Review: Stepping Tones Practice Diary

Who remembers their Chester’s Music Practice Book from when they had lessons as a child? I do, and I have a feeling I’ve still got mine somewhere. These tiny little books, the size and shape of which matched nothing else, were the mainstay of lessons for me and many others during the early 1990s.

You can still buy them, along with a range of other practice diaries, so you may be forgiven for wondering why we need another. In this review, I want to focus on a new practice diary created by Alex Bowen of Stepping Tones. Alex is a piano and music theory teacher, and Dalcroze specialist based in Derbyshire. To quote Alex:

The vibrant Stepping Tones Practice Diary provides an exciting and creative way for young musicians to keep track of their lessons, practice, ambitions and achievements. This book is brimming with fun features to engage curiosity, with special tools to help pupils love practising regularly and efficiently!

I think the most intriguing thing about this diary is that it is A4 in size. When it comes to practice diaries, we are generally used to A5, or even A6 productions. I think this is a huge advantage because no longer do teachers have to cram everything into a small space, but also, the diary will be similar in size to the students’ books themselves.

Example of the double-page spread for lesson and practice notes in the Stepping Tones Practice Diary

There are 40 double-page spreads for the lesson notes and practice charts. At the start of the book there are examples of ways in which these can be used, but the intention is clearly that they should be adapted to the needs of each individual student and teacher. Alex intends to supplement these examples with some short videos which will show how the diary can be used in practice.

One innovative feature of the practice diary is the ‘flexi-stave’ pages. These can be used both for text (covering both large and small handwriting) and music notation. This feature is hugely beneficial for both teacher and student and again, can be adapted to a wide range of different needs. Each double-page spread of the 40 weeks includes a practice tip and a musical word of the week.

Example of the flex-stave page in the Stepping Tones Practice Diary

At the back of the book there are some pages to enhance and develop theoretical knowledge such as dynamics and tempo, and quick reference guides such as those for the circle of fifths. There are also a number of puzzle pages and further blank staves. Right at the back there is space for students to set targets and a sticker chart.

It is clearly presented, and above all, adaptable. It is sturdily wire-bound which should last longer than standard comb-binding. As well as enough for a year’s worth of lesson and practice notes, the added extras really enhance this beyond the standard practice diary.

I would have no hesitation in recommending this to teachers who still utilise a paper practice diary, and at just £5.99, it is excellent value.


Stepping Tones Practice Diary is available to order direct from Alex here at £5.99.


I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.


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Review: Stepping Tones Practice Diary

4 Ways to Make the Most of the Music Exam Mark Sheet

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken a music exam fairly recently. Congratulations! Whatever the outcome, I have a huge amount of admiration for any learner who puts themselves forward for any form of external assessment. To me, simply turning up to play or sing in front of someone else in an exam situation is an achievement in itself.

Students are rightly keen to know the numerical results of the exam they’ve taken, alongside which band (e.g. distinction, merit, pass etc.) the result fell into. But, there’s another piece of paper which comes with your certificate, the mark sheet, and this is something which, when used effectively, offers a lot which can help a learner on the next step of their musical journey.

Accepting that deciphering both examiners’ handwriting and language (special ‘examiner speak’) can be challenging, rather than being filed away behind the certificate, the mark sheet is well worth exploring further.

1. Celebrate!

Most exam candidates come out of the exam remembering all the things which went wrong: the words they forgot, the scale which had a false start and the incorrect answer in the aural tests. This is a natural response, and in some ways, it’s a necessary part of ‘moving on’ to go through that process of reflection.

When your mark sheet comes, there are usually a good number of positive comments and we should take time to celebrate those. Exam candidates are notoriously good at remembering all the things that didn’t go to plan, but it’s worth remembering that examiners see a much bigger picture. I know that following my own candidates’ exams this past term, many of the things they felt hadn’t gone well were, in fact, not even noted by the examiner.

Tip: make a list of all the positive comments. You may surprise yourself by how many there are. Celebrate them! If you like, stick your list up somewhere prominent where you can see it. There are many times on our musical journeys where we need a confidence boost, and these positive comments are something to return to. At the bottom of this blog, there’s a sheet to download to help you with this process of reflection.

2. Is the work you did before the exam reflected in the comments?

Before we enter for an exam, we’ll have almost always worked on specific things which we wanted to improve on. We might have worked on the tone quality of our scales, or the dynamic variation in our pieces. We might have worked on the tuning of our unaccompanied traditional song, or on the singing back the melody in the aural tests. Knowing what we’ve worked on in particular, it’s worth cross-referencing this against the mark sheet. Did the examiner pick up on any of these things? Is the work we put in reflected in the comments?

