Review: ABRSM Theory Works

This is an entirely independent review. I purchased the app myself and have not been asked by ABRSM to review it. For more information, you can read my Reviews Policy here.

Released a couple of weeks ago, ABRSM’s new Theory Works app ‘contains over 6,000 specially-written questions designed to test and challenge your music theory knowledge.’

The app presents the material for Grades 1-5 Theory in, as one might expect, five separate sections. Each section can be studied independently (i.e. you can start at Grade 5), or you can work through cumulatively from the start. Within each grade, you do need to work through each section cumulatively in order to unlock the next. Each section begins with a brief explanation of the knowledge and skills required, before moving onto a series of exercises designed to test that knowledge. The app marks each question as you go, and gives you the opportunity to have another try at those exercises you’ve completed incorrectly. You can also revisit the knowledge sections as you go.

One of the things I like most about this app is that the exercises don’t merely draw on the knowledge required at that level, but require pupils to build and draw upon that studied previously. In that sense, poor foundation skills will ultimately be uncovered fairly quickly once users move on to more complicated exercises. Of course, this does allow users to revisit earlier levels (assuming they’ve been unlocked) to review the knowledge required, and complete further exercises.

The app is clearly presented, without unnecessary clutter. This means that it should have universal appeal regardless of the age of the person using it. As ABRSM quite rightly point out, ‘Music notation is complex and phone screens are small. This app is best viewed on an iPad’. I think this is certainly true, and as the screenshot below shows, even on the iPad, the notation is fairly small. Perhaps an option to zoom-in would be useful in further updates?

This app is a great addition to ABRSM’s increasing suite of digital offerings. Whilst it is primarily built around ABRSM’s own Theory of Music syllabus, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be used outside of that context.

As with all new apps, there are clearly some teething problems which I’m sure ABRSM will iron out in future updates; for example, here I selected a C to make the tonic triad of A minor, but the app has inserted a C#. With over 6,000 exercises included, it’s understandable that wires have occasionally become crossed. Errors such as this afford a useful learning point in themselves!

One useful feature which ABRSM might consider in the future would be to allow a number of users on one device, so that, for example, pupils can use the app both in lessons and at home by logging on. This would also allow teachers to check up on pupil progress.

Overall, at just £4.99, I think this app is excellent value, especially compared to some of the other ABRSM digital offerings. There are clearly some teething problems which I know ABRSM are aware of, but I don’t think that overall, this detracts from the 99.9% of the app which is correctly functioning. Whilst it is orientated towards ABRSM Theory exams, don’t let this deter you. This is an app which offers much to both teachers and learners alike.

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The Critical Art of Choice

As instrumental teachers, we are overwhelmed by choice when it comes to teaching resources and materials. New books, websites and subscription sites appear on an almost daily basis. There is more available to us now, than at any time in the past.

Having access to such a wide range of resources is, essentially, a good thing.  Rather than being stuck with one book, which doesn’t suit every pupil, we can now tailor what we use to the needs of individual pupils.

There is though, a danger, that when choosing and using resources, we become uncritical. Often, we let someone else do the work for us. Once an eminent music educator or organisation recommends a resource, it is taken up by teachers with great enthusiasm and is quickly implemented in their teaching practice. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing. There are plus-points to books and resources recommended by someone else, often someone knowledgeable in their field, who has previously researched and critiqued them. But, does this mean teachers should rely on others to do the work for them? I would argue that the more resources there are available, the more critical we need to be as teachers.

As many of you know, I mentor teachers for teaching diplomas. The DipABRSM requires a Written Submission of 1,800 words on a topic of the candidate’s choosing from the syllabus. One of the most popular topics is:

‘Discuss your choice of material for use with young beginners and/or adult beginners in the first year of learning.’

For most teachers, this means a discussion of tutor books (though of course, you are encouraged to discuss the whole range of materials you use). If we take piano for example, the market is overwhelmed by tutor books: Piano AdventuresPiano SafariGet Set! PianoPiano TimePiano WorksMe and My Piano, Piano Junior to name but a few. New piano tutor books appear on the market at an almost alarming rate. As teachers, how critical are we in our choice of tutor books we use?

