Last Saturday I attended the first round of the European Piano Teachers' Association (EPTA) piano competition for the Surrey region. I'd invited five of my students to play who have exams looming as I thought it would be good performance practise for them. I wasn't too bothered about the competition element but it proved to be very interesting.
Because it was a competition there was an adjudicator. We were fortunate enough to have Masa Tayama, 'one of today’s most accomplished pianists, ... much in demand across Europe and Japan'. As well as his international performing career he has taught at Chethams, is a principal tutor on the EPTA Piano Teachers' Course and is currently a professor at the Elmitt Piano Academy where he gives lecture recitals and masterclasses.
At the end of each class Masa gave each student individual feedback which provided excellent suggestions for how to improve future performances. There were so many gems I thought it would be helpful to share them here. Before I do, they can be summed up as finding the meaning behind the music and conveying it. This leads to real music making rather than just technical playing of notation on the page.
Curve your fingers!
Instead of repeatedly making this point Masa made it at the start of each classes' adjudication. He made the excellent point that other musicians, for example string or wind players have multiple points of contact with their instrument. Pianists have just one: their fingertips. Therefore the fingertips need to be under control. This means each joint round and firm rather than collapsed. It is only with curved fingers that students will be able to make great progress at their instrument.
I started a drive for curved fingers this term by handing out play doh for students to press their fingers gently into before playing each day. Watch the video on how to use it here. I have talked about curved fingers with my students for years but was freshly inspired by Masa. My students will now be starting simple technical exercises to strengthen their fingertips and I'm assured by him that this will transfer into their general playing.
I have a lot of new beginners this term and not only have they received play doh too, I am very carefully making sure they play with curved fingers from day one. I used to do this and somehow over the years it fell down the list of priorities with young beginners in favour of having fun just playing the piano. It's now back at the top of the list!
'Look like you're having fun'
Masa mentioned that many performers looked like they 'had to be there' rather than they wanted to be there. His opinion is if they are going to be there anyway they may as well enjoy it! This was particularly the case for 'silly pieces' where students were encouraged to really let go and have fun with the piece. A case in point was one of my student's pieces entitled 'Waltz of the Toads' which is a waltz written for very inelegant creatures. So he suggested really getting into the character of the piece and playing it inelegantly! I'm looking forward to the next lesson where my student will be given the choice whether she wants to play it like that - I must say it's much more fun this way and sounds great!
Whether the piece is silly or not, the point was to look like you want to be there and that you're enjoying yourself!
'Where's the pulse?!'
Masa noticed that in several performances he couldn't really locate the pulse. The pulse or beat gives music some of its character and in classical music we want to emphasise beat 1. Of course this isn't always the case and the waltz mentioned above is a case where we abandon this rule and emphasise beats 2 & 3! But generally when playing students need to show the pulse by emphasising beat 1 and putting less stress on the other beats.
There was much talk of dynamics. Dynamics are the different volumes we can use when making music. He made excellent suggestions about using imagery when thinking about them. If the phrase is forte (loud) is it an angry loud, an excited loud etc. think about what sort of mood the loud is and that will influence how you play it. The same with piano (quiet)- why is it piano here - is it scared, timid, shy, gentle, kind, - think about the mood and try to convey that in your playing. One point he made repeatedly was 'do dynamics because you want to, not because you have to'. If you can find the meaning behind the dynamics then you will want to do them, because you've found the point of them!
Dynamics combined with mood, character and pulse give the piece it's meaning - the meaning needs to shine through in every performance and that is where the real music is made. Not in just deciphering the notation, but finding the meaning behind it and conveying that.
It's your turn!
So, you've done all the hard work. You've learned your piece, you've found the meaning, you know how you're going to convey it. Now it's time to go and play it for other people to enjoy!
It's scary going up and playing in front of an audience and it's tempting to rush through the performance and be pleased when it's all over. But Masa pointed out that when you go to the piano it's your turn. It's your turn to be listened to, to have a go, to share the lovely music you've been learning. So relish this time, enjoy it and go for it! Try to forget about the audience and just enjoy your music making, showing the character and mood of the piece.