Tip: if you worked on something and it isn’t mentioned in the comments, don’t be disheartened. I take the fact that it wasn’t mentioned as a positive.

3. What can you learn from the comments?

I think the most important thing about the mark sheet is seeing how the examiners’ comments can help us take our learning forward. It’s easy to see the examiners’ comments as criticisms, but they can offer us some pointers for things we can work on next and seek to improve further.

Part of taking an exam is getting feedback on your performance. The examiners’ feedback can by hugely valuable as you start to learn new pieces, work on specific areas of technique, or seek to improve your skills further.

Tip: make a list of things that the examiner has identified which you’d like to improve and work on. See the comments in as constructive a light as possible. Use the examiners’ assessment to take your learning forward.

4. Reflect on the exam journey

Taking an exam can be a nerve-wracking and often stressful experience. We invest a huge amount of effort into preparing for exams, and we often underestimate the emotional input required. When you’ve got the result and the mark sheet, it can be a good time to reflect on the whole exam experience.

Think about the process you went through as you worked on your pieces, learnt your scales and sought to improve your sight-reading. Is there anything which you might have done differently? Not everyone who takes an exam goes on to take another one, but many do. That said, reflecting on the way we prepared for the exam can help us in areas of our lives beyond music.

Whatever your exam experience, remember that it’s a huge achievement to just put yourself through it. Remember, that as self-critical as we inevitably are, there’s much to celebrate about what we’ve achieved.


To help with your reflections, I have created a worksheet which you can download here. You are encouraged to adapt it to suit your own needs, but it offers a framework by which you can utilise the possibilities of the mark sheet and reflect on the overall exam experience.

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5 Reasons Why the DipABRSM Quick Study Is More Than Just Sight-Reading

Ask many DipABRSM candidates which part of the exam they fear most, and nine times out of 10, it’s the quick study. My own experience of mentoring instrumental teachers has confirmed the very real existence of this fear.

If you’re working towards either the performance or teaching DipABRSM, you’ll probably be conscious that the quick study (which is the same for both diplomas) is worth only 15% of the overall marks available, yet, one mark below the pass mark for this part of the exam can equal a fail overall, even if you’ve passed the other sections. It’s a scary prospect, is it not?

In this blog post, I’m going to consider five reasons why the quick study is more than just sight-reading. When I mentor teaching diploma candidates, many are, justifiably, under the misapprehension that the quick study is merely a double-length sight-reading test. It’s true, there are clearly similarities, but look at the mark scheme more closely, and some subtle differences emerge.

For ease, I have compared the mark schemes for the sight-reading and quick study in a single document which you can download as a PDF here. You may find it useful to have this easily viewable as you read the remainder of this blog post.

1. Performance versus presentation

Compare the ABRSM mark schemes for sight-reading at Grades 1-8, and the quick study at DipABRSM level, and you will note a subtle difference in language. For the sight-reading tests, examiners assess a presentation of the music, marked as being ‘confident’, ‘largely secure’, ‘cautious’, ‘insecure’ or ‘very uncertain’. For the quick study, examiners assess a performance of the music, marked as being ‘excellent’, ‘well performed’, ‘good’ or ‘sufficiently competent’.

I believe this reinforces the need for your quick study to be a performance. It is not enough to merely present your reading of the test, but rather you need to perform the music.

Tip: think about performances in other contexts. If you were to perform a piece of music you’d learnt and practised, what would you expect? If you were to attend a performance, what might you expect to hear? Think about how you can apply this to the quick study.

2. The devil is in the detail

Once again, compare the two mark schemes side by side, and look at the word ‘detail’. For sight-reading, the word does not appear until the distinction marking band. That’s not to say it’s not welcomed at lower levels, but the realisation of musical detail is not explicitly stated until the highest of the marking bands. Contrast this with the quick study, and we find that the word ‘detail’ first appears in the fail category: ‘little or no attention to matters of detail’.

What does this tell us? Ultimately, you cannot pass the quick study unless you are realising the musical detail. This term encompasses a whole range of things, but may refer to dynamics, expression, tempo changes, articulation and ornamentation. Unlike sight-reading, accurate notes and rhythms are not, in themselves, enough.

Tip: think about listening to a performance of a piece with little or no musical detail. How would you rate it? How does it sound to you? Try playing a piece you know well with nothing other than correct notes and rhythms. How much is it missing as a performance?

