Category Archives: blog

Assign posts to this category to turn them into blog posts

Music Lessons and Revision

May 14th, 2017 by

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?

February 13th, 2017 by

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:


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.


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).


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.

Should we care about the copies we play from?

August 16th, 2015 by

Should we care about the copies we play from?

Sheet music shelvesIn the days of yore (well, let’s say 20 years ago), when I wanted a piece of sheet music, I really had two options: either I went to a music shop and bought it, or I went to the library and borrowed it. We frequently went into Whitwams in Winchester where Stella, the lady who ran the sheet music department, would have either found the book or looked it up in the publisher’s catalogue on the microfiche reader (yes, this was really only 20 years ago!).

Nowadays, we’re not so lucky in respect of music shops, certainly outside of London, and libraries rarely have significant sheet music sections anymore. Despite this, we now have this thing called the internet, and like everything which is available online, the distribution of sheet music is both positive and negative.

Before you all switch off, this isn’t I blog post about illegal photocopying; most of you know my views on that. Increasingly, as a teacher, pupils present me with pieces of music which they’ve got off the internet. Quite often, they are downloaded from sites such as IMSLP, and are works which are perfectly legal and out of copyright. Generally, these are seen as ‘free’ copies (though unless you play from a tablet computer, you do pay for ink and paper). Overall, there are a lot of benefits to getting sheet music in this way, but we do need to be and encourage our pupils to be discerning about accessing editions in this way. Let me share with you two stories:

Firstly, I recommended to a pupil that she would enjoy one of the Liszt Short Pieces; it was available on IMSLP, she downloaded it, printed it, and brought it to the next lesson. We looked at it, then she took it away to learn. She brought it back he following week saying she’d had trouble with the rhythms; I found this quite surprising and asked her to play it. True enough, a relatively straightforward mixture of basic rhythmic patterns had been turned into a series of cross-rhythms and sounded like it might have come from the pen of Bartok.

It took me a while, but on closer inspiration, I discovered the problem: there were certain bars where the right hand was not aligned with the left hand making it look far more complicated than it actually was. This edition was one which had clearly been re- typeset and uploaded to the website for free download.

IMSLP website

Secondly, a pupil wished to play one of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words. Again. a copy was found on IMSLP and printed off. This was a scan of an original publication rather than a version which had been re-typeset. In this case, the problem wasn’t with the notes themselves, but with the layout. What I have in my printed copy as five pages, had been condensed to three. It was small, cluttered and out of proportion; in this case, I suspect not only was the original edition larger than A4, but that in the scanning process, the aspect ratio had been changed.

As my pupils would tell you, I’m a dinosaur and haven’t yet been converted to these downloads; I still like to have the printed copy in front of me and a book to file in the shelves. Don’t get me wrong, there is much of use in a site such as IMSLP; I frequently use it to look up a piece to assess its suitability, sometimes before buying it.

What am I really saying in this blog post? I think it’s really to say be discerning when using sites like this. Free can so often be a false economy, not just in terms of cost but in terms of time too. In both the cases outlined above, the pupils went out to buy the books with the pieces in.

DipLCM in Performance (Piano Recital): My Experiences

July 6th, 2015 by

DipLCM in Performance (Piano Recital): My Experiences
DSC_0006I almost subtitled this post: ‘Anyone can do a diploma if I can, three days after coming out of hospital, and minus my gallbladder’…

As I think everyone knows by now, I recently sat and passed the DipLCM piano performance diploma (recital option), so I thought it might be of interest to share my experiences with you…it’s a kind of interview yourself type post…

Why did you decide to do a performance diploma?

I guess, there was no ‘need’ to do a performance diploma. Nothing nor nobody requires me to do one, and it won’t directly increase business in any way. I guess that for me, it’s a personal challenge. My education has followed a similar course: I take a course or work towards an exam and expect that to be my limit. I then finish it and pass it, and am curious as to whether I could manage the next level. That’s what happened when I’d finished by undergraduate degree: could I study at postgraduate level? Then, when I’d done that, could I go further…now I’m studying for a PhD (I think that has to be the limit!). I’d done my Grade 8 Piano, and I’d done the DipABRSM in Piano Teaching, so a performance diploma was, I suppose, the next step.

