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Practising for Grown-ups

 Practising for Grown Ups

 

Dinner’s on. The kids are entertained. Laundry’s done (as if!) and you have a few free moments for you. So what do you do – do you embrace the few minutes to go and practice… or do you make a brew and loose that free time scrolling through social media posts you’ve probably seen before…. Or do you get settled and get ready to play that first note when someone shouts that they need you….

 

Even without children added into the mix – practice when you’re a grown up can be difficult. There’s just so much that you need to do as a grown up. Children do generally progress faster than adult learners, but part of this is because they do have a lot less to think, and worry, about.

 

So how do you manage to practice as a grown up.

 

Well – sometimes you need to approach it as you would trying to get your son / daughter to practice.

 

1. Nag.

 

Only joking!

 

1. Routine: I know as a grown up this can be tricky at times buttrying to have a designated day and time that you can ring fence as your time can be so beneficial. It’s far too easy to get distracted by phones, odd jobs around the house, work, emails… blah blah blah.

 

2. Prioritise: You wouldn’t be learning an instrument if music wasn’t important to you. So make it important. Put it in the diary. Try not to let other things sneak into your music time. Make music not just a thing. Make it a Thing.

 

3. Have fun: You’ll always find more time to practice if it’s enjoyable. So play around with the music, look at other pieces, have a jam, try something by ear…

 

4. Little and Often: Time can be one of the biggest bug bears for practising as a grown up. So don’t worry about trying to find a good chunk of time. If you can’t – you can’t. Try 10 minute sessions. Before work, while tea’s cooking, a quick 3 minutes every time the adverts come on…. Small sessions can really add up. And if you just spend 10 minutes on two or three bars a couple of times a day… see for yourself what happens.

 

4. Be prepared: When time’s of the essence and prioritising can be difficult you need to make sure that when you go to practice then you can just go for it. So perhaps try and find a way of keeping the instrument set up and ready if you’re a woodwind player. Have your music on the stand. Know what bars you’re going to concentrate on.

 

Practice is one of the most rewarding things but you never want it to feel like a chore. Keep it fun, keep it serious and keep it accessible!

 

Happy practising!

 

Slow Practise

 

Today’s tip for your practice session is to make sure that you’re not afraid of practising slowly. I know this might seem strange but I know a lot of students who refuse to practice slowly as they think it’ll take them longer.

Remember - if you can’t play it slowly then you can’t play it fast.

And for piano students also make sure that you practice hands separately as well.

Slow and methodical practice is the easiest way for your hands (and brain) to know what you’re asking them.

Happy practising

 

New Year, New Goals

New Year: New Goals

 

Another new year! I can honestly say I don’t know where the last one went! A whirlwind of jam making, toddler wrangling and teaching. 2018 was a great teaching year – the Improvisation Course was great fun and there’s more workshops scheduled for later in the year, but the first one will be on the 26th January.

 

Despite the cold, damp and dark nights I do like the start of a new year. Although like most I often fail to complete everything on my goals for the year list, but I do like having a good list and being able to cross items off. I find it gives me more focus and helps my creativity.

 

So the focus for this year is:

 

1. Grade 8 Piano: Although I’ve been saying this since 2005 and always avoid it due to the scales and early pieces option, I’m going to aim for the VCM Contemporary Piano Syllabus!

 

2. Grade 3 Cello: Time to dust the cello off again and get back into the string world

 

3. Practise Sax: It’s time to get sax serious again and start working towards my performance diploma

 

4. Teaching Diploma: Probably not something to complete this year but I could certainly get the essay written.

 

What’s your goals for this year?

 

First Steps Into Composition

 

First Steps into Composition

 

One of the main problems with composition is this pre-set idea that in order to compose you must be an advance musician or some sort of super creative type. Or that in order to write music you need a muse and be inspired by something … well inspiring.

 

But composition and teaching composition doesn’t need to start complicated, and indeed it can be included in lessons from a very early stage.

 

Composing is just slow improvisation – and students of all ages and ability levels usually enjoy making music up.

 

Where to Start

 

Creative composition can be quite a freeing exercise. Use a great picture of a story idea and just encourage students to make sounds and noises to represent what that picture means to them.

 

So for example if you have a picture of a stormy landscape:

 

Students might start with slow rain dripping noises, then build it up louder and faster to represent the rain. Then loud and crashing for thunder, with lightning flashes… for it to all quieten down and go back to the gentle rain drops again.

 

Writing it Down

 

You might remember he Begin with the Blues post I made and teaching composition can start in a very similar place.

