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Parent Help Time: How to Stop Pulling Your Hair Out (and Get those Kids Practising!)

 

Parents Help Time:

How to Stop Pulling Your Hair Out (And Get Those Kids Practising)

 

 

Ah practise. One of the worst words children hear – that and homework.

 

I know it’s difficult as a parent. Music lessons are *not* cheap. So if you don’t see the progression and you feel they’re not progressing through the grades or you are literally pulling your hair out trying to get them to practise, I know the temptation is to stop lessons. But here’s some advice on why you shouldn’t and why perhaps those lessons are more important that you might think. And there’s some great tips on how to make the dreaded practise fun again.

 

Why You Should Stick it Out

 

As a teacher I know that music lessons really are worth their weight in gold for students, but as a parent I do know the financial burden as well. With rising costs of living, poorer wages, no wage rises and the fact that children do expect to do so many things at the same time, it can be a difficult balancing act. One thing I’m reminded of it that so many adult students tell me that they wished their parents would have made them stick to music lessons, as they now can see the benefit. But I know this doesn’t help you if you’re practically dragging them there and then seeing the piano sat gathering dust in the corner. Perhaps it is something to consider though.

 

Usually in a 1-2-1 situation you’re paying for basically a bespoke service (if it was something on etsy or not on the highstreet that would instantly add another 0 to the price!). Lessons are structured to your son or daughters needs and tastes and rate of progression. The reason I love teaching so much is that no two students are ever the same. You can start two students of the same age on the same day with the same book and yes they might overlap, but after the first couple of lessons it’s completely different. As a teacher you need to learn to teach exactly the same thing in a million and one different ways. And then I can’t also not mention that sometimes it’s not *just* about progressing through a book. It’s learning to read, co-ordination, dexterity, breath control and not to mention confidence building.

 

And there’s all of that even before you factor in the human element. The joy of 1-2-1 lessons is that you do get to know your students, their mood, their stresses and strains and the outside world can’t help but filter into a lesson time.

 

Are you Expecting Too Much?

 

Most students have 30 minute lessons, but some are even 20. But if you take out 5 minutes for setting up, relaxing into the lesson with a minute of chatting about practise and how they got on with the pieces, 5 minutes of warming the instrument and the brain, and then allow 5 mins at the end to wind down and go over things that need to be worked on… That’s 15 minutes. 15 minutes to play the pieces that were set last week, start something new and go over any new issues.

 

I’m not saying sign up for longer lessons! For most students 30 minutes is the perfect length of time. But, before you cancel lessons completely perhaps it’s worth a thought about what you’re truly expecting. They say it takes about 10,000 hours to truly master something. And that would be straightforward improving every week mastering. They’ll take a step forward and a step back, they might race ahead and then get stuck. You just never know!

 

There’s no right answer for the rate at which students ‘should’ progress. Personally I hate the pressure that we feel about music exams – that if we’re learning something, not just music, then we need to do exams to validate what we do. Other countries don’t do exams, and for those that do there isn’t sure a need to be grade 5 by the time they get to secondary school like we have over here.

 

Yes, I know the pressure for students to get into a good secondary school is so much greater than it was when I was at school, and I know that by the time my little one’s getting towards year 6 and SAT’s I might suddenly start enrolling in French classes etc too! But something to consider… are exams really worth it if your son / daughter isn’t interested? I know they’re supposed to count for UCAS points, but actually most universities don’t look at them. I did a full blown music degree. Did they want to see the certificate before I started, nope, did anyone ever ask if I passed with a merit or distinction, nope. Could I have done the course without it – yes I could. Because I enjoy and love music. And that trumps pieces of paper every time hands down.

 

As a teacher I do encourage exams yes, but not for exams sake. Learning three pieces to pass an exam and get a piece of paper will do nothing for a student. If anything it will make them bored and hate it in the long run. Reasons not to do an exam (and why exams are bad for you) – are in another post that I wrote here.

 

So my question really is – are you expecting a return on your investment? Does your son / daughter feel the pressure of ‘having’ to do well so they’re not willing to relax enough to enjoy it. Are they actually getting more out of the lessons than you can see on the page?

 

Trust the Teacher

 

A good teacher really is worth their weight in gold (or chocolate and gin if any of my students are reading this).

