4 Things Pianists Can Do to Improve Their Sight-Reading

If you’re a singer, you might be used to singing in choirs. Maybe you’ve been in shows, perhaps in the chorus where there’s been plenty of ensemble singing. If you’re an instrumentalist, you might play in a band or orchestra. Maybe you play in chamber ensembles, quartets or trios.

Being part of these groups, singing and playing with others means you’ll be sight-reading on a regular basis. You’ll also be used to keeping going. The choir won’t wait for you while you work out the interval in bar 9, and the orchestra won’t wait for you while you work out for the fingering for the trill in bar 11.

If you’re a pianist, then the situation is probably a little different. In general, many pianists don’t play regularly with others. Pianists are not used to playing in ensembles in the same way as the singers and instrumentalists mentioned above. By consequence, pianists are often not used to sight-reading and keeping up with an ensemble in the same way.

I’m certainly not suggesting that pianists are at a disadvantage when it comes to sight-reading, but maybe they have to work a bit harder and perhaps more creatively to hone those skills.

With that in mind, if you’re a pianist and you’d like to improve your sight-reading*, here are some things which I think can really help. Most of them are pretty fun too!

*My usual disclaimer that sight-reading is something we, as musicians, do all the time. Every time we start learning a new piece, we’re sight-reading. Sight-reading is for life, not just exams.

1. Play duets

In my view, playing duets is seriously underrated, not just as a skill, but as an enjoyable act of making music with others. I’ve blogged previously about the benefits of playing duets and also written an article for Piano Professional magazine on the subject.

Playing duets (also trios, music for two pianos etc.) can be a great way for pianists to experience some of the things which singers and instrumentalists encounter regularly in the ensembles they play with. Above all, you have to be able to keep going, particularly if you get to the point where you’re performing your duets in an exam, festival or other public arena.

If you’re a teacher, then I can highly recommend Paul Harris’ Improve Your Sight-Reading! Duets books. There are two available one for up to Grade 1 and one for Grades 2-3. Not only are the a great way to improve your sight-reading (particularly in conjunction with the other books in the series) but also improving it in the context of playing with someone else. This means both keeping up and keeping going.

2. Accompany

I have accompanied for a long time. Until you accompany on a regular basis, I don’t think many people fully appreciate the amount of skill that is required. Firstly, accompanists are often required to sight-read at short notice (often at no notice). This is something you have to get used to pretty quickly. I once accompanied an exam with only five minutes notice when the candidate’s accompanist didn’t turn up. In such situations, there is no time to learn, practise or seek to perfect the piece. You’ve just got to do your best: play it and keep going.

Secondly, as an accompanist, you realise pretty quickly that in order to make a success of it, keeping up with the soloist (or ensemble) trumps everything else. You also have to remain constantly alert to what they’re doing. You need to be prepared to skip a page when they turn two pages at once or shout out a bar number when they’re lost. All this means that you may play some wrong notes, you may be able to keep only one hand going or may need to improvise for a few bars, but you have to keep going.

If, as a pianist, you have to opportunity to do some accompanying, grab it. Start small though: you don’t have to rush off and accompany a concert soloist in public. Most singers and instrumentalists would be only too glad of someone else to play with.

3. Play with accompaniment tracks

Sometimes, as a pianist, it’s actually quite fun to play with other people, and playing with backing tracks is a good way to start. Backing tracks are much maligned, but they have their place. You can now get music in a whole range of styles and genres that you can play along too: everything from Disney favourites to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. If you don’t have a duet partner or a willing soloist to accompany, backing tracks can be a good alternative.

Playing along to backing tracks is, once again, useful because it requires you to keep going, to keep up with the music. It also means you have to listen to what else is going on, much as you would in a duet of if you were accompanying. One of the biggest problems with sight-reading is that people either play far too slowly in pursuit of note-accuracy or people simply stop and start and the piece has no sense of flow or continuity. I find that pianists in particular are quite bad for this, so anything you can do which gets you used to keeping going, is vital.