3. Your approach matters

The diploma syllabus states explicitly that the examiners are not assessing what you do in your preparation time; however, they are assessing your approach. Look at the quick study mark scheme, and you’ll see that the word ‘approach’ appears at all the pass levels. I’m convinced that a successful quick study attempt at DipABRSM level is built upon a solid approach. I shall be considering that, and some of these other issues in more detail in future posts (sign up to my mailing list here to receive my monthly Creative Notes newsletter which, amongst other things, features new blog posts).

Tip: if you’re already working on the quick study, what’s your approach? What do you spend the five minutes preparation time doing? Does this differ from how you might approach a sight-reading test where you have only 30 seconds? Do you think you have a systematic approach which you can apply to each attempt?

4. There’s a clue in the name

This might seem like an obvious point, but if you think about the name ‘quick study’ what do you think of? Particularly, what is a ‘study’? Think about some of the studies you’ve played over the years. What was the point of them? I reviewed Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies earlier this year, and as part of that, I included a definition of the word ‘study’ (or étude):

‘Any composition intended as a basis for the improvement of the the performer.’

Scholes, P. (1975). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press. p.336

I think there’s once again, a subtle distinction to be made here between sight-reading and the quick study. Based on the definition above, a quick study is intended as a means to improve the performer (or teacher). To me, a sight-reading test is just that, a test. Again, I think this reinforces once again the notion of the quick study as a performance, rather than just a test of reading skills.

Tip: learn and play some studies for your instrument (or voice). How do they differ from other pieces you play? What do you think that these studies are aiming to improve?

5. 30 seconds has increased to five minutes

Finally, there’s a quantifiable difference between sight-reading tests and the quick study. Firstly, for a sight-reading test, you are given 30 seconds in which to prepare, but for the DipABRSM quick study, you are given five minutes. This is quite some increase, and with such an increase in preparation time, comes a higher expectation.

Broadly speaking, the standard of the quick study is around ABRSM Grade 6 level. It’s worth remembering that ABRSM sight-reading tests are broadly two grades behind, therefore Grade 8 sight-reading, is around Grade 6 standard. The difference at DipABRSM level is not only the level of performance required, but also in the length of the test. Most Grade 8 sight-reading tests for piano are a page long, but for the quick study, they are two pages. Similarly, Grade 8 instrumental sight-reading tests tend to be half a page, whilst for the quick study, they are a page. In that sense, between Grade 8 and DipABRSM level, the length of the test has doubled, but the preparation time has increased tenfold.

Tip: never be afraid to backtrack and improve your basic sight-reading skills. If you’re struggling with the DipABRSM quick study, then spend some time working through earlier grades. I would suggest that you need to be secure in performing Grade 8 level sight-reading tests before attempting the quick study.

However intimidating the quick study may seem, with a secure foundation in sight-reading and a clear and systematic approach to the diploma-level performance, the experience can be a positive and fulfilling one.


Working on your own towards a teaching diploma can be a lonely, and often, overwhelming experience. If you’re not sure where to start or how to approach your teaching diploma preparations, then one-to-one online mentoring could be for you. Find out more here.

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5 reasons why the DipABRSM quick study is more than just sight-reading

Do You Teach Students Who Have No Idea What They Want to Learn? Here’s How Spotify Can Help.

Very occasionally, I come across a student who has a really clear idea what it is they want to learn. They have lots of ideas for pieces they’d like to learn and often come armed to their lessons with lists or books of these.

These students are few and far between, and in reality, many students have no idea what it is they’d like to learn.

This can often present the teacher with a challenge. The art of teachers recommending pieces for their students to learn is important, and it’s part of the teaching and learning process. But, what happens if students are learning only pieces chosen by the teacher? I don’t know about you, but I feel uneasy about that. I want the learning experience to be one of sharing and collaboration, not one of the teacher imparting their chosen repertoire to their students.

That said, it’s not easy, but over the past year, I’ve developed an innovative way to help students take some ownership of their repertoire choices. If you have students who are equally undecided about what they’d like to learn, Spotify* could be your answer.

Let’s be clear that I’m suggesting this as part of a wider process, part of which is for the teacher to guide the student towards suitable repertoire pieces. But, Spotify can offer a collaborative means to widen this process where some of the decision-making is shared with the student.

It’s actually pretty simple to set up, and so far, has been quite effective.

All you need to do is to set up a Spotify playlist for the student. Even if you only have the free version of Spotify, this is still possible. Once you have created a playlist, you can then add to it pieces which that student has already learnt.

Here is the playlist for one of my singing students. She’s passed ABRSM Grade 5 and has been working towards her Grade 5 Theory. During that time, we have been expanding her repertoire to cover more music theatre:

Scroll down below the playlist, and you will find that Spotify starts to recommended additional songs based on that playlist:

It’s possible to make the playlist collaborative so students can explore the recommendations in their own time and add any songs they like the sound of to the playlist. The recommendations refresh as the playlist is updated, and it can also be manually refreshed by clicking on the button at the top-right.

