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:

ONE

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;

TWO

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;

THREE

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);

FOUR

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;

FIVE

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;

SIX

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;

SEVEN

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;

EIGHT

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

NINE

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;

TEN

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?”

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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June 2018 New Discoveries

The More The Merrier! 13 duets for 4-hand piano & everybody else… (Barbara Arens)

Perhaps the most effective publications on the educational market, are those written in response to the specific needs expressed by teachers. In the case of these duets, they came about through a discussion on the Piano Network UK Facebook group in which a number of teachers expressed a desire for more duets where, amongst other things, the primo part was not in unison. Out of those discussions came these 13 pieces for piano duet. There’s a good mixture of styles here, but as was requested, avoiding the tricky jazz rhythms which often trip pupils up. My own pupils have enjoyed trying these out over the past few weeks; ‘Tonight at Eight’ was a favourite, as was ‘Popcorn Addict’.

There are additional suggestions for the material to be adapted, including adding body percussion. A number of parts can also be adapted for melody instruments, of which a number of transposed parts are available from the publisher’s website (I couldn’t find them on the publisher’s website, so maybe they are to come soon…).

My only real gripe is that the print is very small. Pupils have also commented on this, and it does make for tricky reading in some places. It’s also meant that some of text directions are hard to read at speed. Although the publisher has indicated that some of the tricky page turns can be photocopied, with a slightly larger staff size, I suspect some of these could have been avoided. Unusually for duet books, the primo part is written directly above the secondo one. I have to be honest and say this isn’t my personal preference, but if doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the music.

Overall, the book is a useful addition to the duet repertoire. It needs a little unpicking, but staff size and page turns aside, the music itself is both appealing and accessible. At £10.95, it’s pretty good value too. Copies can be ordered direct from the publisher, Spartan Press, or from Musicroom.

Waterscape: for flute, oboe or violin and piano (Tim Knight)

This month, maestro Tim Knight released this new piece as a follow on from his Winterscape which was published last year. Waterscape is an evocative piece divided into three sections which run seamlessly into one another.

As always with Tim’s music, it’s both appealing to learn and appealing to play, and that goes for the piano part too. The instrumental part combines with the piano to produce an effective ensemble piece which would sit well in concerts and recitals…maybe even as an own-choice exam piece! I can’t speak for the other instruments, but the piece would well suit a Grade 5 flautist. It’s not yet on Musicroom, but you can order directly from the publisher, Spartan Press, here.

Mosaic, Vol. 2: 26 Easy Educational Works for Solo Piano 

If the sign of a good book is you can easily get lost in it while the clock goes round, this is a good book! I’ve just spent half an hour playing through this, and I can honestly say I played every single piece and liked it. Usually, when books are sent to me, I play a few, skip a few, and play a few more, but not with this one. Perhaps one of the strengths of this volume, as was the case with volume 1, is that by including works by 13 different composers, you really do get huge variety of styles and characters in the music, something often absent in one-composer volumes. Particular favourites were Simon Hester’s ‘A Simpler Life’, Andrew Eales’s ‘Frisbee’, Paul Poston’s ‘Promenade’ and Ben Crosland’s ‘Silver Lining’.

I’d suggest that the majority of pieces in this volume will suit pianists of around Grades 1-2 standard. As ever, it’s a beautifully presented and laid out book and excellent value (about 38p a piece!) The book can be ordered direct from the publisher, Editions Musica Ferrum here, and you can also buy volumes 1 and 2 in a bundle here. You can find my review of volume 1 here.

Hear a selection of the pieces here:

You can also hear more by subscribing to the Editions Musica Ferrum YouTube channel.


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Embracing Foundations

I know that many of us have found both confidence and solace in yoga, me especially over the past six months. Each Sunday, I wait in anticipation of the arrival of Yoga with Adriene‘s weekly update: a beautifully written message and a new video. A few weeks ago, this was part of the message which arrived:

‘Today, I invite you to take stress energy and root it back down in your foundation.

Trust the foundation and know that each time we come to the mat we are adding to and working with that foundation.

Foundation is important because it allows you to feel where you’re coming from and where you are going without having to worry about either one.

Ground, be present, and recharge your batteries.’