 

So if you have any concerns about practise (or lack of) do talk to the teacher first. It could be your worry about practise isn’t anything to be concerned about. If the teacher is happy with the rate of progression, then hooray!

 

Don’t tell my students, but *actually* sometimes you can progress without having practised. Sometimes the brain does just need a few days to process ideas, but not all the time though.

 

Perhaps the teacher has a few ideas on what they should be focusing more – would a notebook for the teacher to write in help, so that way you know what they should be practising help?

 

Getting Bums on Seats:

 

(or just the instrument out of the case…)

 

Now this is where we get to the difficult bit. Actually getting students to practise…. Perhaps you’ve had to be mean parent and deliver the final ultimatum – no practise and you’ll stop the lessons… or perhaps you’re getting to that stage and don’t know where to turn.

 

Here’s a few hints and tips that might help.

 

The most important thing to remember is that music is supposed to be fun. Has all the nagging about practising zapped the fun out of it? Is looking at dull repertoire making their brains turn off? Sometimes that final serious ultimatum is needed for them to realise that you’re serious and for them to take responsibility for their lessons, but sometime it can backfire.

 

There are things you can do though:

 

Let them have fun. Encourage them to try something new – jazz, pop, music games on the ipad, learning a song by memory, playing along to a CD, finding something to listen to on youtube.

Could you sit and practise with them? Or even more importantly – could you just spend time listening to them practise?

 

A lot of parents feel lost when it comes to music – most haven’t learnt an instrument. But this doesn’t matter. Just listen. Encourage. You’ll hear when it sounds right and when it doesn’t, usually this is a great starting place.

 

Could you get your son / daughter to teach you something? Why don’t you let them be the teacher and learn the basics to play along. You’d be surprised how easy it is to self teach music via books and the web nowadays. Learn enough to play with them (and don’t worry about technique which the books can’t teach you, if you’re simply playing for fun, fun, fun).

 

Why not just have a jam and play something silly together. I know this is harder with teenagers but they still might enjoy just messing around.

 

ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE

 

Their lessons happen at the same time, the alarm goes off at the same time, meals and TV time happen at the same time. So why don’t you make practise routine and just part of something that happens during the day. Routine really does work – you probably know yourself the things that you’ve been meaning to do for ages just get lost in the sea of ‘stuff’ that needs doing. And practise is the same.

 

Same day, same time. Get in from school, quick 10 -15 minutes before they go to the next club, or have dinner, or flop in front of the TV or electronic device of their choosing.

 

Try not to say that they can’t have the ipad etc unless they practise, as they’ll then soon end up resenting doing it in the first place – it should be just something that they do. Get home, practise, go on and do other things. If it’s not a big thing (unlike this blog post!) then they might find they spend longer doing it.

 

Little and often works.

 

Sometimes just a quick 10 minutes before school everyday (I know – our house is crazy rushed on a morning getting everyone up and out the door on time, but some people find this early morning routine helps).

 

Keep Track

 

You can see what routine works and doesn’t if you keep tabs. Younger students enjoy having practise charts and things to tick and stick stickers on – so you could try this at home. A tick every practise session and they get a sticker reward.

 

If you’re seeing a pattern of when you can find the time then you can see whether turning it into a slightly longer session works or whether little and often just helps.

 

It won’t take much to build confidence and increase note reading ability. They should see and feel a difference in how they play within a week or two if a practise routine is made.

 

Inspire

 

If routine and everything is just becoming too much of a battle my next suggestion would be to back off and take a slightly different approach.

 

Can you find a local concert with some musicians playing the same, or similar instruments. The BBC young musician of the year programmes are a brilliant example of what determination and a lot of practise can achieve.

 

Live music is a wonderful thing as it always inspires the desire to play. They might then want to learn a different style or a new piece based on the concert.

 

Hopefully these ideas will help you encourage your son/ daughter/ grandchild to practise (and thanks for sticking with me – this has become a bit of an epic post!). It’s not easy. They will be demotivated and not want to practise every now and then – because music is hard.

 

It’s a completely new language but the rewards really do out weigh the annoyances. Stick with it.

 

Remember: You might not see the progression but they will be progressing.