 

Language is all around us and is something that students can relate to. So by using language as a basis for rhythms it makes writing melodies a lot more accessible.

 

A Title

 

Starting with a title is perfect as your students know what they’re describing.

 

A Story

 

Encourage students to start by writing a question down (this gets them to already write in even phrases) and then to write down the rhythm that goes with that small sentence. By saying the words out loud and clapping they will also be recognising the relationship between crotchet and quavers. (It’s quite helpful if you try and ensure that their sentence contains some easy words otherwise you’ll have some difficult rhythms to write down!)

 

It might be something as simple as:

 

What will you have for your tea today?

 

Once they have the rhythm for the first question, then all they need to do then is write an answer to that question. This also then gets their melody writing to not only be focused on working in phrases, but it starts them thinking how melodies work together and should also ensure that they end up the same length. I like to think about melodies about being organic, so the melody rows from the first phrase.

 

So you might end up with:

 

What will you have for your tea today? I’m having sausage and chips

 

When they have a sentence and the rhythms written down then it’s just giving them a series of notes to experiment.

 

As with teaching improvisation it’s often easier to start with fewer notes so they can write something that to them ‘makes sense’ rather than having too many notes to choose from.

 

Pentatonic scales are a brilliant resource for this – but any sequence of notes you fancy would work.

 

Encouraging students to start on the first note of the scale or sequence and ending on the same note at the end of the song also helps students find a melody that they find satisfactory.

 

Happy composing!

 

Book Review: The Intermediate Pianist

New Music Review: The Intermediate Pianist

Piano Trainer Series

by Karen Marshall & Heather Hammond

Intermediate Piano Series

If you’ve not come across any of Karen and Heathers musical works before then there’s a definite gap in your piano shelf! They write music that clicks with students of all ages and this new piano course is no different.

I know I’m a bit of a sheet music hoarder but the new Intermediate Pianist series is one that is going to get used a lot come September.

What strikes me most about the collection is how well it fits. It’s got its niche market to a T and is a spot on buy.

The focus is for students who are, as it says in the title, Intermediate. So those students who are about grade three / four in standard. It’s perfect for those who have done the first few grades but are lacking in repertoire knowledge and need something to give them a break without buying lots of different books with different styles in. It’s also great for those who are returning to playing after a gap and perfect if you have a teenager who needs a tuition book without pictures in.

Some sections can be slightly more jazzier based that other series out there, but I find this is often a better way for students, especially teenage ones, as they feel more ‘fun’.

The whole series is littered with useful facts, puzzles, suggested activities (such as go out and LISTEN to music) as well as being a great reference for students who need to know the composers and periods of music (aka those students who are about to sit grade five having only ever looked at exam based pieces and have no idea how to spot whether it’s Classical or Romantic.)

I do like including theory in students lessons – but here you have a whole series that introduces pieces with the new concepts so the random theory questions also become relatable.

There’s some great technique tips and the progression is nice and steady.

The only downside would be if you have a student who really doesn’t like playing jazzy pieces and I personally would have enjoyed a few more duets in the book.

But defiantly a good staple reference course for teachers and a great piano collection for students too.

 

What to do with Sleeping Students....

What to do With Sleeping Students….

 

We all know the feeling…. It’s the last couple of weeks of term. The kids are tired, the teachers are tired. If it’s the summer term everyone’s too hot… if it’s the winter term then everyone’s full of cold.

 

So rather than dragging students through the same pieces they’ve been working on, but you know they won’t practice over the summer why not use the time to do something fun and something that works out their musical ear and brain in a different way.

 

You know yourself that if you’re tired you don’t work as well and that things are more of a chore – and it’s exactly the same for your students.

 

So here’s my go to end of term games:

 

  • Improvisation – so much fun, works on their listening skills and gets them working creatively too

  • Don’t Play This One Back – play or clap rhythms that the students have to copy – but they shouldn’t copy if if you clap the rhythm to the words Don’t Play This One Back

  • Beat the Clock – students have to say and play a series of notes against a time limit – usually I give 30 seconds then they have to beat the number of notes they said in the next round

  • Dictation – Can they write a rhythm or melody down that you play

  • Copy Me – Can they play a melody back – I usually start with one note then gradually increase the phrase (a bit like that annoying Bop It game!)

