Why a ‘live’ accompanist matters…

Why a 'live' accompanist matters...
Girl singing music theatre or classicalI recently read that there is a shortage of accompanists in the UK. Although there are many pianists, not all make good accompanists. Accompanying requires a different set of skills to solo playing. A good accompanist will be sensitive, reassuring and supportive, and the soloist they’re accompanying should always feel in ‘safe hands’.

One of the things which is perhaps more noticeable these days is that singers and instrumentalists don’t automatically have the piano skills they might have had in the past (in the days when most musicians learnt the piano to some degree). It means that there are a lot of teachers out there who are entirely competent, but who aren’t able to accompany their pupils in lessons.

More and more, singers and instrumentalists are relying on pre-recorded backing tracks as either CDs or downloads. Many exam publications now come with an accompaniment CD, but it most cases, you cannot use these in the exam itself. I do a lot of accompanying for exams, and candidates are often very surprised when they find out (often at far too short notice) that they will need a ‘live’ accompanist on the day.

Being accompanied ‘live’ is very different to playing along to a CD. For a start, there is a shift in responsibility. When playing with a CD, you don’t need to be so worried about keeping a steady pulse for example: if you speed up or slow down, the CD won’t. Equally, the CD will have a pre-recorded degree of musicality with little, if any room for an instrumentalist’s own interpretation. When playing with a ‘live’ accompanist, the responsibility shifts. If you speed up or slow down, the accompanist will usually do likewise. They are there to support you rather than to prescribe a ‘set performance’.

So what can candidates and parents do to ensure that playing with a ‘live’ accompanist isn’t too much of a shock to the system? Firstly, if you or your child is learning an instrument or to sing, at some time or another, you or they will play or sing with a ‘live’ accompanist, whether that be in a performance, or exam. The sooner you or they get used to this, the better. If your or their teacher doesn’t accompany them themselves, see if you can organise some occasional sessions with an accompanist; I provide such sessions on a flexible and cost-effective basis here in Lichfield.

If you or they are being entered for an exam, make sure you find out far enough in advance whether a ‘live’ accompanist will be needed. Depending on the grade, most accompanists will suggest a few rehearsals prior to the exam, depending on whether you or they have played with a pianist regularly before. I offer a variety of packages for exam accompaniment, and recommend what I consider to be a reasonable number of rehearsals. Apart from the pre-Grade 1 exams, I usually recommend at least two rehearsals for people who haven’t played regularly with an accompanist before. This gives them a taste of what it’ll be like, time to go away to digest this and apply it through their practice, and then to have one final run-through nearer the time. If you know there’s an exam coming up, don’t leave it too late to organise an accompanist (particularly if the news about the shortage is true!).

As you or your child get towards the higher grades, it’s important to develop a relationship with an accompanist with whom you or they get on with. Like a teacher-pupil relationship, player or singer and accompanist need to ‘gel’. If you or your child doesn’t have a teacher who plays for them in lessons, as the higher grades are reached it is worthwhile trying to get some regular (even monthly) sessions going with an accompanist.

Sight-reading doesn’t have to be stressful…

Sight-reading doesn't have to be stressful…
Pupil playing pianoMention ‘sight-reading’, and many musicians can already be seen running for the nearest exit. Over the years, two distinct sorts of sight-reading appear to have emerged: firstly, there’s sight-reading (i.e. playing a piece you’ve never seen before) and sight-reading (i.e. a test in a music exam).

In the same way as the term ‘practice’ now conjures up negative images, so sight-reading has begun to suffer the same fate. We once had an ABRSM examiner who called it ‘fright-reading’. In general terms, the two sorts of sight-reading mentioned above are actually no different. It is fair to say that one probably happens under more stressful conditions, but the underlying principle is exactly the same. So, whatever form it takes, how can we make sight-reading less stressful?

