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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!

 

 

 

Begin with the Blues

 

Begin with the Blues

 

For some teachers and students jazz and improvisation isn’t something that appears in lessons or even on their radar. I do wonder whether part of it is that classical music is viewed as more serious so more educational, and good for you… like cabbage. But popular and jazz music can be as challenging (and rewarding) if not more so.

 

There’s been plenty of occasions where students have assured me that they ‘don’t like jazz’, but actually when they’ve tried swing pieces and started on the road to improvisation they really enjoy it.

 

But where to start.

 

If you’re a teacher who’s never taught improvisation before – have no fear – it’s easier than you think. Here’s my top tips on starting students on the improvisation pathway.

 

The first thing to remember: improvisation is fast composition. It’s just making up a piece on the spot. So like composition – it all breaks down to practice and trying different things.

 

Choosing the Notes:

 

Students will always respond better if they’re given something small and manageable first. The focus should always be more rhythm and less notes. Here’s my go to note selections.

 

1. Piano Pentatonic Fun

 

With my younger piano students I do like to start with a pentatonic scale. Pentatonics are great as you can play them in any order and it doesn’t affect the sound. But before you worry about which notes to skip in order to give you a true pentatonic sound, stop. The black keys – ta da! One easy to see and play pentatonic scale.

 

My go to for improvising in this key is to play lots of swooping F# and C# accompaniment figures underneath and just let them play. If you keep it smooth and syrupy often students will be happy just seeing how all of their notes work well and fit.

 

Encourage them to try more than one note at once too!!

 

You can download my piece Five Star (including a backing track) for FREE in the freebie section

 

 

2. The Blues (one for all!)

 

I must admit my next go to (especially for the last lesson of the school year and when the students just need a break and something different) is a blues scale.

 

Blues scales are amazing – but of a pain fingers wise for piano students – as again they’re just like pentatonics (in fact they are just an extension really) in that they sounds great no matter what order you play the notes. They’re also great as they just sound ‘jazzy’ and you can get some great sounds from them.

 

Again – just like the pentatonics for piano students encourage students to try more than one note at once.

 

The most common mistake with blues scales is students playing notes that they ‘shouldn’t’ - but if it enhances the improvisation I wouldn’t worry about it. But maybe recommend focusing on three or four notes first before moving onto more.

 

How to Improvise

 

1. Start small

 

Giving students a really small selection of notes to choose from can limit the panic mode of not being able to see the music wood for the music trees issues. Let them choose one or two notes and make sure they’ve decided what note to start on.

 

You can create a really good solo just using one or two notes. It’s all about the rhythm.

 

2. PLAY

 

One of the hardest things about improvisation is just starting it. Students of all ages just stop and minds go blank and they don’t know what to do. But they just need to start. Once they start playing they can see what works, what doesn’t work, what they meant to say and what they didn’t.

 

This is quite a difficult hurdle to get over. But if you use the following tips they should soon start building their confidence in playing.

 

3. Question and Answer

 

Most music that most of us play is divided into phrases. Or in super simple terms the melody is divided into a question and an answer. Start students with the task of thinking about actual questions (weird and wonderful most definitely welcome) and giving actual answers. This helps with improvising as when you start the melodies will flow better if they sound like they’re developing like an organic conversation.

So ask for some questions – either written down as words, or actually notated rhythms. It could be things like:

 

What is your name – My name is martha

What are you having for your dinner today – I’m having sausages and chips

Did you see the football last night – No I didn’t I was fast asleep

 

By structuring it in this way students will start to feel how long the bar lengths are (rather than worrying about having eight beats worth of rhythms and rests) and it will help them make sure that their phrases are of a similar length.

 

They wouldn’t for example say:

 

What are you having for your dinner today – Sausages

 

Well… they might but as a conversation goes it’s not a good one.

 

For those students who are a bit panicky about improvisation it also makes it more manageable. If they’re doing a twelve bar blues solo and playing question and answers – it means that they actually only have to think of three questions – as the answering phrases should follow on.

 

Q&A are also a great thing to play together to develop a more interesting solo with you joining in. Play questions and get your students to answer (a great listening game as the answers need to be similar or again it’s a bit of a weird conversation) and vice versa. You can add all sorts of weird and wonderful rhythm and note sequences and if they’re following the students should start to be stretched by it.

