Review: ABRSM More Piano Sight-Reading, Grades 1-8

I suppose you might ask, with some justification I may add, what the point of another set of piano sight-reading books is. ABRSM have always produced a set of eight volumes of specimen sight-reading tests to support each of the piano exams at Grades 1-8.

This new series of books, More Piano Sight-Reading, is, in some ways, not dissimilar. The books offer a range to specimen sight-reading tests to support each grade. Reflecting the increasing length of the tests, Grade 1 offers 45 examples, whilst Grade 8 offers 20. In that sense, the addition of this series offers between both books, 90 and 40 specimen tests at each grade.

A new feature of this series is the inclusion of several pages of preparatory exercises. These, generally short exercises introduce pianists to the parameters of the tests at each grade, and usefully, these parameters are printed inside the back cover.

Grade 1 preparatory exercises from ABRSM's More Piano Sight-Reading book

At Grade 1, the preparatory exercises are short, 2-3 bar extracts which initially introduce stepwise movement before beginning to introduce larger leaps. Time signatures, key signatures, tempo markings and dynamics are also introduced within these preparatory exercises, again reflecting the parameters given for the grade. Interestingly, articulation has been omitted from the preparatory exercises at Grade 1.

As you move through the grades, the preparatory exercises become slightly longer and predominantly offer a stepping stone from the previous grade. For example, the preparatory exercises in the Grade 5 book are short, generally Grade 4-level sight-reading tests, thus offering a bridge between both grades.

As with all ABRSM publications, they are well-presented, clearly printed and structured with clarity. According to ABRSM, the series encourages players to ‘strengthen their sight-reading skills’, supporting them ‘with the transition between grades’, and encouraging them ‘to integrate sight-reading into their daily practice’.

I’m sure that both teachers and pupils alike will make good use of these books, whether they intend to work towards ABRSM exams or not.


More Piano Sight-Reading is published by ABRSM in eight volumes, and is available to purchase from Thursday 4th April, 2019.

By investing in yourself…

If you put money into a savings account, chances are, you’ll get back, with the addition of interest, more than you started with. You might not get very much, especially at the moment, but you’ll likely end up with more money than you started with.

Different banks offer different interest rates, and occasionally different incentives to encourage you to deposit your money with them. I’m sure I’m not the only who opts for the easy option and sticks with what I have, rather than trawling the internet for better deals. But, you know as well as I do, the old adage that you get out of it what you put in.

Last year, I signed up for something in the hope it would both unpick and develop some areas of both life and business (though, as we well know, the boundaries between the two are very blurred).

I’m not going to tell you what it was, but it cost money. It cost a lot of money (by my standards). A sum not far short of four figures. I had to think very carefully about spending that amount of money, and by spending it on that, I had to allocate the money in a different way to how I might normally have liked.

Money is a constant background issue for freelancers and the self-employed. We don’t like talking about money. For all it offers, money can often be as much a hindrance as it is a help. I think that those who work in the music industry, and music teachers in particular are especially conscious of this, and by consequence, are often reluctant to spend money. There’s perhaps a whole side issue here about music teaching and business, and how teachers perceive themselves as business owners, but that’s for another day.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) comes in many different forms, but in most cases, engaging with it costs money. In the past, I’ve been one of those teachers who was reluctant to spend money, but over the past few years I’ve made a sizeable shift in mindset when it comes to this.

You see, one of the things which we often forget is that by engaging in CPD which we have to pay for, we are making an investment. We’re making an investment not just in our business, but in ourselves. Just as when we invest money in a bank or similar, we’re investing in the hope of getting back more than we put in. Sometimes we might look for short-term gains, and other times, we might look for longer-term gains. We often adjust our investments accordingly.

So far for me, engaging in CPD hasn’t necessarily been about making more money. This may, in part be because of the ‘complicated’ relationship status I have with money anyway, but I’m not necessarily spending money in order to make more money in the future as a direct consequence of that CPD. Above all, it’s about investing in myself, and as a consequence, in my business.

Remember the thing I invested in last year, that cost a sum not far short of four figures? Well, since I did it, I’ve made back the cost of that investment almost 10 times. I never set out to do that. That outcome was purely unintentional. I say that not to show off, but to make the point that the results of our investments are not necessarily measured in monetary terms and can often manifest unexpectedly. I got far more out that thing than could ever be measured in pounds and pence.