Every time you learn a piece of music, you’re sight-reading. That’s right, every new piece that’s been put in front of you will have required some form of sight-reading. It’s something that many musicians do on a daily basis. My flute, piano and singing pupils who I teach here in Lichfield often tell me that sight-reading in exams is stressful because you haven’t got very long to look at the music. I’m sure they feel they have a valid point, but my experience is that when you give them something to sight-read which isn’t identified as a sight-reading ‘test’, they spend less time looking at it than they do with the 30 seconds allotted for an exam.

As soon as you come across a new piece (whether it’s for sight-reading or sight-reading), there are going to be some things which are worth looking at: key signature, time signature, tempo etc. Remember that game you might have played once where you had to look at things on a tray which were then covered up and you had to write down all the things you could remember? Have you tried it with a piece of music? Try looking at it for 30 seconds then cover it up – how many different things can you remember? I’m sure you’ll surprise yourself.

Let’s be clear: sight-reading a piece is very rarely going to produce a perfect rendition first time. Personally (and I’m sure examiners would too), I’d rather listen to a rendition which keeps going and gives me a general outline of what’s going on, rather than a painfully slow performance where the player tries to work out every single note and rhythm one at a time. After you’ve looked at the ‘basics’, have a quick skim through the rest of the music. Importantly, can you recognise any repetition or patterns? Learners are often surprised to discover that a good amount of sight-reading tests are made up almost entirely of both these. Can you see any scales, arpeggios, sequences etc.

This applies mainly to pianists, but it may apply to other instruments too, do remember to check what position your hands need to be in: you can play all the right fingering, but if your hands aren’t in the right place, then I’m afraid none of the notes will actually be right.

What’s the most important thing about sight-reading? For me, it is to keep going. I’m forever telling my pupils to keep going if they make a mistake; many hope that by going back and correcting their mistake, this somehow cancels it out: it doesn’t! For exam candidates, I’m pretty sure you lose more marks by stopping and correcting errors than you would for making the mistake in the first place!

It is true that in an exam situation, time is limited. Once you’ve checked the basics, try the beginning and the end; if there’s time, try any other tricky passages. If you’ve worked out there’s a pattern, try this too – there is plenty of time if you use it effectively. Examiners are now expected to not only tell you you’ve got 30 seconds or half a minute to look at the test, but also that you can try out any bits you want to. To me, this is a fundamental point, and I look at it like this: Candidate A looks at the test for 30 seconds but doesn’t play anything; when they come to perform it, it’s a disaster. Candidate B looks at the test for 30 seconds and tries some bits out; when they come to perform it, it’s also a disaster…which candidate will get the higher mark? So much of sight-reading is in the approach. Candidate B showed they approached the test in the right way: Candidate A chose not to. The higher of the marks seems obvious to me.

Next time you’re doing either sight-reading or sight-reading, think about the process you’re going through. As you progress, you’ll get to know your strengths and weaknesses and this will enable you to best use any preparation time. Above all, keep going (my pupils tell me they hear me saying this in their sleep!).




How to Choose a Music Teacher

How To Choose a Music Teacher
Piano lesson in progressOne of the questions which comes up so often, not just amongst parents but amongst adult pupils too, is how do you go about finding a teacher? Surprisingly, even as a flute, piano and singing teacher here in Lichfield, I’ve had to find teachers for myself at various intervals. Here are some suggestions to get you started…

Where do I look for a teacher?

The best way to find a music teacher for you or your child is through personal recommendation. Maybe you already know someone who’s learning, and if not, ask around friends and relatives. Around 50% of my enquiries come through this method. Failing this, try the internet. A simple Google search will often yield results, either because teachers have their own websites as I do, or because their details are given on listings sites. Occasionally, if you have a local music shop, they might keep a list (some are selective though, and not always for the right reasons!), and in the past libraries often did the same. When I’ve been looking for teachers, I like to be able to read a bit about them and their teaching – personally, and possibly quite wrongly, I tend to ignore the sort of one-line name and telephone number sort of adverts these days. On my own website, I try to give as much information as I can about me and my teaching: in the end though, you can’t please everyone!

