In the past few weeks I have seen a super-positive effect of a tool which gives a wonderful approach to practice. It turned around the learning so effectively that I thought I’d share it: Competition.

Without realising it at the time, competition helped me during childhood as I compared what piece I was up to in a book with friends, or what exam I was up to and how I did relative to others in a music competition. But I also developed a sense of competing with myself as I was learning new material. So I thought I’d muse in this blog about both personal and interpersonal uses of competition.


 Interpersonal Competition

  • Maybe I’m wrong, but being competitive seems to have gone out of fashion in today’s world. Participation trophies and everyone winning is the order of the day. But is it always helpful? Interpersonal competition can be a positive motivator for learning and does not need to be the negative force it is often perceived as.
  • Some learners absolutely thrive on this way of improving in their music and will happily do exams, competitions and concerts wherever possible. Others find comparing their level of ability so challenging that they almost freeze in their learning.
  • I got on really well with a girl who came to lessons with my mother. She was the only person who was at the same level as me, but was a bit younger. We had (what I reflect on now as) a healthy competitive interest in how each was doing. We inspired each other to do better without a sense of the other being a threat. (At least that is how I remember it.) We naturally compared how we were doing and then made adjustments to change the outcome next time. I don’t think I would be where I am today without it.
  • It is important to find that place where someone else’s achievements don’t cripple your learning through self-doubt and you can just get on at your own pace. I have a sister who is 10 years older than me and very clever musically. I have always been in awe of her because of her musical skill. Her dedication to practice was second to none too! But as time went on I developed areas of my own musical skill-set that made up for self-doubt.
  • A few thoughts about competition between siblings:
  1. Sometimes it works well to have siblings who are learning the same instrument learn from different tutor books, especially if they are close in age. If there is more of a gap in age, using the same tuition system can work fine though.
  2. Siblings learning different instruments can work really well if they start learning at the same time. This is especially good for twins. I’ve had one learning cello and the other violin which worked really well. There was enough difference for there to be good encouragement from one to the other.
  3. Be aware of different learning styles with siblings. Some may learn by ear better and others may read better first. Help those children develop a recognition of strengths as being different, rather than feeling inadequate in the areas they have to work harder at.
  4. If there is an unhelpful competition going on between siblings, encourage them to compete with their own learning and mark their own progress in some way.


Personal Competition

This takes us back to the tool I mentioned at the beginning. Basically, it is using visual guides and reward systems worked out between parent, teacher and pupil to help the learner view their own personal progress as competition.

I’ve mentioned before how I use an abacus as a helpful way to show repetitions in practising. Check that here if you haven’t seen it:

Repetition of learning something perfectly gives a sense of satisfaction, like a reward.


Rewards, from small to large

Since I put out the last blog I have used an abacus in a number of lessons for new, young learners as a way of focussing on every little task needing to be done so that the pupil can visually check their work and improvement. Most would reach about 25 beads across by the end of the lesson. It was so simple and yet so effective. Some parents have taken it from there and used the star chart or punch cards at home.

The amazing change in attitude to practice as a result has reminded me afresh just how much rewards motivate, whether small – like beads on an abacus, through to saving up tokens for a great reward like going to a musical concert. It is worth taking the time to think through what will work for your child because rewards are a significant way for your child to compete at their own level of achievement without having to compare to others.  The more they improve quickly, the more they want to move on to the next thing and gain the ‘prize’.


I thought it might be useful to think of competition this way because every learner faces the issue at some point along their musical journey. Instead of being a massive negative that puts someone off learning music for life, let’s press through to make it work best for them whether in a personal way, interpersonally, or a what usually turns out to be a healthy combination of both.

Have you heard of the 5 love languages? 

When I first did, it was profoundly helpful in understanding how those close to me expressed their love. It also opened my own eyes about my own love languages. I fully acknowledge the work of Gary Chapman who first wrote about these love languages as I reflect on how they affect the way we teach and learn music.