When I read essays which seek to answer the question above, they invariably follow the same format. The teacher has a preferred tutor book which they use, and they unknowingly use the essay to ‘sell’ the book to their reader (the examiner). There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred tutor books, and indeed, most of us have them. But how did we arrive at our decision to use them? Unfortunately, writing in your essay that you use those books because they were recommended to you doesn’t really cut it with the examiners. Candidates, and indeed, all of us, should demonstrate a more critical approach.

As a starter, consider the following questions:

  • How does the book fit in with our wider teaching philosophy?
  • How does the book align with our curriculum and pedagogy?
  • How does the book enhance the musical learning of our pupils?
  • Why do you we this book in preference to others?
  • How does the book fit into a wider progression of musical learning?

No one book is perfect, but these are all important questions, and they require teachers to think critically about the materials they are using. The answer to all these questions cannot wholly be that we use a book because it was recommended to us.

To even pass the DipABRSM Written Submission, teachers need to submit an assignment which is:

‘Adequately argued with some evidence of structural control and flow of argument [and an] acceptable level of literacy and grammatical accuracy, and some evidence of relevant research.’

So, by all means, seek the advice, views and recommendations of others, but  above all, be critical yourself. With the ever-increasing number of resources available to us, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon. Some of those bandwagons turn out to be good, but some turn out to be only a passing fad. Think about the books, materials and resources you use in your teaching. Can you critique what you use, and answer the questions above?

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Review: ABRSM Teacher Conference 2018

Since 1889, ABRSM have held over 40 million exams, and currently, more than 700 examiners conduct over 600,000 exams a year in over 90 countries. It was a pleasure to be invited to this year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference, and in this blog post, I’m going to share some of my thoughts and experiences from the day.

There is a sense that reviews can sometimes become advertisements, but I want to assure you that I write this review completely independently of ABRSM, and it is in no way a paid advertisement for them.

The Day

Once again, held at the Grange Tower Bridge Hotel in London, over 500 teachers, music educators and others attended the sold-out 2018 ABRSM Teacher Conference. Although London-based, this is far from a London-centric event, and I met teachers there from as far afield as Northern Ireland, Hampshire, Lincolnshire, the West Midlands, Manchester, Yorkshire and Scotland.

The day opened with a keynote speech from writer and broadcaster, Will Gompertz titled Think Like an Artist. Inviting an outside speaker to give the keynote is, in my experience, a departure from the traditional format of the Teacher Conference. Will spoke passionately about the arts and arts education. Although he, himself, specialises in art, of course, music has much to learn from the other arts disciplines. In fact, I’ve said previously that the music world can be very insular, and we should take steps to learn from those outside of our profession. His talk, whilst fairly abstract in nature, generated some laughter from the 500 or so present.

During the latter part of the morning and afternoon, delegates could choose to attend three out of the 12 seminars on offer. These including exam-relevant sessions such as two seminars on the new ABRSM piano syllabus, but also more general talks related to teaching, learning, curriculum planning, assessment and managing performance nerves.

As previously the case, the hotel provides an excellent hot lunch, and there was also time, both at lunchtime, and during the breaks, to visit the various exhibitors and network with other delegates. The main sponsors of the event were Allianz insurance and Casio Music UK; however, many others such as the ISM, EPTA, The Curious Piano Teachers, Dorico, Ackerman Music, Music Mark and Rhinegold were all in attendance. There was also a chance to visit the ABRSM Village in which you could try some of the new ABRSM apps and talk directly to staff.

The post-lunch keynote was given by Paul Harris, who posed the question: How do we know if our pupils are actually learning? Paul, as always, spoke passionately about music education, and emphasised the need for lessons to be based on collaboration and partnership, something which I am also passionate about. As Paul said, “Telling is not teaching”. Members of the Soutbank Sinfonia also performed a specially-written piece by Paul, based on the letters A.B.R.S.M.