As I say, this is not a replacement for the teacher, and you will need to manage this sensitively for each student. Some students might be happy to go away and explore the recommendations themselves, whilst others may feel more confident exploring them with the teacher in the lesson.

Whilst the example above is for singing, I have also used this successfully for some of the pianists and flautists whom I teach. It is an innovative way to get students involved in their repertoire choices, and it’s simple to get set up. It also gives students a list of the pieces they’ve learnt and a reference recording should they wish to use it.

So, if you’ve got students, like me, who have no or little idea what they want to learn, try this. You, and they may be surprised at its effectiveness.


*I use Spotify for this, but I’m aware there are other similar options available. This is not an advert for Spotify.

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Do you teach students who have no idea what they want to learn? Here's how Spotify can help.

Review: Piano Star Theory

I don’t know about you, but when I was learning piano as a child, the idea of theory sent shivers down my spine. Don’t get me wrong, I liked theory, but in those days, theory equalled exams. To many of us, the need achieve Grade 5 Theory in order to progress to the higher grades was seen as a stumbling block rather than a milestone.

Since I had lessons as a child, much has changed in regards to theory. I believe there’s an increasing awareness amongst teachers for the need to make connections between practical and theoretical work, and much of this is encapsulated in Paul Harris’s ‘simultaneous learning’ approach.

Many piano teachers will already be familiar, and I’m sure, like me, using ABRSM’s Piano Star series of repertoire books. There are currently four books leading to Prep-Test level, and a fourth at Grade 1 level. A new addition to that series is Kathy and David Blackwell’s Piano Star Theory book. The activity book is aimed at ‘young players in the early stages of learning the piano’. As highlighted on the back cover, the book’s contents are designed to link:

‘practical music-making, building aural awareness and boosting the confidence of young musicians.’

There are, of course, many theory books already on the market, so you might ask why we need another one. I think that first and foremost, as expected, this book links very closely with the existing books in the series. The presentation style and illustrations are similar, and in that sense the book sits well alongside the Piano Star repertoire books already published.

The first topic to be introduced is crotchets and semibreves (p. 4) followed by minims (p. 5). They are introduced in a way which combines both sound and symbol. Students are encouraged to clap the given rhythms within the context of a steady drum beat, as well as to draw the note values, and to learn their names and time values. Some preparatory work on pulse, and by consequence, the difference between pulse and rhythm will be useful here. Kodàly and/or Dalcroze foundation exercises would prove useful in that respect, connecting not just sound to symbol, but to the whole body.

Unlike many other theory books, dotted minims are introduced next, followed by the notion of the stave. By p. 8, students should be drawing crotchets, minims, dotted minims and semibreves on the stave, including, where applicable knowing which way stems are to be drawn. An imaginative ‘Stem Song’ is given to reinforce this concept and can be sung to the tune of ‘The wheels on the bus’. This section culminates with a quiz on p. 10 before the introduction of bars, barlines and time signatures.

Pitch names are introduced outwards from middle C covering all the line and space notes in both treble and bass clef. p. 40 also introduces the concept of ledger lines. This approach may seem out of step with those teachers who introduce pitch names through the use of landmark notes; however, the materials here may offer a useful follow-on from that.

The book moves fairly swiftly, although concepts are reinforced throughout. By the end of the book, students will have covered much of the material required for Grade 1 Theory. In addition to the quizzes, there is a game at the end of the book, and a set of stickers which can be used with or independently of the book itself.

Overall, there is much to be commended here. The layout and explanations are clear, and present theory in a way which should appeal to young learners, particularly those already using this series of books. My feeling is that the book will need supplementing with additional activities to really cement the theoretical concepts with the the framework of their practical application. For example, the use of rhythm names (ta, ti, ta-ah) etc. could be introduced before the note values are covered in the book. Similarly, I expect most students would need more practice exercises than those given in this book alone. In some ways, given the pace of the book, with additional exercises, it could have been split into two, or even more volumes.

This is an appealing book, well-conceived. Rather than offering a radically different approach to teaching theory, it offers another book in the selection from which teachers can choose. As previously mentioned, it will appeal particularly to those students already familiar with the style of the other books in the Piano Star series. If ABRSM were ever to consider a companion book of supplementary exercises, I’m sure this would be welcomed by both students and teachers.


