Review: Music & Drama Education Expo 2019

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

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

Dates

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

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

Venue

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

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

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

Exhibitors

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

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

Talks, Seminars and Workshops

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Review: ABRSM Teacher Conference 2018

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

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

The Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seminars

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

Manage Your Performance Nerves
Charlotte Tomlinson

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

Perfecting Performance at the Early Grades
John Holmes and Anthony Williams

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

The Musical Journey to Notation
Karen Marshall and Anthony Williams

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

The Venue

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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