In the online mentoring work I do with teachers working towards teaching diplomas, people are often reluctant to spend the money. In truth, as I often say, it works out at less than the price of a cup of coffee per day, but nevertheless, money is often the sticking point. We immediately see the total sum and label it as ‘expensive’.

Spending money on CPD such as that is seen in terms of parting with money rather than investing it. I think there’s a subtle difference. If I buy £5.00 worth of apples, my money has been spent on fruit. Logic says that the intention is I will eat those apples. I won’t get my £5.00 back, and after I’ve eaten them, I won’t have the apples either. I don’t think CPD works like that if we see it as an investment, but this requires a shift in mindset.

As a private music teacher, how do you look at spending money on CPD? Do you view it as a necessary evil? Do you see it as parting with your hard-earned cash? Do you see it as an investment? Do you think about the value you might gain from that investment?

Above all, I believe that it is by investing in yourself that you invest in others…and that goes beyond any kind of monetary investment. Next time you look at a CPD opportunity and rile at how expensive it is, consider its investment potential. It’s a potential investment not just in you, but in others.

Review: Music & Drama Education Expo 2019

I have just returned from this year’s Music & Drama Education Expo, held at Olympia London on 6th and 7th March. 2019 is the fifth consecutive event I’ve attended in London, in addition to the Expo held in Manchester the last two years.

As suggested by others, I wanted to take the opportunity to record some of my thoughts and experiences of the Expo, and think a little about in which direction it might head in the future.

Dates

This year, the Expo was held during the first week in March, and it is scheduled for the same dates (4th and 5th March) in 2020. In previous years it has mainly taken place in February, though not always coinciding with schools’ half-term week. This year, the event was held on a Wednesday and Thursday, in contrast to previous years where it had predominantly taken place on Thursday and Friday.

The fact that the event takes place midweek means that there are a certain number of people not able to attend due to work and family commitments. It is a free event, and I suspect were it held at the weekend, that wouldn’t be the case due to the venue costs. Equally, I imagine if it were held at the weekend, that would preclude a different set of people attending. Nevertheless, the midweek dates remain problematic for many.

Venue

For the past four years, the event has been held at Olympia London, and for anyone who recalls the early years at the Barbican, the change of venue continues to prove beneficial. There is considerably more space, and the separate facilities for talks and workshops are much-improved.

As with all such events and venues, there is an inevitable lack of places to sit. The catering facilities on-site are limited and expensive, and by consequence, most visitors bring their own refreshments. Lunch sitting on the floor remains the only option for many.

The venue is relatively easily accessible by public transport; however, District Line trains from High Street Kensington to Kensington Olympia do not run during the week. Some ongoing and justifiable concerns about the accessibility of the venue, particularly in terms of disabled parking facilities and charges continue to be raised. These are, of course, the fault of the venue, rather than the organisers, but are, nevertheless, another consideration.

Exhibitors

Whist there are some comings and goings, the core selection of exhibitors has predominantly remained the same. A whole range of organisations, companies and charities are represented, including exam boards, publishers, instrument retailers and professional organisations.

Whist I’ve not counted up, there was a general feeling that there were fewer exhibitors this year than previously. A number of exhibitors I spoke to were also unsure about signing up for next year, as, like me, they are uncertain about the future of the Expo. That said, there is a good range of exhibitors to suit a whole range of music professionals and educators.

Talks, Seminars and Workshops

As ever, there’s an eclectic mix of seminars and workshops covering a whole range of areas of music education. Overall, there did seem to be a better mix of talks, in contrast to last year when they seemed very heavily weighted towards classroom teaching. One visitor commented that they felt this year’s talks were more specialised in their topics.

We particularly enjoyed the workshop on the Alexander Technique with Judith Kleinman (RCM). That said, the quality of the talks is variable, some becoming little more than adverts for that particular organisation’s services. It feels like there’s quite an imbalance when it comes to the talks – some fairly poorly attended, and some significantly oversubscribed, but I guess, this will always be the case. 

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve got to be honest and say that after five years, this year’s Expo felt pretty ‘flat’. As a whole, for returning attendees, the event has become a bit ‘samey’. I know that a number of people who attended last year chose not to return, and unless there was some radical change, I and a number of others, did not expect to return next year. As previously mentioned, talking to some exhibitors, they share similar reservations. 

That said, if you’ve not attended before, then I would wholeheartedly encourage you to go. For those who haven’t been previously, it’s an exciting and vibrant event, which, despite reservations, has much to offer. The problem is, that the pool of people who haven’t been before is diminishing. Whist there is always a challenge in attracting new visitors, there is perhaps a greater challenge in retaining previous ones. Similarly, attracting new or different exhibitors appears to be a challenge, and we may already be seeing an increasing problem in retaining existing ones.