Piano Star Theory by Kathy and David Blackwell, is published by ABRSM, ISBN 978-1-78601-227-2 AB3970, £6.50


I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

Piano TRACKS in Practice

In this guest blog post, Barbara Kennedy, creator of the Piano TRACKS Project, shares three pupil case studies which demonstrate how the framework can be applied in practice. We hope this is useful not just for existing users of the Piano TRACKS materials, but also for those who’ve not yet explored this fantastic resource for piano teachers.

The piano TRACKS (pT) project provides piano teachers with a formal, but flexible way of assessing their students, along with tools to help support their development. In this blog post I will be focussing on how I, the creator of the project, use the pT checklists to maximise student attainment. 

Our checklists provide a way to identify progress as students develop at the piano. They are based on the pT curriculum which has been designed to break down learning into manageable chunks. The curriculum has eight progressive levels (Stages A – H), and for each stage there are two checklists, one for skills development and one for knowledge acquisition. This helps students to build on their theoretical and practical skills concurrently. These eight stages take students from the very beginnings of their piano journey through to intermediate level (approximately Grade 5 standard). 

There is no right or wrong way to use these checklists, and teachers are encouraged to use them within their preferred approach to teaching, in a way that best supports the learning styles of individual students. Students are likely to span several levels of the curriculum at once, as they develop different skills at different times. The project is designed as a framework that teachers are encouraged to adapt, adding or removing items of learning that they feel are necessary. 

In the next section of this blog I will present some examples [real names omitted] of how I have used the checklists, and the wider programme.

1. Seven-year-old: shows potential, but lacks motivation.

I expect I am not the only teacher with a young student who has plenty of potential, but finds it difficult to concentrate in lessons, rarely practises at home, and often forgets their books. I have been teaching this particular student, Katie, for two years, and progress has been somewhat slow, although the student enjoys lessons. I thought the checklists might be a good fit for Katie as a motivational tool. It can take a long time for students to reach the level where they are preparing for a graded exam, but with the pT checklists there are three pre-Grade 1 levels which can fill in that gap. There are also certificates free to download from our website that can be presented to students when they complete a stage. 

Piano TRACKS checklist for Stage A knowledge

When I first introduced the checklist book to Katie, she could see almost all of Stage A was completed. Together, we agreed that there were some terms relating to the stave that she could be more confident of, and I sent her off with a worksheet (from the pT range) to practice the names. The following week she was able to name all the elements required to complete Stage A, and proudly left the lesson with her certificate

Since then, Katie has been more confident about her abilities, and more focussed in lessons. As a teacher, I have been able to get a better idea of what she is capable of. I have been impressed by the things she will now do independently because she knows she can, and what she is willing to try. 

2. Transfer student: who, what, and where? 

It can often be difficult to ascertain what level a transfer student is truly working at. Often, the student isn’t clear themselves, even if they have previously taken exams. Robert, 11, recently came to my studio from another teacher. He was playing pieces from the first Up-Grade book, so I estimated him to be around, or approaching, Grade 1 level. For the first term of lessons, I used different activities, games, and repertoire to subtly ascertain Robert’s knowledge and practical capabilities. This was an interesting process as it highlighted that he was able to work at a higher level than we had previously realised. 

As a teacher, I also found that the checklists helped me to plan lessons in a structured way, to inform progress. It allows me to easily identify what areas a student needs to work on, giving me quick ideas of what to include in a lesson. For Robert the checklists provided a crucial turning point, as he had been held back by working on material that was too easy for him. Being able to methodically assess Robert in this way meant that I was quickly able to see his real level of ability. 

For planning and logistical purposes, I keep hold of students’ checklist books. Robert will sadly be leaving me at the end of the academic year due to the family relocating. At this point, I will give him his checklist book to keep and to pass on to his next teacher. I hope that the next teacher will be able to use it as a starting point for Robert’s future lessons. 

3. Adult beginner: enthusiasm and pacing. 

The final student I am going to talk about in this blog post, is an adult beginner who recently started having lessons with me. In my experience, adult learners are some of the most committed and ambitious learners. They often sprint through the beginning stages of learning and then reach a plateau which can leave them feeling discouraged. I think this can often lead to adults giving up lessons quickly, which is a real shame. 

Piano TRACKS curriculum

I introduced the checklist to my adult student, Jamie, within the first few lessons. Jamie is a dedicated learner and his enthusiasm for the piano shines through at every session. The checklists gave Jamie a truthful insight into how much there was to learn from the start of his piano journey. 

Jamie has found the checklists useful because he has been able to visualise his progress. During weeks where he has felt that his achievement has been less than usual, we have been able to look back at how much he has already grown as a musician, and it helps us to concentrate on the road ahead. 