I think that as musicians and learners of music, we have a huge amount to learn from yoga, and I believe this message applies to both equally.

The general expectation for anyone learning an instrument is that the longer they learn, the more advanced they become. Indeed, the more advanced one becomes, the harder pieces one is able to play (all unwritten expectations of course!). ‘Harder’ often equates to more notes, more complex rhythms and faster tempi.

I think that in our quest to play harder pieces, it’s easy to forget our foundations. I believe this happens in two ways.

Firstly, it’s easy when struggling with harder pieces to forget how far we’ve come. We often mark the ‘big’ milestones (exam results etc.), but it’s not as easy to recognise the tiny incremental steps forward we make on a daily basis. Sometimes it does us good to revisit our foundations, to see how far we’ve come and to feel grounded on the journey we’re on.

Secondly, there are also practical reasons for revisiting our foundations, for it’s upon these foundations that everything else on the journey is built.  None of us should feel ashamed at revisiting the basics. The tone exercises we might give a beginner pupil still have much to teach us. As much as we might long to challenge ourselves (OK…humour me…) with G# melodic minor in contrary motion, let’s not forget how we first got our fingers and heads around C major, one octave, hands separately.

So, be grounded in your foundations. Enjoy the journey, but just occasionally take a moment to look behind you to see all that’s contributed to the place you’re at now.


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ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2019/20: an overview

I shall preface this overview by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that learning an instrument is not solely about taking exams, and indeed only a small number of my pupils opt to sit them. An exam syllabus, contrary to what some teachers seem to believe, is not a curriculum; yet, even for those of us who use the exams fairly lightly, it does offer a range of repertoire suggestions, and is often a good way to expand our repertoire knowledge. In that sense, a refreshed exam syllabus is a good thing.

I’m grateful to ABRSM for providing me with a set of the new books: rather than review them (others have done that extensively already, especially Andrew Eales and Karen Marshall, whose excellent review can be found here), I shall provide an overview of my highlights from each of the eight grades. I’ve also tried, where possible, to offer some highlights from those pieces not found in the ABRSM books themselves.

Syllabus

The new piano syllabus covers the period 2019/20, and candidates can opt to use the new pieces from the A Period 2019. There are no changes to the scales, sight-reading or aural requirements for the next two years, although I continue to hear rumours of expected scale changes from 2021. Overall, the syllabus contains 158 pieces, of which 75 are included in ABRSM’s own books of selected pieces.

Grade 1

On List A, it’s nice to see William Duncombe’s Minuet in C which also features on the new LCM piano syllabus (although there, it’s called Trumpet Tune), but also Heather Hammond’s arrangement of the 15th-century Agincourt Song which I mentioned in my May 2018 New Discoveries blog post. As ever, List B feels like the poor relation, and I was surprised to see Oesten’s The Echo appear again as in syllabus terms, it appeared in the 2005/6 syllabus (where I note it was titled Das Echo…).

In List C, Ian King’s Happy Day will surely be a hit with pupils, although my personal favourite is Kevin Wooding’s The Egyptian Level which will well serve those pupils who like character pieces. Of the alternatives, Andrew Eales’s Head in the Clouds is well worth a look on List B. Overall, the selection is much more appropriate for the level, so ABRSM have clearly listened here to teacher feedback.

My picks:

  • A3 – English, arr. Hammond: Agincourt Song
  • B5 – Eales: Head in the Clouds
  • C3 – Wooding: The Egyptian Level

Grade 2

The selection of List A pieces at Grade 2 is, in my view, especially worthy of commendation, as all three pieces offer useful introductions to styles and genres which will feature at later grades. The ornaments in Diabelli’s Lesson in C, whilst optional, are quite fun and fairly manageable. The inclusion in List A of the anonymous Musette in D and in List B, Burgmüller’s Arabesque are what we might call ‘old favourites’, but in the latter list, Neugasimov’s Lazy Bear really stands out: another great character piece.

In comparison to some of the other pieces, Dusty Blue in List C, a solid blues number, seems on the easier-side, and Brian Chapple’s Petite valse is technically more challenging. That said, I think Grade 2 is triumph. There is something for everyone, and on all three lists, I think we’re spoilt for choice.