 

4. More rhythm, less notes

 

Ah the first pitfall of improvisation. Doing so many notes you forget your q&a, where you are and what you meant to do in the first place.

 

Get the rhythm centred first. Notes are easy to add – but only when the rhythmic variety is interesting.

 

Why not get the students to try play the same phrase with different rhythms – so change the start from slow notes to fast notes etc etc.

 

5. Rests

 

A lot of students are surprised when I tell them they don’t need to play *all* the time! Rests can help break the phrases so the listen can enjoy what you just played. It can give you a moment to think about what you just did and what you’re going to do next. It can also give you a breathing place!

 

A good improvising challenge is to get students to vary where they place the rest – most of the time it’s at the end of the phrases. Give them the challenge to miss beat 1/2/3/4 or even meaner is getting them to do quaver rests … (not that I’d do that.. far too mean… honest!)

 

6. Less is more

 

You do need to remember what it is you’re trying to say. Don’t over load the solo with unnecessary wiggles or by trying too hard. Decide what you’re going to say and say it. Less is more. Whether that’s less note changes, more rests or just getting to the point faster.

 

If you want a great example of less is more – listen to Miles Davis!

 

5. Don’t be too predictable

 

When you’re first starting improvising then the tendency will be to start on the same note and play similar rhythms as you’re building up your confidence. But be aware that if you start being too ‘samey’ that it will start to become predictable. It doesn’t take much to make it varied.

 

Perhaps alternating the starting note, changing the rests round and swapping rhythms is a good place to start. If you always start with a long note, swap it for shorter ones. Or try playing the same notes, but backwards!

 

6. Move a bit more

 

Now I don’t mean faster (unless you really want to go for it!) but variety is the spice of life. It’s really easy to get stuck in the same range of notes – but again a slight change to a lower or higher range can make a big difference. Why not take the same notes but move up or down the octave. Or just move higher and stay there for a bit before moving back down again.

 

If you need some more tips on improvising – why not check out our freebies section and download some worksheets.

 

 

Spring Clean Your Practise Regime

Spring Clean your Practise Regime

 

 

Ok – so maybe regime isn’t the right word. But with Spring (apparently) around the corner, now’s a great time to get yourself practising better.

 

Practise definitely is the word I want.

 

Are you practising? Or are you just playing?

 

There’s a huge difference between practising and playing. Playing is just blasting through it and accepting that there were mistakes, ignoring the fact that you forgot to dynamics (what dynamics?) and realising that you’re not technically playing the articulation as written. But that’s ok – you’ll do it on the next time you play it. Erm, nope – next time you play it you’ll probably do the same mistake, and then you’ll start to learn the mistakes which makes it even harder to correct.

 

Remember:

 

You’re practising so you can’t play it wrong. (Not practising to play it right).

 

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing for, or how far advanced you are. You always need to practise and practise well. Think about how your teacher’s advised you to practise? Can’t remember? Could you ask them in the next lesson? Don’t have a teacher or need some tips now??

 

Then you’ve come to the right place. Here’s my advice to Spring Clean your Practise Regime:

 

1. Warm Up!

 

It doesn’t matter what instrument you play – always, always warm up. It gets your brain in gear, your fingers warmed up and your body more responsive too. And yes I know time is always of the essence… but there’s no point practising if you’re not going to do it properly. It’s worth while spending 5mins warming up, that way you’ll get more out of your time on your pieces.

 

Long notes, breathing exercises, dynamic work, scales, dexterity exercises, articulation exercises – there’s so many different ways to warm up. Alternate what you start with every time you practise. Or go for extreme practisingness – combine breathing with your scales and dynamic work…. Or scales and dynamics and articulation….

 

2. Perform The Piece

 

Now – I actually wrote Play Through The Piece when I first started this blog post. But actually this really isn’t what you want to do. When we play – I’m not sure we actually give it our fullest, most concentrated attention.

 

If we perform however…. that’s a different thing entirely.

 

Now – don’t worry I don’t mean you need to find a loved one, handy neighbour, parent or pet to sit in while you play. But do imagine that this is your one and only, exam based, concert situation chance to play it. (But without the nerves). Don’t let yourself repeat any sections if you make a mistake, keep going and aim to perform it to the best of your abilities.