How do I choose a teacher?

The first thing is to think about is what you want from your or your child’s teacher. For example, you may have particular time or location requirements; you might want to focus on a particular sort of music; you might want a teacher who offers performance opportunities; or you might want a teacher who is skilled with a particular group of learners. Make a list of these things: it’s a big commitment, and it’s worth doing as much research as possible. This will hopefully help narrow it down.

What is a ‘good’ teacher?

How long is a piece of string? A good teacher for one person is not a good teacher for another: learning an instrument or learning to sing is a very personal thing and not all personalities ‘gel’ in the same way. You can look for qualifications, but these are in no way a guarantee of success. You’ll need to think about each teacher individually: how to they present themselves? Do they have the skills and experience you’re looking for? Do they show an interest in and enthusiasm for music and teaching? What do past/current pupils/parents say about them? Do you like the sound of them (there’s a lot to be said for trusting instinct too)? What things matter to you about a teacher? I fear that no teacher is perfect, so at one time or another, you may have to make some compromises, at least when you’re searching, otherwise it’s easy to discount all of them!

How to make contact?

Making contact with a prospective teacher is often the hardest part of the whole process. When you contact them, make sure you have any questions to hand; think about the things you want/need to know and find out. Gather as much information as you can: I sometimes wish people would ask me more questions! It is useful if you have an idea of your or your child’s availability too; sometimes teachers just won’t be able to meet these and it’s best to establish this early on.

Girl playing the fluteWhere to go from there?

Some teachers offer an interview lesson, some offer a consultation lesson, and some offer a trial lesson. To my mind, these are all much the same thing. I offer a one-off consultation lesson which is an opportunity to have a chat, and for me to give the pupil a taster of what having flute, piano or singing lessons might be like – there is no obligation to continue after this, though most do. I think it’s important that pupils and parents have the opportunity to meet face-to-face: e-mail and telephone is one thing, but they are no substitute for meeting a prospective teacher in person. Again, have a think about what you’d like to know before you go. Not all teachers offer a consultation lesson and some will expect you to sign up there and then – I’m afraid that with these, despite all your research, there’s an element of chance. Personally, I think that taking lessons is often a big commitment both in time and money, so an initial meeting is important.

What if it doesn’t work out?

I’d like to say that if it doesn’t work out, there are plenty more fish in the sea, but this isn’t always the case. Have a think about what you didn’t like: what was wrong with them? Have a think about the things you liked too! If there are plenty of other teachers locally, then you might be able to work your way around until you find one that fits. This isn’t always the case, and as I said earlier, there may well be an element of compromise. Another thing to think about is that a pupil-teacher-parent-relationship is something which will build up over time; don’t expect everything to be spot-on first time!

Good luck with your search! And…if you’re in Lichfield, Tamworth, Rugeley, Shenstone, Sutton Coldfield, Four Oaks or any of the other surrounding places, I offer flute, piano and singing tuition for both adults and children – you can find some more information here.

Help! I’ve got an audition…

Help! I've got an audition…
Girl singing music theatre or classicalI quite often get enquiries from people who need help preparing for an audition; indeed, several of my own singing pupils have needed help along the way too. For some people, it can be an audition for a local amateur dramatic production, but for many, it’s an audition onto an acting or dance course.

Dancers and actors are often surprised to find that many universities and colleges require them to sing at their audition, but it is now reasonably common practice. The most important thing to remember about auditions is that you only have a very limited space of time to show as many skills as possible.

So, how can you get the most out of your audition?

Prepare early…

If you know you’re going to be auditioning for an acting or dance course, find out as soon as you can whether you’ll be expected to sing at your audition. Preferably, find out soon enough that if necessary, you can get some singing lessons in time. A year of lessons before your audition can make a world of difference to your confidence and success. If you’re not able to find out early on, as soon as the information arrives about your audition, check up what you’re going to need to do. If you’re not already having singing lessons, now is the time to book some; a lot can still be achieved in a short space of time.

