Duets: are we missing the point?

I don’t know about other teachers, but I try to make use of duets in my teaching at all levels. Indeed, I’ve written an article previously about the ‘joy of duets’. In terms of their use in lessons, it’s generally two-fold: they’re ‘fun’, and they’re great for sight-reading. I’ll frequently choose a duet where one part is sight-readable by the pupil, and we’ll have a go. There are lots of benefits to this, and it can be a great way to get pupils reading music at sight, without labelling it as ‘sight-reading’.

It occurred to me recently, that in some ways, we’re missing the point when it comes to duets. Yes, they’re fun and they’re good for sight-reading, but that’s not generally why they were written. They were written so that players could play together, and perhaps for pianists this is especially important.

Playing duets is essentially about playing as part of an ensemble. It’s not always the case, but in the main, I’d say the majority of duets published outside of what we might term to be the ‘educational market’ are written with parts of equal level. That means there’s a huge repertoire out there (and I’d be the first to admit it) that’s ignored in lessons.

So, here’s my question…how can we encourage pupils to learn and play duets? I don’t mean in terms of sight-reading them for fun at the end of a lesson, but using them in the way they were intended, as ensemble pieces.

It seems to me the biggest shift would need to be in mindset. Pupils clearly learn and work at solo repertoire pieces, and this is the bulk of what, as teachers, we’re focussed on. Would a pupil be equally willing to learn one part of a duet, in the same way they might approach the learning of a solo piece? I guess that unlike solo repertoire, the satisfaction of learning a duet is found in the putting together of the ensemble rather than in the solo playing. Would pupils be willing to wait to experience that? Maybe.

If this was the case, then it opens up a huge range of learning opportunities which are often sidelined in terms of instrumental lessons. It would certainly take a shift in mindset, away from the idea of learning pieces for solo playing. But, it would open up a huge repertoire which is, in the main, left completely untapped.

Next term, I’m going to try this out. I’m going to try giving pupils duet parts to learn, and approach them in the same way we’d approach learning solo repertoire pieces. Indeed, some pupils have already expressed an interest in learning duets. But I don’t mean duet parts which are necessarily easily sight-readable, but duet parts which are of a similar level to the solo pieces they’re learning. Initially, they can learn them to play with me, but in the future, this could open up opportunities for collaborating with other pupils. I have always believed that music is something to be shared, and this could be a great way of doing that.

So, let’s celebrate the hugely diverse and untapped duet repertoire out there. Yes, let’s keep throwing duets at our pupils for sight-reading, but let’s expose them to the excitement, the challenge and the satisfaction of ensemble playing.

We Pray for Peace

Catalogue Number: PPMO1704
SA Voices & Piano (opt. instruments)
Publisher: Paraclete Press
Difficulty Level: E
Year of Publication: 2017
Duration: 4 minutes
Availability: In Stock

Printed Copy: $2.90
Order from Publisher

 

Printed Copy: $6.00 (set of parts)
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To order in the UK, please contact Norwich Books & Music.

From the publisher’s website:

‘This versatile anthem is scored for treble voices and piano and has optional parts for treble instruments. This is cast in a more popular style and the long flowing phrases and harmonies in thirds and sixths create a lovely atmosphere for the text by English hymn writer Alan Gaunt. A delightful piece for children’s choirs and the instruments could be taken on by children as well.’

Potential Uses

Choir, Church, Worship, Choral, Remembrance

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2016/17 Prizewinners Announced

Congratulations to our six prizewinners for the academic year 2016/17. Prizes were awarded as follows:

The Foundation Music Prize

Alex Wilson (Grade 1 Music Theatre)

The Intermediate Music Prize

Amy Cundill (Grade 5 Theory)

The Advanced Music Prize

Osla Campbell (Grade 6 Flute)

The Barbican Prize for Sustained Effort & Improvement

Diana Lundie

The Kings Place Prize for Involvement & Participation

Megan McGinley

The Southbank Prize for All-Round Achievement & Commitment

Sara Coxon

 

ABRSM Flute Syllabus 2018-2021: highlights

As many of you will know, ABRSM released it’s new flute syllabus this week to cover the period 2018-2021. Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to play through many of the pieces in the new syllabus with a couple of pupils (thank you willing victims). This isn’t a review as such, but rather our highlights from the books of selected exam pieces. Teachers will no doubt be aware that scale requirements and sight-reading have also changed, and more information on those can be found here.