You may also find it useful to find some pieces which have sections set aside for improvisation. Scary as improvisation may be, it can be hugely useful to the sight-reader (especially as an accompanist)!

4. Record yourself

Recording yourself has two potential benefits here. Firstly, recording yourself adds a bit of pressure to your performance. Rather like an exam or performance, you have to deliver in that moment; there’s no going back.

Secondly, try recording yourself sight-reading. Then, go back and listen to your performance. What do you notice? For example, can you tap a steady pulse whilst you listen back to yourself? Does it feel like a continuous flowing piece, or does it stop and start?

Improving your ability to play at sight will take time. It requires consistent work and a critical ear. Above all, one of the most important things about sight-reading is the ability to keep going. There are many instances, as cited above where a steady pulse, rhythm and tempo, by necessity trump note accuracy.

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4 Things Pianists Can Do to Improve Their Sight-Reading

5 Reasons Why It’s a Good Idea to Have a Studio Policy

When I had lessons as a child, no teacher I encountered seemed to have any formal policy when it came to the lessons they offered. It was predominantly pay by cash or cheque on the day of the lesson. I can’t remember any teacher with a formal cancellation policy or suchlike.

Fast forward several decades, and an increasing number of teachers now have formal studio policies and sets of terms and conditions. I’ve had many incarnations of these over the past 18 years, some more successful than others. This move towards more formal policies, is, in my view a good thing, and a reflection of the increasing professionalism of private teachers.

If you’re a private music teacher, you might wonder what the point of having a policy is. Indeed, teachers often tell me they’ve never had any problems and work on a goodwill basis.

The problem is that in my experience, and in the experience of many teachers I know, eventually, the goodwill runs out and the problems begin to appear. It’s at that point that the lack of any formal, written policy becomes a huge barrier.

Scroll down for a free downloadable checklist to help you plan or revise your studio policy.

So, why might it be a good idea to have a studio policy?

1. As a teacher you’re clear what you’re offering

I’ve written previously about the need to, as a teacher, set clear boundaries. How many lessons are you offering? How long are they? What are you charging for these? How are you charging them? When will payments be due? How will you collect payments? If you’re not clear about what you’re offering, your students (and more often than not, their parents) aren’t clear what they’re getting. In these situations it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur.

2. Your students are clear what they’re getting

This is really a natural follow-on from the point above. As your students will be paying you for your services, I think it’s only fair that there is some clarity around what they are entitled to for those lesson fees in return. Technically, if payments are not made, you could withhold those entitlements, but without being clear what these are to begin with, it can all too easily become a grey area.

3. It avoids awkward conversations

OK, it probably doesn’t avoid every awkward conversation, but it helps lay down some ground rules. Possibly the most important policy is for cancellations. Do you require notice, if so, how long? Can missed lessons be made up at a later date? What happens if you, as their teacher, has to cancel? If a query does arise, it’s useful to have these clear policies in place. If you don’t, then you run this risk not only of losing students, but also losing money too.

4. It protects your income

As teachers, we’re all in slightly different financial positions. I know many teachers for whom the money they earn from teaching is supplementary to another income, or to the income of a partner or spouse. That said, there are others of us, like me, for whom teaching makes up the bulk of our entire household income. I have bills to pay, and if my students choose not to pay me, I may end up in a position where I’m not able to meet my financial obligations. It it is easy for a domino effect to ensue. If you have no studio policy and someone doesn’t pay you, there isn’t an awful lot you can do to recover that money.

5. Everyone knows where they stand

Perhaps the final point is a culmination of all the above. By having a studio policy it is clear what your students can expect from you, and it’s clear what you can expect from them. When things go wrong, you have a written policy to refer to. It might not solve every problem you encounter, but it can help. But, be warned, if you have a policy, you must be prepared to enforce it. Of course, hopefully, you won’t need to, but don’t use your studio policy as an empty threat.

When it comes to writing your studio policy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. You need to consider your own situation carefully when writing your policy. Although someone else’s may look great, it might not suit you.