With all my students, I have found that the checklists increase motivation in students in a meaningful way. They like to have specific, bite-sized, goals to work towards (alongside their ‘bigger picture’ aims). It saves me time when lesson planning and helps me to plan solid activities and select appropriate repertoire that truly aids all-round musical development

I think it is fair to say that assessment within the creative arts is a tricky business. Questions are often asked about the appropriateness of current systems in popular use, or whether we should use assessment at all. I believe that the right kind of assessment, at the right time has a positive effect on student progress. These checklists provide a flexible, tangible, and meaningful way of showing achievement. 


You can find out more about the Piano TRACKS Project here, and read more about Barbara on her website.

Review: Modern Piano Studies

Some might say that studies (or études) have fallen out of favour with modern approaches to piano teaching. As a developing pianist, I don’t recall using books of studies in my own lessons, and now, as a teacher, I tend to use them as they come up, for example, in tutor books.

Perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider what a study (or étude) actually is. My Oxford Companion to Music defines them as:

‘Any composition intended as a basis for the improvement of the the performer.’

Scholes, P. (1975). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press. p.336

Some might say this is a fairly wide definition, but it captures something of the original intention of these pieces which grew in popularity during the 19th-century.

Fast forward some two hundred years, and Czech composer and pianist, Jakub Metelka has produced a brand new volume of studies aimed at the 21st-century pianist and teacher: Modern Piano Studies.

The book includes 30 studies, each of which covers an individual technical challenge. Almost as a bonus, the 30 studies in the book cover every major and minor key, and each has its own individual character:

‘With their tuneful melodies and modern sound, these studies amount to miniature recital pieces.’

There is perhaps, when considering pieces such as these, a fairly blurred division between studies and what we might refer to as repertoire pieces. Just as with these pieces, each repertoire piece we learn also presents its own technical challenges to overcome. In that sense, I would say these are as much enjoyable pieces to learn, as they are technical studies.

The first piece, ‘Petite Danseuse’ is, as expected, in C major. There are a number of technical challenges presented here, but I would imagine that staccato playing was at the forefront of the composer’s mind. The right hand combines staccato quavers with ‘normal’ semiquavers, whilst the left hand requires a sustaining minim in the lower voice with staccato chords above.

The second piece, ‘Leaky Gutter’ follows the pattern, and is in A minor (although, the Gs are not sharpened which may cause some confusion for pupils). Right hand glissando playing seems to be the main technical challenge in this piece.

The composer states that the pieces are of ‘moderate technical difficulty’. Some of the early pieces in fairly straightforward keys would suit players of around Grade 4 level, whilst some of the later pieces in more complex keys are, whilst short, pushing Grade 7 level.

This is a useful book of pieces which not only reinforce specific techniques, but which also refresh and refine theoretical knowledge. As I said above, they are as much pieces to be enjoyed as part of the repertoire, as they are to be used as technical studies.

My only criticism is that the book would have been greatly enhanced had there been a programme note for each piece highlighting the specific technical challenge covered. Many of the pieces include numerous technical challenges, and in my view, it’s not always clear which is intended as the main one. It would also offer both teachers and players a quick reference guide to the book when searching for pieces which cover specific techniques. Perhaps the composer or publisher might offer this as a download in due course?

Overall, this is a useful and in many ways, innovative volume of pieces which would suit intermediate to advanced players. It is, as expected from Bärenreiter, expertly presented and typeset, and at about 38p per piece, excellent value. You can hear audio samples of the pieces and see examples of the sheet music on the publisher’s website here.


Modern Piano Studies by Jakub Metelka, is published by Bärenreiter, ISMN 979-0-260108-76-9 BA 11559, £11.50


I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

Why Take a Teaching Diploma?

For those teaching privately in the UK, there is no requirement to possess any kind of qualification; however, every year, thousands of teachers choose to work towards a teaching diploma in order to, amongst other things, achieve an accredited qualification. In addition, many instrumental teachers in schools and colleges choose to work towards a teaching diploma, even when they’re often also not required to do so.

So, why do teachers choose to work towards a teaching diploma? Why do teachers commit time and money to something which they essentially don’t need? Having talked to a number of instrumental teachers who are both working towards or have taken their teaching diplomas, I wanted to share some of their reasons.

If you’re thinking about taking a teaching diploma, maybe reading some of their reasons will inspire you and aid your decision-making process? Their reasons fell broadly into three categories:

  1. To improve teaching and be more confident teachers;
  2. To have a goal to work towards;
  3. To gain professional accreditation and validation.

Let us think further below about each of those categories:

1. To improve teaching and be more confident teachers

The primary reason teachers cited for choosing to work towards and take a teaching diploma was to improve their teaching, something which they saw as beneficial to both themselves and their pupils.