My picks:

  • A1 – Diabelli: Lesson in C
  • B3 – Neugasimov: Lazy Bear
  • C3 – Chapple: Petite valse

Grade 3

It’s good to see the inclusion in List A of a pre-baroque work in Pell’s arrangement of Praetorius’s Bransle de la torche: this is one which I think pupils will really enjoy. What’s perhaps lacking in List C at all three of the lower grades is something in terms of contemporary works which aren’t blues or jazz. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Diversion comes close, but I think ABRSM could perhaps have made more use of the Spectrum series of books to fill this gap. Overall, I felt a little underwhelmed at Grade 3.

My picks:

  • A3 – Praetorius, arr. Pell: Bransle de la torche
  • B1 – Carroll: Shadows
  • C2 – Bennett: Diversion

Grade 4

I’ve often found Grade 4 to be the poor relation when it comes to exam syllabuses; however, I think that on this occasion, a good mixture of pieces is offered. Pupils who like a challenge will enjoy the crossing over of hands in Benda’s Sonatina in A minor on List A, whilst on List B, David Blackwell’s arrangement of Elgar’s Chanson de matin is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the syllabus: it’s also serves as a useful reminder that we shouldn’t judge the difficulty of a piece by speed and number of semiquavers alone!

Another syllabus highlight must surely be William Gillock’s Holiday in Paris on List C. Remember that pupil who likes crossing over hands? They will also enjoy Sluka’s Rytmická on List C. I have to say that personally, I found the other List C piece, Richard Michael’s A Kwela for Caitlinone of the weaker pieces on the syllabus which is a shame: perhaps a cliché too far? Also worth a look on the alternative list is Ben Crosland’s Sleepytown Blues, and if you have a pupil who likes jazz and blues, I think this is a better option than the Michael.

My picks:

  • A2 – Benda: Sonatina in A minor
  • B3 – Elgar, arr. Blackwell: Chanson de matin
  • C1 – Gillock: Holiday in Paris

Grade 5

I felt on this occasion, that compared to previous years, and indeed, other grades on this syllabus, Grade 5 felt weak. Loeillet’s Minuetto on List A is pretty, and the ornaments are manageable. On List B, Kirchner’s Plauderei is tricky, but good for a pupil who can confidently balance the hands. On List C, I’m tempted to say thank goodness for Mike Cornick’s Film Noir as otherwise, I can see pupils struggling to choose. Of course, do look at the alternatives, especially as William Gillock’s New Orleans Nightfall, also on the 2005/6 syllabus has reappeared: this must surely be one of the favourite pieces of all time!

My picks:

  • A3 – Loeillet: Minuetto
  • B1 – Kirchner: Plauderei
  • C3 – Cornick: Film Noir

Grade 6

I’m always particularly interest in the Grade 6 lists because of my work mentoring teachers for teaching diplomas. I’m a big Arne fan, so it’s great to see another of his pieces appear on List A (another appeared on List A at Grade 7 several years ago and I’d highly recommend all the sonatas). On List B, I think Bruch’s Moderato and Chopin’s Prelude in B minor will both be popular (the latter perhaps on the easier side for Grade 6). ABRSM have found three really lovely pieces for List C: Darius Brubeck’s Tugela Rail, Jacques Ibert’s Sérénade sur l’eau and Fredrico Ruiz’s Un amanecer en Santa Mata. Add to those Richard Rodney Bennett’s Eight Maids a-Milking on the alternative list, candidates and teachers are spoilt for choice here.

My picks:

  • A1 – Arne: Andante
  • B1 – Bruch: Moderato
  • C1 – Brubeck: Tugela Rail

Grade 7

Now, I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge Haydn fan, but I was quite taken with his Tempo di Minuetto on List A. It was good to see some Mendelssohn on List B, but also Hubert Parry’s Elizabeth which was new to me (it would also be an excellent opportunity for me to produce for pupils my letters signed by Parry!) Another Richard Rodney Bennett number, Rosemary’s Waltz appears on List C, and could offer pupils a really lovely contrast to their List A and B pieces. Also worth a look on the alternative list is Christopher Norton’s Mambo also on List C.