A parent whose child played on Saturday said to me at the next lesson that the children will only do what their teacher has told them, which is true. I explained that this was an opportunity for her child to play for someone with so much more experience than their teacher is likely to have. Someone who's not readily available to teach young beginners, someone who has performed and taught at the highest level, who can bring new ideas and fresh insights for students and their teachers alike. Parents - if your child ever gets an opportunity like this then go for it! Make sure they are well prepared and take along some paper and pen to write down the comments to give to the teacher. The feedback will be well appreciated.
Not only was this a learning experience for my students in terms of gaining performing experience and receiving feedback, but it was one for me too. A chance to refresh my teaching, be reminded of what's important and listen to new ideas for how to teach what's important. I have come away from Saturday freshly inspired to look for the meaning behind the music and help my students find it and convey it too. I'll leave you with a Chopin Waltz which I performed at a Meetup group the following day which has great meaning to me.
At the start of term I handed out a questionnaire (to students who have been with me for a while, new students your turn will come!) from The Curious Piano Teachers' January Curiosity Box which is on the subject of motivation. It had the following questions:
So 70% of children I teach want to play piano for a hobby and 100% want to develop their skills and know they are 'doing it right' without referring to YouTube. The two go together because the more skilled you are the more you will enjoy playing the piano. So what does this mean for my teaching?
I need to remember to stay in the moment and help each student achieve their goal, whether that be learning to play for a hobby or, in the case of one student achieve grade 8. It is notable that only one person had this goal. While 30% mentioned achievements those did not refer specifically to exams. Achievement for others meant completing a piece and feeling the rush of satisfaction / happiness.
Practise was mentioned in 60% of answers, and not in a positive way. Children struggle with the amount of time they need to spend playing at home, especially the older ones who have other homework. Unfortunately it is impossible to become proficient at any instrument without practise. I teach the children practise strategies and we make it fun in the lessons with 'cute animals' to help practise. Of course it's different when they are going through the work at home without me to support them.
An area for me to look at, given how many children want to have piano as a hobby, is to think about how much work I am expecting them to do at home. Perhaps those without goals of getting to Grade 8 can have less work to do at home and so feel less burdened at home and have time to enjoy it more....This may be a conversation to have with families. Perhaps a follow-up parental questionnaire might be helpful, as well as an initial questionnaire to new families about why their child wants to take piano lessons.
The next immediate step is to go through 'My Piano Planner' with students who have completed the questionnaire, to set goals for the coming year. After all, if piano lessons are meeting the child's goals then, as the tagline for this month's Curiosity Box says, motivation comes as standard!
I can't remember if I did hurry her but I do know I noticed the desire to rush her and later in the lesson I know I slowed down so she could enjoy and be in the moment she was in.
As I reflected on my morning's teaching afterwards I realised that children inhabit the present moment naturally. They are so often absorbed in the present moment. How often do we, as adults interrupt that?
Many of us are always hurrying children onto the next activity; then we wonder why, at a later date, they always want to be onto the next thing, why they are never satisfied with what they are doing right now. We often find this at a moment when we have spent a large sum of money on an activity, or arranged something that has cost us much effort. They want the next thing because that's what we've taught them to want! In all our rushing to get things done, teach them as much as possible, cram as much as possible into their lives so they don't miss an opportunity, we are teaching them that what they have now or what they are doing now isn't enough.
Many of us are always hurrying children onto the next activity; then we wonder why, at a later date, they always want to be onto the next thing.... because that's what we've taught them!
So from today I will make a conscious effort to slow down in my teaching. To allow children to be in the moment; to be absorbed in the activity we are doing now. I will take that extra couple of minutes which will be a special time where I too can notice the moment, be in it with the child and enjoy watching their experience unfold. Their learning and their experience and memories of piano will be all the richer for it.
Here's poem I wrote about a year ago when I first noticed I am always in a rush for the next thing and began to wonder why. I'm grateful for the reminder from this student to just slow down.
Rush Rush Hurry Hurry
Always there; never here.
Rush Rush Hurry Hurry
Something different, something better.
Rush Rush, Hurry Hurry
This is never good enough.