When did you decide to do a performance diploma?

I’ve been looking at performance diplomas for several years, and have had various programmes worked out; as ever, other things (usually ‘life’) get in the way and have to take priority. Then, in March this year, and with encouragement from some good friends, the time seemed right. I promptly entered and paid my fee on the basis there was no pulling out. Then, as ever, the best laid plans went pear-shaped. I spent a week in hospital during the Easter holidays and was left with the prospect of surgery in the next few months which was likely to clash with the exam period. So, the dilemma: do I pull out? I could have withdrawn and entered again next session for half the fee, but I came to the conclusion in the end that I might as well leave things as they were. The date for the diploma came first, the 24th June, then the surgery date for the 19th. I should have been in and out of hospital on the 19th but I ended staying overnight. I literally had no idea until the day of the exam whether I would be fit and pain-free enough to do it, but at least I had three days for final preparations!

How did you decide what to play?

For the DipLCM recital option, you have to select pieces from the syllabus (which is short compared to similar diplomas), but you are allowed one own-choice piece. In addition, one of the pieces had to have been written after 1945. The time allowed was 25-30 minutes. I ended up with the following programme:

1. Debussy: Prélude (from the Suite Bergamasque)
2. Mendelssohn: Duet (from Songs Without Words, Op. 38, No. 6)
3. Jenni Pinnock: Captive (post-1945, own choice)
4. Kabalevsky: Sonatina in C, Op. 13, No. 1 (1930)

I initially had one of the Bach Preludes and Fugues too, but it was pushing the time limit a bit. We forget when programme planning that time is needed between pieces and movements for practical things like changing books over, finding the right page etc.

Generally, I felt my programme was balanced, although it didn’t include the traditional one piece from each musical period. I think at the end of the day, I selected pieces I liked playing!

How did your preparations go?

One of my weaknesses is that I am (not wishing to show off) a pretty good sight-reader. This, as people will tell you, means I can make a pretty good stab at most things and they sound reasonably convincing. This is fine, but clearly not OK when there’s an examiner listening to every note, and who also has the music in front of them. The challenge for me was to really perfect the difficult bits rather than just glossing over them with some invention, extra pedal and improvisation! I have to say, I found this both incredibly challenging, frustratingly dull, but eventually, infinitely rewarding. About two weeks before the exam, I was at the stage of playing the programme through in full about once a day (OK, maybe every few days, and on neither of the days I was in hospital!). Personally, I found this the best way to get it together in the final stages; I think it gets to the point where no amount of working on it will change it at that stage! It was great to have a diploma buddy too (more on that at a later date, as my buddy hasn’t had their diploma yet!).

How did you find the exam?

Thoroughly enjoyable; I was disappointed it ended so quickly. Annoyingly for everyone else, I don’t tend to get nervous on these occasions, and this wasn’t really an exception. I don’t consider myself a performer, and performing doesn’t particularly interest me, but I have always enjoyed playing to other people. The examiner was very friendly and supportive throughout the exam, so it felt relaxed. It wasn’t the very stiff ABRSM response of “Thank you” after each piece, but rather she felt at ease to say things like “Gosh…that must have been exhausting”! This, coupled with the local rep, who was so supportive all the way along made the experience all the more enjoyable.

DSC_0008Would you do another one?

Well, I rarely say “never”, but I’m in no hurry to do another performance diploma. I shall enjoy exploring new repertoire, adding to my 40-Piece Challenge, and I expect, eventually, enjoy going back to playing the exam pieces (I’d like to learn the second Kabalevsky Sonatina)!

If you’ve got any questions about my DipLCM experience, I’d be more than happy to answer them. Drop me an email, a Facebook message or a Tweet!