My picks:

  • A2 – Haydn: Tempo di Minuetto
  • B3 – Parry: Elizabeth
  • C1 – Bennett: Rosemary’s Waltz

Grade 8

So, we come to Grade 8, where unlike the previous grades, there are a total of 32 pieces to choose from. It is good to see the inclusion on List A of two movements from Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor as an alternative to the traditional prelude and fugue (don’t worry, there’s one on the alternative list). I have to say, that nothing especially grabbed me on List B, either in the book or on the alternative list: this list, probably more than all the others at the other grades felt the safest.

In List C, Chopin’s Nocturne in G minor will be popular, I’m sure, whilst Debussy’s Voiles is, in my opinion, at the harder end of the Grade 8 repertoire. Nikolay Kapustin’s jazzy Sonatina which was previously on the alternative list at Grade 8 is a great addition. The Martinu is hard, but short, whilst Rachmaninov’s Elégie is hard and long! The piece which really grabbed me was Raymond Yiu’s Lullaby and it’s really good to see something contemporary by a living composer at Grade 8. Of the alternatives, Lili Boulanger’s Cortège is well worth a look.

My picks:

  • A1 – Bach: Sarabande and Gigue
  • B1 – C.P.E. Bach: Un poco allegro
  • C6 – Yui: Lullaby

Conclusion

Overall, I think this is a fairly ‘safe’ syllabus. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with safe, but ABRSM perhaps haven’t taken some the risks they have with previous syllabuses (I’m thinking particularly of the Alwyn and Bridge on the 2015/16 Grade 8 syllabus). I think ABRSM have listened to teacher feedback, and the pieces included at the lower grades now seem, in the main, to be more accessible. Personally, I’m pleased to see a move away from arrangements, especially when there is such a vast repertoire of original pieces. I’d say that Grades 2, 4 and 6 are my favourites this time round.


As a little aside, I did take the opportunity to look at the balance between the gender of composers and arrangers included at each grade:

This is not a piece of scientific research by any means, and is based on only a very quick look through and adding-up of the information easily available. Even so, taking my errors into account, there is a still a huge bias towards male composers.

Now, I’m not one for suggesting ABRSM should be including female composers’ works just because they’re female, and I’m fairly sure that most female composers would rather their works were included on merit; however, it’s perhaps a salutary reminder to us all, that the exam syllabus, and indeed, the music we play, doesn’t reflect the diverse nature of our society, and I think that extends beyond gender alone. We need, not just in terms of an exam syllabus, but as teachers and players, to explore more widely. It’s easy to level criticism at ABRSM for their choices, but we have to look at ourselves: the pieces they choose, in the main, reflect the pieces we play.


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May 2018 New Discoveries

My apologies that with one thing and another, I never quite got round to writing a New Discoveries post for April, but nevertheless, here’s a bumper edition for May!

Graded Pieces for Piano (Ludovico Einaudi)

Two brand new releases here from Chester Music of pieces by Italian composer, Ludovico Einaudi. Published in two volumes (Preparatory to Grade 2 and Grades 3-5), each book contains 20 pieces that have been specially arranged with these grades in mind. Clearly, some pieces have been simplified and in other cases, keys have been altered to make them more accessible to the lower grade pianist; however, none have lost the essence of the music itself.

Each book contains 20 pieces including familiar favourites such as I GiorniLe Onde and Primavera. Although both books contain mainly the same pieces, there is some variation between both volumes. Each piece is preceded by a page of exercises and practice notes designed to prepare pupils before playing the pieces themselves. These exercises, which focus primarily on rhythm and technique, are well thought through and complement the presentation of the pieces themselves. Also included with these books is access to the SoundCheck app which allows for interactive practice.

Both books are very well-presented and designed with a wide range of learners in mind. They offer an excellent introduction to Einaudi’s music at the lower grade levels and would suit children and adults in equal measure. My only criticism is that as with so many books these days, it is almost impossible to get them to lie flat without breaking the spine! Nevertheless, they are good value retailing at just £14.99 each from Musicroom.

