the concept of the ‘Etude’ or Study. This new compilation of selected exercises ranges from Initial to Grade 8 and each has a descriptive title to inspire students to interpret the music imaginatively (thus reinforcing the idea behind Etudes by Chopin and Liszt – that pieces should be both challenging and musical, testing technique and musicality). These exercises provide a useful resource for developing secure technique and can be used alongside repertoire to inform and extend students’ technical and musical capabilities.

More information about Trinity College London music publications here

Practising the Piano Online Academy

Fans of acclaimed teacher and performer Graham Fitch’s insightful, instructive and highly readable blog Practising the Piano and eBook series, his regular contributions to ‘Pianist’ magazine, his YouTube videos on piano technique, and his inspiring and supportive workshops and courses will be excited to learn of his latest initiative for pianists, the Practising the Piano Online Academy.

  
The Ultimate Online Resource for Pianists and Teachers 

The aim of the project is create the ultimate online resource for mastering the piano. Building on Graham’s hugely successful eBook series and blog, this will take his tried and tested methodologies to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials will be presented in an intuitive, interactive manner and will transform the way you approach teaching and playing the piano. The crowdfunding goal is £10,000 and funds raised will be used directly for creating additional content and resources.

Graham tells us more about the project:

I’m passionate about teaching and playing the piano. The art of practising is a special area of interest to me and is rarely taught specifically enough. Our practice time at the piano is just as significant to the end product as the hours of training undertaken by professional athletes, but this time can so easily be wasted unless we have the know-how. Effective practice is essential to mastering the piano and it’s for this reason that I have spent decades researching and experimenting in the art of practising to find the optimal approaches.

I’ve developed a methodology comprising practice tools, strategies and techniques which I’ve tested and refined in my work with students of varying ages and levels of ability. I would love to see as many people as possible benefit from my work but obviously not everyone can get to me for one-to-one lessons. Therefore I’ve embarked upon a number of initiatives to make my work more widely accessible including my blog and eBook series. These provide a conceptual introduction to my approach and I am now planning to build on this foundation with the Practising the Piano Online Academy.

  • My blog (www.practisingthepiano.com) which is regularly updated and contains hundreds of articles on subjects relating to piano playing
  • A Multimedia eBook series which combines text, video, audio and numerous musical examples to introduce my methodology and approach
  • A print version of my eBook series which is currently being developed due to popular demand

 


The Practising the Piano Online Academy will build on these solid, tried and tested foundations and will take Graham’s work to the next level.

The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an extensive, searchable, and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which will:

  • Illustrate my methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources including musical examples, worksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theory, improvisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updated, easily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

  

What will it do for you?

Whether you are a budding student, keen amateur, passionate piano teacher or a professional musician, the Practising the Piano Online Academy will provide you with the knowledge and resources at your finger-tips to:

  • Get the best possible results from your time spent practising the piano.
  • Avoid injury and overcome technical difficulties with panache.
  • Learn new pieces quickly and master trouble spots or challenging areas within the repertoire.
  • Deliver performances or achieve examination results which reflect your full potential.
  • Inspire your students and enhance their enjoyment of the piano.

How can you be involved?

We’ve already started creating content for this project and are now seeking the further support of pianists and teachers via our crowdfunding campaign to help us make this resource as good as it can possibly be. A number of great rewards ranging from discounted subscriptions through to opportunities to sponsor lessons and obtain a one-to-one consultations with me are on offer. Supporters will also have an opportunity to shape the Online Academy by suggesting and voting for topics and content they would like to see featured.

To show your support for the project and to read about it in more detail, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-practising-the-piano-online-academy#/


Development of the Practising the Piano Online Academy is already underway with Informance (see below), with an expected launch in July 2016.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog http://www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.
 
ABOUT INFORMANCE
Informance ™ is a publishing imprint which creates rich, interactive digital publications aimed at musicians. By combining state of the art technology with expert insight, Informance enables musicians to reach their full potential in the most effective and enjoyable manner. It offers a modern way to engage with the timeless art of music making.
Informance is published by Erudition (www.eruditiondigital.co.uk), a next generation digital publishing company which partners with publishers and content owners to create purposebuilt digital publications from new or existing content.