Grade 1

Although arrangements of Brahms’s Cradle Song (A2) and Verdi’s La donna è mobile were popular and catchy at Grade 1, it was List B which caught our eye. Roma Cafolla’s Lazy Sunday (B1) was pronounced ‘seriously catchy’ by a pupil, and I was particularly taken with Mark Tanner’s The Pelican from Heligan. Cafolla is not a composer I’ve come across previously, but a quick look at his website reveals a substantial catalogue of works, many for woodwind and related ensembles. Many will be familiar with Mark Tanner’s writing and music. His excellent book The Mindful Pianist was recently published, and I frequently recommend his series Know the Score for diploma candidates’ Quick Study practice.

Grade 2

Probably what will become the most-played piece in the entire syllabus appears at Grade 2 in the form of David Blackwell’s arrangement of Offenbach’s Can-Can (A1). Both pupils yesterday asked to play it twice, so this is a sure winner! Another favourite will, I’m sure, be David’s arrangement of Prokofiev’s Troika (B3). Although neither pupil recognised the title, both instantly recognised imitation of the sleigh bells in the piano introduction. List C  can often be the poor relation as the pieces are unaccompanied, but ABRSM’s own arrangement of Loch Lomond (C3) was particularly special. As an aside, surely it was arranged by somebody, not the entirety of ABRSM?!

Grade 3

We found Grade 3 to be rather disappointing in terms of repertoire choices. Again, David Blackwell succeeds in writing an imaginative arrangement of The Irish Washerwoman (A2) which we found particularly enjoyable in terms of the interaction with the piano accompaniment. Although one pupil described it as ‘not exciting’ I was rather taken with Luypaerts’s Cinq Sets (B2) a typically ‘French’ piece. Again, not a composer I’ve come across, his website reveals a substantial catalogue of works: something I’d certainly explore further.

Grade 4

I’ve personally always found Grade 4 to be a bit of a oddity, mainly because the step-up to Grade 5 is fairly negligible, and many pupils skip the exam itself. In terms of repertoire, we were disappointed overall. Paul Harris’s arrangement of Malcolm Arnold’s Solitaire (B1) is nice, but overall nothing particularly of note at the grade.

Grade 5

I want to mention especially the Telemann Vivace (A2) at Grade 5, mainly because I did it for my own Grade 5 about 20 years ago! There’s no doubting it’s tricky, but Nikki Iles’s Jive Talk (B1) is a spectacular piece. Many pianists will be familiar with her Jazz in… series of books, and this piece is in a very similar style. She has the great skill of writing jazz pieces which sound like improvisations, and the combination of flute and piano here makes for a stunning performance.

Grade 6

We found there to be a number of enjoyable choices at Grade 6Tambourin (A1) attributed to Gossec is an instantly recognisable piece: what I’d describe as a ‘good play’! Many teachers and players will be familiar with Paul Hart’s City Life. No. 3 has been popular on exam lists previously, but here, ABRSM present No. 2 (B3), a much more laid-back, bluesy piece in comparison. Pupils who enjoy this should certainly be encouraged to learn Nos. 1 and 3 too. Again, List C, the poor relation, includes the especially catchy Twisted Tango (C2) by Richard Michael. Pupil describes this as an ‘upside down version of A Hint of Lime‘, Paul Harris’s solo which appears on the current Grade 6 List B.

Grade 7

So here at Grade 7, we come to the last of the books of selected pieces. Both pupils and I felt that the selection here was disappointing, and as a teacher, I immediately see far more potential on the alternatives list (notably the Berkeley (B4) Fauré (B5), and Poulenc (B8)). There’s certainly potential in Mel-Bonis’s Scherzo (B1) but perhaps not immediately accessible on sight-reading alone. Likewise, I felt that there was much atmosphere to be created in Blaž Pucihar’s Moonlit Blue (B3).