 

3. Isolate the Difficult Bits

 

There will always be those annoying bits. Those fast runs, the weird chromatic bits, the bit with the leaps… and generally in the middle section. It might not be notes that catch you out, it might be rhythms, co-ordination, breathing or it might be that your brain just doesn’t like it. For whatever reason there will be bits you can’t play. Now this is where you need to make sure your Spring Clean Practise Regime comes in to play.

 

Isolate the section

Look to see what you need to do (and what you can’t do)

Play it slooooooooooooooooooooooowly (you can’t ever go too slow)

Play it slightly faster

Play the bar before and then the tricky bit.

Did it work? No? Go slooooooooooooooooowly again.

Do the bar before.

Try two bars before….

Go slightly faster.

Go a line before………..

 

The problem will never be with the bar you get stuck on. The problem will be with the messages that your brain sends just before you play that section. So in order to make sure the right message is sent – you need to go from before the mistake, not just on the mistake itself.

 

4. Keep notes!

I always keep a note pad close by when I’m practising. That way if I make a mistake or find an area that I’m not happy with I know to focus my practise from that point when I play again, rather than starting at the beginning.

5. Keep That Nagging Voice Quiet…

 

We all know that internal voice. The one that reminds you that you got that bit wrong last time, that you’re going too fast, that you missed the dynamics. Yeah, that one.

 

Focus on the positives of your playing. Don’t let your mind wander on to what if’s and what happened last time. Try and keep that inner voice quiet.

 

A great book to help silence that silly voice is ‘Inner Game of Music’ by Timothy Gallwey.

 

6. Sight-reading and New Fun Time!

 

Always keep your sight-reading skills up to speed by looking at something new every session. Whether you look at an actual sight-reading exercise or just a new short piece – anything new will help improve your reading.

 

And why not end your practise session with something fun. Whether it’s improvising, playing along to backing tacks or just a piece you really love – go for it!

 

After all – it’s supposed to be fun!

Why Shouldn't You Do An Exam?

 

Why Shouldn’t You Do an Exam?

(Or Why Exams are Bad for You)

 

I guess I need to start this blog post with an apology. This post might start sounding a bit ranty, but it really is something that needs saying and I really don’t mean it to sound negative. I have written many posts about the importance of exams (and will write more soon!) and I do teach students with exam focus in mind. Personally I really enjoy them (except the nerves on the day) – only last month I did my grade 1 cello exam (and somehow got a distinction). And I’m even training to be an examiner – I love music exams that much! But over the last few weeks I’ve been chatting to some parents and other tutors online and face to face and I really do wonder if as a culture we’re starting to miss the point about exams.

 

Exam’s are brilliant for focusing your practising and they’re a brilliant thing for a personal sense of achievement. For those looking for a career in music in any shape or form they’re invaluable. But I do wonder if parents are just seeing exams as extra credit boost for secondary schools (well, I know some are!) and whether people have forgotten why music is important.

 

There’s been so much in the news recently about music and arts in general at schools. Some students having to pay to take GCSE music, other schools are reporting an amazing turn around in general levels on all subjects across the school because they’re focusing on arts and music. I do worry about the future for the arts and also the future for children that aren’t given the opportunity to take part and make music – either because the schools are under too much pressure for maths and literacy levels, the government have decided that this year’s focus will be English or that parents just can’t see the point of paying out for lessons when they don’t see the reward…. Which apparently just seems to be having a shiny exam certificate.

 

I’m not going to quote those countless studies that show the importance of music, no matter what your age. It’s got health benefits for all ages, especially those who are older, both mentally and physically. Creativity is key for self expression, self being and self worth. Also creativity is the key for engineering, maths and physics. How can we create new things is no one has the creativity to think about something new.

 

As a parent I also know the difficulties many are facing over spiralling costs of living, lower wages, longer hours, pesky bills as well as the physical cost of paying for lessons.

 

But if a parents is to say that they think a student isn’t progressing fast enough get to the first exam, or that the time taken between exams is too long and that they ‘should’ be on the next grade by now… should they stop lessons? No.

