Top Tips for Teaching Diplomas

If you’re a vocal or instrumental teacher and you’re thinking of taking one of the teaching diplomas offered by ABRSM, Trinity or LCM, here are my top tips to get the most out of the experience.

1. Get some support and advice

As you prepare to take your diploma, get some help along the way. This might be from your own teacher, from someone you know who’s already sat a diploma, or from someone like myself who provides specialist diploma mentoring. Although you might have many years of teaching experience, knowing how to best approach the inevitably artificial situation of a diploma exam is a skill in itself.

2. Take time to choose which diploma suits you best

The diplomas offered by each board are quite different in their emphases. For example the DipABRSM is largely focussed on a viva voce exam, whilst the ATCL is focussed more on reflecting on your own and others’ teaching. Think about your own strengths, and think about what you want to get out of taking a diploma, then decide which of these qualifications would fit best with that. I am always happy to advice on which might be best-suited, and indeed, you can find a blog post about that very subject here.

3. Get some teaching experience

This may sound really obvious, and indeed, at the first level of diploma, the exam boards don’t necessarily require any evidence of teaching, but I believe you’ll get far more out of the exam if you’ve got some experience to draw on. It means that you can test out your ideas and methods before hand, and in the exam you can make reference to specific situations. If you’re not already teaching, try and take the opportunity to observe other teachers in action; some may even be willing to let you do some ‘work experience’ with them.

4. Be clear about your teaching philosophy

What matters most to you about your teaching? What do you see as the main reason for teaching? What do you most want your pupils to get out of their lessons? These are fundamental things which begin to define your own teaching style. Whilst at the first level of diploma you don’t need to be absolutely clear about this, it’s a useful thing to be able to demonstrate. It shows that you’ve reflected on how you see your teaching, and it contributes to an overall opinion of you as a ‘professional’.

5. Be prepared to discuss your teaching approach

All the teaching diplomas have an element of discussion (often referred to as the ‘viva voce’). One of the most common misunderstandings is that people expect this to be a question and answer session. A discussion, or ‘viva’ is very different. You are likely to be asked relatively broad questions and you’ll be expected not only to answer these, but to extend the discussion further. Part of the assessment is in your ability to communicate your ideas – a candidate who provides short answers to the examiners’ questions is unlikely, in my experience, to do as well as one who can demonstrate real leadership of the conversation.

6. Be prepared to defend what you say

You need, as far as is possible, to be able to defend what you say in the discussion element. Sometimes, you can draw on specific examples from your own experience, and sometimes you might be able to refer to resources you’ve brought with you. Occasionally, you may be able to refer to a theory or piece of academic research too. The candidates who come away most disappointed are often those who feel that they haven’t had the chance to get their point across. They usually feel this is because the examiners have talked too much, but often, the reverse is the case: they’ve talked too little. There is a subtle difference.

7. Remember, the examiners aren’t trying to catch you out

Contrary to popular opinion, the examiners want you to pass! They aren’t trying to catch you out in their questioning, rather they’re trying to establish what you know and whether you can explain and defend it confidently. If you give very short answers, the examiners are likely to have to ask more questions, quite often to help you clarify what you’ve said. That’s why it’s vitally important that you take some responsibility for leading the discussions. The questioning can be challenging, but your ability to respond with confidence is an important skill.

8. Play to your strengths

Whatever questions the examiners ask, play to your strengths. If the examiner asks “Would this piece be good for developing good breathing habits?” you are free to answer “yes” or “no”, but make sure you extend this. If you say “no”, then follow this by saying not only why you don’t think so, but go on to highlight another piece which you think would be more suitable. This is a good way of showing that you’re able to think quickly on your toes – an enormous advantage for any teacher!

9. Be enthusiastic

I know it’s hard in an exam, but make sure you’re enthusiastic about your teaching. There’s a lot to be said for giving the impression that you are a committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher. If you can show that you take a professional a business-like approach, this is a big advantage.

10. “Is there anything else you want to say?”

Nearly all the diplomas conclude by the examiners asking this question. Sadly, a good number of candidates just say “no”, but this is your golden opportunity to say something you haven’t said already. Tell them that little extra bit of information which will make you stand out from the crowd. When I sat the DipABRSM I wanted to highlight the value of organising performances for pupils – I only had a minute at the end, but a quick explanation, a link back to something I’d said earlier, and a couple of programmes and photos was all that was needed. Surprisingly, it got a very big ‘thumbs up’ in the comments, despite it being such a tiny part of the overall discussion. Don’t waste this opportunity to leave your mark.