Encore – your favourite ABRSM piano exam pieces

There are numerous anthologies of piano pieces which sit comfortably alongside the exam syllabuses, many of which are published by the ABRSM. Encore is a new compilation, in four volumes covering Grades 1 to 8, of over 70 favourite exam pieces from timeless classics to contemporary classical music and popular songs and show tunes or TV themes. Selected by Karen Marshall, one half of the team behind the Get Set! Piano series, the opinions of teachers, educators and piano students were sought in deciding which pieces to include. The result is a collection of music which will appeal to all ages and abilities.

 

By necessity such a selection is quite subjective, but overall I find the range of repertoire is interesting and stimulating and will suit most tastes. The earlier volumes are particularly strong, with some of my personal favourites (and favourites of my students too) such as African Dance, A Song of Erin, Vampire Blues and Top Cat featuring in the first book.

The clear, spacious layout of the pieces is familiar from the ABRSM exam books and each piece includes a footnote with concise information to help the student’s understanding of the piece, from details about the composer to guidance on tempo, articulation, phrasing, and ideas for further exploration which include practical musicianship, an area often overlooked in tutor books and anthologies. These include, suggestions on how to memorize, further listening, identifying musical patterns or motifs, simple structural analysis, keyboard spatial awareness, and in the later grades guidance on comparing different interpretations of the same piece or understanding how a fugue is constructed. There is no accompanying CD for the books, but I suspect most repertoire can be found online, on YouTube or via a music streaming platform.

I have already begun to use pieces from the Encore series to broaden my students’ repertoire. Far too many students “go through the grades” without learning any additional repertoire: thus by Grade 8 they will have learnt only 24 pieces. The Encore series offers an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to explore new and varied repertoire which will suit individual abilities and preferences, and hopefully encourage enjoyed and engagement with the piano and its literature.

The Encore books can be ordered direct from the ABRSM or other sheet music retailers.

 

Wolfie makes piano practise made fun

The ‘Wolfie’ piano app (named after who else but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) offers students and teachers an interactive and supportive learning tool using up-to-the-minute score-reading software plus a whole host of other features.

Developed by music tech company Tonara, who first launched an interactive score-reading app back in 2011, the team behind Wolfie appreciate that piano practise can, at times, be lonely, dull, repetitive and disheartening. Teachers expect their students to practise between lessons as regular practising is proven to bring noticeable progress, and there can be nothing more dismotivating for student and teacher to have to sit through a lesson going over all the same things as last week. Through interactive, colourful features, Wolfie makes practising fun, young piano students feel supported and inspired, and teachers can set targets and track the progress of their students (this feature is available with the full, paid version). Children today generally love technology and many are very comfortable with using a tablet or smartphone. Wolfie taps into knowledge: the app looks like a game, but it also offers an intelligent learning environment for children of all ages. In effect, it provides a bridge between the old-fashioned paper music score and 21st-century tech. Download the app here here

The most significant feature in the app is the ‘Magic Cursor’, which follows music being played by students in real-time on the score itself (in effect, the app “listens” to the student playing, via the iPad’s microphone; this also provides the option to record oneself playing). The magic cursor (whose colour can be customised according to your preference) enables students to really focus on the music, encouraging notational and rhythmic accuracy, and improving sight-reading skills. The magic cursor works with any level of music (though it is less consistent in more advanced music) and because it “listens” to the music as it is being played, it is sensitive to tempo changes. As the magic cursor tracks one’s progress through the score, it also turns the pages, avoiding the need for additional devices, such as bluetooth page turning foot-pedal. There is also the option to listen to the piece being played (in a rather expressionless MIDI format, but useful nonetheless), and a synchronized recording feature allows the user to simply touch the relevant note in the score to advance playback to tricky passages. For those who prefer a visual cue, integration with YouTube allows you to see and hear the music via a selection of videos, including performances by famous pianists such as Daniel Barenboim.

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Alongside this, users can make recordings of themselves playing, which can be shared with teacher and others. The app also gives instant feedback to the player on fluency, pitch, rhythm and tempo, with cheerful emoticons and motivational statements, and awards badges for time spent practising, dedication and completeness. There is also an option to “challenge a friend” by issuing an email invitation to download the app and join in the fun. The attractive, easy-to-use layout of the app makes it enjoyable to use, and if practising is fun, children will more readily engage with it.

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From a teacher’s point of view, the app offers positive reinforcements to encourage students to practice more, and teachers can track their students progress via the app (by adding students to their account).

The app has its own music store from which a wide variety of music can be downloaded and played, all using the magic cursor and other features within the app, including an adjustable metronome. There are popular classics, exercises, pop songs, jazz standards and film soundtracks, and all the scores are organised by level from ‘First Steps’ to ‘The Master’. Once downloaded into the app, scores can be annotated. You can also upload your own scores (in PDF format), though these will not work with the magic cursor.