For those able to stay, the final session was followed by a drinks reception for delegates and staff. The day, which opened at 9am, closed at 6pm following the reception.

The Seminars

It is always difficult at these events to choose which seminars to attend, and I think we were all in agreement that we would have liked to have attended all of them. Sadly, time constraints meant we could only choose three to attend. The three I attended were, as follows:

Manage Your Performance Nerves
Charlotte Tomlinson

Charlotte is a well-known music educator, performer, and performance anxiety specialist. In her seminar she introduced teachers to a range of tools which they could use as a means to help pupils manage their performance anxiety. These included reframing the way they see their audience, tips to manage the physical manifestations of performance anxiety, and reassessing how they prepare for performances. Charlotte concluded by giving a short 15-minute mini-masterclass to a violinist, in which she put some of these things into practice.

Perfecting Performance at the Early Grades
John Holmes and Anthony Williams

In this session, John and Anthony considered what goes into creating a performance, and the way in which imagination, communication and musical understanding all contribute to that. They talked specifically of encouraging pupils to make their own performances from the earliest stages of learning, suggesting that style, character and expression are often introduced too late in favour of notational accuracy. Anthony in particular compared some of the early grade piano pieces with some of the Grade 8 pieces, to show how the early building blocks contribute to the execution of more advanced pieces. Above all, the message was “Exams come second. Be a musician first”.

The Musical Journey to Notation
Karen Marshall and Anthony Williams

In this final session, Karen and Anthony looked at ways we can introduce our pupils to musical concepts, before they progress to reading traditional music notation. They talked particularly of the use of singing and movement, and the way in which we can physically embody concepts such as pitch, pulse and rhythm. Karen drew particularly on her knowledge of the Kodály and Orff approaches to music education, whilst Anthony gave a number of examples of the way in which improvisation and composition can be used in the early stages as a precursor to reading notation. This talk was particularly well-attended with standing room only remaining!

The Venue

In many ways, the Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, is an excellent venue. The main seminar space along with the exhibitors and ABRSM Village was in the basement, whilst the three remaining seminar spaces and drinks reception took place on the first floor. Space is at a premium, and with a sold-out event this year, it was not always easy to move through the space. If the Conference continues to to be this popular, and certainly if it grows, ABRSM may need to consider a larger venue. Whilst the seminar spaces are more than adequate, the spaces for networking, eating and viewing the exhibitors attending is very limited. As has been pointed out previously, whilst the provision of a hot meal at lunchtime is superb, there are no tables and chairs to eat it at, and the amount of seating is, overall, limited.


In conclusion, it was an excellent day. The overall planning and execution of the day by ABRSM was excellent, and talks were all relevant and high-quality. A number of people commented that they felt it was a little piano-dominant this year, but this is perhaps to be expected with the release of the new syllabus. Similarly, a number of delegates felt that seminars of 45 minutes rather than an hour would offer them the opportunity to attend four rather than three of these. Equally, some felt that it would be valuable to have more time for networking and eating, and that the lunch break of an hour, was probably insufficient given the numbers attending.

I believe that this is now a well-established event, and it is good value for money. Whilst many teachers scoff at the cost of attendance, I have seen conferences charging over £100 for a day ticket recently. The ABRSM Teacher Conference offers a lot for what amounts to less than £10 an hour, including a hot lunch, tea and coffee, and a bag of ‘goodies’.

I, for one, would certainly look to attend again next year, and if you haven’t previously been, I wholeheartedly encourage you to go. Based on this year, you may need to book early! As many of you know, I do not favour one exam board over another, but the Teacher Conference offers much more than that which is relevant only to ABRSM exams, and I believe this reflects a move away from an exam-dominated organisation, to one which seeks to play a wider role in the music education sector.

I think this year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference is summed up in this tweet from Jason Hawkins:

‘Inspirational day at the @ABRSM Teachers Conference. So many ideas to take away and inform practice! Can’t wait till next year already.’

