1.

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.

 

2.

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.

 

3.

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.

 

4.

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.

 

5.

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.

 

6.

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.

 

<a href=”http://cliparts.co/clipart/2416016″>Clip art image by Cliparts.co</a>

 

Coming out of a tight corner, I knew I was going too fast to make it safely round the next. The tumble that ensued was described by my husband Robin as ‘an elegant fall’. It didn’t feel very elegant from down on the dirt, but at least I was not in pain—not yet, anyway.

 

Over our summer holiday here in New Zealand, Robin and I decided to explore some of the bike trails amidst the lush rainforest, lakes and rivers of the West Coast around Hokitika, a little town we’ve grown to love. The West Coast Wilderness trail takes in some pretty stunning scenery in the area.

(We did our own version of the trail, but the link shows photos of the area.)

The last time cycling was a thing for me was my primary school commute as a child. The family bike was a bit too big for me and the only way to get any notable speed was through pedalling hard. No multi-gears back then, and certainly no electric bikes. What a pleasure to rediscover cycling (though still non-electric) with 24  gears to choose from!

What has all this got to do with music? Well, this week, as I got back into the teaching routine, I noticed that some students were playing pieces too fast, so the music was uneven. Other pupils were playing so slowly that they didn’t know how the music was supposed to sound at the best speed for it. So, from my recent time on the bike, here are a few thoughts on the issues of playing at the right tempo—the appropriate speed in a given piece of music.

 

1. Know how to use your bike

Getting used to changing 24 gears was my first hurdle, and getting the seat sorted made a big difference to my comfort level.

Setting up with a touch-sensitive keyboard or piano is important for a good start. I often get asked what a touch-sensitive keyboard is.  Basically, if you press a key down gently, it will play softly; if you make a short, sharp action on the note, it will play loudly. This simulates the hammer action on an acoustic piano. Make sure you are sitting comfortably tall on your piano stool (not leaning on the seat back if there is one) and with your fingers curved on the keys.

 

2. Start at a speed you can manage

I was painfully slow at first in getting back into cycling. But that slow start gave the best confidence to keep going.

For beginning pianists the most important foundation for appropriate later speed is learning to play with an even, constant beat. Learn to count out loud with early pieces and play at a speed you can play the complete piece without errors. Take it slow and steady.

 

3. Know how much you can handle

We decided that around 20kms per outing was a good distance for us. Just as we planned how much we could manage in a ride, we had to find the right speed to not only enjoy the scenery along the way, but to get to the end and feel like the pace had been good overall for the experience.

There is something really satisfying about playing even a small selection of a piece of music correctly at a suitable tempo in the process of learning it. To enjoy how the music sounds and not get frustrated, you need to minimize the mistakes and simply go slower.

 

4. Get back on the bike after a tumble

Even the best efforts at doing it correctly don’t mean you won’t have a fall. When I had my ‘elegant fall’ Robin gave me a hand up and I was quite glad it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might have been, apart from a muscle in my ribs complaining when I coughed for a few days! I definitely took it more slowly and carefully after that though.

We learn from mistakes in our music learning too. Don’t be put off by them. It is a good idea for the sake of the whole piece to take some time to practice slowly and carefully those difficult bits we struggle with.

This whole area of the right speed was maybe best summed up in a moment once when I was helping a pupil struggling with a difficult passage of music. Without thinking, I said: “The quicker you learn to play it slowly, the faster you will get it.” When that difficult passage becomes easy you are then ready to increase the speed.

 

5. Getting to the best speed

I still have a long way to go to become a speedy cyclist, but I do know a good way to increase the tempo of a piano piece.

You may have a piece that needs to go at a much faster speed than you are currently able to play it.

  • Use a metronome to find the speed at which you can play the piece currently without mistakes.
  • Increase the metronome speed slightly and do it again.
  • Repeat this process until you have reached the suggested metronome speed of the piece.
  • If at any time the music becomes uneven or incorrect, take it back to a slower speed. 
  • Enjoy the sense of satisfaction when you get there!

 

Whether it is on a bike or at your instrument, have fun, and enjoy the ride!

 

I meet a whole range of musical and non-musical parents in the process of teaching music to their children. In this blog I want to share some insights in support of this spectrum of people who supervise piano practice at home. Whether you are busy or not, musical or not, my hope is that you will be able find some takeaways relevant to you that will help you be a great encourager as your child learns music this year.