In addition to all of this, there are helpful guides and a video tutorial on how to use the app. I’ve really enjoyed using Wolfie myself, and also with some of my students, who gave it a very positive endorsement and deemed it “a lot of fun”!

Wolfie for Piano is available to both teachers and students in one-, three, nine- and twelve-month subscriptions beginning at as little as £3.75/month. A free trial version allows potential users to try the app before committing to purchase. Requires iOS 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPad.

For more information, visit www.wolfiepiano.com

 

(This is a sponsored post)

Changing the Vocabulary

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The way we interact with our students, and the language we use with which to communicate with them, can have a profound effect on how our students react to our teaching and their own attitude to music making. Young people in particular can be highly sensitive to the kind of words teachers use, and as teachers we are often afforded an esteemed position by our students. To enable our students to succeed, to feel encouraged and supported, we need to choose our words carefully.

This article is inspired by a recent discussion on the Piano Network UK Group on Facebook, to which I belong. A member posted the following:

I suppose we’ve all had that student who no matter what we do our say just will not practice. Here’s something that seems to have worked: change the word. Don’t ask them to aim at “practising”, ask them to aim at “progressing”.

For many young piano students, the word “practising” has negative connotations, no matter how positive the teacher is in their approach to practising. It suggests dreary hours at the piano, hacking through scales, exercises and dull pieces. It reeks of tedium, of effort without reward or achievement.

As teachers we know that regular practising equals noticeable progress, but our students don’t always see it that way. By simply changing the vocabulary, we instantly explain the purpose of practising – progression. “Progression” suggests forward movement, advancement and achievement.

For younger students, the word “play” is even better: because “play” suggests “fun”. And I want all my students to gain pleasure from playing the piano. “Play” also suggests playing for enjoyment, and I often point out to my students that they don’t have to be practising (sorry, that word again!) their assigned pieces and exercises to be doing useful and, more importantly, enjoyable work at the piano.

Another word which can cause major problems and is related to progression is “difficult”. In his book ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ and accompanying lectures, acclaimed educator (and I might add a fantastic and inspiring communicator), Paul Harris debunks the “myth of difficult”. Again the word can suggest something impossible, or at least very hard. Instead, try “challenging”. Instantly more positive, this word suggests something that can be attempted and that is achievable.

When a student grumbles that one of their peers is “better” (because they have reached a higher grade) I point out that they are not better, simply more “advanced” (and I also point out that playing simple repertoire really well is actually highly skilled).

Children often come to the piano with the idea that their playing has to be perfect and that they must not play any wrong notes. I believe this is ingrained in children from the moment they enter primary school, where their school days are governed by ticks for good work and red crosses for incorrect answers, and where they are required to reach targets which are set by unseen forces higher up the education hierarchy. Perfection is unattainable. Instead I encourage “excellence”: in this way, each and every student can find their own personal state of excellence.

The way we give feedback to our students is also crucial, and should always be couched in positive terms. When we give praise it should be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety. We should praise what the student is doing or their effort, not their ego or talent. Praise followed by criticism is not helpful. Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.

Examples of appropriate and appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”

“that was really accurate/musical”

“That practising has really made a difference”

This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing

When giving critical feedback, the correct vocabulary becomes even more important:

Examples of negative feedback:

“you played that chord wrong”

“your playing is inaccurate/unmusical/unexpressive”

“you are not working hard enough”

By personalising the criticism, we make it more harmful. Domineering or bullying teachers who feel frustrated by their students will often pile negative criticism onto their students to big up their own ego and to make the student feel even smaller. This is a form of transference and should be avoided at all costs, no matter how frustrated we may feel by a student’s lack of progress.

Instead, we should use a non-personal form of words – and actions – which involve both teacher and student in the solution to the issue:

“let’s see if we can work out why that chord wasn’t quite right”

“how do you think we could make the piece sound more expressive?”

We should also be mindful about our use of vocabulary when teaching adult students. Adults can be adept at “reading between the lines”, drawing inference from something the teacher may have intended as a throw-away comment. Adult students often lack confidence, often a hangover from an unpleasant experience with a domineering or overly negative teacher as a child, and this can make them highly sensitive.

We should use positive vocabulary in all of our teaching, and also allow students to challenge us if we make sweeping statements which cannot be backed up by solid evidence, in the score or elsewhere.