Rendezvous with Midnight (Barbara Arens)

If you’re pupils are fans of Einaudi’s music, then Barbara Arens’s bookRendezvous with Midnight, containing 13 ‘Nocturnes for Teens’ may offer a them more pieces in a not dissimilar genre. Aimed at pianists of Grade 4 and above, this book contains a lovely selection of tuneful, heartfelt pieces, all based on snippets of text from poems. To my mind, ‘Looking Back’, based on a poem by W.E. Henley is particularly lovely.

I think that overall, these pieces are inherently satisfying to play and will appeal children and adults alike (it’s a shame they’ve been billed as being ‘for teens’). As will all publications from Editions Musica Ferrum, they are beautifully presented, and excellent value at just £12.00. You can hear the pieces and see the scores in the video below:

Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes (David Blackwell)

An addition to the Piano Star series is this book of pieces by David Blackwell, all of which are successfully played without changes of hand position. You may be put off by the idea of ‘five-finger position’, and it conjures up nightmares of those pupils who believe that thumbs live only on middle C, but don’t be alarmed. Although the pieces are written in five-finger position, these positions are all over the piano, and even include accidentals.

There’s a nice selection of pieces here including original works and arrangements. I’m not sure where ABRSM see this book fitting in alongside the others in the Piano Star series; I’d personally suggest it could be used before Piano Star 1, although some of the later pieces are harder than those found in that volume, so there is some overlap. Some of the later pieces are around LCM Step 1, and possibly even Step 2 level.

Piano Star: Grade 1 (Compiled and Edited by David Blackwell and Karen Marshall)

Another addition to the Piano Star series is this book of pieces aimed at pupils of around Grade 1 level. It offers a useful follow-on volume from Piano Star 3, and contains 25 original pieces and arrangements by some of today’s leading composers of educational piano works. Of particular note are Nikki Iles’s ‘Just Chillin”, Heather Hammond’s arrangement of the 15th-century ‘Agincourt Song’, and Karen Marshall’s ‘Moon Walk’. As with other books in the Piano Star series, it’s a shame that by presenting them in the way they have with fonts and illustrations, ABRSM have somewhat narrowed the market. I think this is a great shame, and ABRSM would do well to consider publishing them in editions suitable for teenagers and adults. The material is, however, of much use.

Watch below as Karen and David introduce both these new two books:


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Setting the tempo: working with accompanists when there is no rehearsal time

David Barton Music student, Ruth Carlyle, has taken part in two local festivals and has also worked with many other accompanists on fairly limited rehearsal time. Thank you to Ruth for sharing her experiences of and tips for working with an accompanist. I’m sure they’ll be useful to you all.


As a singer or instrumentalist there will be occasions when you need to perform with an accompanist without the opportunity for a rehearsal, such as if you are performing in a competitive music festival. These are my personal reflections as a singer on working with accompanists in such circumstances; I would welcome thoughts from others, including pianists or others who accompany.

Preparing the music…

Providing a copy of the music is your first interaction with the accompanist, even if you do not know who will be the accompanist for the event. It is your opportunity to make the accompanist’s role as easy as possible, and to help them to promote your performance. These are my tips:

  1. Provide a clear copy: a basic factor, but if the music is difficult to read, it makes the accompanist’s life much harder.
  2. Label the copy: write your name, the date of the event and any relevant information (such as a time or a festival class number) that may help the accompanist to identify when the performance is taking place.
  3. Number the pages: you want the accompanist to be able to play the music in the correct order. I tend to follow the format 1 of 5, 2 of 5 etc. where 5 is the total number of pages.
  4. Remove any instructions that you are not using: if there are any printed instructions that you are not using in the performance (such as repeats) cross these out clearly and make a note at the top of the music to indicate that you have removed an instruction.
  5. Add any changes: if you are changing the dynamics (particularly if a forte passage is now piano) mark this on the copy.

Before you perform…

Arrange to arrive at the venue before you are due to perform, so that you have an opportunity to meet the accompanist. Introducing yourself before the performance means that the accompanist can identify you. It is also more than a simple courtesy, as it is your first interaction in person and establishes a working relationship. Introducing yourself gives you the opportunity to:

  1. Check that the music copy reached them safely and whether they have any questions.
  2. Let them know whether you will be introducing the piece before you start to perform.
  3. Let them know the speed at which you take the piece and any changes of tempo during it.

