“Where am I going?”: Motivation and Learning

"Where am I going?": Motivation and Learning

This is a slightly adapted version of an article which appeared in my end-of-term newsletter.

DSC_0003 (2)2One of the questions learners frequently ponder is ‘Where am I going?’ Everyone wants their lessons to be fun, and indeed, the majority of pupils learn ‘for fun’, or as a ‘hobby’. When people start learning an instrument, their aims are understandably limited; after all, they have little experience of learning an instrument, and therefore aims are reasonably restricted to ‘I’d like to be able play well’.

The problem is that before too long, a lot of learners wonder whether this is sufficient: is the motivation of simply being able to ‘play well’ enough? Learning an instrument is, effectively, a never-ending process; it’s also a lengthy process, and potentially lonely one. Motivating oneself is fine…to a point…but we all go through periods where we run low on motivation. Sometimes you need something else to boost your motivation: if you like, another dimension to your learning.

There are a surprisingly wide range of options, not all immediately obvious, and, contrary to popular belief, they’re not all exam-based.


The music itself is always at the heart of the learning process, but a surprising number of learners have had little, if any exposure to live music. Whatever instrument you’re learning, going to enjoy hearing others play provides a welcome injection of inspiration.

In the next year, why not aim to go at least one concert? If you’re learning the piano, it might be a piano recital, if you’re a singer, it might be a choral concert. It doesn’t matter though, and it’s the music that’s most important. Be inspired by others.

Meet other learners

Why not start by getting to know the person who comes before or after you? Why not introduce yourselves and maybe one week you could overlap by five minutes and play or sing something to each other?

Exams and assessments

Of course, exams and assessments have traditionally been the way to keep the momentum up, but understandably, they’re not for everyone. That said, in my experience, at some time or another, learners do like an independent assessment of their progress. These days we are so lucky to have such a wide range on offer.

As well as the traditional graded exams, we have recital grades, leisure play, performance awards and certificate exams; in addition, we also have non-graded assessments such as the ABRSM Performance Assessment. The latter can be a good starting point as it is not a pass or fail exam. You simply have 15 minutes with the examiner where you can play or sing a programme of your own choosing; you receive a written report and certificate at the end of the assessment.

Make a recording

Recording is a great way of emulating performance conditions; in other words, it requires you to ‘deliver’ on ‘the day’, though of course, you can keep rerecording until you get it right! Learners in the past have made short CDs to give as presents; another way of sharing your music with others.

Play or sing with others

Playing or singing with others is one of the great joys of learning an instrument. Many learners will belong to choirs and ensembles outside their lessons. There is also the opportunity to play duets, to accompany, and to make music with friends and family. Your teacher may provide opportunities or you may know other learners who you could work with.

As you can see, there are lots of options out there. Learning an instrument doesn’t have to be a solitary activity; sharing your music with others will add a whole new dimension to your learning.

Why learning an instrument can make you feel better…

Why learning an instrument can make you feel better…
DSC_0003 (2)2It seems to have been an age since I wrote a blog post, so, to put that right…

I received an e-mail newsletter the other day, which, to cut a long story short, was about making more sales in 2013. The essence of the message was that wasn’t enough to simply market a product as something people need, but that successful sales are to be found in the way it might make customers feel. For example, we probably don’t need any more shampoo, but if someone marketed one which said it would make me relax and warm me up in the cold weather, I’d probably buy it. Very few pupils ‘need’ music lessons, and as many teachers will have found, when money is tight, these perceived ‘luxuries’ are soon dropped from the equation.

This got me thinking about learning an instrument. Whilst being able to play harder pieces, exam results and performance success are all measures of progress, there’s a whole side to learning an instrument which is generally unseen: this is the emotional impact it has on the wellbeing of the learner.

Last week a pupil told me how much they enjoyed their singing and what a difference it had made to their life. They said it had given them confidence again and made them feel better when they were down. We can’t measure these things, and in a results-driven society, they’re too often overlooked.