Managing the cost of music tuition: practical advice

October 4th, 2014 by

Managing the cost of music tuition: practical advice
Girl playing the fluteSome of you may have seen this BBC news article/report this morning. To my mind, the article completely fails to offer any practical advice about budgeting towards music tuition at all, so here are my thoughts…

Lesson Fees

Teachers should be up-front about lesson fees from day one. Mine are published online and are therefore in the public domain: everyone pays the same rate and there are no hidden costs. Teachers should also be clear about when fees are due, how to pay them and any payment plans (e.g. block booking) they offer. Teachers should also be clear what their cancellation policy is so that parents/pupils know what/if they’re expected to pay if they miss or cancel a lesson. Being up-front about what the fees are is hugely important in enabling parents/pupils to plan for the cost of the lessons.

Fee Increases

As above, teachers should be clear and up-front about any increase to fees. I review my fees annually in the summer, and a month’s notice is given for any increase which takes effect from the 1st September. I’m sure all teachers would agree that it is an agonising experience deciding whether or not to increase fees. It requires an awful lot of soul-searching and research to weigh up the various factors. Fees don’t automatically go up every year, and they don’t simply increase for the fun of it. Teachers will have done a good deal of research before making any decision. Again, prompt advance notification of any increase allows pupils and parents to plan ahead.

Lesson Materials

Again, teachers should be clear about who pays for the lesson books, music and other materials. If the teacher supplies them, then parents or pupils should be aware of the cost before the teacher orders them. If parents or pupils are to buy them, then it is useful for the teacher to give some estimate of the cost. An estimated cost of the materials required each year is useful and it allows pupils and parents to factor this cost in on top of the lesson fees. I always keep a box of secondhand music and pupils are free to take (and add) what they want from it. Alerting pupils and parents to sources of secondhand music (e.g. charity shops etc.) is also useful, as is providing information about where to buy any books required.

Musical Instruments

Teachers should be providing advice on buying or hiring suitable instruments. There is no denying that instruments often require an initial outlay, but they are an investment. Luckily, there are numerous schemes which allow pupils and parents to hire and then buy an instrument (e.g. Just Flutes and All Flutes Plus). These schemes can be very cost-effective and allow pupils and parents to spread the cost over year or more. Other schemes such as the government’s ‘Take It Away’ scheme also help with the cost of purchasing an instrument for those children who qualify. Teachers should continue to provide advice about looking after and maintaining the instrument. All these things help to prolong the life of the instrument allowing the player and parent to get the best possible value from their investment

Exam Fees

If you or your child wants at any time to sit an external exam or assessment, there will be costs associated with it. There will be the exam fee itself, and possibly a fee for an accompanist. Again, teachers can make it clear from the outset what the fees will be. If an accompanist is involved, their fees should also be known before the entry is made, not two weeks before the exam date. Each year in my newsletter, I calculate how much pupils will need to save per week/month for an exam. This really helps spread the cost through the year; for example, saving just 50p a week can make a big difference when the exam comes round.


It is also useful for teachers to be aware of sources of funding (e.g. Paul Harris Foundation and EPTA fund) and also of scholarships for local schools.


The BBC, via the Musicians’ Union suggests five bullet point suggestions for keeping cost down. I’m not convinced that any of these really help!

Teaching Diplomas: How long does it take to prepare?

February 26th, 2014 by

'Nearly everyone preparing for one of the teaching diplomas is already teaching or working in some capacity. That means you’re going to need to fit in your diploma work alongside this.'One of the questions I’m asked probably more than any other, is how long you should take to prepare for your teaching diploma (DipABRSM etc.). As you might expect, the honest answer is “It depends”, but there are things you can do to get yourself on-track.

How much time have you got?

Nearly everyone preparing for one of the teaching diplomas is already teaching or working in some capacity. That means you’re going to need to fit in your diploma work alongside this. Chances are you’ll also have to fit it in alongside family commitments too.

How much time should it take?