None of us relate to just one love language, but we can quickly see the one that stands out among the others as the main one.

Let’s look at how these may offer a varied approach when helping those in their music learning.


Acts of Service

I can’t go past this one without mentioning my husband Robin (if I can get my comments through his edits!) He has a real gift in loving our family by all kinds of acts of service—from cooking for us every night to editing my blog, and much in between.

For the musician an act of service could be performing music in some way to bless others.

  • It can be as simple as playing a piece to the parent who wasn’t at the lesson.
  • Maybe it is to prepare a few pieces to do a performance for grandparents .
  • Or always to have a piece prepared to play for guests who come to visit.
  • It might be to get a group together to perform at a retirement community.
  • Performances could be individual or in groups of instruments.

Children need the opportunity to learn that they can genuinely bless others by playing music. It can also take away the self focus of the performance being about them and their nerves if they see it as an act of love to someone else.


Gift Giving and Receiving

My daughter is our family gift giver. She’s always on the lookout for things that she knows will be just right for someone. She loves to receive gifts too and the rest of us need to remember that when we want to show her our love.

If your child seems unmotivated to practise, it may be that they need some physical affirmation through rewards and prizes. After all, we as adults work for a living and get money as a reward for it. Use a reward system for:

  • practice done, even down to small tasks such as counting through a piece or working through note recognition.
  • giving more credit for the practice tasks that take more emotional energy.

Ideas for rewards might include:

  • a click on a punch card towards a bigger reward when complete.
  • a coupon given for, say: a friend staying over, a favourite food or drink, staying up late, a trip to a favourite shop, park or mall.
  • a sticker chart for each successful practice and a physical reward that you have worked out with them when the chart is completed. One of my pupil’s parents took their child to a special concert for this. It was a great motivator for the early stages of her learning.
  • extra pocket money, if appropriate.

If you would like free .pdf copies of a Star Chart, Headstart Piano characters on punch cards for printing, or a piano practice coupon page, let me know and I’ll email them to you.


Quality Time

I have special memories of the times my mother sat down with me as a child to help me with my music. I knew she was very busy, so I valued these times as time with her more so than about the music. She was maybe a little more focussed on me passing an exam than as seeing it as quality time spent. But she told me in later life that she wanted to give all her children the opportunity to earn their own living through teaching music if they chose to. Two out of five of us are doing just that.

Children who come to me for lessons on a weekly basis have my absolute full attention in that lesson time. I am so grateful for the many special children I have come to know like this. Having your child learn a musical instrument gives you a golden opportunity to sit and help them in learning this skill. I can also tell you that the learners who come out enjoying their music are those who have focussed parents who take an interest in how their child is learning. The child probably unconsciously takes on board the idea that if their parent is interested it must be worth something.


Physical Touch

A hug at the right moment can be just what is needed. But physical touch is more than just this. How might this relate to learning a musical instrument?

Playing a musical instrument obviously involves doing something physical with the instrument. Looking back over decades of playing musical instruments I realise that each instrument I play affects me in different ways. As far as the piano goes, I remember as a teenager how I used to express myself with quite loud playing when I was in particular moods. An electronic keyboard with limited touch response just wouldn’t have been the same. I have always enjoyed playing with soft and loud expression on the piano, but the particular tone of the piano makes a difference too. An out of tune piano or one with a dull tone can take all the joy out of playing it.  On string instruments, I enjoy the variation to the tone a vibrato can bring—a completely different sensation to playing the piano.

I have seen adverts for instruments for sale that say “good for a beginner” which usually means they are horrible to play. Why would you give a beginner a bad instrument to play and expect them to enjoy it? The answer is usually “cost”. But you also have to consider the “cost” of the child not getting the best opportunity possible to learn to love music. It doesn’t need to be a Steinway grand but neither do you want that free piano from a friend that has been rusting in his garage since Grandma died. Having an instrument that feels right can help a performer express their heart through their playing. And when you play from your heart it touches other people’s hearts. I’ll never forget the time a dear lady came up to me after I played the cello saying that the tone of the cello seemed to reach a special place in her heart.