Know what’s expected…

If you need to sing at your audition, find out as soon as possible what’s expected. What type of song do you need? What level does it need to be at? Is there a time restriction? What skills do you need to show? Who will accompany you?

Choosing a song…

Once you know what’s expected, you can make a better-informed choice about which song to sing. To my mind, there are really two things you need to balance when choosing a song: (1) Something which demonstrates the necessary skills you need to show, and (2) Something which you like and are confident singing. An audition is not necessarily the time to choose something complicated which is really beyond the level you’re at. A lot of people auditioning for dance and drama courses are not singers: it is best to stick to something relatively simple and do it well. You will almost certainly need to obtain the sheet music for your song (a full version, not a lead sheet or chord symbols). If you can get some singing lessons in early enough, your teacher will of couse be able to advise on which songs might be a good choice.

Should I choose a song no one else will do…

Ultimately, this is an impossible question to answer! Quite often people arrive for their few lessons before the audition with a song which has been given to them by someone who’s said “Do this one because no one else will”. To some extent, it is true that audition panels tend to hear the same few songs over and over again, but overall, stick with what you’re confident with. If you’ve got the time and ability to learn something which is outside the box, that’s great: if not, that’s not a problem – giving a confident and well-prepared performance is more important in my view.

Preparing your song…

A lot of people are used to singing along to backing tracks. They normally get a shock when they read their audition papers to find that the venue will provide a piano accompanist. If you’re used to backing tracks, singing to the piano can be a new experience! If you’re going to book some lessons with a singing teacher to prepare for your audition, it is highly preferable that they be able to accompany you on the piano so that you get a clear idea how it’s going to be on the day. Ask them to record your song too so that you can practise it at home.

What are they looking for…

On the whole, each place will be looking for something different, but generally, asking you to sing is a good way of ‘putting you on the spot’; it is a good test of your confidence under pressure, asking you to do something which you’re perhaps not as comfortable with as dancing or singing. Overall, they’re not looking for a ‘finished product’ (they’re not looking to ‘show you up’ either!). The ability to sing in tune and to hold your line against the piano accompaniment is probably expected; being able to show character (particularly if it’s an acting course) and variety is very important: remember, you have just a few minutes to show as many skills as you can. Overall, I think that panels are looking for committment. They’re looking for you to perform as well as possible under pressure; it is always clear on these occasions which performers have put the effort into their preparation and which haven’t: don’t be one of the latter because it shows and it will colour their judgement.

Whatever your audition, be prepared! Don’t leave things until the last minute and if at all possible, get some lessons with a teacher who can help you get the best out of the experience. I’ve worked with a lot of singers preparing for auditions and am quite happy to provide a one-off or short series of lessons here in Lichfield to help you prepare.

If you think you’d like to make a career in the performing arts, then start some singing lessons as soon as possible – they’re a good investment!


Getting the most out of exams

Getting the most out of exams
Girl playing the fluteAt some time or another, most of the pupils I teach (including adults) want to get an independent assessment of their progress – an exam. With another session of exams just round the corner, what can you do to get the most out of the experience?


Firstly, find out in plenty of time when the session and closing dates are and work towards these. Exams usually take place three times a year in February/March, June/July and November/December. The closing dates for entries are usually about six weeks before the  first exam in the session. It’s worth remembering that the sessions come round quite quickly. With my own flute, piano and singing pupils here in Lichfield, we’re already thinking about exams in the summer – the closing date is just after Easter which leaves only about 10 lessons.

Secondly, be very clear what the requirements are. Either get a copy of the syllabus (the requirements are printed inside the cover of some exam books too) or make a bullet point list – stick it up somewhere prominent. Keep an eye on it as you prepare, particularly if you don’t have a teacher or if you’re not having regular lessons. Set some targets too – if, for example, there are a lot of scales then divide them up early on to learn.