According to the Register of Regulated Qualifications, the DipABRSM requires a minimum of 60 guided learning hours, the LRSM 120 hours and the FRSM 150 hours. That means that if you were preparing for the DipABRSM over the course of a year, as a rough estimate, you might be expecting to spend an hour a week; two hours a week over six months or four hours a week over three months.

How much work have I already done?

Of course, not everyone starts from the same point. You may have already sat a performance diploma so the quick study element has already been covered; you may have been granted an exemption from the written submission because you’ve passed the CT;ABRSM; or you may feel you have enough experience already and don’t expect to need a lot of extra work. These are all things to take into account.

Don’t underestimate the preparation needed

One of the most common problems is teachers underestimating the time needed to prepare, often suddenly realising that a month before the closing date they haven’t yet started on their written submission. All the elements of the diploma preparation take time. When you consider the research and reading required, the writing, the checking and the presentation, many candidates will write the written submission over several months. Nearer the time, I often pose potential viva questions for candidates to answer: again, they take time to answer, particularly if they expose an area which you need to read up on.

Plan ahead

For ABRSM diplomas, there are only two sessions a year (unlike the graded examinations). The closing date for entries is often about three months before the diploma week. Entries cannot be made online, and you also need to send any written submissions etc. with your entry. Considering all the above, at some stage, you’ll need to make a decision about how long you’re going to need in order to prepare for the teaching diploma in your preferred session.

What if I need help?

The reason I’m often asked this question is because candidates are normally enquiring about the mentoring service which I offer for teaching diploma preparation. Despite my best advice, candidates often fall into two categories: they either start preparing far too early, quickly lose momentum, and then end up with a mad dash at the last minute; or they start too late at which point, with the best will in the world, there is a limit to what I can offer. I also have a limit to the number of candidates I can mentor at any one time which means you should enquire in plenty of time so that, if necessary, I can schedule you in.

Some candidates I support like some help to get them started on the written submission and are then happy to go away and spend a few months working on it before coming back to me to look at it and work on the other diploma elements; others prefer help right the way through. Many people work on the written submission up to the closing date then concentrate on the viva voce afterwards – again, this is a worthwhile consideration.

It’s difficult to advise about the time taken, but as a general rule, too much time is inevitably better than too little time.

Top Tips: 1. What else have you got to fit in alongside? 2. How much work have you already done? 3. Begin your preparations early 4. Plan well in advance 5. Ask for advice

Looking for more advice? Drop me a message or find out more about the mentoring I offer here.

Other useful blog posts

DipABRSM: Where to start with the Written Submission

Top Tips for Teaching Diplomas

New Beginnings

January 2nd, 2014 by

DSC_0001 (3) (450x301)My musical journey started many moons ago. I started piano lessons in 1990 at the age of seven; flute lessons followed in 1994, and singing some years after that. I started teaching in 2001, and a BA(Hons), an MEd and several diplomas later, I’ve arrived at the next step of the journey.

Since I finished my MEd with The Open University in 2010, I have felt a bit lost, that life has, in a funny sort of way lacked something. After a good deal of soul-searching, and a certain amount of persuasion, a PhD seemed the next logical step. Logical it may be, but whether it’s total madness is yet to be seen! Ask me in seven years…

So, on Monday, I start my PhD in Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. I’m not really sure what to expect but I am looking forward to it. I have always said I have no grand ambitions. I’m always open to new ideas, new challenges and no doubt some changes of direction: what comes of it longer-term remains to be seen. What I’m sure of is that it will be a roller coaster of interest, frustration and probably, at times, despair! A pretty fair reflection on life then. 

My topic (at this point, feel free to go to sleep) is centered around the studio-based instrumental curriculum and the autonomy of of teaching and learning, and a provisional title reads:

‘The autonomy of studio-based instrumental teaching: its effect on valid knowledge construction, curriculum design, and quality of teaching and learning.’

