Review: Stepping Tones Practice Diary

Who remembers their Chester’s Music Practice Book from when they had lessons as a child? I do, and I have a feeling I’ve still got mine somewhere. These tiny little books, the size and shape of which matched nothing else, were the mainstay of lessons for me and many others during the early 1990s.

You can still buy them, along with a range of other practice diaries, so you may be forgiven for wondering why we need another. In this review, I want to focus on a new practice diary created by Alex Bowen of Stepping Tones. Alex is a piano and music theory teacher, and Dalcroze specialist based in Derbyshire. To quote Alex:

The vibrant Stepping Tones Practice Diary provides an exciting and creative way for young musicians to keep track of their lessons, practice, ambitions and achievements. This book is brimming with fun features to engage curiosity, with special tools to help pupils love practising regularly and efficiently!

I think the most intriguing thing about this diary is that it is A4 in size. When it comes to practice diaries, we are generally used to A5, or even A6 productions. I think this is a huge advantage because no longer do teachers have to cram everything into a small space, but also, the diary will be similar in size to the students’ books themselves.

Example of the double-page spread for lesson and practice notes in the Stepping Tones Practice Diary

There are 40 double-page spreads for the lesson notes and practice charts. At the start of the book there are examples of ways in which these can be used, but the intention is clearly that they should be adapted to the needs of each individual student and teacher. Alex intends to supplement these examples with some short videos which will show how the diary can be used in practice.

One innovative feature of the practice diary is the ‘flexi-stave’ pages. These can be used both for text (covering both large and small handwriting) and music notation. This feature is hugely beneficial for both teacher and student and again, can be adapted to a wide range of different needs. Each double-page spread of the 40 weeks includes a practice tip and a musical word of the week.

Example of the flex-stave page in the Stepping Tones Practice Diary

At the back of the book there are some pages to enhance and develop theoretical knowledge such as dynamics and tempo, and quick reference guides such as those for the circle of fifths. There are also a number of puzzle pages and further blank staves. Right at the back there is space for students to set targets and a sticker chart.

It is clearly presented, and above all, adaptable. It is sturdily wire-bound which should last longer than standard comb-binding. As well as enough for a year’s worth of lesson and practice notes, the added extras really enhance this beyond the standard practice diary.

I would have no hesitation in recommending this to teachers who still utilise a paper practice diary, and at just £5.99, it is excellent value.

Stepping Tones Practice Diary is available to order direct from Alex here at £5.99.

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

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Review: Stepping Tones Practice Diary

Review: Piano Star Theory

I don’t know about you, but when I was learning piano as a child, the idea of theory sent shivers down my spine. Don’t get me wrong, I liked theory, but in those days, theory equalled exams. To many of us, the need achieve Grade 5 Theory in order to progress to the higher grades was seen as a stumbling block rather than a milestone.

Since I had lessons as a child, much has changed in regards to theory. I believe there’s an increasing awareness amongst teachers for the need to make connections between practical and theoretical work, and much of this is encapsulated in Paul Harris’s ‘simultaneous learning’ approach.

Many piano teachers will already be familiar, and I’m sure, like me, using ABRSM’s Piano Star series of repertoire books. There are currently four books leading to Prep-Test level, and a fourth at Grade 1 level. A new addition to that series is Kathy and David Blackwell’s Piano Star Theory book. The activity book is aimed at ‘young players in the early stages of learning the piano’. As highlighted on the back cover, the book’s contents are designed to link:

‘practical music-making, building aural awareness and boosting the confidence of young musicians.’

There are, of course, many theory books already on the market, so you might ask why we need another one. I think that first and foremost, as expected, this book links very closely with the existing books in the series. The presentation style and illustrations are similar, and in that sense the book sits well alongside the Piano Star repertoire books already published.

The first topic to be introduced is crotchets and semibreves (p. 4) followed by minims (p. 5). They are introduced in a way which combines both sound and symbol. Students are encouraged to clap the given rhythms within the context of a steady drum beat, as well as to draw the note values, and to learn their names and time values. Some preparatory work on pulse, and by consequence, the difference between pulse and rhythm will be useful here. Kodàly and/or Dalcroze foundation exercises would prove useful in that respect, connecting not just sound to symbol, but to the whole body.

Unlike many other theory books, dotted minims are introduced next, followed by the notion of the stave. By p. 8, students should be drawing crotchets, minims, dotted minims and semibreves on the stave, including, where applicable knowing which way stems are to be drawn. An imaginative ‘Stem Song’ is given to reinforce this concept and can be sung to the tune of ‘The wheels on the bus’. This section culminates with a quiz on p. 10 before the introduction of bars, barlines and time signatures.

Pitch names are introduced outwards from middle C covering all the line and space notes in both treble and bass clef. p. 40 also introduces the concept of ledger lines. This approach may seem out of step with those teachers who introduce pitch names through the use of landmark notes; however, the materials here may offer a useful follow-on from that.