In most exams there are likely to be three pieces (four for Grades 6-8 Singing), scales and arpeggios (an unaccompanied traditional song if you’re a singer), sight-reading/singing and aural tests. Make sure that you don’t leave some elements until the last minute. It’s easy to think “oh, aural’s only worth 18 marks..” but so often, it is the scores in the supporting tests which can tip the balance between a pass and a merit, or a merit and a distinction. If you have a weakness in one of the aural tests for example, identify it early on.

Do try wherever possible to play or sing your pieces to other people in the run-up to the exam itself. This might be to friends or family, or at small informal performances or concerts. In my experience, it’s not good to go into an exam situation having never played them to anyone other than your teacher. You can also record or even video your performances which gives a surprisingly realistic simulation of exam conditions.

The exam itself

Above all, enjoy it! I know that’s easy to say, but overall, taking an exam should be a positive experience (even if you’re a nervous wreck on the day!). There are a few things you can do to make sure that the exam itself is as stress-free as possible.

Don’t leave things until the last minute; I know that when you start your preparations, the exam probably seems an age away, but it’ll be here before you know it. Know where the venue is and how to get there – if you’re not sure, it’s worth making a dummy run before the day to check out routes and parking etc. Leave plenty of time to get to the venue too – there’s nothing more stressful than sitting in a traffic jam watching the minutes tick away.

The night before the exam, get together any books or instruments you need. Generally, I suggest to my pupils not to practise the night before or on the day of the exam – to put it bluntly, if you don’t know it by then, it’s a bit late (and there’s nothing worse than a bad ‘dress rehearsal’ the night before’!) Try and warm up before you go to the exam – this is particularly important for singers, but for other instrumentalists too. Not all exam venues have a warm-up room and you definitely wouldn’t want to go into the exam ‘cold’.

Also remember that hard as it might seem, the examiner does want you to pass (it’s in the Board’s interest because you’re likely to enter for the next exam, pay the higher fee etc. etc…sorry…I’m very cynical!). The examiner is human too – I go to great lengths to remind my pupils to say “Hello” on the way in and “Goodbye” on the way out!  Once you’re in there, all you can do is your best. If you make a mistake, keep going – contrary to popular belief, going back and correcting the mistake doesn’t cancel out the original one. Just keep going and keep focussed – someone who goes back to correct mistakes will always get lower marks than someone who keeps going.

After the exam

Once it’s done, it’s done and you can’t do anything about it. When you come out, you’ll probably be thinking about all the things which went wrong rather than the majority which went right – this is perfectly normal. Try to avoid lengthy post-mortems – what’s done is done. Just sit back, keep playing, and inevitably, wait for the result to come!

Above all, the result and the comments are only a snapshot of your playing. They are not a reflection on your enjoyment of playing the instrument which should never change whatever the result.

Top Tips for Nervous Performers

Top Tips for Nervous Performers
Do you suffer with bad performance nerves? Are they affecting your enjoyment of your music? If so, here are some top tips to help!

1. Accept them…

It’s OK to be nervous – accept it. As a teacher and accompanist, I’m often far more worried about the pupils who aren’t nervous than the ones who are. Being a little bit nervous is a good thing – accept that you will never, and should never want to get rid of your performance nerves completely.

2. They won’t just ‘get better’ on their own…

In my experience, nervous performers usually get better over time, but this comes from hard work developing strategies and practising these – your nerves are unlikely to get better without some form of pro-active intervention.

3. Be prepared…

The first thing to say is to make sure you are as prepared as possible for your performance. Not only should you practice your pieces, but also how you get on the stage, how you take the applause, where to put the music etc. etc. If you’re taking an exam, make sure you have some idea what the venue will be like. Practise the performance, not just the pieces. If you feel unsure about any aspect of your performance, this will inevitably affect your nerves.