Simple, positive changes to the kind of vocabulary we use when interacting with our students can have a transformative effect on their approach to their music making, their attitude to practising (“progress”), their enjoyment of music and, above all, their confidence.

Related articles:

The Virtuoso Teacher with Paul Harris

The Heart of Teaching: What it Means to be a Great Teacher

Less is More

One of my students, Harrison, arrived for his lesson last week and confessed he had not had much time to practise. He told me he had “loads of homework!” and extra-curricular activities every day after school, apart from Thursday, the day of his piano lesson (“this is my only day off!” he sighed). In addition to homework and sports activities, he also has to fit in choir rehearsals and trumpet practise.

This is not an uncommon scenario for many of the young people whom I teach: all my students have now moved up to senior school, and many are finding the volume of work and activities associated with school quite burdensome. Fitting in piano practise amongst homework, after-school clubs and sport can be hard, especially if students feel obligated to practise for a set amount of time every day.

I am an advocate of regular and consistent practising, and making time to practise every day is an important habit, one which I instil in my students from the first lesson, and one which I observe myself (usually practising daily from 8am and notching up 2-3 hours over the course of the day). Practising at the same time each day can be helpful in developing good practise habits and routine, but sometimes this simply isn’t possible. Some students also find the prospect of having to practise for a set period of time daunting, especially in the early weeks of learning.

I suggested to my student Harrison that he could develop ways of practising a little at a time, aiming for thoughtful, quality practise, rather than simply note-bashing, or “going through the motions”. The phrase “less is more” seemed appropriate to this conversation and I told Harrison that it was often associated with the German modernist architect and designer Mies van der Rohe, used to describe his designs which combine functionality with simplicity and beauty. We both agreed this was a rather useful phrase to describe focused practising and Harrison declared that “less is more” would be his “motto” for his practising over the forthcoming weeks.

Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona’ chair and footstool

The idea of the pianist pounding away at the piano for hours on end to ensure he/she never plays a wrong note has less currency these days as musicians and teachers realise that quality rather than quantity leads to music which is learnt properly and carefully. After about three hours, the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in, one’s concentration will start to flag and one will be feeling physically and mentally tired. At this point, one stops doing meaningful work and it’s probably time to stop for a break.

At the other end of the scale, it’s amazing what can be achieved in as little as 10 minutes – if one knows what one should be practising.

When Harrison came for his lesson this week, I asked him how he had got on with the “less is more” approach and he told me that he had “more enthusiasm” for his practising – and when he played, it was clear the new approach was paying off.

Of course it is important when taking this approach to know exactly what one should be practising. Playing the piece from start to finish, in an unfocused and unthinking way, means mistakes will remain as mistakes and the opening of the piece will always tend to sound better than the rest of it. I will use the piece Harrison is working on as an example of how we are taking the “less is more” approach to practising:

Nurse’s Tale (Aleksandr Grechaninov, Trinity Grade 3 piano)

Nurse's Tale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bars 1-2 (and 5-6)

  • RH – Practise melody (minus the thumb on D), taking note of the slurs
  • LH – Practise the chord change, taking note of the slurs

Bars 3-4

  • RH – Practise the semiquavers, taking careful note of the slurs and fingering
  • LH – Note change to treble clef, and practise the octave jump

Since these bars take only moments to play, a great deal can be achieved in just 10 minutes work. And, as Harrison himself noted, bars 16 – end are an exact repeat of bars 5-8.

I will be repeating this exercise with other students. At each lesson, the student and I will decide which sections of a piece/s need this kind of attention and we will note down what needs to be done in practising at home. Gradually, I hope students will become better at identifying themselves what they should be focusing on in their practising. I also hope that students will find their practising more rewarding and enjoyable as they see noticeable improvements in their learning and playing. (At the other end of the spectrum, I am applying a similar approach to my learning of Ravel’s Sonatine, a tricky piece, not least for the “hand choreography” required.)

Here are some quick tips for effective “less is more” practising:

  • Know which areas need the most attention – keep a note in a practise notebook
  • Always start with the most difficult areas when your mind and fingers are fresh
  • Practise for a set amount of time (set a stopwatch if that helps)
  • Don’t deviate from the set task
  • At the end of the set time, move onto the next area which needs attention
  • Write notes on what you have achieved and think about what you need to do in your next practise session
  • Always practise carefully and thoughtfully

An interesting article from the Bulletproof Musician blog on best practising strategies