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Seasonal New Discoveries 2018

Welcome to this special post of my monthly New Discoveries series in which I share a selection of music suitable for the upcoming Christmas period. It might only be mid-October, but some pupils are already preparing early! If you have music you wish to submit for review, please see my Reviews Policy.

There will be a normal October New Discoveries post at the end of the month. Make sure you subscribe below to have this delivered straight to your inbox.

CAPTURING THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: 12 Carols arranged for solo piano (Barbara Arens & Alison Matthews)
Editions Musica Ferrum, ISMN 9790708147381, £12.00 (Available direct from Editions Musica Ferrum)

If Nikki Iles’ Jazz on a Winter’s Night 2 was my pick of 2017, this new book of beautiful carol arrangements from Barbara and Alison is, by far, my pick of 2018. I talk a lot in these blogs about music for teaching purposes, but the thing which struck me most about this book was that it would make a wonderful Christmas gift for any pianists you know!

12 carols are included, a mixture of well-known ones, and some completely unknown to me. I think that to me, the appeal of this book, is the way in which the arrangers have been so sensitive to the original texts and tunes. My particular favourites were Infant Holy and the Coventry Carol, but they are all lovely. Again, these pieces will appeal to young and young at heart alike, and I know for one, I shall enjoy playing these purely for my own pleasure over the Christmas period.

This book should be top of your shopping list this Christmas.

THE CHRISTMAS BELLS: SATB & piano (Thomas Hewitt Jones)
Banks Music Publications, GCL011, £1.95 (Available direct from Banks Music Publications)

OK, so in some ways, this isn’t a new discovery, because I know many of you will have seen me tweet the original single release in December 2015 (and I can’t help but retweet it each Christmas too). In case you missed it, here it is:

If you haven’t done so already, you should definitely hop over to iTunes and download it!

Even more exciting though, you can now buy the sheet music, arranged for SATB voices and piano. With plenty of pizazz, this could be the ideal encore for your Christmas concert. I defy anyone not to be cheered along by this gem. You’ll be humming it to yourself for weeks!

GET SET! PIANO: Christmas Crackers (David Blackwell & Karen Marshall)
Collins Music, ISBN 9780008306144, £7.99 (Available from Musicroom)

This bumper book of carol arrangements by David Blackwell and Karen Marshall contains over 30 well-known (and less well-known) carols suitable for pianists from beginner (only five fingers needed) up to Grade 2 level, and aligns with the two Get Set! Piano books already in print. Each carol is preceded by suggestions for learning activities associated with the piece, and there are plentiful quizzes, tips, games, facts and other suggestions too. The early pieces have effective duet accompaniments making the book accessible to players in the very early stages of learning. Another cracker (excuse the pun) from David and Karen. Don’t forget, there are additional resources to download via the Pianodao website.

ME AND YOU: Jazzy Christmas Duets (Rachael Forsyth)
Roo Records Music, £7.50 (Available from Roo Records Music)

With so many teachers now teaching more than one instrument (e.g. woodwind, strings etc.) this book is a must. Eight jazzed-up carols are included with parts for both C and B flat instruments. This means that they can be used effectively with a whole range of woodwind, brass and string instruments, as well as two instruments the same. They are beautifully crafted arrangements which will appeal to both children and adults alike, and with such a range of potential instrument combinations, an excellent value and durable book.

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Just As I Am

ISBN: 9781506452494
SATB & piano
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress
Difficulty Level: E
Year of Publication: 2018
Duration: 5 minutes
Availability: In Print

Printed Copy: $1.80
Order from Publisher


From the publisher’s website:

David Barton crafts a new tune for a familiar hymn text in this anthem, which features an expressive piano part and beautiful harmonic writing for the choir.

Potential Uses

Worship, Anthem, Church, Choir, Dedication

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September 2018 New Discoveries

Welcome to September’s edition of this popular monthly post which reviews new music, books and resources, many of which will be of use to both teachers and players alike. If you have music you wish to submit for review, please see my Reviews Policy.