Downloadable checklist

If you haven’t yet got a studio policy, or you’re looking to revise yours, I have collected together some useful articles and blog posts on Pinterest. Additionally, I have created a checklist of ideas to help you plan or revise your policy. You can download this for free here.

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5 Reasons Why It’s a Good Idea to Have a Studio Policy

Top Tips for Singers for the DipABRSM Quick Study

Note: the advice here is aimed at singers entering for the DipABRSM in either performance or teaching; however, the advice applies more generally, particularly to the LRSM and FRSM.

As I have blogged previously, the quick study can often be the scariest part of an ABRSM diploma, and this is true for singers as much as it is for any other instrumentalist. That said, the quick study does present a particular challenge to singers as it is provided and administered in a slightly different way.

Like other candidates, singers also receive five minutes to look through the test and try out any bits they want to try before performing it. Singers will note from the quick study example on the ABRSM website that the test contains an accompaniment; however, the piece is to be performed unaccompanied in the exam. To quote the syllabus:

The Quick Study tests for singers are printed with a simple piano accompaniment, which candidates may use if they wish, to any degree of fullness, during their preparation time. During this time, candidates may also play any part of the vocal line at the piano. The actual performance of the test is unaccompanied, although candidates who need to relocate their pitch may play a guide note (from the vocal line), as appropriate. Candidates may also use the piano to play the key-chord and their starting note before performing the test. Examiners will not assist candidates as accompanist, nor will any other party be permitted to. Candidates must sing the text and will be offered a choice of English or Italian words.

ABRSM. (2017). Teaching Diplomas. London: ABRSM. p.11.

With that in mind, here are some top tips to help you with this somewhat unusual test.

Example of a DipABRSM quick study test for singers

What’s the point of the accompaniment?

Good question! Although an accompaniment is provided, it is not used in the performance of the quick study. As a singer, you may be used to performing an unaccompanied folk-song, but the repertoire of unaccompanied songs is fairly limited. In that sense, the accompaniment makes it much more like a standard song you’re used to learning and performing. It can also help you during the preparation time, and during the performance, can give you an outline of the harmony and harmonic progressions in the piece. Watching out for modulations, more obvious in the accompaniment, is especially useful.

Tip: when you next work on a song in your repertoire, think about how much you look at the piano accompaniment? I expect you look at it more than you may have thought. How does it help you?

How should I use the accompaniment?

How you use the accompaniment (if at all) is entirely up to you. If you are a competent pianist, you may like to play the accompaniment whilst you sing the vocal line; however, I don’t think this is the intention. Rather, as I say above, the accompaniment offers some sense of the overall harmony and structure of the song.

One thing I think is quite important here is that although you won’t be accompanied during the quick study performance, the accompaniment nevertheless exists. In that sense, I would advise that you perform the test as if you were being accompanied. This helps you to not only keep the momentum going but to shape the performance too.

Avoid falling into the trap of meandering through the notes with only an approximation of the rhythm. By all means, put your own stamp on it, sing it with expression and character, but perform it as if you were being accompanied.

Is it a good idea to play the vocal line during the preparation time?

When we learn new song, we often ‘bash through’ the vocal line to learn the melody. You could do this during the preparation time, but five minutes will fly by. Also, you won’t be able to play the vocal line during the performance so it’s wise not to be too reliant on it during the preparation time.

My suggestion is to try singing the vocal line yourself, and only use the piano the check or to play through any tricky bits.

Should I use the piano during the performance?

During the performance, you are allowed to use the piano to relocate your pitch (from the vocal line), and to play the key-chord and starting note before you begin. You should definitely use the piano to play your key-chord and starting note – no question. If you’re not used to doing this, I encourage you to do it with songs you’re already learning. The key chord will help cement the key and help the harmonic flow of the piece, linking it to the accompaniment I talked about above.

Whilst you are allowed to use the piano to relocate your pitch, I would urge caution. Try to do this only at the beginnings and ends of phrases as to not disturb the flow of the piece. Also, try to use the piano rhythmically as part of the performance. Don’t just sound random notes here and there. It is unlikely that you’ll want to sit at the piano to perform the quick study test, so you don’t want to be bending back and forth down to the piano.