Overall, Rhinegold should be commended for instigating and running the Expo. It’s still free, and despite the reservations outlined about, it still has much to offer. But, like most things in life, there comes a time when all good things come to an end. I believe that unless the Expo continues to evolve and develop, rather that simply becoming an annual ‘variation on a theme’, it’s future will be a precarious one. 

I for one will miss seeing many friends and colleagues at the Expo, but as one pointed out, it’s an expensive means by which to catch up with people once a year. Sadly this year, as good as many things were, I didn’t come away particularly enthused or inspired. I think that’s perhaps a sign that it’s time to stop going, either temporarily or on a more permanent basis.

Myths of Private Teaching

Over the past 18 years, I have come across many myths surrounding the nature of private teaching as a professional occupation. Sometimes these myths are perpetuated by those outside of the profession, but I’ve come across plenty of occasions where they’ve been perpetuated from within.

I can only base this on my own experience, and on that of others I know. Everyone is different, but nevertheless, let me try and dispel some of those myths!

ONE
You only teach children…

Quite the opposite in fact. I currently teach pupils who range in age from nine to 75. 60% of my pupils are aged 18 or over.

TWO
You only teach after school…

I currently teach Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. 50% of my teaching currently takes place before schools finish. Mondays and Tuesdays I teach from 2pm to 8:30pm, Thursdays from 11:30am-7pm, and Fridays from 10:30am to 6pm.

THREE
You have day job…

No, all my income comes from freelance work, the bulk of it from teaching. Over the past 12 months, my income was roughly apportioned as follows:

  • 70% – Teaching
  • 11% – Consultancy
  • 8% – Diploma Mentoring
  • 6% – Composition
  • 4% – Other
  • 1% – Accompanying

I don’t have a spouse, partner or ‘other half’ with a day job either!

FOUR
You only teach beginners…

On the contrary, I currently have very few beginners. I currently teach a whole range of ability levels from beginners right through to those working at diploma level.

FIVE
You teach because you couldn’t be a performer…

Strangely enough, performing never much interested me. I’ve always been happy to play to other people, including in public, but I’ve never felt any urge to become a performer. Remember that saying, ‘those who can do, those who can’t, teach’? It’s not true. There are many excellent musicians out there who have dedicated their lives to being performers. Equally, there are many excellent musicians who have dedicated their lives to being teachers. We need both. Teachers are not automatically failed performers.

SIX
You teach privately because you couldn’t get any peri work…

I have been teaching for not far off 20 years, and in that time, I have never attempted to get any peripatetic teaching either directly in schools, or through music services or hubs. I have always taught privately and don’t have any desire to change that. There are many excellent peripatetic teachers, just as there are private teachers. We need both.

SEVEN
Private teaching is easy…

There is a myth that teaching one-to-one lessons is easy, and that as private teachers we somehow have a ‘cushy’ existence. One-to-one teaching is often compared to classroom teaching, the suggestion being it is much easier to teach one person than a class of 30. Personally, I don’t look on it like this: they are just different. I personally find that one-to-one teaching is pretty intense. You have to be 100% present in every lesson, 100% of the time. It’s tiring, exhausting sometimes. The hours are often anti-social. It’s very different to a lot of other occupations, but it is by no means ‘easy’.

EIGHT
One day you’re going to get a ‘proper job’…

No. Just no.

Oh wait…

I have a proper job already!

Have you come across any other myths? If so, share them in the comments below.

On the record: a music student’s reflections on recordings as a part of learning

Ruth Carlyle is an adult student, studying singing with David Barton. She reflects here on her experience of making recordings of her singing as part of her learning. You can hear some of her recordings on SoundCloud.

Musical performance is often hard to assess when you are the performer.  For singers, the sound that you hear is not the same as the sound that an audience hears.  For instrumentalists, the shape of a phrase, the relative dynamic or the length of a note may only be apparent by listening to a recording.  In this blog post, I share personal reflections on the potential purposes of recording as a part of learning, the practical issues, and the choice over whether to share recordings that you have made.

Purpose of recording

Knowing why you are making a recording is important, as it impacts upon choices you make about the technical process and also the issues that you need to take into account, notably copyright.