Some candidates said that working towards a teaching diploma allowed and encouraged them to explore new ideas, and to develop their existing knowledge and skills. Some felt that going through the process of working towards a teaching diploma would allow them to reflect on their teaching approach and philosophy, and by consequence would empower them to be better teachers as a result.

There was also a sense that some teachers were curious to see whether they could achieve a teaching diploma, and virtually everyone said the process had increased their confidence as teachers.

2. To have a goal to work towards

A number of teachers said that the teaching diploma had given them something to work towards. One said that whilst they could have gained new skills and increased their knowledge without the framework of a qualification, they felt that working towards the diploma gave them an end goal so that the study they undertook had purpose.

Connected to this was the sense that working towards a teaching diploma allowed you to bring together various ‘pots’ of different training courses, events, workshops and CPD opportunities. Whilst these things didn’t necessarily exempt you from elements of the diploma, they could be drawn upon as part of the preparation process. Whilst each ‘pot’ may not have, in itself, led to a qualification, the collective knowledge and skill gained could be counted towards their diploma.

3. To gain professional qualification and validation

Whist this was by no means the primary reason for most teachers, candidates recognised that working towards the diploma gave them an accredited and professional qualification. For some, that meant having post-nominal letters after their name. Others felt that having a qualification reinforced their credibility as a new teacher.

Other teachers had worked towards a diploma because they felt it increased their professional standing when it came to applying for teaching work in schools, often on a self-employed basis. It was recognised that in an unregulated marketplace, having a teaching qualification was often a means of standing out from the crowd.


I think what these experiences show is there are many different reasons why teachers choose to work towards a teaching diploma. Above all, I think they present a challenge. They allow teachers, often working in fairly isolated circumstances, to reflect on, evaluate and validate their teaching.

Whilst the end result is to have achieved the qualification, the process and journey of exploration and reflection is as, if not more important.


If you’re considering working towards a teaching diploma, I offer a popular and bespoke online mentoring programme. The programme offers one-to-one mentoring for the DipABRSM, DipLCM(TD), ALCM(TD) and ATCL diplomas. I seek to empower teachers to approach their diploma preparation with confidence, and to take them on a journey of reflection and validation of which they can be proud.

Review: Landscapes

After all these years of playing and teaching, I still love discovering new music. In Landscapes, Alison Matthews has composed 14 beautiful ‘poetic’ piano solos which will, I’m sure, stand the test of time. This is, in part, aided, as always, by the beautiful publication itself.

It was lovely, as always, to meet Alison (and Nikolas) at the Music & Drama Education Expo back in March. I was able to try out some of these pieces in the presence of the composer (not scary, I promise!) and get the book signed (big smile).

As ever, it’s taken me a bit longer to get round to trying all of them. Alison suggests the pieces are suitable for pianists of around Grades 5-6, with the last piece in the book pushing towards Grade 7. I would agree with this, and I think that this volume, in particular, offers a range of pieces suitable for bridging the gap between Grades 5 and 6.

If you, or your pupils enjoy the music of contemporary composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Alexis Ffrench and maybe even Philip Glass, these pieces very much reflect that style. To compare Alison’s pieces to these, often much-maligned composers, is, I think, I great complement. She, like they, has the ability to craft tender, often hypnotic pieces, with rich, sonorous harmonies, but which sound effortless to the ear. They transport the player and listener alike to a new world, far beyond the complexities and confusion of our everyday lives.

A particular favourite piece of mine was ‘Trails in the Sand’, a thoughtful piece demanding much of a player’s ability to balance the texture. As in all these pieces, careful pedalling is needed, much of this very clearly indicated. I also enjoyed the wistful waltz, ‘Reflections’, and the swift, but peaceful ‘Whispering Breeze’.

I think that often, as piano teachers, we neglect our own playing, and enjoyment of playing. I know that there are many who, like me, are so worn out by the weekend/holidays that we don’t wish to go near the piano. If you’re looking to inspire your own playing again, then I think these are a must-have. They have certainly inspired me, and I shall continue to enjoy learning and playing them for, I’m sure, many years to come.


Landscapes: Poetic Piano Solos by Alison Matthews, is published by Editions Musica Ferrum, ISMN 979-0-708147-55-8, £12.00.

DipLCM(TD): Delivering an Effective Demonstration Lesson

In this blog post, I want to share some thoughts about planning, rehearsing and delivering your demonstration lesson as part of the DipLCM(TD) teaching diploma. The advice given here is equally applicable at ALCM(TD) and LLCM(TD) levels, and may also apply to other qualifications which require similar.