Quick heads up…there will be a special seasonal edition of New Discoveries out in mid-October reviewing a range of Christmas music. Don’t forget to sign-up below to get this post delivered straight to your inbox when it’s published.

PIANO BOREALIS: Chilled Pieces for the Early-Advanced Pianist inspired by the Far North (Jenny Walker)
Jaynote Music, ISBN 171998798X, £7.49/£4.99 (Available from Amazon)

Jenny is a piano teacher, performer and composed based in Lincolnshire. These pieces were written following a trip to the far north, namely Iceland, Greenland and parts of Norway, and each piece echoes a different aspect of that awe-inspiring scenery. My particular favourite was ‘Big Sky’ and you can hear me play this below (sorry, yes, the piano needs tuning):

These pieces are aimed at pianists at the ‘early-advanced’ level, I’d suggest at least Grade 5 and above. They are nicely presented with a short introduction as to how each piece might be approached by the learner. There is some effective use of repeating octave movement and some fairly sizeable chords; these may need to be adapted for players with smaller hands. Overall, despite the occasional irregular spacing of the music, this volume is good value and adds some interesting and effective pieces to the higher level repertoire. Listen to the first piece in the volume, ‘Islands of Ice’ below:

Find out more about Jenny on her website, and look out in next month’s New Discoveries for my review of her two other books, Piano Tracks.

THE FOUNDATION PIANIST: A technical and musical curriculum for pianists at post-Grade 1 and 2 level, Books 1 & 2 (Karen Marshall & David Blackwell)
Faber Music, ISBN 0571540651 (Book 1), £7.99 (Available from Musicroom)

It is great to see another couple of excellent, and eagerly-awaited books added to Faber Music’s Piano Trainer series. You can read my review of The Intermediate Pianist in my September 2017 New Discoveries. These two volumes are aimed at those pianists who’ve passed Grade 1 and Grade 2 standard respectively (though, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to have taken the exam).

These books could equally have been titled ‘The Foundation Musician’, for they contain more than just the development of pianistic skills. Exercises, sight-reading, repertoire, musicianship, theory, improvisation and the history of music are all covered. They are, as expected, thoroughly well-planned and executed, and just like The Intermediate Pianist they are also well-suited to adult learners.

Karen and David have selected a range of repertoire pieces to include which support the aforementioned development of a wide musical skillset, and David in particular, has written a number of pieces and arrangements especially for these books. Here is me playing David’s arrangement of Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets (yes, out of tune piano, sorry):

I really cannot praise these books enough. They provide a consistent follow-on to Karen and Heather’s Get Set Piano! series, and an excellent precursor to The Intermediate Pianist. Faber Music, have, once again, done a superb job.

Look out in my special seasonal edition New Discoveries for a review of Karen and David’s Christmas edition of Get Set Piano!

JOURNEYS: Piano Album, Volumes 1-3 (William Minter)
KOA Music, $14.99/$9.99 (Available from KOA Music)

Born in the UK, but now living in America, Will has produced six volumes of Journeys covering 97 pieces in total. I would suggest that the volumes broadly align to the grades, so Volume 1 = Grade 1 etc., but this is by no means set in stone.

Each volume contains a wide variety of pieces in diverse styles, including arrangements of well-known classical works and folk-songs. They are nicely produced and each volume contains an introduction to each piece which both teachers and learners may find useful. Hear me play ‘To Bach’ from Journeys 3:

Overall, these books offer pupils a good value means to acquire a volume which covers virtually all conceivable styles and genres. As the books go on, the length of the pieces increases, and some management of page turns may be necessary by Volume 3.

Look out for my review of Volumes 4-6 in next month’s New Discoveries. 

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Work and music: fitting in music lessons and practice with full-time employment

When adults learn an instrument or study singing, they have to juggle music lessons and practice time with other commitments, notably full-time employment. In this guest blog post, David Barton Music pupil, Ruth Carlyle shares her thoughts and personal tips for juggling music lessons/practice and full-time work. Some of her tips may be of interest to anyone taking music lessons and needing to squeeze in time to practise.