From my personal experience, there tend to be three principal purposes for making a recording:

  1. Improve: to listen to a performance, or a series of performances, to reflect on technique. This may just be a recording of a few bars, or a full work, to check a specific detail, such as tone, line of sound or dynamics. For singers this can be particularly helpful to check the clarity of vowels and consonants. 
  2. Rehearse: to provide a sense of performance when rehearsing a work. Switching on a recording device mimics the start of a performance with an audience, which can be helpful when rehearsing for a concert or for an examination. When learning works by heart, it is a good tool for checking how well you know the piece and where to focus prior to a performance.
  3. Share: to produce a recording that can be shared. This may be a private sharing, such as with a music teacher, or a public sharing.

Practicalities and sensitivities

Digital devices make recording performances increasingly easy, but there are still practicalities and sensitivities to consider. On the sensitivities, if you are performing with someone else you need to have their permission to record and to be aware that they will have performance rights over the choice as to whether the recording can be shared. If you wish to make a recording in a music lesson, this needs to be agreed with the music teacher, as it takes time and may distract from other activities in the lesson.

Some of the practicalities are personal. I know that I feel nervous when making recordings, particularly if they are recordings that I might share. There is also a fair chance that you may hate the first recordings that you make. This is particularly the case for singers, as the sound inside a singer’s head is different from the sound that it picked up by the microphone. It is important to allow for your own responses to recordings, and not to assume that your first live recording will be as polished as commercial studio productions.

From a technical perspective, a wide range of recording Apps are available (many free) for smart phones and tablets. You can use microphones embedded within digital devices, or a stand-alone stereo microphone for a slightly better sound quality. For most purposes, setting to record as an MP3 file is sufficiently good quality; if you are likely to want to share a file, consider setting your device to record as a WAV file, but be aware that the resulting file will be roughly ten times the size of an MP3 file. It is worth taking time to check that the recorder is on and taking sound; you can edit the file to remove any “sound check” or footsteps as you walk away from the microphone.

Sharing recordings

If you are recording for improvement, or for rehearsal, there is no need to share the recording. You may choose to retain some recordings to provide a record of progress over time, or to delete recordings once you have listened to them.

Files can be shared privately or publicly. If you are sharing publicly, you need to be aware of the copyright status of the piece of music.  Creators of an original work (whether an author or a composer) retain copyright until 70 years after their death.  Living composers are often very happy for recordings of their works to be shared by music students for non-commercial purposes, and are usually fairly easy to contact through their websites or through social media.  If over 70 years have elapsed since the death of the composer (and lyricist, where appropriate), then the work is no longer subject to copyright. Where the creator of an original work has died within the last 70 years, the copyright may have passed on to a relative or a trust; this makes active permission harder to obtain.

I share recordings using SoundCloud as it provides a means for family, friends and others who may be interested to hear my performances. 

These are my personal reflections on recording performances as part of my music studies. I would welcome thoughts from others.

Age-appropriate: why teachers should be honest about their skillset

When I started teaching, as I’m sure a lot of us did, I’d teach anyone who came my way, who was interested and who was willing to pay. My first five pupils included two adults, two primary-age children, and one of secondary age. The longer I’ve taught, the more I’ve come to realise that my skillset as a teacher is best suited to some age groups rather than others. But, it’s taken me a long time to accept that, and to get over that sense of failure at not being a great teacher for all ages.

I think that as instrumental teachers, we’re often expected to be everything to everybody. If you take my Thursdays for example, my youngest pupil is 9 and the oldest is 75. They range from beginner to post-Grade 8 levels. As teachers, we have to quickly adapt our skills to meet the needs of a whole range of individuals of differing ages and ability levels, and I’m sure that many of you would agree, that as much as this can be challenging, it’s a rewarding part of the work we do.

I’m going to be honest, I’m happy to start taking pupils from the age of around nine, with no upper age-limit. This may surprise some people, for we so often see pictures of small children learning instruments, and of course, all of our national ensembles are geared towards children starting as early as possible. As one choirmaster once said, “We like them out of the cradle singing the B minor mass”.

That’s not to say that those younger than nine shouldn’t learn an instrument. On the contrary, I started piano lessons just before my seventh birthday. Over the past 18 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to realise that my skillset is best-suited to those age nine and upwards, predominantly adults and teenagers. There are many teachers around whose skillset is far better suited to younger children, and hats off to them.

With this sense that we should be everything to everybody, I think we can feel ashamed to set parameters such as the ages we teach, maybe even feel a sense of failure. It could be perceived as a weakness in our teaching ability if we exclude a certain age group. I don’t think this is the case at all, and actually, I think we should be more upfront about where our skillset best lies.