Grade 8

Of course, as has been the case with the previous two issues of the syllabus, no selected collection is published at Grade 8. It’s interesting to note that an unusually large number of pieces have been carried forward at this grade:

Devienne: 1st movement from Sonata in E minor (remains at A3)
Mozart: 1st movement from Flute Quartet No. 1 in D (A6 to A5)
Mozart: 3rd movement from Concerto No. 2 (A7 to A6)
Clarke: Hypnosis (B2 to B3)
Poulenc: 1st movement from Sonata (remains at B8)
Rae: 1st movement from Sonatina (A10 to A9)
C.P.E. Bach: 3rd movement from Sonata in A minor (C1 to C3)
La Montaine: Jaunty (C6 to C8)

Grade 8 clearly needs much deeper exploration, but good to see the inclusion of more extended techniques, especially in terms of Edward Greyson’s Fertility Dance (B5) and Christopher Ball’s Pan Overhead (C5).


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Repertoire: beyond exams

Instrumental teachers know how easy it is to become trapped on the exam treadmill, learning a few pieces, sitting an exam, then moving to the next grade. Encouraging pupils to play repertoire beyond the exam syllabus can be challenging. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, I’ve inherited a good number of pupils from other teachers. They’ve prepared three or four pieces for an exam, sat the exam, then started on three or four pieces for the next grade. They know no different. I’ve inherited two pupils in the last year who’d been working on the same three graded exam pieces for 18 months: one at Grade 3, one at Grade 6. The idea that they should play anything else is totally alien to them. Both were flummoxed by being asked what they’d like to play.

Secondly, some pupils (and indeed, parents) are surprisingly unwilling to invest in new music. This is despite the relatively low cost of sheet music (and I’d say it’s come down in price quite a lot over the last 10 years). In that sense, it’s easy for the teacher to become trapped in the same pieces for too long.

With that in mind, I’ve consciously, over the past year, been trying to make sure my own pupils play as many pieces as possible between exams (and indeed, if they’re not working towards exams too). Here’s an example:

This pupil sat the LCM Step 2 exam in December last year. Following the Christmas break, I’ve logged 13 pieces which we’ve worked on, in addition to continuing work on developing a wide range of other musical skills including improvisation. We’ve also worked on previous pieces in preparation for school performances. Last week we began to look at Grade 1 pieces. One of these has been learnt almost note-perfect within the space of a week:

You might say that 13 pieces in the space of six months is not many, but I’d say that’s a pretty good number in addition to the development of other skills.

One huge advantage has been using the MyMusicStaff software to track repertoire. As well as tracking pieces ‘completed’ and ‘in progress’, we can record what level the pieces are if they appear on an exam syllabus. Again, being able to see your repertoire list build up is hugely motivating. Pupils are also finding it useful when considering Andrew’s idea of ‘Active Repertoire’.

Of course, it’s not all about exams. It’s also interesting to see the repertoire building up for more advanced pupils. Although I’ve indicated the level of the pieces learnt, the pupil has no intention, at this stage, of sitting an exam:

I think this also illustrates the wide range of styles and genres being covered.

These days, fewer pupils are interested in sitting exams, and I think this makes it even more important to give them a sense of achievement in terms of building up their repertoire.

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Music Lessons and Revision

We’re just entering exam season here in the UK. The bulk of AS and A-Level exams begin this week, and GCSEs soon after. Virtually all 16-18 year olds are affected in some way by this, and it can be a stressful time for everyone.

The trouble is that music lessons are, rightly or wrongly, being increasingly affected too. The impact of school exams on instrumental lessons appears to be on the increase, and I believe that this is a conversation we need to have going into the future, especially as the arts subjects are ever-increasingly squeezed in society.

As I say, exams, and revision for exams can be a stressful time, especially at an age when young people experience many stresses, far beyond those of school. When I was studying for my GCSEs and A-Levels just under 20 years ago, it was stressful too, but I didn’t miss any of my music lessons; indeed, I did my Grade 8 Flute at the same time as my A-Levels. I might have been an anomaly, but I loved my lessons so much, I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing them. If someone had suggested I should miss lessons in favour of revision, I suspect there would have been serious outcry!

Not only did I love my lessons, but they were a welcome relief from the revision itself. Balancing the demands of revision and exams, with health and wellbeing is something which we all have to learn to do. It’s a good age to learn it, but it needs support from parents and schools too.