Balancing full-time employment with the commitment of studying music requires sensitivity to the needs of employers, as well as managing time for lessons and for practice. This short article opens with the employer relationship, then tips more generally on making the most of limited time to practise.

Work: the employer relationship

When you work full time, fitting in a commitment to a music lesson can be challenging.  If you travel for work, or have nights away from home, a music lesson can be a commitment that creates complications for employers as it may reduce your flexibility on particular days or evenings. This requires sensitivity by the adult learner to the needs of their employer.

  1. Be open with your employer: before making a commitment to music lessons, discuss your plans with your employer and close colleagues. If there are days on which you need to juggle your hours or to leave work promptly, this has an impact on those working with you.
  2. Work within your organisational culture: if it is culturally acceptable to take a late lunch break to attend a music lesson close to your place of employment, or to work from home on a particular day of the week, plan your music lesson to fit within that culture.
  3. Plan ahead: employers rarely like surprises. If you are likely to need a day of annual leave for a performance, to take an examination, or as recovery time, book the time as provisional annual leave well in advance of the date so that meetings do not have to be rescheduled. In the case of examinations, this may mean that you are having to hold several days as provisional annual leave until the examination time has been confirmed, so it is important to explain this to your employer.

Music: realistic practice planning

Time to practise will always be limited and activities shaped by the realities of daily living, particularly if you have travel commitments and spend time away from home.

  1. Think about what you want to learn between lessons: there will be activities that you have discussed with your music teacher for study before the next lesson, but also points that you have identified that you want to try out (such as a different approach to a particular phrase, or shaping the narrative of a piece in your mind). What requires you to have access to the musical instrument, or a private space in which to sing? What could you do just from the printed music without having to perform out loud?
  2. Plan your activities according to your resources: if you have time travelling or staying in a hotel, you will not be able to perform (unless you are very confident and have very tolerant fellow passengers/guests!), but you will be able to learn lyrics or to think through approaches to a piece. Plan your time so that you have the relevant piece of music with you for practice without performance.
  3. Make the most of performance time:whilst it is lovely to play through full pieces, making the most of limited performance practice time often requires repetition of difficult passages, including recording yourself and listening to the recording, rather than performing the whole of a piece.
  4. Keep records:note what you have rehearsed when, so that you can avoid unintentional repetition and pick up from where you finished practising.

Learning a musical instrument or studying singing can be a rewarding complement to full-time work and have a positive impact on health and well-being. Whilst making the commitment is a challenge, for many adult learners it is possible to juggle full-time employment with music lessons and practice.

Having shared my reflections, thoughts and tips from others are warmly welcomed. Don’t forget to share in the comments below.

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Putting the ‘social’ into ‘social media’

I’ve just been having a clear-out of people I was following on Twitter. Don’t worry, it’s not anyone whose tweets I read and interact with, it’s people who’ve obviously stopped using the platform. Some accounts hadn’t been used for several years and I couldn’t even remember some of the people.

It reminded me that at the very heart of social media is the notion of being ‘social’. I think it’s quite easy to forget that sometimes. I frequently see people and businesses who are new to social media simply using it as a loudspeaker. In this ‘digital age’ it’s easy to get online, and I can see why people are drawn to using social media as a means to promote themselves and/or their business.

Now, let’s be clear, I’m no social media expert and I’ve had no training in social media. I do use it though…a lot! For all its faults, it offers so much. I often joke that I wouldn’t have any friends if it wasn’t for Twitter, and maybe, this isn’t that far from the truth. Perhaps one of greatest joys in life (for me anyway) is meeting people in person whom you know online. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the years, and I count many of them to be my closest friends.