Rush Rush Hurry Hurry
Let's slow down and be, just here.
Another creative love is to create music, that is to improvise. Improvising is not playing music that someone else has written, but something I have created myself that has come from nowhere. I can’t share that so easily with others since it’s gone as soon as it arrived. Unlike art I find it harder to get myself to sit at the piano and create music, however when I do it’s such fun and I can get quite carried away, losing all track of time! This is a state of ‘flow’, which ‘is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.’ (Wikipedia - see reference below)
we all have something to say, let’s make sure the opportunity to say it is given through the gift of improvisation
Leading piano pedagogues have written about the importance of improvising in piano lessons for The Curious Piano Teachers and I have taken a few quotes to share with you. See the full Curious post here.
So much of what we hear in the world of piano exams, piano competitions and yes, piano lessons, could be more musical. Could the way thorough this be by encouraging more improvisation in our lessons, to allow students the opportunity to connect to music on their own terms, expressing their own feelings and really developing their understanding of what music means to them. Would this lead to more enjoyable musical experiences for students and their families alike, would students be more motivated to play the piano because it’s ok to just sit down and improvise their own piece?
It is a tragedy if the opportunity to deeply enjoy and connect with music is lost through lessons that require students to simply play what others have written – we all have something to say, let’s make sure the opportunity to say it is given in the gift of improvisation.
Visit the improvisation page, play some tracks and experience it for yourself.
How do we solve the age old problem of practising between lessons? I'm sure many of you reading this will either have children who learn an instrument or remember your own instrumental lessons and one of the major problems is practice.
A while ago I wrote a blog post about the parent's role in the piano learning journey; a major part of which is helping with piano practice at home. Today's post is about a free online tool called Cadenza developed by Professor Rena Uptis of Queens University in Canada that teachers can use to help motivate students to practice at home.
Given that students see their teacher for only 30 minutes a week the progress they make is quite remarkable
Given that most students see their teacher for only 30 minutes a week the progress they make is quite remarkable. Compared to the hours children spend each day with their teachers at school, instrumental students, their parents and teachers do a job that is nothing short of amazing!
Cadenza is a free online tool that increases the support available for children outside of lessons. It allows:
perhaps most exciting of all, Cadenza allows the student to upload videos of progress during the week on which the teacher can provide feedback
Children will need access to a tablet during their piano practice time. They can work through the activities set by the teacher, monitor their progress during the week, see how much time they have spent working on activities and write notes for themselves or their teacher. The tool can help develop the skill of reflection as children can note what went well and what they need to focus on during the next practice session.
The creators of Cadenza report that students 'love' using it and that it's fun. Teachers and students report learning more quickly with Cadenza and experiencing more satisfaction as musicians. And why not, the goal is to make music and the sooner we can all do that the happier we will all be!
From January 2019 Surrey Music School will be using Cadenza with all students. If you have lessons with us please sign up and let us know when you've done so. We can then connect and the fun can begin!
Over the last two weeks I've discussed the parent's and child's role in the journey, today it's the teacher's. The road to learning anything new is never smooth. There are ups and downs, struggles and joys and the teacher is there to accompany the learner through them all, the good times and the bad.
Role 1 - Facilitating open communication
Role 2 - Identifying and solving problems
These problems may be emotional and related to the child, or technical / musical related to the piece of music. Children arrive for their lessons in various moods and states of readiness to learn and teachers need to be able to observe and adjust their teaching to suit the child. This can be pretty hard to do as we are under time pressure and want to teach the child as much as we can in the time available, however sometimes it's just necessary to abandon the plan and go with how the child is feeling.
Role 3 - Entertainer
Role 4 - Researcher
As teachers we have to be endlessly curious about how we can teach 'better' (helped by ongoing professional development, for example from The Curious Piano Teachers, or membership of Facebook groups for teachers); what resources we can find for our students; which piece will suit which student; how to find a piece a student has requested that is arranged suitably for their level.