  • Spot the Difference – Play a piece of music and see if they can see what note / phrase was different

  • Speed Scales – how fast and accurately can they play their scales – who’s the fastest – student vs teacher

  • Speed Pieces – who can play a simple piece the fastest – student vs teacher

  • Creative Composition – writing a piece of music using a story – so not focusing on melody or harmony – just using sounds to create a musical landscape

  • Graphic Scores – if you’re doing some creative composition they might like to draw a grahic score to go with it

  • Long Note Competition

  • Musical Maths – Can they add the tied notes together

  • Musical Word Searches etc – There’s lots of theory based written games that you can find online that are great for the hot weather

  • Backwards Playing – Can they play their piece backwards?

  • Musical Hangman – This is my students favourite game – Write down a musical word for them to guess – but in order to be able to guess a letter of the word they have to do something musical – it might be say the name of some notes, say what key it’s in, clap the rhythm etc etc – then normal rules of hangman apply. (Needless to say this game does take the longest but it’s a great lesson filler and gets students thinking about all sorts of aspects of theory etc.) (And when we play this at Christmas I do get accused of cheating – I’m sorry but no – Sprouts is not a cheating word…. I just quite like to win!!)

 

Any fun games I’ve missed – why not add them in the comments!

 

Happy end of term!!!

Why Aural Tests Count!

 

Why Aural Tests Count!

 

Just because aural tests are the last bit of the exams doesn’t mean they should be the last thing you practice!

 

But sadly they are.

 

Even some teachers leave them until the last minute – putting more emphasis on getting marks up for the pieces as well as worrying about scales and finally sight-reading.

 

Just recently I was asked to accompany a grade five exam and in the rehearsal a week before the exam date the student asked me when she was supposed to start practising her aural tests?!?!? And after a bit of a twitter rant it seems that this isn’t unusual. Some teachers do indeed not rehearse the aural test section at all and leave it to the accompanist to do.

 

But why?

 

They’re a good chunk of marks so they can make the difference between a pass and a fail.

 

Also aural is important.

 

It shouldn’t just be something that gets dragged out near an exam date. It should filter through into every lesson. Yes I know it’s difficult when you have students who only have 20 minute lessons, even 30 minutes is a push to get everything done in time.

 

But people should be well rounded musicians.

 

The aural tests are annoying I know, but their focus is on elements that students should be encouraged to do and should just be part of lessons regularly (then they become less of an exam only worry).

 

The clapping – this is great to see whether their musical memory is working and if they can externalise what they hear in their head. Clapping the pulse is also perfect for working on their sense of ‘in time’. If the rhythms flow then everything else will make sense and then they have a bit more brain power free to think about other things (hint hint… dynamics!)

The singing – has so many benefits including memory, pitch and getting students to understand the relationship between the distances between the notes

The listening – students should be regularly encouraged to listen and appraise what they’re playing, so if they’re listening to a teacher or another student play it starts to get their ear used to listening while they’re thinking.

 

Like everything I’ve written about recently that’s focused on the exams – it all boils down to regular practice.

 

Aural skills should be part of a regular lesson and it should be things that students are working on their own too.

 

So – if you’ve got an exam coming up – don’t just leave it to the last five minutes of your lesson to work on them. Ask your teacher what will be in the exam and get friends, family and loved ones to sing at you, or clap things for you to copy. Or be self-reliant. There’s loads of examples on youtube for all of the aural tests for every exam board. So go and look.

 

Practice. Practice. Practice.

 

You can find some clips I’ve done for the aural tests here

 

And if you want some more hints and tips about loving the singing element – check out the blog post here

 

Everyone Hates Singing

Everyone Hates Singing

 

Unless it’s in the shower or with their favourite CD – that’s different.

There’s loads of studies available to tell you why singing is good for you physically and mentally. It’s also not just good for your general playing, but also your sight-reading. But everyone always hates the singing element of the aural tests!

Every grade level there’s a singing element – a lot say this isn’t fair and I really can understand. But singing is so good for you. It works on your ear, your memory and if you can sing what you have heard it’s a great to show that your brain has understood and can externalise sounds.

For the early grades it’s just copying sounds and repeating them, then as the grades progress they do get harder. If you want help with the singing element of the aural tests – check out my youtube channel for some handy videos.

Once you get to grade four that’s when the singing takes on a new edge with: sight-singing

What is sight-singing?

Sight-singing is basically singing something you’ve not seen before and pitching it out loud rather than using an instrument to find the notes (unless you’re a singer).

Just from a confidence point of view you will be more likely to play a new piece better if you know how it goes. And if you can sight-sing then you can hear how it goes before you play it!

You can start working on this at any level of your music experience and even if you’re not thinking about exams.