Above all, enjoy the experience. We are ready and waiting to help you too! Always make sure you thoroughly read the syllabus to start with – if necessary make some bullet point checklists to get you started.

If you have any queries, or would like to find out more about the teaching diploma mentoring which I offer, please send me a message.

Why a Grade 1 Pass is a Superb Result!

We’re very focussed these days on results. I am conscious that when I send my own pupils for flute, piano or singing exams here in Lichfield, it is the result rather than the experience which is at the forefront of their minds. Children are driven to succeed at school, and adults the same at work; there are targets to be met every step of the way.

Whilst when I was having lessons as a child, I and most of my friends would have been happy to pass an exam, more and more people are now hunting for that elusive merit or distinction mark. There is a lot of talk from parents, particularly online, about exam results; there can be an inevitable competitive edge. It can be disheartening for pupils who’ve worked very hard for their exam to be made to feel that they have somehow fallen short of the standard by not achieving either a merit or distinction. But let’s stand back and look at the wider perspective.

If we think about most HE level exams and assessments, the pass mark is often 40%. For graded music exams, the pass mark is normally around 65%. This means that any candidate achieving even just the pass mark has ensured that well over half the material presented was commendable.

In 2009, ABRSM reported that just under 29,000 candidates had achieved a Grade 1 pass (higher than both the proportion getting merits or distinctions). This means that with your Grade 1 pass, you are in the majority rather than the minority.

But why should a pass at Grade 1 be such an achievement? For many people, it’s their first experience of music exams. For children, it’ll often be their first experience of exams at all (bar the odd SAT!). Even for teenagers who are so often assessed by a variety for means for their GCSE and A-Level exams, sitting an exam which is entirely dependent on the performance on the day, is often a new experience. When sitting their first exam, whilst teachers will have prepared candidates, they are unlikely to have any real idea what it’s going to be like until they get there on the day. For many, particularly adults, the very act of going to an unfamiliar place and performing in front of an unfamiliar person is an achievement in itself, whatever the outcome of the exam.

Finally, it’s worth saying that a pass at Grade 1 doesn’t necessarily mean a pass at all the other grades. The reverse is often true. Many candidates who achieve passes in the early grades go on to achieve merits and distinctions in the higher grades (this was certainly my own experience as a learner). There’s certainly everything to play for. This is particularly the case when candidates have got used to the whole exam situation.

So, let us celebrate everyone’s achievements – not just those who achieve merits and distinctions, but all those (the vast majority) who do enough to pass. Working as a flute, piano and singing teacher here in Lichfield, my concern has always been that pupils should be allowed to reach their full potential. For some, that will be a scraped pass at Grade 1, and for others that will be a distinction at Grade 8. Everybody’s result is valued, and every one of them is an achievement.

Why Learn An Instrument?

Why Learn An Instrument?
Piano lesson in progressOver my 11 years teaching, over 125 pupils have passed through my doors and each and every one of them has a slightly different reason for wanting to learn an instrument (or to sing). I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at some of these reasons – do any of them resonate with you (or did you think you were the only one who thought that?!).

I’ve been teaching myself, but now I’m not sure where to go next…

Since musical instruments became more affordable and available, and since the advent of the internet, many people have taken up an instrument where they have then taught themselves. A lot of people in this category get to a certain point before they decide they need to help from ‘outside’. Stef had taught herself the flute, but felt she needed some teacher input to improve her tone, and she also wanted to take Grade 5 as an ‘outside’ measure of her progress. Max was a mainly self-taught pianist but was realising that his playing was ahead of his technique and wanted these to be on a more level playing field. Henry had taught himself piano and had started working on Grade 1 repertoire, but had realised it was hard without a teacher. Roger had been given a flute, and had had a go at making a sound, but wasn’t really sure where to start.

I’m doing GCSE/A Level Music and I need to improve my playing/singing…

I have, over the past 11 years, taught many young people who’ve been studying for GCSE, AS and A Level music. Most had already played, but few had had formal lessons. Dina had always enjoyed singing, hadn’t got on very well with the peripatetic teacher at school, but needed to improve her skills for GCSE Music. She also went on to become an accomplished composer passing the DipVCM during her A-Level year. Catherine had played the piano, but hadn’t had any lessons. Although she had passed GCSE Music with singing as her ‘instrument’ the school stated she should have a second instrument for A-Level, hence taking up the piano. Abi had had a few singing lessons at school, but again, not got on very well with the teacher. She wanted to use singing for the performance element of AS and A-Level Music. She went on to get her Grade 8, and earlier this year graduated with a BA(Hons) in Music from Oxford Brookes University. Soon she’ll be on the other side of the fence as she’s studying for a PGCE in Music!