4. Take it slowly…

In my experience, the best way to combat performance nerves is by performing – sounds ridiculous, but it does seem to work. Make sure though that you approach this in small stages. Start with small informal performances, playing things you know well – as a teacher, I run a series of termly Platform Performance sessions: an opportunity for a small number of pupils to perform to each other. You can also build performance skills by playing duets or taking part in ensembles, where you can ‘spread’ the load. Each positive experience will you give you another boost.

5. Talk to other performers…

Once you’ve accepted that you’re going to be nervous, accept that everyone else will be too. Try to meet with other performers to share experiences – the Platform Performance sessions I mentioned above have proved a good way to do this. It’s important to feel that everyone is in the same ‘boat’. These discussions are however best done with the supervision of a teacher (especially adults!) as it’s easy for the nervous energy to rub off on others; such discussions can also become a competition (“I’m more nervous than you…” etc.)

6. Play to anyone who’ll listen…

Every time you get the opportunity to play to someone else, take it. It doesn’t matter who it is – I taught one lady the piano for nearly eight years, and she played every time the window cleaner came. I don’t think he listened, but the point was that she played with someone else within earshot. Children are usually happy to play something quickly for friends or family (but please don’t turn them into performing monkeys!) while adults tend to prefer playing to strangers.

7. Record yourself…

A good way of simulating the pressure of performance, is to record yourself. As soon as your press the ‘Record’ button, you’ll feel as if your performance has started!

8. Don’t overstretch yourself…

When you feel ready to play to others, whether that be informally, in an exam or in a concert, don’t overstretch yourself. The temptation is to play something ‘showy’, but this often isn’t necessary. Pick something which, most importantly, you enjoy and which you feel comfortable with. Don’t pile on more pressure than is necessary.

9. Don’t expect to go it alone…

If you are suffering from nerves which are affecting your performance, don’t suffer in silence. If you have a teacher, they should be ready and willing to encourage, support and help you develop strategies to deal with them (and if they’re not, and if they say “it’ll just get better…”, it might be time to move on…) If you’re going to take exams or perform at any time, your teacher should be teaching you ‘how to perform’. As mentioned above, do try to get support from fellow learners too.

10. There are plenty of other things to try…

It’s worth mentioning that there are lots of things out there which purport to help with performance nerves. Some people find eating a banana before the performance is useful, while others swear by Rescue Remedy. I’ve taught people who’ve tried hypnotherapy, and I’ve taught people whose GP has prescribed them beta-blockers…do any of these things work? I think that ultimately, it’s impossible to say. My feeling is that treatments such as hypnotherapy are useful in helping you understand your nerves, but I still feel that in the end, your hypnotherapist is not going to do the performance for you – for the pupils that tried this, they didn’t find much of an improvement long-term. Likewise, beta-blockers might help, but they won’t remove the underlying problem. If you are still stuck for ideas and solutions and your a professional musician or teacher, contact BAPAM for advice (they produce a useful advice sheet here available to anyone). Greg and Ally Daubney have also produced a very helpful guide in conjunction with the ISM, and that’s freely available here.

Above all, there is no ‘quick fix’. I firmly believe that on balance, practising performing is the best way to combat nerves, but I also believe that this should be done under manageable and supportive conditions.

If you have any other tips, feel free to leave them below.

Top Tips for Teaching Diplomas

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

1. Get some support and advice

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

2. Take time to choose which diploma suits you best

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

3. Get some teaching experience

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

4. Be clear about your teaching philosophy

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

5. Be prepared to discuss your teaching approach

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

6. Be prepared to defend what you say

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

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

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

8. Play to your strengths

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

9. Be enthusiastic

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

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

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

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

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

Other useful blog posts

DipABRSM: Where to start with the Written Submission

Teaching Diplomas: How long does it take to prepare?

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Why a Grade 1 Pass is a Superb Result!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Learn An Instrument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My confidence collapses at auditions…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piano or Keyboard Lessons: How to Choose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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