Tip: if you do need to relocate your pitch, do it when you’re not singing, as suggested, at the beginning and ends of phrases. Using the piano to find notes whilst you are singing not only disturbs the flow of the performance but also highlights note errors which may otherwise have gone unnoticed!

In summary:

  1. Use the accompaniment to get an idea of the form and harmonic structure of the song;
  2. Perform the song as if it were accompanied;
  3. Don’t rely on the vocal line during the preparation time. Try to practise as much as you can without it, then use it to check;
  4. Do play the key-chord and starting note before you perform the test;
  5. If you need to relocate your pitch, try to do it only at phrase endings and beginnings, and not at the same time as you’re singing.

If you’re looking for some help and guidance with the quick study, you may be interested in my online diploma mentoring. As part of that, I can listen and offer feedback on recordings as you prepare.

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Top Tips for Singers for the DipABRSM Quick Study

4 Ways for Instrumental Teachers to Avoid ‘Resource Overwhelm’

I don’t know about anyone else, but one of my jobs over the summer is to make some attempt to sort and reorganise music, organise resources and generally tidy up my teaching studio. I’d say there are now an overwhelming number of teaching books, resources, websites and methods available, not to mention sheet music targeted specifically at the educational market. It can be completely overwhelming to know where to begin.

What’s clear is that none of us have either the time or the funds to explore or acquire everything that’s out there. It’s just not possible, and in some ways, why would we want to? In this blog post, I want to share some practical actions you can take to help avoid feeling totally and utterly overwhelmed by the resources available.

1. What’s your teaching philosophy?

  • What matters to you most in your teaching?
  • What is the knowledge and skills you’d like your students to develop?
  • Which things would you like your students to experience in their lessons?

These are important questions, yet many teachers feel unsure when it comes to their teaching philosophy. It’s easy to become enveloped in everyone else’s philosophies, and let’s be honest, it requires a certain amount of confidence to develop our own. With the teaching diploma candidates I mentor, this is something the think about a lot as it affects so many other areas.

‘Philosophy’ is a scary word, but start by thinking about what you want your students to get out of their lessons. You may find it helpful to reflect on your own learning – how might both the positive and negative teaching you experienced affect the way you teach now?

When it comes to choosing resources, having an idea of what’s important to you can help to sift the wheat from the chaff. If you believe that your students should be good sight-readers, you may choose a method book which develops note-reading in a pattern- or interval-based way. If you want you students to have good technical skills, you may choose a method book which develops technique from the very first lesson. If, like me, you’d like your students to develop the independent learning skills required to take ownership of their own learning, you may rightly be cautious to choose resources which do not rely too heavily on rote-learning.

Tip: think about what you want your students to get out of their lessons. What is your teaching philosophy? How do you think the resources you currently use facilitate that? Are there gaps to be filled or even resources to be retired?

2. Know your students.

As a teacher, you know your students pretty well. As time passes, you know what makes them ‘tick’, what interests them, and which skills they most want to develop. Inevitably, the books and resources you own, and those you seek to acquire will be in response to the needs of particular students.

There are many excellent resources out there, and hundreds I would recommend. I don’t own them all though. Fantastic as many are, they don’t suit my needs either as a teacher, or those of my students. Simply because I neither own nor use a resource, it is not necessarily a criticism of it. Rather, I have selected resources which best align with my teaching philosophy and with the needs of my own students.

Tip: if you’re looking to buy new books and resources, think about which of your students you will use them with. However wonderful the resource, if you’re struggling to decide which students you might use it with, maybe it’s not for you.

3. Set aside time to explore.

We are all busy, and time is inevitably limited. I suspect I’m not the only one who suddenly finds themselves hunting for a particular resource on the day of the lesson. It’s worth putting aside some time, maybe once a term, to evaluate the resources you already have and to see whether there are any gaps you might need to fill. Maybe you could get together with other teachers to share resources and ideas, either in person or online.