 

Why is there a specific time frame to get to grade one…. Or from grade one to the next one. Do people have to have a specific numbers of driving lessons to pass their test….

 

What difference does an exam make?

 

As a teacher I’ve found that the difference an exam makes is actually what happens after the exam. Students suddenly have that little bit more self confidence. They’ve practised that little bit harder. They’ve looked at their scales a bit more… so really it’s not actually the piece of paper that makes the difference.

 

I’ve taught many students who don’t do exams – either through not being interested at all or just looking at other things. Does this mean they’re not as good? No! It means they might not see that sudden spike in knowledge and performance that you get after exams, but instead they have a more gentle learning curve. But the end result is the same.

 

If you only did exams you would only learn 24 pieces of music. That’s it. Three for each grade and you’d be all the way up to grade eight. Ta da? Don’t think so! Learning fast and being taught by rote means that you just copy and regurgitate someone else’s approach to the pieces. Learn slower, enjoy yourself and explore other styles and you get a better sense of how that piece should feel when you perform it.

 

The best analogy I’ve come across recently was after chatting to a colleague - Lynne Phillips - (and friend!) on twitter about parents seeming way pushier about students doing exams and ‘it taking too long’. She compares playing pieces to reading books. (Her lovely blog post about repertoire is here). If your child only read 24 books would that teach them to read? Would you expect decent SATs results from 24 Captain Underpants books. Or if you got them to memorise an encyclopaedia (which grade eight can feel like!) would they understand the concepts in it?

 

So why is there such a push for students (children especially) to take exams in a predetermined time frame? Yes it would be lovely if they were all naturally gifted and going to the worlds greatest pianist of all time… but the odds are they’ll just be great at it. Or if they’re not the greatest should that mean they should stop? If they enjoy it and are progressing – surely that’s the most important thing? I love painting but I’m terrible at it. Do I stop? Nope. Do I expect them to be exhibited anywhere…. Only if it’s in a room with the lights off maybe…

 

I must also add that piano is difficult! There’s two hands doing different things at different time but at the same time trying to work together to make one thing sound beautiful. The piano takes longer to get up to a good grade standard. If you want to get your children up to a grade to tick the box to get into the decent secondary school – choose something else! Recorder is easy and accessible and you can get up to speed reasonably quickly.

 

But why do you want that?

 

Why just get them to do something when all you want is the end result?

 

As a teacher I love to teach. Students love to learn.

 

Could we please take the pressure off students (and the teachers) by just remembering.

 

Exams are not everything.

 

New Year (Practise) Resolutions

 

Well it’s official we’re definitely into a new year! I don’t know about you but I enjoy the start of the new year to plan where I’d like to be at the end of it (those who know me well enough should know by now that I loooooooove a good list). Most people I know write resolutions of things like – get thinner, eat better, exercise more, join a gym… but quite a lot do let these resolutions slide.

I’d a bit believer that if you write it on a list – it will get done! There’s a great statistic that 90% of people will do 90% of a list!

So it’s January – write your list! If you want to eat better and feel better about yourself do it – but be specific. Join a gym isn’t a list item.

1. Sign up to the gym by 5th January

2. Go three times a week

3. Sign up for swimming lessons… they’re list items!

And you can do the same for practising, performing and anything else you want in your musical 2018 year.

Think specifics… is there one area that you know you need to work on…. Is it scales(!), is it breathing and breath control, is it sight reading, is it LH note reading, is it co-ordination, is it your dynamic range, is it intonation on the highest/lowest register. Have a think…. There is always something that we can work on and improve and progress as musicians.

You might also want to set yourself a musical challenge – maybe its finish your tuition book, do a grade, tackle a really difficult piece, perform in front of your family, learn to improvise, join an orchestra.... Again – let your head and your heart lead you! You’re only limited by your imagination!

I do get my students of all ages and abilities to have a think at the start of every term where they’d like to progress to. And at the start of the year it’s an even better time to focus on what you want.

 

Here’s my music goals for 2018:

 

1. Spend more time practising on the piano (three times a week)

2. Complete grade 3 cello exam by December

3. Go for teaching / performing diploma exam in the Summer

4. Compose something new every week

 

Whatever you do – have fun achieving it! Merry 2018 to everyone!!!