I am certain there’ll be some changes along the way, and as I look at my three research questions, I fear each one is probably a research topic all of its own! 100,000 words may sound a lot, but…

What continues to motivate me isn’t just an interest in the topic itself, but in the fact that, so I’m told, it is an under-researched area of education. In a corny kind of way, if what I do makes a difference to others then it makes it all the more worthwhile.

If you’re interested in my progress, keep a look out for future posts…

Why a ‘live’ accompanist matters… Part Two!

November 10th, 2013 by

Why a 'live' accompanist matters... Part Two
Girl playing the fluteThis is a follow-up post to the one I wrote last year about the importance of accompanying. Recently, I again came across an online debate about accompanying. This debate was, as is often the case, driven by economics, in other words, why should parents and candidates have to ‘pay out’ for an accompanist when they’ve already paid the exam fee. Some suggested that exam boards should allow the use of CD accompaniments in exams to reduce the cost and to remove the difficulties in finding and engaging an accompanist.

In my previous post, I wrote a bit about playing along to a CD accompaniment and I believe that holds true. My argument then was the same as it is now, that the question is one of responsibility. If you play to a CD backing track then it will take care of any tempo changes, expression markings and characterization; true, you have to know where these come and you have to be able to do them, but nevertheless, these things are pre-determined by the CD. When you play or sing with a live accompanist, this responsibility shifts, and suddenly the player or singer finds themselves needing to lead and to make these performance decisions themselves.

As I’ve said before, an accompanist can make or break a performance, but to my mind, they aren’t an anonymous figure who morphs into the background while the soloist takes centre stage. On the contrary, the combination of soloist and accompanist is an ensemble, a partnership if you like.

One of the arguments put forward in the debate was that this didn’t matter because the exam wasn’t testing ensemble skills, but only the playing or singing of the soloist. To my mind, this reaches to the very heart of the debate about assessment – what is the exam actually testing? The implication seemed to be that it didn’t matter about the accompaniment or accompanist because neither that nor the ensemble skills necessary for such a performance are explicitly mentioned in the mark scheme.

For me, it’s dangerous to assume that certain things don’t matter because they’re not mentioned in the mark scheme. In an exam, the performance of the candidate is to be assessed. In their new marking criteria, ABRSM list requirements such as ‘Fluent [Time], with flexibility where appropriate’ and ‘Vivid communication of character and style’. It seems to me that these are very difficult to achieve if the accompaniment is pre-defined on a CD. For a candidate to achieve this kind of individuality in performance, then the skills of working with a sensitive accompanist, and thus creating a convincing ensemble between the two, are essential, at least for exams which are primarily classical-based.

It’s easy to underestimate the qualities and skills of an effective accompanist. Regardless of cost or convenience, they should not be seen as the ‘last-minute nuisance’, arranged a few weeks before the exam on the instruction of the teacher (who so often seems to forget to point this out earlier!). It’s never too early to start taking responsibility for your performance and as you progress, the necessities of making your performance individual will only increase.

So, for me, CD backing tracks have their place, but they are not, and should not be seen as a substitute both for the skills of a ‘live’ accompanist and to avoid making the judgements necessary to make your performance your own.

“Where am I going?”: Motivation and Learning

July 14th, 2013 by

"Where am I going?": Motivation and Learning

This is a slightly adapted version of an article which appeared in my end-of-term newsletter.

DSC_0003 (2)2One of the questions learners frequently ponder is ‘Where am I going?’ Everyone wants their lessons to be fun, and indeed, the majority of pupils learn ‘for fun’, or as a ‘hobby’. When people start learning an instrument, their aims are understandably limited; after all, they have little experience of learning an instrument, and therefore aims are reasonably restricted to ‘I’d like to be able play well’.

The problem is that before too long, a lot of learners wonder whether this is sufficient: is the motivation of simply being able to ‘play well’ enough? Learning an instrument is, effectively, a never-ending process; it’s also a lengthy process, and potentially lonely one. Motivating oneself is fine…to a point…but we all go through periods where we run low on motivation. Sometimes you need something else to boost your motivation: if you like, another dimension to your learning.