But, if you’re new to social media, it can be daunting. It’s hard to know where to start (and where to stop), so I thought it might be useful for me to share, from my own experience, some tips and ideas to help you navigate social media if you’re just starting out and would like to use it for promoting yourself and/or your business:


Setting up your account is the easy bit, it’s then the hard work starts. Setting up is easy, but now you have to manage, grow and run your account, and that’s a whole new challenge. Try and do a bit of planning before you make your accounts live;


Whatever platform you’re going to use, whether it be Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, use it regularly. Particularly if you’re going to use it for promoting yourself and/or your business, I personally think you need to be doing something most days. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a break from it occasionally, and it doesn’t mean you have to be on there 24/7, but I think that a regular presence is necessary;


Don’t expect people to follow you back just because you follow them. These days, I’m quite picky. I tend to follow people back only if I’m interested in their posts, or they’re clearly interacting (or are going to interact). Trust me, it’s by being social, by chatting to other people and getting to know them, and by interacting with what they post that you’ll acquire followers (and hopefully friends too);


Don’t just use social media as a loudspeaker to promote you and/or your business. Some people say that you should apply an 80/20 rule, that is to say only 20% of your content is advertising. On busy platforms such as Twitter, even 20% can be a lot. Take the time to be social first because from experience, I know that will reap rewards further down the line if you want to use social media for promotional purposes;


It’s a slow process. It’s a very slow process. I believe that if you really want your social media content and interaction to be high quality, it might take years. I’ve been on Twitter for just over eight years, but it was probably four years before it really took off for me. But again, make the most of the social interaction, because I truly believe this will be the thing which grows your following;


I’m a firm believer that you and your content should be authentic. Some people choose to use their account just for business, others use it for a mix. I guess that I don’t have that clear divide between work and leisure (I like to think I just have ‘life’) so you get a bit of everything from me. I personally think that’s a good thing because it shows I’m human, and let’s face it, most of us would rather interact with other humans than faceless machines;


Take your time. Think before you post. Remember that even if you go back and delete something you’ve posted, it’s probably already been archived somewhere, and it’s dead easy to screenshot these days. Maybe sticking to the mantra that you shouldn’t post anything online which you wouldn’t say to someone’s face isn’t a bad idea;


Remember that what you post reflects you and/or your business. That includes things you share/retweet/repost. Again, think before you post;


Don’t correct other people’s spelling and grammar. I try my best to check the spelling and grammar of my posts, but even then, mistakes happen (we’re all at the mercy of autocorrect too!). When the odd mistake creeps through, I really don’t need this pointing out to me (either publicly or via private message). You won’t make friends online by trying to score points;


Enjoy it! Sometimes, the best way to approach social media is to just enjoy the journey. Don’t expect too much from it, and again, don’t expect too much, too soon. Tread carefully, be yourself and above all, be social.

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“When can I do Grade 9?”

Please remember to check the current edition of the syllabus as these change regularly, and marking allocations can be amended. 

You’ve passed Grade 8. What next?

As we well know, there is, alas, no Grade 9 in the UK. So, what are your options for post-Grade 8 examinations and assessments?

I’m lucky at the moment to be working with several musicians who have either recently passed Grade 8, or who are already working beyond that level. I’ll state now, as I always state, music is for life, not just for exams, and it’s perfectly possible to learn post-Grade 8 repertoire without ever taking an exam. That said, in this blog post, I want to consider some of the options available to learners post-Grade 8 level.

In this post, I’m going to concentrate on five options, leading to the first-level diploma exams offered by ABRSM, Trinity College London and the London College of Music.

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve arranged these five exams as I have. Firstly, Trinity’s Advanced Certificate is pitched at the same level as Grade 8 (Level 3), although it’s often seen as a step beyond because of its nature as a recital exam, in comparison to the standard three pieces performed at the highest grade.

Secondly, ABRSM’s new diploma, the ARSM, whilst accredited at the same level as the DipABRSM (Level 4), includes a mixture of DipABRSM repertoire and Grade 8+ repertoire. I have therefore illustrated this as a stepping stone from Grade 8 to the diplomas themselves. Finally, I have included the three first-level diplomas: DipABRSM, ATCL and DipLCM.