Role 5 - Educator
Not only do we need to educate ourselves and our students (this has been discussed in earlier posts), but we also need to educate parents. Many parents long to play instruments themselves and either didn't as a child, or did and gave up too soon and regret it, or did and became quite successful - whichever it is teachers need to let parents know what music education looks like today. It looks pretty different from what they experienced as a child or think they already know and they may not recognise it as what they want for their child. But it is what their child needs if they are to become fulfilled musicians.
Music education has moved on and these days high quality music education teaches the whole child all the skills they need to be successful musicians. So children learn through movement, songs, games, rhymes, they learn to play by ear and from notation, they are encouraged to make up their own music and 'mess around' on the piano. Learning an instrument is not just learning to decipher dots someone else wrote on a page.
I'm sure there are many roles that I've missed. Can you help teachers become better by identifying any more?
I'll be taking a break from blogging until after Christmas. The purpose of these first posts has been to help educate readers about why music is important, what good quality music education looks like and how they can help their children succeed. In January I'll look at a different topic.
Children tend to love music, they like to dance, to sing and to play on instruments. Really, they just have to show up at the lessons wanting to learn and curious to explore. By all means try out instrumental lessons with your child, but if he or she doesn't want to continue, please don't make them. Instead help them find what they do want to do.
When a child wants to learn an instrument it's essential they choose one they like the sound of since they will spend a lot of time playing it.
Parents can help by playing all sorts of music and even giving children the opportunity to try some out - advice here! Peter and the Wolf is a good piece to introduce children to various orchestral instruments, as is Carnival of the Animals.
Music is an entire language and just as children took years to learn to speak full sentences so will they take years to learn the language of music. This doesn't mean it can't be fun, engaging and fulfilling (which is the teacher's job; we'll look at that next week), from the beginning but reaching the dizzying heights of Grade 8 is hard work!
As well as showing up willing to learn, children need the parent's and teacher's support to develop:
Please remind your child not to be afraid to ask if he / she doesn't understand something and also to let their teacher know if they are not enjoying a particular approach or piece. Good teachers who have undertaken professional development can adapt their approach and can easily provide different repertoire to better suit the child. We are not mind readers and while we can 'pick up' on undercurrents we don't always succeed.
So much of the child's experience in learning an instrument depends on the quality of the teaching and if the child can develop the attitudes discussed above and is supported by their parents they will be well on their way with their musical journey. Next week I'll look at the final part of the triangle - the teacher.
What is your child's experience of music lessons? Are they developing the attitudes they need to succeed? Is there anything you can do to help them even more than you are already? If you missed the parent's role in the learning journey read it here.
Over the last few weeks we've looked at the benefits of learning music; what good music teaching looks like; and how it is possible to measure progress without relying solely on exams. Today we're considering the needs of today's children and how a novel approach to piano lessons incorporating all aspects of musicianship meets those needs. Please do share if you think your friends will find this interesting.
As renowned music educator Paul Harris says, today's children have a wealth of choice in terms of activities they can choose to fill their time and many of these give instant gratification. Learning an instrument does not always give instant gratification and so, if taught by a teacher who doesn't understand music education thoroughly, it is not something children are going to choose to fill their time.
Lessons with Surrey Music School offer children activities they can do well, 'now' - they learn to sing a song, they move to the beat, they spend all week singing the song and they play games together while singing the song - often they can't get it out of their heads! When they know the song really well they work out the pitches (the sounds that go higher and lower) and work out how to play it by ear on the piano. Because their ear is being developed through all this singing and playing they begin to work out how to play it.
So a task that could be difficult - playing a song and reading it from notation - becomes easy because they have had lots of fun learning it thoroughly and when it is time to play it they know it really well.
Children are then curious to know work out how the song can be notated (written down), so they are given resources to help achieve this and again, what could be difficult becomes easy.
Children happily and independently working out rhythms to songs
The piano is a pretty exciting instrument to play and explore, so not only do children get to play songs they have learned to sing but they also explore the whole piano through improvisation.
Children learning in this way not only get a really great musical foundation for the future but also get to play real music 'now'! Of course we do not advocate having everything now, but this approach has the dual benefit of enabling children to make real music while developing all the skills necessary to become confident rounded musicians.