The book moves fairly swiftly, although concepts are reinforced throughout. By the end of the book, students will have covered much of the material required for Grade 1 Theory. In addition to the quizzes, there is a game at the end of the book, and a set of stickers which can be used with or independently of the book itself.

Overall, there is much to be commended here. The layout and explanations are clear, and present theory in a way which should appeal to young learners, particularly those already using this series of books. My feeling is that the book will need supplementing with additional activities to really cement the theoretical concepts with the the framework of their practical application. For example, the use of rhythm names (ta, ti, ta-ah) etc. could be introduced before the note values are covered in the book. Similarly, I expect most students would need more practice exercises than those given in this book alone. In some ways, given the pace of the book, with additional exercises, it could have been split into two, or even more volumes.

This is an appealing book, well-conceived. Rather than offering a radically different approach to teaching theory, it offers another book in the selection from which teachers can choose. As previously mentioned, it will appeal particularly to those students already familiar with the style of the other books in the Piano Star series. If ABRSM were ever to consider a companion book of supplementary exercises, I’m sure this would be welcomed by both students and teachers.

Piano Star Theory by Kathy and David Blackwell, is published by ABRSM, ISBN 978-1-78601-227-2 AB3970, £6.50

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

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Review: Piano Star Theory

Review: Modern Piano Studies

Some might say that studies (or études) have fallen out of favour with modern approaches to piano teaching. As a developing pianist, I don’t recall using books of studies in my own lessons, and now, as a teacher, I tend to use them as they come up, for example, in tutor books.

Perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider what a study (or étude) actually is. My Oxford Companion to Music defines them as:

‘Any composition intended as a basis for the improvement of the the performer.’

Scholes, P. (1975). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press. p.336

Some might say this is a fairly wide definition, but it captures something of the original intention of these pieces which grew in popularity during the 19th-century.

Fast forward some two hundred years, and Czech composer and pianist, Jakub Metelka has produced a brand new volume of studies aimed at the 21st-century pianist and teacher: Modern Piano Studies.

The book includes 30 studies, each of which covers an individual technical challenge. Almost as a bonus, the 30 studies in the book cover every major and minor key, and each has its own individual character:

‘With their tuneful melodies and modern sound, these studies amount to miniature recital pieces.’

There is perhaps, when considering pieces such as these, a fairly blurred division between studies and what we might refer to as repertoire pieces. Just as with these pieces, each repertoire piece we learn also presents its own technical challenges to overcome. In that sense, I would say these are as much enjoyable pieces to learn, as they are technical studies.

The first piece, ‘Petite Danseuse’ is, as expected, in C major. There are a number of technical challenges presented here, but I would imagine that staccato playing was at the forefront of the composer’s mind. The right hand combines staccato quavers with ‘normal’ semiquavers, whilst the left hand requires a sustaining minim in the lower voice with staccato chords above.

The second piece, ‘Leaky Gutter’ follows the pattern, and is in A minor (although, the Gs are not sharpened which may cause some confusion for pupils). Right hand glissando playing seems to be the main technical challenge in this piece.

The composer states that the pieces are of ‘moderate technical difficulty’. Some of the early pieces in fairly straightforward keys would suit players of around Grade 4 level, whilst some of the later pieces in more complex keys are, whilst short, pushing Grade 7 level.

This is a useful book of pieces which not only reinforce specific techniques, but which also refresh and refine theoretical knowledge. As I said above, they are as much pieces to be enjoyed as part of the repertoire, as they are to be used as technical studies.

My only criticism is that the book would have been greatly enhanced had there been a programme note for each piece highlighting the specific technical challenge covered. Many of the pieces include numerous technical challenges, and in my view, it’s not always clear which is intended as the main one. It would also offer both teachers and players a quick reference guide to the book when searching for pieces which cover specific techniques. Perhaps the composer or publisher might offer this as a download in due course?

Overall, this is a useful and in many ways, innovative volume of pieces which would suit intermediate to advanced players. It is, as expected from Bärenreiter, expertly presented and typeset, and at about 38p per piece, excellent value. You can hear audio samples of the pieces and see examples of the sheet music on the publisher’s website here.

Modern Piano Studies by Jakub Metelka, is published by Bärenreiter, ISMN 979-0-260108-76-9 BA 11559, £11.50

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

Review: Landscapes

After all these years of playing and teaching, I still love discovering new music. In Landscapes, Alison Matthews has composed 14 beautiful ‘poetic’ piano solos which will, I’m sure, stand the test of time. This is, in part, aided, as always, by the beautiful publication itself.

It was lovely, as always, to meet Alison (and Nikolas) at the Music & Drama Education Expo back in March. I was able to try out some of these pieces in the presence of the composer (not scary, I promise!) and get the book signed (big smile).