Words of Affirmation

This love language connects most to me.  I appreciate words of encouragement and also hope to find the right words to encourage someone else on their journey. It is helpful to have this inclination as a music teacher, but I need to be aware that it may not always work for some pupils. Some of the other love languages may speak louder. For some pupils, the sticker at the end of the lesson is what they are looking forward to. Others may be counting up the days to when they will get a lucky dip prize. Other may appreciate the one-to-one attention of quality time.

At home, when it is practice time, maybe “I’d love to hear you play your latest piece!” may be more helpful than “Get your practice done!” Or, when the practice is finished, a word of affirmation of progress made since last week may be a more positive reinforcement than pointing out things that needed fixing.


Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki Method of teaching very young children music was motivated to see children happy by being surrounded by music from birth. In his book Nurtured by Love he wrote: “If a child hears good music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart”.

I hope by thinking through the 5 love languages in relation to music learning you can find something there to help foster a loving environment in your home for enjoyable music making.

You can find out more on Gary Chapman’s website here: What are The 5 Love Languages?


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My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back

off to the side of the piano.

I sit up straight on the stool.

He begins by telling me that every key

is like a different room

and I am a blind man who must learn

to walk through all twelve of them

without hitting the furniture.

I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.



He tells me that every scale has a shape

and I have to learn how to hold

each one in my hands.

At home I practice with my eyes closed.

C is an open book.

D is a vase with two handles.

G flat is a black boot.

E has the legs of a bird.



He says the scale is the mother of the chords.

I can see her pacing the bedroom floor

waiting for her children to come home.

They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting

all the songs while couples dance slowly

or stare at one another across tables.

This is the way it must be. After all,

just the right chord can bring you to tears

but no one listens to the scales,

no one listens to their mother.



I am doing my scales,

the familiar anthems of childhood.

My fingers climb the ladder of notes

and come back down without turning around.

Anyone walking under this open window

would picture a girl of about ten

sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,

not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,

like a white Horace Silver.



I am learning to play

“It Might As Well Be Spring”

but my left hand would rather be jingling

the change in the darkness of my pocket

or taking a nap on an armrest.

I have to drag him in to the music

like a difficult and neglected child.

This is the revenge of the one who never gets

to hold the pen or wave good-bye,

and now, who never gets to play the melody.



Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.

It is the largest, heaviest,

and most beautiful object in this house.

I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.

And late at night I picture it downstairs,

this hallucination standing on three legs,

this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

From Sailing Alone Around the Room, Random House, 2001

In the last blog I discussed how music exams should not be used and how they work best. In this  blog I want to share some of the benefits I have seen come out of music exams. I’ve seen this in my own experience and also in that of my pupils. I think I would have liked to have understood how useful to me exams were going to be down the track when I was in the thick of them myself as a young person.  