A mixture of adult and child pupils at one of David's Platform Performances - an informal opportunity to perform to other pupils in a supportive environmentI’m not a very confident person, and I’d like to improve…

One of the things which virtually every pupil would agree with is that learning an instrument does improve your confidence. Several pupils have been testament to the fact that it doesn’t just improve your confidence as a musician, but in all walks of life. Sue had an accident at home which really knocked her confidence. She had always enjoyed piano and thought it would be a good way to improve her lack of confidence; she went on to take several exams and take part in performances. Deborah had always enjoyed singing, particularly at the karaoke, but really wanted to improve her confidence. Singing was a good way of saying ‘I can do this’. Maddy had sung in choirs all her life, studied saxophone and graduated with a BMus from Kings College London. A continuing illness meant that her confidence was on low ebb. She wanted to improve her confidence through learning to sing. She went on to sit Grade 8 and to give a public recital in a city church. Laura described herself as ‘not the most confident person’ and she was keen to find a way to change this. She enjoyed singing and felt this would be a good ‘way in’. She went on to sit an exam and to perform in public.

I’m already working in the music industry, but I want to hone my skills…

I get quite a lot of enquiries from people who already work in music; it’s hard when you work in the industry to admit to there being things you can’t do, so it takes a lot of courage to ask for help. James was already working as a DJ and music producer, but he felt limited in the type of work he could take on as he didn’t have sufficient working theory knowledge. He worked through the LCM Popular Music Theory course and also took up the piano. Jennie was already accomplished on several other instruments, had several music degrees and a PhD in Music Education. She had taught both privately and peripatetically for several years and had also been involved in running several music service ensembles. She wanted to hone her singing skills and sit her Grade 8 so that she felt more confident to work with singers and choirs. Alison already sung gigs with her own band, and whilst she’d always enjoyed singing, she was worried that without proper training, her voice would be damaged. She worked hard to undo a lot of bad habits and went on to take several exams and perform several solo jazz recitals. Martin performed gigs with his guitar but was worried his voice lacked power. He worked to improve his technique, and went on to produce a very accomplished CD of folk-songs.

A Gala Evening - performance by David Barton and pupilsI’ve always sung in church, but I’d like to support it with some basic technical skills…

A common scenario, particularly for adults, is that they’ve always sung in church congregations or choirs, but haven’t had any technical training. Sue had sung in her small church and had begun to be asked to sing solos. A chronic illness meant she needed to improve her breathing in particular and she wanted, overall, to be able to sing more securely when asked. Liz probably sung whilst still a babe in arms, and had sung with a church choir and also a local choral society. She’d had a few lessons, but really wanted to improve her solo technique. She went on to sit Grade 5 and to sing several solo recitals. Amy had always enjoyed singing in church and to the radio, but lacked confidence. She wanted to boost the power of her voice and generally improve confidence. Jan had always enjoyed singing as a child, but was curious to see in her 40s whether she still could. She worked very hard eventually reaching Grade 8 level, and also singing several solo recitals.

My confidence collapses at auditions…

This is a very common problem, and many people will sympathise with the feeling of ‘nothing coming out’ at an audition. Lou had always enjoyed singing, particularly in the chorus of her operatic and dramatic group. She wanted to try for some solo parts but hadn’t got any because nerves took over the audition. She wanted to learn how to both manage the effect nerves had on her singing, and to give a convincing performance to an audition panel.

Girl playing the fluteI played when I was younger, and now I’d like to start again…

Learning an instrument used to be something which children did. It’s only in recent years that it’s become more accepted that even adults can take up a new hobby/challenge later on in life. Stella had piano lessons as a child, at the time when the strict teacher rapped you over the knuckles if you made a mistake. Whilst the lessons didn’t last very long, over 60 years later, she was still playing for her own enjoyment, but was curious to see whether, at the age of 67 whether she could still learn something new. She went on to progress through several graded exams, and also to perform in public (she still aims to get to Grade 8 one day!). Michael had played at school, and having been away at university wanted to take up the piano again. He very quickly got back into it sitting Grade 5 and then working on theory. Elizabeth didn’t have a very good experience of learning the piano as a child, but she did enjoy it and felt that approaching retirement, it would be a good thing to take up again. She progressed through several exams, learned to perform in public, and struck up some long-standing duet relationships.