As ever, it’s taken me a bit longer to get round to trying all of them. Alison suggests the pieces are suitable for pianists of around Grades 5-6, with the last piece in the book pushing towards Grade 7. I would agree with this, and I think that this volume, in particular, offers a range of pieces suitable for bridging the gap between Grades 5 and 6.

If you, or your pupils enjoy the music of contemporary composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Alexis Ffrench and maybe even Philip Glass, these pieces very much reflect that style. To compare Alison’s pieces to these, often much-maligned composers, is, I think, I great complement. She, like they, has the ability to craft tender, often hypnotic pieces, with rich, sonorous harmonies, but which sound effortless to the ear. They transport the player and listener alike to a new world, far beyond the complexities and confusion of our everyday lives.

A particular favourite piece of mine was ‘Trails in the Sand’, a thoughtful piece demanding much of a player’s ability to balance the texture. As in all these pieces, careful pedalling is needed, much of this very clearly indicated. I also enjoyed the wistful waltz, ‘Reflections’, and the swift, but peaceful ‘Whispering Breeze’.

I think that often, as piano teachers, we neglect our own playing, and enjoyment of playing. I know that there are many who, like me, are so worn out by the weekend/holidays that we don’t wish to go near the piano. If you’re looking to inspire your own playing again, then I think these are a must-have. They have certainly inspired me, and I shall continue to enjoy learning and playing them for, I’m sure, many years to come.

Landscapes: Poetic Piano Solos by Alison Matthews, is published by Editions Musica Ferrum, ISMN 979-0-708147-55-8, £12.00.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.’

Seasonal New Discoveries 2018

Welcome to this special post of my monthly New Discoveries series in which I share a selection of music suitable for the upcoming Christmas period. It might only be mid-October, but some pupils are already preparing early! If you have music you wish to submit for review, please see my Reviews Policy.

There will be a normal October New Discoveries post at the end of the month. Make sure you subscribe below to have this delivered straight to your inbox.

CAPTURING THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: 12 Carols arranged for solo piano (Barbara Arens & Alison Matthews)
Editions Musica Ferrum, ISMN 9790708147381, £12.00 (Available direct from Editions Musica Ferrum)

If Nikki Iles’ Jazz on a Winter’s Night 2 was my pick of 2017, this new book of beautiful carol arrangements from Barbara and Alison is, by far, my pick of 2018. I talk a lot in these blogs about music for teaching purposes, but the thing which struck me most about this book was that it would make a wonderful Christmas gift for any pianists you know!

12 carols are included, a mixture of well-known ones, and some completely unknown to me. I think that to me, the appeal of this book, is the way in which the arrangers have been so sensitive to the original texts and tunes. My particular favourites were Infant Holy and the Coventry Carol, but they are all lovely. Again, these pieces will appeal to young and young at heart alike, and I know for one, I shall enjoy playing these purely for my own pleasure over the Christmas period.

This book should be top of your shopping list this Christmas.

THE CHRISTMAS BELLS: SATB & piano (Thomas Hewitt Jones)
Banks Music Publications, GCL011, £1.95 (Available direct from Banks Music Publications)

OK, so in some ways, this isn’t a new discovery, because I know many of you will have seen me tweet the original single release in December 2015 (and I can’t help but retweet it each Christmas too). In case you missed it, here it is:

If you haven’t done so already, you should definitely hop over to iTunes and download it!

Even more exciting though, you can now buy the sheet music, arranged for SATB voices and piano. With plenty of pizazz, this could be the ideal encore for your Christmas concert. I defy anyone not to be cheered along by this gem. You’ll be humming it to yourself for weeks!

GET SET! PIANO: Christmas Crackers (David Blackwell & Karen Marshall)
Collins Music, ISBN 9780008306144, £7.99 (Available from Musicroom)

This bumper book of carol arrangements by David Blackwell and Karen Marshall contains over 30 well-known (and less well-known) carols suitable for pianists from beginner (only five fingers needed) up to Grade 2 level, and aligns with the two Get Set! Piano books already in print. Each carol is preceded by suggestions for learning activities associated with the piece, and there are plentiful quizzes, tips, games, facts and other suggestions too. The early pieces have effective duet accompaniments making the book accessible to players in the very early stages of learning. Another cracker (excuse the pun) from David and Karen. Don’t forget, there are additional resources to download via the Pianodao website.

ME AND YOU: Jazzy Christmas Duets (Rachael Forsyth)
Roo Records Music, £7.50 (Available from Roo Records Music)

With so many teachers now teaching more than one instrument (e.g. woodwind, strings etc.) this book is a must. Eight jazzed-up carols are included with parts for both C and B flat instruments. This means that they can be used effectively with a whole range of woodwind, brass and string instruments, as well as two instruments the same. They are beautifully crafted arrangements which will appeal to both children and adults alike, and with such a range of potential instrument combinations, an excellent value and durable book.