It’s not always easy though. I’ve had enquiries in the past from parents whose children are younger (often considerably so) than my lower age-limit. Explaining to them that I don’t teach children that young, but that there are plenty of teachers that do, can be challenging. There have been at least two occasions in the past when I’ve been shouted at down the telephone because the enquirer feels that it is a slight against their child that you won’t teach them.

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I’m being honest with them, knowing that there are teachers out there who will serve their child better than I ever could. The temporary inconvenience of having to enquire to another teacher is surely superseded by long-term benefits?

I’ve always believed that it’s right and fair to be honest about what I can, and can’t offer, as a teacher. I think more teachers should do this, and I suspect they would feel far more satisfied and fulfilled for having done so. If you’re teaching privately, you’re in charge of what your business offers. Maximise on the strengths, and let other teachers pick up those pupils for whom your skillset is not best-suited.

November 2018 New Discoveries

Welcome to November’s edition of this popular monthly post which reviews new music, books and resources, many of which will be of use to both teachers and players alike. If you have music you wish to submit for review or wish to find out more about my approach to reviewing, please see my Reviews Policy.

In case you missed it, this month, I also reviewed the ABRSM Teacher Conference, and the new ABRSM Theory Works app. Do check out those posts too.


CAPTURING THE JOY OF WINTER: 16 Pieces for Solo Piano (Barbara Arens and Alison Matthews)
Editions Musica Ferrum, ISMN 9790708147435, £12.00 (Available from Editions Musica Ferrum)

Once again, Barbara and Alison have created a beautiful book of piano pieces and arrangements, and one which offers an excellent companion volume to Capturing the Spirit of Christmas which I reviewed as part of my Seasonal New Discoveries last month. The pieces are aimed at pianists around Grades 4-6 standard and offer the player a range of styles from which to choose. I particularly enjoyed Alison’s take on the carol ‘Green Grow’th the Holly’. Whilst the Faber book featured below will provide you with all the well-known Christmas favourites, this book, and its companion volume, offer a welcome relief. The pieces included in this book are hugely evocative of winter, and thus, it will endure long after the Christmas books have been put away. Just as with Capturing the Spirit of Christmas, this would provide a lovely present for any pianists known to you. In true Editions Musica Ferrum style, the presentation, layout and printing are exemplary.


WINTER DUETS TO KEEP YOU WARM AT NIGHT for all combinations of C and G flutes (Christine Potter)
ISBN 9781724006271, £15.17 (Available from Amazon)

As a pupil pointed out yesterday, I already own three books of Christmas flute duets; however, this volume is a great addition, as it offers flexibility for low flutes too. I for one will enjoy playing alto flute parts whilst pupils play the C flute parts (we might swap if they can be trusted not to drop my alto!). Christine Potter has taken a number of seasonal pieces to create this volume which offers a huge range of possibilities to both flautists and teachers. As with Journeys and Piano Tracks below, this book is print-on-demand from Amazon. It is, once again, an unusual size for sheet music, but overall, it is well-presented and clearly laid out. I think it is pricey for what it is, but it does offer a whole range of options, and I’m sure it’s a book I’ll come back to year on year.


THE FABER ANTHOLOGY OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC: Best-loved Christmas music for solo piano
Faber Music, ISBN 9780571535644, £19.99 (Available from Musicroom)

If Get Set! Piano: Christmas Crackers was my pick for the early grades, this volume is an essential book for everyone else. Included are over 60 pieces arranged specifically for piano solo. These include favourite carols, well-known Christmas songs, seasonal instrumental music, and some lesser-known pieces. I was initially concerned that the thickness of the volume would prevent it lying flat on the music stand, but with some surreptitious breaking of the spine (sorry) this hasn’t caused any problems. The arrangements are in a variety of styles from jazz to folk, and everything in between. Anyone who enjoyed Nikki Iles’s two volumes, Jazz on a Winter’s Night, will certainly enjoy many of the jazz arrangements in this book. Overall, it is very well-presented, and the music clearly laid out and typeset. I would suggest that the majority of the pieces in this volume will suit pianists at Grade 4 and above, and with such a wealth of material included, this book will last pianists for many years to come. Faber are quite right to describe it as ‘timeless’. It is excellent value for money, and a must-have for pianists this Christmas.