That may all seem fairly straightforward, but of course, each exam is made up of different components and each can be weighted differently when it comes to the marking. Whilst for the Advanced Certificate, ARSM, DipABRSM and ATCL performance diplomas, there is only one option, the DipLCM can be further subdivided into the standard, recital and concert options. We can see illustrated below the very different ways each of these exams is made up:

Broadly speaking, the ARSM and DipLCM concert option offer the greatest degree of performance with, in both cases, 100% of the marks being for the performance alone. That said, the Advanced Certificate and ATCL are not far behind as 90% of the available marks are for the performance, with a further 10% for presentation skills. Shortly behind these are the DipLCM recital option which offers 80% of the marks to the performance and 20% to sight-reading, and the DipLCM standard option which offers 70% of the marks for the performance, and 15% each to the viva voce and sight-reading. The exam with the least marks offered for the performance itself is the DipABRSM offering just 60% of the total, with 25% for the viva voce and 15% for the quick study (sight-reading).

So maybe the first question to ask yourself is what do you actually want to be examined on? As is the case for the graded exams, it’s perfectly possible to acquire skills such as sight-reading without being tested on them in an exam.

Then there’s the repertoire itself. It’ll come as no surprise that there is a good deal of repertoire overlap across all five of these exams. Another option to consider is whether you wish to include own-choice items, and if so, how many are allowed. Similarly, will your programme require pre-approval? Also, don’t forget that in some cases, you can offer a portion of your programme on a related instrument (for example, a flautist might offer a piccolo piece).

What surprised me most when writing this post is that the DipABRSM which is so often seen as the ‘gold standard’ in fact offers the fewest marks for the performance. This is something else worth bearing in mind.

Above all, talk to your teacher about your options, but also, where possible, talk to those who’ve already sat these exams. If you know someone else also working towards a post-Grade 8 exam, it can be good to ‘buddy-up’ and work together, even if you don’t play the same instrument it can still be good to share the experience.

As with all exams, you get out of the experience what you put in. Enjoy and value the journey as much as you do the result.

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“Where’s my Walkman?”

Today, one of my pupils posed an interesting, and somewhat unexpected question:

What music did you listen to when you were my age?

I was stumped.

The awful thing is, I genuinely don’t remember listening to music when I was growing up. Much of the music I listened to was the music I made playing my own instruments. I was also exposed to a good deal of music throughout my schooling, but again, mainly that created live. Besides the odd favourite cassette, mainly of music recorded from the radio, that was about it.

That said, what struck me most about this exchange, was the huge change  in the availability and accessibly of music. When I was her age, if I wanted to listen to music outside of the house, I’d have to have taken my Walkman (ensuring it had functioning batteries), headphones, and a selection of cassette tapes.

Nowadays, so long as we have a functioning internet connection, we can literally call up any song, any piece of music at the flick of a switch. Everything is available on-demand wherever in the world we are. Even without a functioning internet connection, we can store thousands of tracks on our mobile devices, all easily accessed at any time.

But, despite this change, we can’t help but see, and often feel, a longing for something more authentic. Something tangible which we can hold. Perhaps this, in part, explains the increase in the sale of vinyl LPs. In 2017, 3.2 million LPs were sold, a rise of 53% on the previous year and the highest number since 1991.

I see this in my own teaching too. Just as you can access any music you want at the touch of a button, so too can you learn an instrument, any time, any place, just by calling up a video on YouTube. Yet, I see no shortage of people wanting to learn an instrument. I see no decrease in pupils, if anything, quite the opposite is true.

I believe that deep down, as much as we savour the connectivity of our world, we all crave for something more authentic. The deeply emotional connections you make learning an instrument with a teacher, and indeed, playing with others for that matter, cannot be replicated by sitting alone in front of a computer screen.

I truly believe that in all walks of life, the appetite for something more authentic, is a desire which is already gathering pace.

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