I want to audition for dance schools and I need to sing a solo…

There must be more dance schools around now than ever before. Many youngsters now attend these from toddlers right though the age of 18, and many want to go on to study dance, performing arts or music theatre at university or college. Although a lot will have sung in shows and for their own enjoyment, many are surprised to find that most of these colleges require them to perform a solo song at auditions. Katie was a very accomplished dancer, but needed to improve her singing ready for auditions. She quickly found that she very much enjoyed the singing too, and went on to sing several solos in public, and to sit Grade 5. Emma presented a similar story, and was also surprised at how much she enjoyed the singing as a subject in itself, again progressing to Grade 5.

These profiles really only present a snapshot of why people choose to learn an instrument. I’m sure that as you’ve read them, some of them will have resonated with you. It may have given you the confidence to realise that it’s not just you who feels like that, and maybe now’s the time to give it a go – remember, I provide flute, piano and singing lessons here in Lichfield. People also travel from Tamworth, Alrewas, Yoxall, Rugeley, Stone, Walsall, Whittington, Burntwood and Sutton Coldfield too.

As I’ve been writing this post, it’s struck me once again as to how powerful music can be. Many of the stories told don’t just highlight the enjoyment of the music itself, but of the effect it has on the much wider sphere of people’s lives.

Piano or Keyboard Lessons: How to Choose?

Piano or Keyboard Lessons: How to Choose?
Piano lesson in progressAs a flute, piano and singing teacher here in Lichfield, one of the questions I’m asked more than any other is “What’s the difference between keyboard and piano?” For most people, and that often includes musical ones too, the layout of black and white keys on both a piano and a keyboard is no different, hence the understandable confusion!

If you were at school in the 1980s, you might remember your music department taking delivery of its bulk order of electronic keyboards; a fashionable accessory at the time. The trouble is, that over the years, they’ve got a bit of bad name. The general perception is that unlike the keyboard, the piano is a ‘proper’ instrument (though I don’t think they’re necessarily saying that the keyboard is ‘improper’!). There’s also a perception that the keyboard is easier than the piano: this couldn’t be further from the truth. Neither is proper or improper, they are just different.

In short, there are three sorts of piano: an electronic keyboard, a digital piano, and an acoustic piano. The difference between having piano tuition and keyboard tuition is quite distinct. Generally, because of the way an electronic keyboard is made, it isn’t possible to master the technique of piano playing on this type of instrument. For example, keyboards often don’t have full-size keys, the key weighting is not correct, and their response is, as might be expected, pre-programmed electronically. When having keyboard lessons, the time which on the piano might have been devoted to technique, is channelled to making use of the many and various electronic buttons the instrument offers. Generally, unlike the piano, keyboard pupils learn to play chords in the left hand and melodies in the right hand. These can be accompanied by backing sounds, and quite impressive performances can be created right from the beginning of having lessons.

Basically, the advice I always give is that prospective piano pupils (or their parents) should think about cost. I my opinion, those who want to learn the piano will need access to a digital or acoustic piano; the former start around £600 for a decent model and the latter from around £1,500 (often cheaper bought secondhand, but not a lot cheaper for a decent model). In contrast, an electronic keyboard is inevitably cheaper (as little as £150 or less). Many pupils start piano lessons with an electronic keyboard, and so far as I’m concerned, this is OK to begin with. However, it won’t last long – maybe just a month or so before the pupil will need to be learning the techniques which can only be learnt and mastered on a piano. Nowadays, some companies hire pianos on a rent-then-buy basis so this is also something worth considering to spread the cost.

Piano lesson in progressI often feel unkind saying this, and it does come across as rather blunt, but the fact of the matter is, if the pupil or parent is unable to invest in a digital or acoustic piano either at the commencement of tuition or in the near future, they should instead consider electronic keyboard lessons. To put it plainly, you cannot truly learn to play the piano on an electronic keyboard.

It’s not all bad news though, learning the keyboard is just as fun. A certain amount of the skills learnt will be transferable to the piano at a later date, although it is almost certain that the pupil will need to back-track to learn some piano technique. Keyboard players will be used to playing chords in the left hand and the reading of the bass clef parts will often be new and challenging.

Whether you choose piano or keyboard, both are enjoyable and rewarding. Graded exams and diplomas are available right up to masters’ degree level whichever instrument you choose. As always, here at David Barton Music we’re always willing to advise and help pupils and parents make the best decision about their tuition.