 

Finally – just remember. Music is more than learning to play an instrument. It’s self expression and relaxation and much, much more.

 

If you want more hints and tips – why not come and say hello on our facebook group. If you want to chat more with other parents about the joys and pitfalls of encouraging practise – come join out Parents Practise Page

 

You've Gotta Take the Rough with the Smoooooooooth

A lot of practice was done this last week on slurring with our students.

Slurring can be tricky to get your head around when you first start learning - but then it can be just as hard to switch off again.

You do need to make sure that the slurring (and other articulation) is there as marked on the piece. If not you can alter the shape of the melody, style of the song and the sounds as a whole. It’s a bit like accidentally putting stress on a word you didn’t mean to and it upsetting somebody. That can be the difference!

You can easily put slurs into your scale practice to help with alternating with slurs and tongued notes.

This way your brain and tongue can co-ordinate without you having to think too much about notes, rhythms, rests, breathing etc etc

 

Why not play your scales like this:

 

Slurred in groups of 4

Slurred in groups of 2

Slurred in groups of 3

Slurred in groups of 5 (three and five groups will be difficult – our brains like even groups!)

Or alternate the slurring (S) and tonguing (T) like this:

 

S-S TT S-S TT S-S TT S-S TT

TT S-S TT S-S TT S-S TT S-S

T S-S T T S-S T T S-S T T S-S T

 

You can also then add in staccatos and accents. Maybe try writing a pattern down for you to see to help your brain remember!

You could even compose your own pieces and add some slurs and tongued notes on. Or even get a song that you know really well and add your own articulation on it. Just make sure you’re listening really carefully to make sure that you aren’t over extending the slurs and making them longer!

 

 

 

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!

Sight Reading isn't Scary

Sight-reading isn’t Scary!

It’s just misunderstood

 

My students already know that I’m a bit weird – and my colleagues probably with attest to that too. But one thing they do find very strange is my love of sight-reading!

I find there’s something quite satisfying about opening a new book (and yes I have a buying new sheet music problem too) and just seeing what it sounds like. No two pieces sound the same; so it’s exciting to see what the composer has done to make it different, what the piece makes you feel and what the new challenges are.

Unfortunately for most students sight-reading comes as part of exams. And exams can be scary. And in exam situation sight-reading can be scary too – the pressure of only having 30 seconds to practise and the knowledge that it won’t be perfect. And forgetting THAT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT!

No piece is truly ‘perfect’. There’s always more we could have done to embrace the dynamics more, articulation clearer, faster, slower, not rushed – even before you enter the whole minefield of actually interpreting the piece…. So technically not even playing what’s on the page any more.

So why do we strive for perfection in sight-reading. Yes it would be nice, but in the exam situation examiners don’t expect perfect (unless like me you’re grade 8 on another instrument and do grade 1 on a new instrument – in which case reading four bars of minims and crotchets you’d hope they’d be perfect). In exams focus on the general shape and performing it. I did a clarinet exam and panicked about whether to do a right hand C# or a left hand one – in the end I panicked and did neither. But it was confident and in the end it didn’t detract from the piece so they gave me almost full marks!

Be confident!

So the question really is – how do you sight-read….

Well – you do this every time you see a new piece. And in comparable terms you do this every time you open a new book to read, every time you visit somewhere new or every time you drive somewhere.

Sight-reading just boils down to recognition. When reading a book – you don’t know the story but you brain recognises the words so it tells you what they should sounds like. It’s exactly the same for music.

It’s all about recognition.

Do you recognise the notes, have you seen those rhythms before. Have you played in that key, have you played a scale up with a crescendo on it, does your brain remember that the last time it saw a rit at the end of a piece you slowed down?

So, just like learning to read – sight-reading just all about learning to recognise patterns it’s seen before. And just like learning to read – it just takes a bit of practise.

The best advice I can give you is play. Lots. Find lots of new books – don’t worry if they’re ‘easy’. If they’re ‘easy’ then that’s better. It means you can focus on reaffirming in your brain that when you see this symbol then this action happens. Give it chance to really get to grips with the basic notes, in all sorts of weird and wonderful combinations. Let it really know what quavers like – so clap the rhythms in time with a metronome, stomp your feet and feel the beats and ratios.