As we approach exam season, I’ve already lost one pupil for four weeks who wishes to concentrate on revision, and another pupil has given up completely due to the demands of school work. On social media, other teachers report similar issues:

‘I’m having a cull of those who aren’t interested. (Missing lessons because of gcses.. Really? no-one revises all day & night or shouldn’t).’ @nikkiw650 on Twitter

‘Highly irritating. If you haven’t paid attention all year 4 weeks of cramming & neglecting everything else won’t help.’ @SusiejeanLow on Twitter

‘I get cancellations this time of year due to exams as some students feel they need to concentrate on their revision which is fair enough!’ @willhaypiano on Twitter

‘That’s the summer term for you! Frustrating, isn’t it?’ @ScaleBoxApp on Twitter

On the one hand, there’s a business consideration as a self-employed private music teacher. Pupils wishing to miss lessons due to revision generally expect you to keep their slot open for their return. This means than unless you can fill the slot temporarily, or you charge a retainer fee (which I feel uncomfortable with), you can lose that income. This month, I shall be down £180 due to this. But, one also has to remain sensitive to pupil needs too. Exam season is stressful, and entering into a battle with pupils and/or parents about missed or cancelled lessons can add to that stress.

Another important consideration is that music lessons can and should provide a welcome break. It’s unhealthy to be revising all day and night. Balancing various demands on one’s time is a useful skill to learn.

‘I believe music should be a nice break from the revision. I’ve had several pupils get all A* and not miss a lesson for public exams.’ @nikkiw650 on Twitter

‘I told my students to regard music as something enjoyable & relaxing.’ @CrossEyedPiano on Twitter

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s different for everyone, and there are other issues at play too (travel, for example); I certainly don’t want to ‘get’ at anyone in this post. I think we all accept that even for those who carry on with lessons during school exam season, practice might be reduced. But, I too have had past pupils get strings of As and A*s and not miss a lesson.

I wholeheartedly believe that music lessons should be see as a positive part of that revision and exam process. A welcome distraction, light relief – call it what you will, but rather than push the enjoyable things to the sidelines in favour of wall-to-wall work, we should embrace all that music can offer our mental and physical wellbeing.



Teaching Diplomas: which one should you choose?

When people ask me about mentoring them for their teaching diplomas, they’ve generally already decided which diploma to go for, but what if you’re not sure? I’m going to focus here on the three first-level diplomas: the DipABRSM, ATCL and DipLCM(TD) and hopefully offer you some of my own thoughts on each one.

The first thing to say is that all three of these diplomas are accredited at the same level (Level 4, i.e. the first year of an undergraduate degree). ABRSM‘s new entry-level performance diploma, the ARSM, has slightly confused matters as this is also accredited at Level 4, even though the requirements are lower than the DipABRSM.

The primary consideration when thinking about teaching diplomas is twofold: firstly, what do you want to get out of taking a diploma, and secondly, which skills and areas of knowledge do you wish to be tested on. It’s worth remembering that it’s perfectly possible to acquire skills and knowledge without being tested on them. It’s also important to state that in the case of all three diplomas, they are not a course of study. There are no written materials provided and candidates prepare and enter themselves (either with or without assistance) for the diploma.

A few practical considerations should also be taken into account:

  • Availability of a centre locally at which to sit your diploma;
  • The pre-requisite qualifications the diploma requires.

These apply whichever of the boards you decide to sit your diploma with. Here are a few thoughts individually on the diplomas:

DipABRSM

This is probably the most popular of the teaching diplomas. It consists of three sections:

  1. A 1,800 word essay submitted with your entry, on one of the topics prescribed in the syllabus;
  2. A viva voce exam based around three current ABRSM Grade 6 pieces chosen by you, in addition to general teaching issues;
  3. A quick study of around ABRSM Grade 6 level (the same as for the performance diploma).

The DipABRSM offers a good balance of practical and written materials. It’s primary focus is on the Grade 6 pieces chosen, so the ability to teach and demonstrate confidently at this level is a bonus. Although no prior teaching experience is necessary, I think it’s useful. The quick study often puts people off if they’re not confident with sight-reading. The written submission can also feel overwhelming, especially if you haven’t written academically for a while.

ATCL

Trinity‘s ATCL is, in the main a written-based submission, and I’ve always been in two minds about it. The requirements are:

  1. A written submission totalling 4,000 words consisting of an analysis of your experience as a learner, observations of other teachers, case studies of teaching experience, and original teaching resources;
  2. A practical exam consisting of a presentation, initiative test of teaching skills and a viva voce.