Start with something simple like just singing back a few notes that you hear, then increasing the length of the piece you copy. This will help you get used to singing and listening to the sound you make, as you will need to make sure it is the same as the original.

Then start by practising singing your scales and arpeggios -remember this is what music is built on.

Then pick a nice key and draw a few notes (unless you have a handy aural test book - grades 4-5 have good examples of this) on a piece of manuscript paper. Just work on the first 5 notes of the scale. Draw them, sing them, play them.

Like everything – it does just come down to practice.

 

How to Take the Nerves out of Nervous

 

How to take the Nerves out of Nervous

 

You’re sat in the waiting room. Your mouth’s gone dry. Legs are shaking. Palms are sweating. You feel sick and dizzy, your mind has gone blank. It can only be… time for your next music exam.

 

But it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience.

 

It can be easier said than done *but* nerves can be overcome… or at least they can become less of an issue.

 

No matter your age or level experience, nerves can really turn an exam into a really terrifying experience. But they don’t need to ruin it completely. I’m not saying you’ll ever really love your exams, and indeed if you really hate them I would ask whether they’re worth putting yourself through the stress. For why you shouldn’t do an exam maybe read this post

 

But if you’re determined to do exams but the nerves are something you want to tackle then read on!

 

There’s three things you need to remember about nerves:

 

Everyone feels nervous (yes they do – it’s not just you!)

Examiners know the difference between nervous mistakes and what’s just wrong

The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll feel nervous

 

For me I find exams a really nervous time – even when I’m just accompanying. But I do have quite a nervous disposition, so I find supermarkets at Christmas a stressful situation!

 

Being prepared can really help anxiety on the day. Don’t leave your scales to the last minute. Don’t just practice the aural with your teacher (find extra examples on youtube etc) and don’t neglect your sight-reading practice either.

 

Also embrace the fact that it won’t be perfect. You won’t get full marks in everything – it’s just not possible. There will always be more you could do on dynamics and articulation, the intonation can often be stronger… so don’t put the pressure on doing amazingly well. Just do your best – and that will be more than good enough.

 

There will always be an annoying bar or phrase, or even piece, that’s not quite as good as the rest. That’s fine. Over prepare on everything else and relax on the bit you’re not sure about – you might just surprise yourself.

 

BREATHE!

 

Deep breaths. Slow and steady. Breathing really can help calm nerves, or at least help your body regain a bit of control. Breathing too fast will only raise your level of anxiety, so do try slower breaths and take a moment before you start to play your first piece and in between the sections on your exam.

 

Embrace the nervous feeling.

 

The worst that will happen is that you will feel nervous.

 

You might feel sick, but you won’t be. You might be dizzy, but you won’t faint. Small sips of water will help your dry mouth, your hands won’t slip off the keys – but maybe just wipe them before you go in.

 

That’s all.

 

Breathe.

 

Embrace them.

 

It’s all just part of a performance. I would be more nervous if I wasn’t nervous (as weird as that sounds).

 

And you know what – the exam will be over in the blink of an eye and you will be wondering what you were so nervous about in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

Exams: What *is* the examiner looking for?

Exams: What *is* the examiner looking for

 

Now, I know there’s no real answer I can give you to ensure you get a distinction in your exams (sorry!). And although the exam boards have a strict marking scheme that can tell you boundaries and what examiners should be awarding marks for, I thought I’d just dedicate this blog post to my experiences as a teacher, student and trainee examiner to what I’ve found that this means.

 

The examiners are LOOKING FOR REASON TO GIVE YOU MARKS

 

YES! Yes they are!

 

It’s so easy to concentrate on the bits you’re not so sure about, the tiny mistakes, the bits you’re not confident about, the missed dynamics. But actually the examiners are always wanting to find reasons to give marks (partly because they don’t want to fail you – otherwise they’ll have to hear you play the same pieces next term!).

 

So – don’t worry about any mistakes you make, concentrate more on giving it a positive spin.

 

One area they really concentrate on is intonation and tuning. Now this is a bit of a tricky area, because when you get anxious you might find that you note control is harder to maintain. So do remember to keep listening while you’re playing.

 

DYNAMICS!!

 

This isn’t just a bug bear of mine (my students will be pleased to know!) but it is one of the more commented on aspects in the report sheets.

 

Examiners are looking for colour and depth to a performance – not just note accuracy. They want a performance. So that means ensuring the articulation is precise and that the dynamics are there.

 

I hope this helps calm the nerves a bit.

 

Remember: they want to award marks, not take away. So give them reasons to give you more!