Raid the charity shops for new books, borrow some from a friend, get some from the library, take your existing book and turn it upside down, play them backwards. Anything. Anything at all to get your brain to see notes in different combinations and patterns is perfect.

Rhythms are most peoples downfall when it comes to sight-reading. Usually with an extra go on a piece, most can iron out any rhythm issues then. But in the exam you don’t get a second chance and more importantly – if the rhythm isn’t right ….. then it doesn’t matter if the notes are right, it just won’t feel right at all.

So how do you know if it’s right? Well in the simplest terms you feel it (not helpful for those still on the start of a musical learning journey). I wrote another blog post recently about Five Ways to Learn to Love Your Metronome which might be a good starting place. Metronomes are great as they keep the beat going regardless, but unless you feel the beats – it might just be annoying. So practise tapping or clapping (and other such annoying habits). Try tapping crotchets with one hand and tapping quavers at the same time with the other. It might be frustrating to start with but if you can internalise the beats then it will make it easier. If you tap etc. it can help your brain associate rhythms without it stressing about notes, what fingers to move, how loud to play, how your nose itches etc. etc. etc.

Another way to help break down the rhythms is to actually use words. Find a one syllable word for your crotchets, a two syllable word for quavers…. Cat / kitten. Tea / coffee.

Then for the more interesting rhythms – just find a word of phrase that fits. For triplets I use pineapple. For dotted quavers and semi-quavers I use ‘bouncy’. And for just semiquavers it’s caterpillars.

So why not try clapping and saying the words for the rhythms out loud. Breaking it down into things that you can relate to (which is why I try to get students to internalise the beat and ‘feel’ how the rhythms are played) then it does make it so much easier. It might seem weird – but the end result is that you won’t need to worry about the rhythms – so that gives you more time to concentrate on the notes and other elements of the piece.

And finally (you’ve got this far so why not have a bit more information!) here’s my seven point check list for sight-reading. (I know only seven!)

1. Time signature (don’t four if it’s in three – might seem silly but you wouldn’t be the first person to forget this.

2. Key signature – Any sharps or flats at the start? Could you figure out what key it is? If so then probably can hear the sounds of the piece if you know the scale already

3. Any other sharps / flats / naturals written on the score

4. Tempo - How fast to play? If it’s slow- enjoy the thinking time!

5. Any changes to the speed? Rall? Rit? Accel. (eep!)

6. Articulation – tongued, slurred, bowed, pizz.

7. Dynamics (definitely worth remembering as they make the pieces sound so much more interesting)

 

And finally – if sight-reading is a bit of a bugbear, don’t let it be.

 

Tackle your sight-reading demons and sight up to our Horrible Sight-reading for Lovely People Course.

 

 

 

Five Ways to Learn to Love Your Metronome

 

Five Ways to Learn to Love Your Metronome

 

Ah the metronome! That annoying clicking, pingy or too quiety thingy that all teachers insist you must have yet everyone avoids practising with.

A lot of my students have been learning to love the metronome this year and have really found it a great practise aid (but I’ll be honest they’ve also found it really difficult too!). But why should it make it harder I hear you say? Well – the simple answer is that we’re not robots. When we play there’s always a bit of an ebb and flow to our sense of timing (even though we try desperately for it to stay ‘in time’). Best example of this was when I started a big band rehearsal with the band at one speed, with a sneaky metronome silenced in the back ground, then turning it on and up half way through a song – it really shocked them to see how much they’d dropped collectively!

But it doesn’t have to be all heart-ache and misery! Metronomes are really useful – and practise with them can be great fun too!

 

1. Start with the basics – do some rhythm games with it to help your body internalise the beat. If you ‘feel’ the difference between crotchets and quavers you will naturally play them better. So start the metronome and play crotchets alongside – then suddenly swap to quavers (or have someone shout the rhythm changes out!) or minims etc and see if you can keep up and keep changing.

2. Scales practise – to get used to playing ‘in time’ choose some nice easy scales to run up and down in time with the beat. Again – you could play crotchets or quavers, or swung quavers… or dotted quavers….

3. Use it to help with long tone practise – put a really slow count on and if you have the old fashioned metronomes you can see how close time wise you are to holding a note for an extra beat longer. It also means you cant cheat by speeding up your count!