JOURNEYS: Piano Album, Volumes 4-6 (William Minter)
KOA Music, $11.99/$8.99 (Available from KOA Music)

You may remember that I reviewed the first three volumes of Journeys in my September 2018 New Discoveries. These three volumes continue the theme, and are aimed at pianists around intermediate level. As with the other volumes, there is a mixture of arrangements and original pieces which present the pianist with a good deal of variety. They are clearly presented, and many of the pieces are of a good length. As with the book of flute duets above, and Piano Tracks below, they are print-on-demand from Amazon. This means that the size of the books is unusual and not like any of the other sheet music books I own. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily detract from the content, I do wonder how well books such as these will endure longer term.


PIANO TRACKS: Pieces with a jazzy feel for the intermediate pianist and beyond (Jenny Walker)
Jaynote Music, ISBN 9781719981057 (vol. 1) 9781719986908 (vol. 2), £7.49/£4.99 (Available from Amazon)

Some of you may remember that I reviewed Jenny’s other book, Piano Borealis, in my September 2018 New Discoveries. There are some imaginative ideas in these two volumes, aimed primarily at intermediate to advanced pianists, although they perhaps lack the imagery which was captured so well in the other volume. All these pieces are in a contemporary style with some jazz influence. Any pianists who’ve enjoyed Christopher Norton’s work may also enjoy these, as would those who enjoy a rhythmic challenge. As with the other volume, there is some slightly unwieldy typesetting of the music which has led to some clashes in the presentation, for example, between accidentals and barlines. At this price-point, they are good value for money, and also available as Kindle downloads.

Review: ABRSM Theory Works

This is an entirely independent review. I purchased the app myself and have not been asked by ABRSM to review it. For more information, you can read my Reviews Policy here.


Released a couple of weeks ago, ABRSM’s new Theory Works app ‘contains over 6,000 specially-written questions designed to test and challenge your music theory knowledge.’

The app presents the material for Grades 1-5 Theory in, as one might expect, five separate sections. Each section can be studied independently (i.e. you can start at Grade 5), or you can work through cumulatively from the start. Within each grade, you do need to work through each section cumulatively in order to unlock the next. Each section begins with a brief explanation of the knowledge and skills required, before moving onto a series of exercises designed to test that knowledge. The app marks each question as you go, and gives you the opportunity to have another try at those exercises you’ve completed incorrectly. You can also revisit the knowledge sections as you go.

One of the things I like most about this app is that the exercises don’t merely draw on the knowledge required at that level, but require pupils to build and draw upon that studied previously. In that sense, poor foundation skills will ultimately be uncovered fairly quickly once users move on to more complicated exercises. Of course, this does allow users to revisit earlier levels (assuming they’ve been unlocked) to review the knowledge required, and complete further exercises.

The app is clearly presented, without unnecessary clutter. This means that it should have universal appeal regardless of the age of the person using it. As ABRSM quite rightly point out, ‘Music notation is complex and phone screens are small. This app is best viewed on an iPad’. I think this is certainly true, and as the screenshot below shows, even on the iPad, the notation is fairly small. Perhaps an option to zoom-in would be useful in further updates?

This app is a great addition to ABRSM’s increasing suite of digital offerings. Whilst it is primarily built around ABRSM’s own Theory of Music syllabus, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be used outside of that context.

As with all new apps, there are clearly some teething problems which I’m sure ABRSM will iron out in future updates; for example, here I selected a C to make the tonic triad of A minor, but the app has inserted a C#. With over 6,000 exercises included, it’s understandable that wires have occasionally become crossed. Errors such as this afford a useful learning point in themselves!

One useful feature which ABRSM might consider in the future would be to allow a number of users on one device, so that, for example, pupils can use the app both in lessons and at home by logging on. This would also allow teachers to check up on pupil progress.

Overall, at just £4.99, I think this app is excellent value, especially compared to some of the other ABRSM digital offerings. There are clearly some teething problems which I know ABRSM are aware of, but I don’t think that overall, this detracts from the 99.9% of the app which is correctly functioning. Whilst it is orientated towards ABRSM Theory exams, don’t let this deter you. This is an app which offers much to both teachers and learners alike.

The Critical Art of Choice

As instrumental teachers, we are overwhelmed by choice when it comes to teaching resources and materials. New books, websites and subscription sites appear on an almost daily basis. There is more available to us now, than at any time in the past.

Having access to such a wide range of resources is, essentially, a good thing.  Rather than being stuck with one book, which doesn’t suit every pupil, we can now tailor what we use to the needs of individual pupils.