As part of the DipLCM(TD), the London College of Music’s first-level teaching diploma, candidates are required to teach a 20-minute lesson to a pupil, live in the exam. In exceptional circumstances, candidates may ask to submit their lesson in video format; however, the advice here still applies.

Based on the current (2019) syllabus, a few points to bear in mind:

  • You must have been teaching the pupil for at least six months;
  • The pupil can be any standard from Grade 1 to Grade 8;
  • The standard of the pupil used for the demonstration lesson will form the basis for the whole exam;
  • The lesson will concentrate primarily on repertoire pieces (which can be exam pieces or otherwise);
  • You can include the teaching of pieces chosen for your presentation (Component 2) in your demonstration lesson;
  • You are expected to also cover other areas teaching, such as sight-reading, aural skills, technical exercises, theory etc.;
  • If your lesson runs over 20 minutes, the examiner will stop assessing it.

Many have argued that classroom teachers in schools have been subject to regular and routine lesson observations over a long period of time. Whilst this is true, I think there’s a subtle distinction to be made between an ‘observation’ and a ‘demonstration’. Generally, in an ‘observation’, another teacher or outside course mentor will observe one of your ‘normal’ lessons ‘in progress’. For the DipLCM(TD) demonstration lesson, you will be required to effectively deliver a one-off lesson, out of context, in front of one other person, and at an unfamiliar location. Because of that, I often say to people that the demonstration lesson is inevitably artificial, and I do think the examiners realise that.

The first thing to say is that you need to have a plan. I’m not saying you need a fully-fledged and written-up lesson plan, but you need an idea, particularly with such a tight time constraint, where your demonstration lesson is heading. I often find that candidates haven’t thought about lesson planning before, so if you’re one of those, check out the following resources (some piano-based, but they can be adapted):

3 Useful Styles of Lesson Plans for Piano Teachers (Nicola Cantan)
Lesson Plan Templates for Piano Teachers (Tim Topham)
Simultaneous Learning Practice Map (Paul Harris)

For a more conventional approach, there are also some lesson plan templates in ABRSM’s The Music Teacher’s Companion.

I particularly like Paul Harris’s Simultaneous Learning approach to lesson planning, that is, by identifying a piece’s ‘ingredients’, this helps make links between repertoire and other skills such as scales, sight-reading, theory etc.

20 minutes is not a long time, and in that time you need to give a good overview of your competence as an instrumental teacher. Remember, although this is a standalone lesson, it needs to have context, even if that context is invented. The pupil will have come from the previous lesson, via practice at home, and they’ll be going on from this lesson to practise at home once more, in preparation for the next lesson.

One of the biggest criticisms of candidates’ demonstration lesson is that it is focussed too heavily on repertoire without reference to other areas of learning. I think it’s useful to be working on a piece with which the pupil is already fairly familiar, because it seems a waste of the demonstration lesson teaching basic notes and rhythms. Assuming the piece is already in progress, which areas might the pupil be finding tricky, and how could you cover these in the demonstration lesson?

Photo of the LCM Grade 2 Piano piece, The Somersault King mentioned as an example piece in the blog post about preparing an effective DipLCM(TD) demonstration lesson

Let’s take The Somersault King on the current LCM Grade 2 Piano syllabus, List C. The piece is in C major. Could your lesson begin with revision of the C major scale, arpeggio and/or broken chord? Could you introduce the lesson with a warm-up improvisation in the key of C major in which you ask a pupil to improvise as if they were somersaulting? These things provide a link with technical work, exercises, aural awareness and interpretation. It may only take a couple of minutes, but it adds another dimension to your lesson. These things also help set your piece within a wider context of learning.

When you’re preparing for the demonstration lesson, make sure you select a pupil who is not only willing to take part (and may also have willing parents), but one who won’t freeze when required to ‘perform’ in front of the examiner. There is nothing to stop you ‘rehearsing’ the lesson in advance, and I would encourage you to do this. This component is about demonstrating your competence as a teacher in a one-off exam, not a periodic observation. You cannot show in your next observation, that which you forgot to show this time.

It’s easy for me to say, but try and relax as much as possible. The examiner is a silent observer in the demonstration lesson, so as far as possible, you should just ignore them.

Whilst the advice above can be applied alone, don’t underestimate the value of having someone to mentor you for your diploma. A mentor can empower you to reflect on your teaching; go into the exam with confidence; and come out with a qualification which validates your teaching skills. If you’d like one-to-one help and guidance for all aspects of your DipLCM(TD), or indeed any other teaching diploma, I offer a bespoke online mentoring programme which offers you support with all aspects of your chosen diploma.