That said, you will never be able to own or use every book or resource which comes to the market, nor should you aspire too. Similarly, don’t discard books and resources because they are ‘old’. Some of the tried and tested approaches are still the most effective. When you evaluate your resources, think about whether those you use still meet the needs of you and your students. If they do, then that’s great, you shouldn’t feel obliged to replace them.

One word of caution though: if you’re using the same books and resources without considering alternatives, then I would encourage you to explore what else might be out there.

Tip: try and set aside time specifically to evaluate the resources you own, and to see whether, in consideration of your teaching philosophy and the needs of your students, whether there are any gaps to be filled. Also, consider whether you should be budgeting for new books and resources. Nicola Cantan has written a blog post here about budgeting in the teaching studio.

4. Do your research.

I’ve written previously about the need to do your own research and I feel quite strongly about this. When we become overwhelmed by the volume of resources out there, this often comes as a result of comparing ourselves to others. We see other teachers using things and we feel that we need to join them in order to keep up. It’s easy to feel that if we’re not using the latest method book or the latest app, we’re not keeping up.

What suits one teacher, and indeed, one student, won’t necessarily suit the next. There have been several instances over the past few years where certain resources have been pushed online as being the ‘must have’ in your teaching studio. They aren’t (or at least, they may not be). They’re just another resource in a long line of resources to hit the market. The temporary excitement will fade and the latest fad will pass. In 18 years as a private music teacher, I’ve seen this time and time again.

Once you’re clear about your teaching philosophy, you’ve considered the needs of your students and you’ve set aside time to explore, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and do your research. The internet has made this easier than ever. Not only can you explore books and resources online, but you can ask about and discuss them with other teachers. You can read online reviews, of which there are many (although, you should be cautious here, as not all online reviews are independent). Ultimately though, you need to make the decision. Just because everyone else seems to use a particular resource and even if it has glowing online endorsements, you can still walk away in favour of something else.

Tip: when choosing a new resource, consider, (a) how does it align with my teaching philosophy; (b) how does it meet the needs of my students; and (c) have I researched it independently. Not only will you build a library of books and resources which suit you and your students, but you will probably save money in the process.

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Pinterest graphic: 4 Ways for Instrumental Teachers to Avoid Resource Overwhelm

10 Things I’ve Learnt in 18 Years as a Private Music Teacher

I’ve recently celebrated 18 years as a private music teacher. In that time, there have been many ‘ups and downs’, and after 18 years, I’ve definitely learnt a few things and I’d like to share some of them with you here. If you’re just starting out as a private music teacher, I hope they might offer some reassurance and some food for thought.

1. You need to set boundaries (and stick to them).

When I started teaching in 2001, I taught whenever people wanted a lesson. I was completely at the beck and call of the students/parents themselves, seemingly available 24/7 whenever it suited them. It took a long time for me to realise that actually, they respected me far more for having clear boundaries. Admittedly, you’ll never please everyone, but boundaries do help. Everyone’s boundaries will be different, but here are a few of mine:

  • I have set days and times when I’m available to teach. I don’t accommodate teaching outside of those times;
  • I teach one-to-one for no more than 5.5 hours a day, and for no more than 2.5 hours without a 30-minute break in between blocks of lessons;
  • Breaks and mealtimes are built into my teaching timetable;
  • I don’t teach at the weekend.

2. Some people always pay late.

Dress it up however you like, but no matter how many policies you have, no matter how clearly you think they’re worded, there will always be one or two who think these don’t apply to them. There will always be the ones who pay late, even when the invoice clearly states when payment is due. There will always be one or two who attempt to find a loophole in your cancellation policy. I’ll be honest, these people are few and far between, but, they are incredibly frustrating. That said, by accepting that these people will always exist, it can be just that little bit less stressful when they do rear their heads.