It’s Never Too Late…

It's Never Too Late…
Even 20 years ago, I knew few vocal and instrumental teachers with any pupils over the age of 18. Nowadays, all that’s changed, and over the past 10 years, I’ve seen an increasing number of people taking up a musical instrument later on life. As a teacher, I welcome these ‘adult learners’ with open arms, and have always stuck by my philosophy that it’s never too late to try something new. Over the years my pupils have ranged from under 10, to well over 70. Here’s some advice for those thinking of taking up an instrument as a new hobby.

Why learn an instrument?

Many of the adult learners I encounter had music lessons as a child; many were put off by being forced into doing it or because of unsympathetic and uninspiring teachers. I think you can be rest-assured that things have moved on a lot since then. Adults have many reasons for wanting to learn an instrument; for some it’s realising a lifelong dream, and for others, it’s a chance to take up a new hobby. It’s a rewarding activity not just in itself, but in the opportunities it offers learners to meet with other like-minded people.

Why it’s important to find the ‘right’ teacher

Teachers are all very different, and it’s important to make contact with them to discuss your requirements. I will always be willing to listen to your aims, aspirations and concerns, and hope to offer reassurance and advice. I offer a consultation lesson to meet me face-to-face and to discuss your requirements further. The purpose of my consultation lessons has always been to listen to what prospective pupils want to get out of having lessons, and to demonstrate what I will be able to provide them.

What will happen in the first lessons?

All prospective pupils are nervous, adults more so than children. Please be assured that we are very experienced in dealing with nerves, and we do understand of how you feel. Although many adults come to me for the first lesson as a bag of nerves, they nearly always leave smiling. The first few lessons are likely to involve a lot of getting to know one another alongside the music itself. I will also be looking at where your musical skills are at; although many adults come along thinking they know nothing about music, many do, and many are surprised at how much they can remember from their school years. At every stage, don’t be afraid to talk to your teacher about any concerns you have; we are always willing to listen and to work with you to overcome these.

Don’t worry about the age gap!

One thing I have consistently found, has been that once musicians get together, whether it be taking part in some form of musical activity or on a social basis, age is totally irrelevant. Young and old work together for a common aim and all ages have a lot to gain from each other. The common ground is often found in the fact that everyone, both young and old, is nervous! Once my adult pupils get together, my studio is often filled with uncontrollable laughter, much to the surprise of younger participants!

The thorny question of exams…(though they don’t need to be thorny!)

In the past, many music teachers simply taught pupils for exams. Pupils learnt the material for one grade, and then moved onto another. Sadly, there are still teachers around like this, but in some quarters, things are changing. The simple answer is that you do not have to take exams: music is for life, not just for exams. Many adults decide that at some point on their musical journey, they’d like some form of outside assessment, but many are happy just learning for its own sake. No pupil, either young or old, should be forced into taking exams, and it’s important to not feel pressured by anyone.

Books and equipment

Depending what you choose to learn, you will need access to your own instrument (unless you are a singer!). Some teachers may be able to loan you an instrument in the early stages, and some shops offer a hire scheme whereby the instrument can be purchased at a later date. If you’re thinking of buying an instrument, it’s important to get advice either in a specialist shop or from a teacher. eBay is a wonderful website, but not everything sold there is worth buying. As you progress, you will probably need a few books and other small items, but these are generally inexpensive, and many will last for many months or even years. Some teachers are often willing to lend materials to new pupils, and where local libraries still have a music department, there’s much good music to borrow for free. When you make initial contact with a teacher, it’s worth asking what you’ll need, because you will need to factor in the cost of these things alongside the cost of the lessons themselves.

It’s a big commitment, but an enormously rewarding one; here are my top five tips for taking up an instrument as an adult:

  1. Find a teacher you feel comfortable and who understands your aims, aspirations and concerns – trust your instincts;
  2. Be assured that everyone is nervous, and teachers understand this;
  3. Keep an open mind – although you might be very clear about what you want to do, don’t shut the door on things you might not have considered;
  4. Talk to your teacher about the costs involved, and make sure that they make you fully aware of any books and equipment you may need;
  5. Be honest and share any concerns with your teacher; they want you to get as much as you can from the lessons too.

Remember that these initial enquiries and first few lessons are part of a much longer musical journey of discovery. I really encourage you to take up this new challenge.

I provide flute, piano and singing lessons here in Lichfield, and I will be very pleased to welcome adult learners. If you’d like to find out more, click here, or if you’d like to get in touch, simply click on the contact link above.