One practical consideration with the ATCL is ensuring that you have access to other teachers in order to complete the observations. To my mind, the ATCL is especially good if you’ve not yet started teaching, or are in the very early stages. Keep in mind that if you aren’t yet teaching, you will need to be working in some kind of support capacity in another setting in order to complete the case studies. Whilst the ATCL is useful, if you’re already well into your teaching career, you might prefer the practical nature of the DipABRSM or DipLCM(TD).

DipLCM(TD)

To my mind, the DipLCM(TD) offers a good balance of requirements. For this first-level London College of Music diploma, you’ll need to:

  1. Teach a live 20-minute demonstration lesson (or in exceptional circumstances, submit this on DVD);
  2. Perform a piece of Grade 6 standard or above;
  3. Give a presentation and demonstration of how you’d approach teaching a selection of repertoire pieces;
  4. Engage in a discussion with the examiner about all the above, and a range of other teaching-related issues.

One benefit of the DipLCM(TD) is that you can tailor what you do to the kinds of ages and levels of the pupils you’re teaching. The syllabus offers a range of options depending on the level of pupil chosen. One practical consideration is the need to have a willing pupil for the demonstration lesson, and probably to be able to access a centre within easy distance of them. The DipLCM(TD) is very much a practical exam, and unlike both the ATCL and DipABRSM, there are no written requirements.

"It's worth remembering that it's perfectly possible to acquire skills and knowledge without being tested on them."

There’s much to think about here, and I’m always willing you answer any questions you might have and advise further: please contact me. You can find out more about the mentoring I offer for teaching diploma candidates here.

Be Thou My Vision

Catalogue Number: PPMO1703
SATB & piano
Publisher: Paraclete Press
Difficulty Level: E
Year of Publication: 2017
Duration: 4 minutes
Availability: In Stock

Printed Copy: $2.90
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From the publisher’s website:

‘An attractive anthem based on the old Irish text as well as an original hymn tune by the composer. Barton writes an idiomatic and supportive piano part and the voices sing lovely legato lines, mostly unison. Appropriate for a time of prayer or meditation.’

Potential Uses

Choir, Church, Worship, Choral

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Sonatina No. 1

Catalogue Number: DBM1601
Solo Piano
Publisher: David Barton Music
Difficulty Level: 7-8
Year of Publication: 2016
Duration: 9 minutes
Availability: In Stock

PDF download: £5.00
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The Sonatina, which comprises of three movements, centres around variations on a rising and falling motif of F, G flat, A, G and returning to F. The work opens with a resolute Allegro with that melodic motif first heard in the bass. Also introduced is a syncopated rhythmic figure, also heard in the bass at the opening and which reappears at the end of the first and third movements. The opening melody gives way to a lighter central section before the opening is heard once more. A brief slower section offers glimpses of the second and third movements before the opening rhythmic motif is heard once more and the movement cascades to a strident end.

The sonorous Lento opens with a sparkling figure which subsides to a series of chords which play upon the semitone relationship between the G and G flat once again. The melodic motif first heard in the opening movement is stated most fully here, appearing both in the treble and bass parts.

The Sonatina closes with a spirited Presto movement which picks up on a rising chordal motif first heard in the slower section of the opening movement. As it speeds towards its climax, the resolute rhythmic motif heard at the beginning and end of the first movement, is stated once again. A final torrent of notes brings the Sonatina to its conclusion.

The work received its premiere in May 2016 at the Washington Piano Society, with Francesca Hurst at the piano.

Reviews

The music was was lovely and also interesting and easy on the ears.

Loved the composition…fun, melodic and enjoyable.

What a great joy to hear a contemporary work that’s truly pleasant to the ear (rather than some academic exercise in atonal tripe)…and really wonderful – certainly on par with masterwork of a century ago, by great English composers like R.V.W.

Enjoyed very much the different moods, playful, pensive, soulful etc. throughout the piece. It managed to be modern, but melodic all the way through!

I really liked it. I envisioned the first two movements in a mystery film and the last for a romantic story of love lives.

The 3rd movement was lovely. Definitely reminiscent of Debussy. Great counterpoint and melodic development. Enjoyed it!

Enjoyed your music, both rhythmic and lyrical – thought it would be wonderful for collaboration with a choreographer.

I very much enjoyed the wistful questioning of the second movement. In the third movement I heard lovely echoes of Ravel’s Sonatina. It was great to hear new music of this calibre.

Comments from audience members in attendance at the premiere performance.

Potential Uses

Concert, Recital, Teaching, Competition, Festival, Exam

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