3. Some students won’t practise.

I used to worry about students who didn’t practise. I used to worry a lot. The reality is that progress is inevitably linked to practice, so in some ways, these worries are justified. One thing I’ve come to accept over the past 18 years is that as a teacher, I do not have a monopoly on why students come for lessons. I know that for many of them, the experience and enjoyment of he lesson is the most important thing, and therefore, practice is not a priority. Yes, there are times when a lack of practice becomes problematic, but I don’t think that practising at home is the ultimate pre-requisite of having lessons. Let’s be honest, I don’t know about you, but I did very little practice when I was having lessons as a child!

4. You cannot specialise in everything.

I’ve already alluded to this above because this also comes down to setting boundaries. You cannot be everything to everyone, and that is a fact of life. I’ve written previously on this topic, but it’s OK, and in fact, I think should be encouraged, to be honest about where your skills and interests lie. Over the years, I’ve set some fairly clear boundaries in terms of what I do and don’t teach; for example:

  • I teach singing, but I only specialise in classical and music theatre;
  • I set a minimum age for the subjects/instruments I teach, and I stick to these.

There is a general myth that the self-employed and freelancers are always short of work, and therefore, should take on everything offered to them. Ultimately, this never works.

5. Don’t forget to nurture your own creativity.

This is hugely important, and it’s still something I struggle sometimes to balance. I think it’s easy when you’re teaching to become consumed by the work itself. I think this is especially true when many of us started teaching as a result of music being our hobby. But, if we want to nurture the creativity of others, then we have to nurture our own on music-making and enjoyment too. There have been times for me when the act of teaching has taken away the enjoyment of music itself. Striking a balance is so important. Never lose sight of the reason you learnt an instrument right in the beginning. I often talk about this as well as offering some inspiration in my monthly newsletter Creative Notes which you can sign up for here.

6. You’ll invest in resources you never use.

New books, methods and resources appear on the market at an alarming rate. I’ve blogged about this previously. The advent of the internet has only increased their availability. We’ve all been guilty, at one time or another, of jumping on a bandwagon, buying the latest ‘thing’ which inevitably we use once and which then sits on our shelves gathering dust. I think it’s worth taking a moment to accept we’ll all acquire books and resources in a moment of enthusiasm which ultimately, we won’t use in the longer-term.

7. Music isn’t everyone’s number one priority in life.

As teachers, music is inevitably a huge part of our lives. For many of us, it was a hobby before we made a job out of it. We are passionate about music, and it’s as much an escape as it is a business for us. The same however, does not apply to everyone else, including some of our students. I often come across teachers who are frustrated to the point of exhaustion because they cannot fathom why music isn’t their students’ number one priority. Sometimes, we have to take a step back. Just because music isn’t always our students’ number one priority, it doesn’t mean they are any the less enthusiastic, committed or interested. As I said above, we don’t have a monopoly on why they come for lessons and we should be happy to meet them where they’re at.

8. We are not creating clones of ourselves.

One of the things I love about my job is being able to inspire others in their own music making. That said, I think there’s a fine line here, and I’ve always been absolutely clear that my job isn’t to teach in a way which means my students simply copy what I do. I love being able to share my passion and enthusiasm for music with my students, but I’m also aware that I need to facilitate an environment which supports them to develop their own passions. I am always cautious of terms such as ‘passing on’ musical skills and knowledge. It’s true, passing these on is inevitably part of teaching, but it’s not the same as creating an environment in which students can construct their own knowledge and develop their own skills.

9. There will be times when you wonder why you’re teaching.

I know this might come as a shock to some people I know, but there have been plenty of times over the past 18 years where I’ve considered throwing in the towel and stopping teaching. I think it’s a fact of life that whatever we do, there’ll be times when we feel like that. I think this is often the time when we need to nurture our own enjoyment of music even more. Sometimes, it’s a good thing to go back to where it all started.

10. Cake.

Cake possesses a magical power to make so many things in life OK. It’s also a great way to bring people together and create a sense of community. I shouldn’t say this, but it can often be a good bribe too! Anyone who’s worked with me will know that cake, more often than not, baked by me, features prominently.

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10 Things I've Learnt in 18 Years as a Private Music Teacher

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.

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Review: Piano Star Theory