There is though, a danger, that when choosing and using resources, we become uncritical. Often, we let someone else do the work for us. Once an eminent music educator or organisation recommends a resource, it is taken up by teachers with great enthusiasm and is quickly implemented in their teaching practice. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing. There are plus-points to books and resources recommended by someone else, often someone knowledgeable in their field, who has previously researched and critiqued them. But, does this mean teachers should rely on others to do the work for them? I would argue that the more resources there are available, the more critical we need to be as teachers.

As many of you know, I mentor teachers for teaching diplomas. The DipABRSM requires a Written Submission of 1,800 words on a topic of the candidate’s choosing from the syllabus. One of the most popular topics is:

‘Discuss your choice of material for use with young beginners and/or adult beginners in the first year of learning.’

For most teachers, this means a discussion of tutor books (though of course, you are encouraged to discuss the whole range of materials you use). If we take piano for example, the market is overwhelmed by tutor books: Piano AdventuresPiano SafariGet Set! PianoPiano TimePiano WorksMe and My Piano, Piano Junior to name but a few. New piano tutor books appear on the market at an almost alarming rate. As teachers, how critical are we in our choice of tutor books we use?

When I read essays which seek to answer the question above, they invariably follow the same format. The teacher has a preferred tutor book which they use, and they unknowingly use the essay to ‘sell’ the book to their reader (the examiner). There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred tutor books, and indeed, most of us have them. But how did we arrive at our decision to use them? Unfortunately, writing in your essay that you use those books because they were recommended to you doesn’t really cut it with the examiners. Candidates, and indeed, all of us, should demonstrate a more critical approach.

As a starter, consider the following questions:

  • How does the book fit in with our wider teaching philosophy?
  • How does the book align with our curriculum and pedagogy?
  • How does the book enhance the musical learning of our pupils?
  • Why do you use this book in preference to others?
  • How does the book fit into a wider progression of musical learning?

No one book is perfect, but these are all important questions, and they require teachers to think critically about the materials they are using. The answer to all these questions cannot wholly be that we use a book because it was recommended to us.

To even pass the DipABRSM Written Submission, teachers need to submit an assignment which is:

‘Adequately argued with some evidence of structural control and flow of argument [and an] acceptable level of literacy and grammatical accuracy, and some evidence of relevant research.’

So, by all means, seek the advice, views and recommendations of others, but  above all, be critical yourself. With the ever-increasing number of resources available to us, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon. Some of those bandwagons turn out to be good, but some turn out to be only a passing fad. Think about the books, materials and resources you use in your teaching. Can you critique what you use, and answer the questions above?

Review: ABRSM Teacher Conference 2018

Since 1889, ABRSM have held over 40 million exams, and currently, more than 700 examiners conduct over 600,000 exams a year in over 90 countries. It was a pleasure to be invited to this year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference, and in this blog post, I’m going to share some of my thoughts and experiences from the day.

There is a sense that reviews can sometimes become advertisements, but I want to assure you that I write this review completely independently of ABRSM, and it is in no way a paid advertisement for them.

The Day

Once again, held at the Grange Tower Bridge Hotel in London, over 500 teachers, music educators and others attended the sold-out 2018 ABRSM Teacher Conference. Although London-based, this is far from a London-centric event, and I met teachers there from as far afield as Northern Ireland, Hampshire, Lincolnshire, the West Midlands, Manchester, Yorkshire and Scotland.

The day opened with a keynote speech from writer and broadcaster, Will Gompertz titled Think Like an Artist. Inviting an outside speaker to give the keynote is, in my experience, a departure from the traditional format of the Teacher Conference. Will spoke passionately about the arts and arts education. Although he, himself, specialises in art, of course, music has much to learn from the other arts disciplines. In fact, I’ve said previously that the music world can be very insular, and we should take steps to learn from those outside of our profession. His talk, whilst fairly abstract in nature, generated some laughter from the 500 or so present.

During the latter part of the morning and afternoon, delegates could choose to attend three out of the 12 seminars on offer. These including exam-relevant sessions such as two seminars on the new ABRSM piano syllabus, but also more general talks related to teaching, learning, curriculum planning, assessment and managing performance nerves.

As previously the case, the hotel provides an excellent hot lunch, and there was also time, both at lunchtime, and during the breaks, to visit the various exhibitors and network with other delegates. The main sponsors of the event were Allianz insurance and Casio Music UK; however, many others such as the ISM, EPTA, The Curious Piano Teachers, Dorico, Ackerman Music, Music Mark and Rhinegold were all in attendance. There was also a chance to visit the ABRSM Village in which you could try some of the new ABRSM apps and talk directly to staff.