4. Headphones – now this might seem odd, but bear with me. As a teacher of tenor and baritone saxes and all those loud based instruments – just hearing the metronome can be a pain. So – best advice for the battery operated ones is to put some headphones in. Even if you can hear it – sometimes having the sound that little bit closer helps. (But obviously if you’re like me and always forget to change the batteries and rely on an old fashioned wind up one then this won’t help you!)

5. Dexterity – often students find that there’s always a piece of music that has one or two nigglingly bars that the fingers won’t get around in time. This is where you should learn to love your metronome. Isolate the difficult bars and practise them at a really slow speed. Then a tiny bit quicker. Then a bit quicker still. Then at the speed you need it. Then…. Go for it. Way above the speed you need and see what happens. It’ll probably be a car crash *but* when you go back to the speed you wanted in the first place – you’ll probably find that the brain relaxes over it and suddenly it’s easier.

 

 

 

New Course - Horrible Sight-Reading for Lovely People

Horrible Sight Reading for Lovely People

 

Everyone (except me) hates sight-reading!

Or at least all of my students insist that this *must* be the case.

But sight-reading doesn’t have scary (or difficult) – it really does all boil down to practise. All sight-reading is – is just playing a new piece. And you do that every time you start something new…. Ok you might not do if with only a few seconds to practise and an examiner breathing down you neck… but seriously. Every time you turn the page you’re sight-reading.

So what’s the scary thing?

I guess it’s a quest into the unknown.

But its not unknown realms of weird not knowingness (if there is such a thing as that!).

Sight-reading is just recognition really.

It’s notes you (hopefully) know and rhythms you’ve seen before – but all perhaps mixed in a way you’ve not. But the elements are still all the same!

Our Horrible Sight-Reading for Lovely People course helps you break out of the sight-reading blindness and realise that you do recognise everything and that it’s never as scary as you think it might be.


Who is it for?

This course is for those who want to break away from thinking sight-reading is scary and want to learn to love it! (or just not hate it to pass an exam better)

Teachers this course is great for extra sight-reading sheets and is a good boost to those students who are perhaps lacking in confidence with their sight-reading ability.


How does it work?

Well done for getting this far in your boost to your sight-reading ability all you need to do now is decide how much of a boost you’d like to take on:

One week mini boost: £5 (and you can do this as many times as you feel you need!)

Two weeks big boost: £10

Four weeks super boost: £17


Simply click and order the course you’d like to sign up to!

 

If you enjoy your one week mini boost so much you can simply order another one week boost to follow it at a later date. Feel free to mini, big or super boost as many times as you need!


What will I get?

You will get three boost emails in the week for your sight-reading boost.

Boost 1: There’ll be a sheet of handy hints and tips to break down sight-reading into easier chunks, a rhythm work sheet and a super easy sight-reading sheet to break you in gently.

Boost 2: This sight-reading sheet will be of the level you’re working at.

Boost 3: This sight-reading sheet will definitely be horrible and above the level you need – this is because we truly believe the brain works better when it’s over stretched as it then relaxes back when it thinks it’s easier. (Reverse psychology and all that jazz!)

Each sight reading sheet will come with mp3 answers of how the tests ‘should’ have sounded like.

For grades 6,7 and 8 we will also include a more realistic performance of the sight-reading tests and hints to how to ‘blag it’ in an exam situation.

Rachael Forsyth has been teaching music and music theory for the last 13years and has a 100% pass rate for both practical and theory exams. She is a full time woodwind and piano tutor and teaching both classical and jazz music.


What level is it aimed at?

Currently our Horrible Sight-Reading for Lovely People course is available for grades initial and 1-5 (later grades still being prepared!). If you’re finding the sight-reading a seriously difficult thing to do then why not consider a mini boost (one week course) for the grade below to kick start your sight-reading journey.


Anything else I need to know?

Not really – but if you do have any questions please feel free to email us or get in touch via facebook or twitter!

@roorecordsmusic


How Duets Can Inspire Your Students

 How Duets Can Inspire Your Students?

 

Ahh… the duet point in any tuition book. How many teachers skip over these because they know most students dread to play them.

Although they can be difficult to do – duets actually can be really good for students in many ways and here’s just some of my favourite reasons.