For many of the pupils I’ve taught over the past 12 years, their lessons have provided a welcome sanctuary from the business of the outside world. My Friday evening pupils in particular have always valued their lessons as a chance to ‘wind-down’ after the working week. There have been pupils whose lives are getting them down and who just need that little bit of ‘me’ time amongst the turmoil.

For most people learning an instrument, progress is important, but it’s only half the story. We are however, very quick to judge, and equally, to be judged. A pupil who is deemed to make no progress is judged to be lazy, the teacher ‘bad’. In some cases, this is probably true, but there’s so much more to be gained than all that.

There is no denying that learning an instrument is hard work; it requires, particularly for adult learners, a huge commitment emotionally, but for those who seek to meet the challenge, it offers immeasurable rewards, not just in terms of the music itself, but as a source of joy and fulfilment in their lives.

What is practice?

I asked for suggestions for possible subjects to be covered by future blog posts, and the thing which came up over and over again was practice! Here is the first of several blog posts on that subject.

Everything you or your children do has almost certainly required practice at some point – walking, eating, cycling, driving, addition, spelling etc. We all know that if we hadn’t been encouraged to practise these things, we would have improved at only a very slow rate, if at all. The main purpose of practice is to progress. Most music lessons account for just under 0.3% of the total time available in the week, so it’s inevitable that a lot of progress takes place outside of lessons.

One of the biggest problems is that practice is ineffective; playing is one thing, but it’s not necessarily effective practice. We’ll be looking a little more at effective practice in the next post. I suggest to my pupils a traffic light system to check how effective their practice is:

RED – You haven’t moved on, have forgotten what we did in the last lesson or you’ve gone backwards.

AMBER – You haven’t moved on, but you can do everything you left the last lesson being able to do.

GREEN – You can do everything you could at the end of the last lesson, and you’ve moved on.

Pupils whose practice is stuck on red are unlikely to progress; pupils whose practice is on amber will progress, but only at a slow and cautious rate; and pupils whose practice is on green will move forward quickly.

But what is practice? At a basic level, practice is twofold: revisiting the work covered in the lesson, and preparing for the work to be covered in the next lesson. Depending on the instrument, practice may include exercises, technical work, scales, pieces, listening, composing, improvising, theory, writing etc. Playing isn’t always practice, but equally, practice isn’t always playing.

Before you or your child leaves the lesson, you or they need to know exactly what it is they’re going to practise. Some teachers write this in a notebook, others e-mail details after the lesson (I use a combination of both). The instructions must be specific too; it’s not enough to just go home with a list of pieces and their page numbers. Pupils also need to know how to practise effectively.

DipABRSM: Where to start with the Written Submission

Anyone considering taking the DipABRSM in Teaching will nearly always, after reading the syllabus, begin by preparing the written submission. As the submission has to be sent with the entry form, candidates often prefer to get this element out of the way before concentrating on the viva voce and quick study.

Which topic should I choose?

On pp. 30-31 of the current syllabus you will find 11 topics from which you can choose the title for your written submission. There are several things to consider when choosing:

  • The word limit is tight at just 1,800 (+/- 10%) so the topic needs to be small enough so that you can write about it to a sufficient depth;
  • You need to be interested in the topic as you will need to write authoritatively about it: it’s not enough to just summarise the research you’ve done as there has to be a good degree of analysis and critique;
  • Choose a topic which will be accessible to research; consider whether you have access to the kinds of books and materials which will aid your research;
  • Choose a topic which you can relate to your own teaching; the ability to give ‘real life’ examples is an important ‘bonus’.

It is surprising how many candidates choose to write on a topic of which they have little knowledge and experience. For example, do not choose the title ‘Discuss your choice of material for use with adult beginners’ if you only teach under-10s. It seems terribly obvious but you wouldn’t believe the mistaken choices people make.

How do I plan it?