The post-lunch keynote was given by Paul Harris, who posed the question: How do we know if our pupils are actually learning? Paul, as always, spoke passionately about music education, and emphasised the need for lessons to be based on collaboration and partnership, something which I am also passionate about. As Paul said, “Telling is not teaching”. Members of the Soutbank Sinfonia also performed a specially-written piece by Paul, based on the letters A.B.R.S.M.

For those able to stay, the final session was followed by a drinks reception for delegates and staff. The day, which opened at 9am, closed at 6pm following the reception.

The Seminars

It is always difficult at these events to choose which seminars to attend, and I think we were all in agreement that we would have liked to have attended all of them. Sadly, time constraints meant we could only choose three to attend. The three I attended were, as follows:

Manage Your Performance Nerves
Charlotte Tomlinson

Charlotte is a well-known music educator, performer, and performance anxiety specialist. In her seminar she introduced teachers to a range of tools which they could use as a means to help pupils manage their performance anxiety. These included reframing the way they see their audience, tips to manage the physical manifestations of performance anxiety, and reassessing how they prepare for performances. Charlotte concluded by giving a short 15-minute mini-masterclass to a violinist, in which she put some of these things into practice.

Perfecting Performance at the Early Grades
John Holmes and Anthony Williams

In this session, John and Anthony considered what goes into creating a performance, and the way in which imagination, communication and musical understanding all contribute to that. They talked specifically of encouraging pupils to make their own performances from the earliest stages of learning, suggesting that style, character and expression are often introduced too late in favour of notational accuracy. Anthony in particular compared some of the early grade piano pieces with some of the Grade 8 pieces, to show how the early building blocks contribute to the execution of more advanced pieces. Above all, the message was “Exams come second. Be a musician first”.

The Musical Journey to Notation
Karen Marshall and Anthony Williams

In this final session, Karen and Anthony looked at ways we can introduce our pupils to musical concepts, before they progress to reading traditional music notation. They talked particularly of the use of singing and movement, and the way in which we can physically embody concepts such as pitch, pulse and rhythm. Karen drew particularly on her knowledge of the Kodály and Orff approaches to music education, whilst Anthony gave a number of examples of the way in which improvisation and composition can be used in the early stages as a precursor to reading notation. This talk was particularly well-attended with standing room only remaining!

The Venue

In many ways, the Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, is an excellent venue. The main seminar space along with the exhibitors and ABRSM Village was in the basement, whilst the three remaining seminar spaces and drinks reception took place on the first floor. Space is at a premium, and with a sold-out event this year, it was not always easy to move through the space. If the Conference continues to to be this popular, and certainly if it grows, ABRSM may need to consider a larger venue. Whilst the seminar spaces are more than adequate, the spaces for networking, eating and viewing the exhibitors attending is very limited. As has been pointed out previously, whilst the provision of a hot meal at lunchtime is superb, there are no tables and chairs to eat it at, and the amount of seating is, overall, limited.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it was an excellent day. The overall planning and execution of the day by ABRSM was excellent, and talks were all relevant and high-quality. A number of people commented that they felt it was a little piano-dominant this year, but this is perhaps to be expected with the release of the new syllabus. Similarly, a number of delegates felt that seminars of 45 minutes rather than an hour would offer them the opportunity to attend four rather than three of these. Equally, some felt that it would be valuable to have more time for networking and eating, and that the lunch break of an hour, was probably insufficient given the numbers attending.

I believe that this is now a well-established event, and it is good value for money. Whilst many teachers scoff at the cost of attendance, I have seen conferences charging over £100 for a day ticket recently. The ABRSM Teacher Conference offers a lot for what amounts to less than £10 an hour, including a hot lunch, tea and coffee, and a bag of ‘goodies’.

I, for one, would certainly look to attend again next year, and if you haven’t previously been, I wholeheartedly encourage you to go. Based on this year, you may need to book early! As many of you know, I do not favour one exam board over another, but the Teacher Conference offers much more than that which is relevant only to ABRSM exams, and I believe this reflects a move away from an exam-dominated organisation, to one which seeks to play a wider role in the music education sector.

I think this year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference is summed up in this tweet from Jason Hawkins:

‘Inspirational day at the @ABRSM Teachers Conference. So many ideas to take away and inform practice! Can’t wait till next year already.’