A well prepared music exam…

  • takes learning to a recognisably new level. The pupil really senses that this has happened in a way that going to the next tutor book on the list just doesn’t. They know that they have progressed to a particular level of playing.
  • inspires the pupil in his/her learning. Getting to the next level is a pretty powerful way for pupils to realise that the work they put in has helped them achieve something for themselves. I often see new levels of enthusiasm after pupils gets their exam results.
  • develops a sense of direction. The anticipation of working towards the next grade up is a good thing. When a pupil sees other pupils developing their skills from one year to the next in exam concerts, they often look forward to playing pieces at a higher level.
  • helps learn different music styles. Because the pupil has to prepare a range of musical styles, they get exposed to range of music that can often help the tutor see the sort of music they like. I quite often will look for other pieces like those that the pupil enjoyed in their exam.
  • shows skill in the moment and offers potential life lessons. In an exam, you have to perform at a given moment and show what you know. I had a pupil tell me that doing music exams helped her pass her driving test. This was a student who always played beautifully but got quite nervous in her exams. It was something we had to work at, but I would not have guessed this would have become a side benefit to her.
  • helps develop a performance mentality. Being a musician means that there are very likely going to be times you need to play in front of others in some capacity. It may be solo or in a group setting. I got terribly nervous in some of my exams, sometimes shaking uncontrollably throughout. But with each one I discovered how I best prepare for performances. In particular, I realised that I could actually enjoy the experience, even shine, when my pieces were well learned. It gave me confidence to play in music groups as well.
  • provides an international qualification. For many, a music exam is the first internationally accepted qualification they will have. I must have been around 7 when I sat my first exam. I still remember the lady examiner with an elaborate hat who was very kind. It all took place on our family piano which was the music room where my mother taught many pupils. The examiner would come out from England and travel to various smaller centres in New Zealand where the exams took place. It was only ‘initial piano’, but it was an internationally recognised qualification.
  • checks out if your teacher is teaching you well! I love nothing better than for my pupils to get an exam report affirming a perspective on issues I have already been addressing, such as dynamics and phrasing. I also think of a pupil’s exam comments as a way of seeing how I can improve as a teacher too.
  • improves sight reading. Quite often it is the preparation for the exam sight reading exercise that helps the pupil understand how to sight read better. (That said, I actually work towards this skill with every lesson, though my pupils don’t usually realise it, because I don’t play the new piece of music before they have sight read it themselves first.)

Maybe I have missed a benefit you have had from doing a music exam. Let me know in the comments so we can all learn it too!


Exam—the very word is enough to incite terror into the hearts of some pupils! It does not need to be that way!!


In my music studio I will only offer exams to those pupils I know will benefit from them. For those who don’t want to sit them, or will not gain from doing so, there are other ways to help them progress in their joy and ability at their instrument.

Not all pupils will be positive at the prospect of an exam. If I’m honest, I’ve had my own negative exam experiences too. But I think that’s where I can help reluctant pupils. I know what not to do when it comes to preparing my pupils for a music exam. I have had enough experience to see how useful an exam can be if a pupil is prepared well. So here are a few pointers on how exams should not be used and how they work best. And in the next blog I’ll talk about what I’ve seen as real benefits to using them.


Exams should not be used

  • as the only way to progress in music. There should be other music explored between exams.
  • to see how a pupil does with a view to fixing the revealed problems.
  • to progress to a level at which the pupil is not actually playing in their other music. If it takes longer than about 8 weeks to prepare for the exam, the pupil is not ready for that particular level.
  • when a pupil is particularly nervous in a performance. It is better to explore other ways for them to perform confidently before doing an exam that may reinforce a sense of failure. Exams work for most pupils if handled well, but there is no sense pushing it for the truly nervous performer. Some will grow out of that as they get older and may be ready later on.


Exams work best

  • when the pupil is really well prepared.
  • when the pupil has played on the examination piano in a pre-exam mini concert.
  • when the pupil can read the music. It is best not to play the piece from memory—nerves can throw it all off in a moment.
  • when the attitude is to play well, not just to pass or hoping not to fail. 
  • when the teacher does not enter a pupil for an exam unless they are sure that there is a practice routine in place and know that the pupil is likely to not only pass but do well. This makes for a passing grade while allowing for upsets that can happen for even well prepared pupils.
  • when the pupil prepares for every part of an exam. (I had a pupil working at a high grade level who just wanted to focus on getting the pieces and scales played really well. They didn’t want to put too much work into the sight reading or ear tests, and thought they didn’t mind just passing the exam. However, when they got 3 marks short of distinction there was an element of regret that they had come just short of an excellent mark, simply because they hadn’t prepared all the aspects.)


I hope this has been helpful in some way, especially If you have had a bad experience of music exams. In the next blog I will address the real benefits of using exams. I think you will find that useful too.


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