Of course they will have to apply themselves, it will not always be easy, but it will be much easier than going the route of 'traditional' piano lessons which involve setting a tutor book in front of a child and expecting them to read and play without any musical foundation at all. In these instances the eye takes over from the ear in the effort to decipher the notation and all thoughts of music making are absent in the struggle.
Over the next few weeks we'll be looking at everyone's roles in the learning process - the parent's, child's and teacher's.
I have two really important questions for you:
1) Why do you want your child to learn the piano?
2) Why does your child want to learn the piano?
I wish I could have your answers before I continue writing this post, however I'll make an assumption that you want your child:
I'll also assume your child wants to learn because he or she likes / loves music and really wants to play an instrument.
I think it's unlikely you want your child to learn because you want him or her to get onto an exam treadmill where the sole purpose of playing an instrument becomes passing exams that get harder and harder, thereby killing any joy in music making and leading to the exact opposite of what I've assumed your goals are in getting instrumental tuition for your child.
So now we have a problem. Much instrumental tuition revolves around exams because to date they have been one of the only absolute ways of measuring progress. This means that parents also become exam focused because it is the only way they have been told progress can be measured, and doesn't everyone know that if you learn an instrument you 'have' to take exams. But things don't have to be like this.
Following exam syllabi is very different to delivering a rounded curriculum and cannot possibly be a substitute. Even Ofsted has finally come around to the view that good exam results 'do not always mean children have received the subject knowledge they need' and the focus on exams is at the expense of 'rich and full knowledge'. Read the full article here.
Children who learn using this exam focused approach often find they do not enjoy their learning, it is hard and they do not have a foundation on which to tackle harder and harder pieces. They also tend to have the opinion that once they have reached the highest grade their learning is complete and they do not need to play anymore.
But what if there is a different way? What if progress can be measured without relying solely on exams?
Children learning within this framework make structured progress and no areas for development are neglected. Teachers can also add to and adapt the framework so it meets additional goals they or their students may have.
Exams have their place and are very useful formal benchmarks for measuring progress, however they must not become the focal point of instrumental tuition because this does not lead to enjoyment, rounded development and the lifelong love of music you want for your child.
At Surrey Music School we are slowly moving all our students onto this framework to ensure that we continue to do our best to give children the most holistic music education we can.
If you are an existing student with Surrey Music School and your child is pre-grade 1, before Christmas 2017 you'll receive a copy of the Piano Framework with a Piano Tracker so you can see how your child is progressing. Children who are Grade 1 and above will receive the Piano Framework but The Curious Piano Teachers are still developing Piano Trackers for the rest of the levels. As you can see, the only way I have to measure level is 'grades'... but hopefully this will soon begin to change:)
If you would like your child to learn piano within this structured framework, in a group environment, where the focus is on developing a love of music and all round musical skills through piano playing then please do get in touch.
'Why working to exams is anti piano' by Tim Topham
An open letter to parents from Tim Topham
Ofsted to punish schools pushing exam targets over learning from The Guardian (although schools have been saying so much testing is bad for decades - read more here.)
Last week's blog discussed the benefits of music teaching but raised the fact that the benefits do not occur when the teaching is unstructured and poor quality. Read on to find out what bad music teaching looks like and discover what makes good music teaching.
The Kodaly approach to music teaching is very similar to how children learn to speak. As babies they listen and begin to explore the sounds they can make. As they grow they start imitating words they hear and finally they begin to put words together to make their own sentences. Imagine if they were not allowed to make any sounds until they first learned to read! It sounds ridiculous however this is what 'traditional' music teaching expects. With no musical foundation children are expected to interpret musical symbols - is it any wonder that they struggle and don't enjoy it.
What did your music lessons look like? Did you learn through songs and games, developing your musical skills away from your instrument or were you a victim of traditional teaching and expected to somehow 'know' all these things without being taught?
Next week's blog looks at the importance of teaching musical skills and concepts within a framework; so that the learning is structured and progress can be measured other than using exams.
In the meantime if you're interested in reading more about the damage that traditional piano teaching causes why not check out this excellent article 'How Traditional Piano Lessons Cripple Our Children'.
Director of Surrey Music School.