There are a surprisingly wide range of options, not all immediately obvious, and, contrary to popular belief, they’re not all exam-based.


The music itself is always at the heart of the learning process, but a surprising number of learners have had little, if any exposure to live music. Whatever instrument you’re learning, going to enjoy hearing others play provides a welcome injection of inspiration.

In the next year, why not aim to go at least one concert? If you’re learning the piano, it might be a piano recital, if you’re a singer, it might be a choral concert. It doesn’t matter though, and it’s the music that’s most important. Be inspired by others.

Meet other learners

Why not start by getting to know the person who comes before or after you? Why not introduce yourselves and maybe one week you could overlap by five minutes and play or sing something to each other?

Exams and assessments

Of course, exams and assessments have traditionally been the way to keep the momentum up, but understandably, they’re not for everyone. That said, in my experience, at some time or another, learners do like an independent assessment of their progress. These days we are so lucky to have such a wide range on offer.

As well as the traditional graded exams, we have recital grades, leisure play, performance awards and certificate exams; in addition, we also have non-graded assessments such as the ABRSM Performance Assessment. The latter can be a good starting point as it is not a pass or fail exam. You simply have 15 minutes with the examiner where you can play or sing a programme of your own choosing; you receive a written report and certificate at the end of the assessment.

Make a recording

Recording is a great way of emulating performance conditions; in other words, it requires you to ‘deliver’ on ‘the day’, though of course, you can keep rerecording until you get it right! Learners in the past have made short CDs to give as presents; another way of sharing your music with others.

Play or sing with others

Playing or singing with others is one of the great joys of learning an instrument. Many learners will belong to choirs and ensembles outside their lessons. There is also the opportunity to play duets, to accompany, and to make music with friends and family. Your teacher may provide opportunities or you may know other learners who you could work with.

As you can see, there are lots of options out there. Learning an instrument doesn’t have to be a solitary activity; sharing your music with others will add a whole new dimension to your learning.

Why learning an instrument can make you feel better…

January 31st, 2013 by

Why learning an instrument can make you feel better…
DSC_0003 (2)2It seems to have been an age since I wrote a blog post, so, to put that right…

I received an e-mail newsletter the other day, which, to cut a long story short, was about making more sales in 2013. The essence of the message was that wasn’t enough to simply market a product as something people need, but that successful sales are to be found in the way it might make customers feel. For example, we probably don’t need any more shampoo, but if someone marketed one which said it would make me relax and warm me up in the cold weather, I’d probably buy it. Very few pupils ‘need’ music lessons, and as many teachers will have found, when money is tight, these perceived ‘luxuries’ are soon dropped from the equation.

This got me thinking about learning an instrument. Whilst being able to play harder pieces, exam results and performance success are all measures of progress, there’s a whole side to learning an instrument which is generally unseen: this is the emotional impact it has on the wellbeing of the learner.

Last week a pupil told me how much they enjoyed their singing and what a difference it had made to their life. They said it had given them confidence again and made them feel better when they were down. We can’t measure these things, and in a results-driven society, they’re too often overlooked.

For many of the pupils I’ve taught over the past 12 years, their lessons have provided a welcome sanctuary from the business of the outside world. My Friday evening pupils in particular have always valued their lessons as a chance to ‘wind-down’ after the working week. There have been pupils whose lives are getting them down and who just need that little bit of ‘me’ time amongst the turmoil.

For most people learning an instrument, progress is important, but it’s only half the story. We are however, very quick to judge, and equally, to be judged. A pupil who is deemed to make no progress is judged to be lazy, the teacher ‘bad’. In some cases, this is probably true, but there’s so much more to be gained than all that.

There is no denying that learning an instrument is hard work; it requires, particularly for adult learners, a huge commitment emotionally, but for those who seek to meet the challenge, it offers immeasurable rewards, not just in terms of the music itself, but as a source of joy and fulfilment in their lives.