Recorder DuetsIntonation! How many times do we get exam results through that moan about intonation? But in an exam situation students panic. Yes, they might be listening to the accompanist but are they listening to themselves? Duets are a fantastic way for students to work on their intonation as the sounds they hear need to blend that little bit closer. They’re also hearing the same sort of sounds (assuming you duet on the same instruments) so again it can really make them have to work out what sound is coming from them and what’s not.

Ensemble experience - Duets are a great introduction to ensemble playing – if they’re keen to join an orchestra or band, but aren’t sure what it feels like then duets can be great starting place.

Listening – You’ve got to listen to make duets work. Unlike being accompanied where the pianist will often work with the soloist to support their lines, duets really do need a sense of balance. The rhythms need to work together, the tone needs to blend, the dynamics need to match etc etc etc. So for the ear – again they’re a great work out!

Breathing – Although all students do remember the breathe when they’re playing (hopefully), duets can help them progress a bit further with their breathing. Because you’re playing together the natural result is that both players begin to breathe at the same time. So it becomes natural and organic, rather than prescribed four bar phrases.

Sight-reading – I know I keep going on about sight-reading (partly because I love it and it really isn’t as scary as students make out!) but duets can also be used to add a different angle to their sight-reading practise. Give them a minute to look over part one, count in and both play it from scratch. This would give them a real boost in the importance of making sure when they perform a sight-reading exercise that they stay in time and learn the importance of keeping going (and blagging it when they’re not sure!!)

Repertoire – There’s such a wide range of duet pieces out there that there is really a vault of untapped music ready to be played. They’re a brilliant filler if you need something extra from the tuition book. There’s always a great array of different styles and genres out there to explore.

So get out there and get them playing more duets!

Flute Duets

 

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!!!

 

Back to School - Back to Work!
The summer holidays can be a brilliant well deserved break for students and teachers alike. But all too often well meant promises to do some practise often results with very little and (dramatic music interlude) sometimes no practise at all. Six or even seven weeks away from anything never mind things as physical as playing an instrument will always end up with you taking a step back in your progress. Don’t get me wrong - it can good to have a break but for most people music is something that needs to be kept in the routine or you do risk forgetting some bits of what you’ve learnt. I remember this every time I dig my bicycle out of the garage!)

So here’s some tips on getting back into the swing of things.  Why not try some of these to impress your teachers (and maybe convince them you’ve not avoided practising for six weeks!)

1. Scales, scales, scales!
I know, I know! I keep going on about scales – but they are really important (like vegetables) Scale practise can be a good and gentle way to get your fingers remembering what to do. Start slow and steady and increase the speed gently. A lot of music can be muscle memory and if you build up slowly your muscles should remember what to do.

2. Long notes
For woodwind and brass players get some long notes going – it’ll get your breath control working again and start strengthening your lips too. Long notes also will help you focus on your tone to get a good solid sound. Why not see how long you can hold a note for and then see if you can beat it the next time round!

3. Articulation (and dynamics!)
All too easy for articulation and dynamics to fall back on the list of things to do when bashing through new pieces or getting back in shape. So try focus on getting all of the articulation and dynamics in when you practise instead of worrying about the notes and rhythms.

4. Get louder!
Are your louds really loud? Could they be louder? What about your quieter range? Could you get any quieter still? Sure?

5. Look over some old pieces
This is great to see how far you progressed during the last year, but it is also good to look at something your brain should remember as it will jump start your memory onto things you have learnt before.

6. Sight reading
Try something new and scary! Really push your note reading ability, dexterity and speed of playing by trying something terrifying. Don’t expect it to be note perfect – sometimes a good music shock to the system can help get your music knowledge flowing again.

7. Try something fun that you loved to play
Just play for fun for a while – with no exams or concerts looming, just play for the joy of playing! It’s great to have a no pressure playing session – when lessons start back again at school it can get bit too goal orientated. Enjoy the freedom to toot or noodle on whatever you fancy without worrying if you’re playing it right or wrong.

8. Have a look at something new
I love looking at new challenging during the summer holidays to decide what I want to achieve during the next year. Sometimes the pieces are ones that I’m going to perform or use in an exam, but often I pick a couple of pieces for my own sense of fulfilment