Once you’ve chosen your topic, you need to think carefully about what you are going to cover in your essay, particularly considering the small word limit. Let’s say for example that you’ve chosen the topic ‘Discuss your approach to the development of technique in the early stages’. Firstly you need to think about what ‘technique’ means in the early stages – what techniques do you teach your pupils and why? How do you teach these elements of technique and why do you teach them in this way? What has influenced your decisions? As well as referring to your own teaching, you need to reference material in other books and resources. Your essay needs to have a logical progression and needs to flow easily through the material you cover.

What makes a bad essay?

It’s probably easier to tell you what makes a bad essay than what makes a good one! One of the most common problems is trying to cover too much which means your essay lacks sufficient depth. These essays tend to be summaries of books which the candidate has read without any analysis. Another common problem is repetition; I have seen a good number of essays where the candidate has repeated the same point three of four times. A common fault is to fail to give any examples or to back up the points made. Good essays are critical of the sources they cite.

What makes a good essay?

A clear progression with points made succinctly and clearly. Evidence to support points made with real-life examples, particularly from the candidate’s own practice. A critical and analytical approach to the question with clear arguments. Examples drawn from a wide variety of sources including books, the internet and music itself.

How can I maximise the marks?

In addition to the points above make sure you check for the obvious: spelling, grammar, layout, word count etc. Make sure that your sources are referenced correctly: this is a very common fault. Always keep in mind the marking criteria currently on p. 62 of the syllabus; highlight the key points.

The Written Submission and the Viva Voce

Remember that your written submission will be up for discussion in the viva voce element of the exam. You need to be prepared to expand on and defend the points you’ve made in your essay. Remember that the examiners are not trying to catch you out, but rather clarify points and allow you to expand on them further.

David provides comprehensive, flexible and cost-effective packages for supporting diploma candidates. If you have any questions about the Written Submission, or you want to find out more about the mentoring David offers, do send a message

Am I Too Old? Piano Lessons for Adult Learners

Am I Too Old? Piano Lessons for Adult Learners
I almost titled this blog post ‘Piano for Pensioners’, but that seems rather mean (it might have got a good laugh!), and anyway, most of the pensioners I know are livelier than me.

Since I started giving piano lessons just under 11 years ago (along with flute lessons and singing lessons), very few adults learnt. It was, to all intents and purposes a ‘closed book’; something which children did, and something which adults wish they’d done. How times have changed!

I feel very lucky to be a piano teacher in a world where 82% of my pupils are adult learners, with ages ranging from 18 to 68 and beyond. I teach piano to adults who travel from Lichfield, Rugeley, Sutton Coldfield and Four Oaks. Understandably, adults often have concerns about starting piano lessons later on in life. As well as the time commitment and financial outlay, I hear the same question on a regular basis: ‘Am I too old?’

There’s no denying that learning an instrument later on in life presents a very different set of challenges both to pupil and teacher. For many adults who may have had a successful career for example, starting to learn something new from scratch can be frustrating; there’s inevitably a large emotional investment to be made too. Despite this, it can be hugely rewarding, and some say even beneficial in terms of health and certainly wellbeing (you can read a bit more about this in Melanie Spanswick’s post ‘Can music really slow down the ageing process?’).

Quite a number of adult pupils have had lessons in the past. Often, these were as children when piano tuition was perhaps more rigid than it is these days; the emphasis being on the acquisition of a set of ‘techniques’ rather than on creative expression. Equally, there are a large number of adults who’ve never learnt an instrument.

Starting anything new is nearly always going to be nerve-wracking; it will also be enormously exciting. One of the things which adult learners often say is that despite all the frustrations and nerves, they feel a real sense of achievement.

Learning the piano these days isn’t just about classical music; we cover a really wide range of repertoire (depending on your interests) including pop, rock, jazz, blues, musicals, film, television and folk. We even do (shock horror!) improvisation and composition! If you’re a beginner, I promise that you will leave the first lesson being able to play a ‘decent’ sounding tune; no one has yet to leave the first lesson without a smile on their face!

If you’re curious or interested, why not get in touch? I provide piano lessons in Lichfield on weekdays in the daytimes and evenings. As a piano teacher, I thoroughly enjoy teaching adult learners and warmly welcome them! Are you too old? No!

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.