During the performance…

Once you come to the performance, it is a collaboration between you and the accompanist. It is important to stand where they can see and hear you. You should consider whether you need to be able to make eye contact with the accompanist, particularly if the accompaniment and the voice/instrument both come in together at the start of the piece.

At the end of the performance…

Do acknowledge and thank your accompanist. They have shared their skills to support you, and you may want to work with them again.


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March 2018 New Discoveries

Here’s my monthly round-up of new music, pieces and resources I discovered in March.

Three Pieces for flute, oboe or clarinet and piano (Tim Knight)

Published in 2000, I’ve only recently discovered these lovely pieces by Tim Knight. Like my own Three Holiday Sketches and Three Country Pictures, they are published by Phylloscopus Publications (distributed by Spartan Press). The first thing to say is that these pieces are flexibly scored, the melody line being playable on either flute, oboe or clarinet (all three parts are included as separate sheets).

The set opens with a lilting ‘Allegretto Pastorale’, but for me, the two other movements, both ‘Celtic Tunes’, are the stars of the show. Both these are movements in which the melody instrument can really sing out. I can’t speak for the oboe or clarinet parts, but the flute parts would suit a player of around Grade 4 level, and the three pieces would make a nice set to learn. The pieces are available to purchase from Spartan Press (PP332), and you can find more information here.

Ten Short Pieces for solo piano (Alex Nikiporenko)

It is true, that in my own teaching, finding music to suit adult learners of piano has not always been easy. As Alex himself says:

‘I have been teaching piano for many years now, and have been made aware of the shortage of easier pieces targeted towards adults. In an attempt to fill this gap I have composed and published my first book – Ten short pieces for solo piano. My goal was to write musically rewarding pieces in a contemporary, minimal style that would be relatively easy for an amateur. They are all quite short – the longest one is four pages, and there are three pieces that are only a page long.’

Alex has included a variety of pieces in this book in a range of styles. These range from the lilting 6/8 ‘epping’ soundscape, to the driving and relentless ‘remind them’. Overall, these pieces would suit adults keen to begin exploring the contemporary repertoire. Whilst, in general the format of the pieces will be familiar to them, there are a few more challenging features, notably ‘a few steps behind’ which has no time signature. Similarly the irregular 7/8 time signature of ‘your place’, and the quintuplets and septuplets of ‘what has this got to do with me and you’. The book is billed as being for ‘easy to intermediate level’. For me personally, I’d say most fall into the Grades 3-5 bracket, perhaps some of them, for their complexities extending to Grade 6. You can hear Alex play the pieces in this video, and they can be ordered via Alex’s website here.

Mosaic, Volume 1 (Editions Musica Ferrum)

Another new release from Editions Musica Ferrum who really are showing themselves to be at the forefront of music, especially piano music publishing at the moment. Mosaic is the the first volume in a new series, and contains 26 easy educational piano works. 13 composers are represented in this volume, including Musical Ferrum regulars, Barbara Arens, Alison Matthews and Ben Crosland.

Overall, the pieces challenge the player to put their own stamp and character into their performances. For example, Sarah Konecsni’s ‘Inside the Pharoah’s Tomb’ requires the player to ‘tiptoe cautiously’, before concluding ‘bravely’. There are technical challenges too, particularly the crossing over of hands in Barbara Arens’ ‘On Tiptoe through the Haunted House’ and Anna Blonsky’s ‘Cross Over the Sea Bridge’. Similarly, Borislava Taneva’s ‘Funny car horns’ requires the player to both knock the wood of the piano, and stomp over the pedal with the foot!

Overall, a lovely characterful mixture of pieces, presented, as always with Editions Musical Ferrum, clearly and with precision. One huge benefit is that unlike some other publishers, they have not fallen into the trap of cramming the pages full of childish pictures which severely restricts their usage. In terms of level, I’d say Grades 1-3, and they’d suit both adults and children alike. At just £8.99, the book is also extremely good value. I understand that volume 2 is already in production, but in the meantime, you can order volume 1 direct from the publisher here.

Find out more in this video:


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