 

The first thing is to avoid extremes of involvement. Are you a helicopter parent? You know, hovering over every note they play? That’s one extreme. Or are you the other? You have no idea what your child does at the piano, you just pay the bill and drop them off for their lesson. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. And somewhere in between these two extremes there is a sweet spot.

There were times I was sorry my mother was so busy teaching other people’s children that my own lesson times were limited to when she could fit me in. Sometimes she would call  “F sharp!” from the kitchen, reminding me that she was listening to my practice. But, I was also grateful that I was left to my own fiddling around at the piano for some of the time. Those were the times I got to expand from what I’d learned “officially” to the stage of quite enjoying something I made up at the piano. That free-time mucking around at the piano is how I became a songwriter/composer of music, creating musicals for the schools my children attended, composing arrangements for junior orchestras and a creator of my own piano course.

Parents with their own musical background generally really care that their children learn well. They can be a great asset of course, helping out when the child is working through their practice and gets stuck on something.

But one of the difficulties I have come across is where a musical parent takes over when the child first starts learning. Such a parent plays the child’s pieces for them in a bid to ease them over the hurdle of reading difficulties. This can have the unintended consequence of affecting the child’s music reading process. The child instead starts expecting the music to be played for them first. They may learn to play very well by ear, but struggle with reading skills. A more helpful thing for that parent to do is to simply play their own music and do their own practice. Let the child’s new pieces be theirs to share and then play the duets with them if there are any.

My own children were jump-started in their learning this way as I taught them all the Suzuki method to begin with. The Suzuki music is taught by ear at first and children can advance quite quickly. The music is great and I still use it today, but I was sorry that I didn’t pay enough attention to my children’s reading skills. These were more difficult to establish later because they felt like it was a backward step, going back to an earlier level in order to learn the process of reading and playing at the same time. 

So I created Headstart Piano in order to specifically give some pieces to learn to play by ear, alongside other pieces that train the pupil to read music with appropriate decoding skills. Playing by ear and reading music are taught separately in the early stage, but come together through the two books and most children are then ready to read and play at a grade 1 level.

If you are one of those parents who feel badly that you don’t know a thing about music, so you think you are not much help to your child’s learning, don’t panic! Hear me on this one… Some of the most supportive parents I have met are people like you. When you don’t know whether it is right and wrong, you ask the child to tell you, to show you. Then, when you smile with honest admiration at their music, they beam back as they look forward to the next piece they will learn to show you. This gives your child a sense of pride in what they are discovering and it’s a way they see you delight in them.

 

Keep the enjoyment of music a focus. Sure, we need the routine of practice, but keep it just under your child’s tolerance level so that they leave it when they are not tired or grumpy. If they are too tired to practice, at the very least encourage them to play their favourite piece as much as they like.

I have often seen pupils start to develop seriously good fluent playing style when they played ‘Waves’, ‘Bingo’ or ‘Bagpipes’ (3 favourites from Headstart Piano Book 1) to the extent that the speed was a little out of hand!

 

Reward appropriately. It is good to remind ourselves as adults that we like a pay packet for work done. What is the appropriate equivalent for a child learning a task they have to apply a bit of time and practice to? Figure out what is best for your child and stick to it. And if you plan it ahead of time as the year gets underway, it really won’t be a burden to you later when you are busy.

 

Ask how the lesson went. Sometimes that is all you need to link the lesson to the week’s practice. Your child may want to show you, and you need to be prepared to give a bit of your precious time in that moment. It will establish in their brains what they just did and will do a whole heap to validate what they just learned.

Some time ago I did what turned out to be a really useful blog on questions to ask after the lessons. If you haven’t seen it, click here for a moment and get the main points. 

 

A “little and often” practice plan.

To start with this is essential. The time length can alter as the child gets older. I can straight away spot when there was one big practice time the day before the lesson, because we end up going over things they had forgotten about from the previous week. As a busy parent, have a chat with our pupil and work out between you what is manageable and they agree to. You could even both sign a “Terms of Practice!” Then you have the right to encourage them to do that each day. Find a time they are likely to be less tired.

One of the unwritten conditions I got used to (because there was no budging my mother on it) was that I was not allowed to have after school play time with friends if I hadn’t done my piano practice. That meant I got good at planning to get it done before school, because my mother was usually teaching someone on our family piano after school. I look back on that as a life skill learned.

 

Change the music if the enthusiasm wanes.

Get in touch with me if this happens, so I can find something that will get them back on track. It may be a piece they have heard someone else play, or maybe a particular style suits them.  When I was writing and compiling pieces for Headstart Piano, my elder son asked if I had any pieces that have a banging left hand—”the sort that boys love”. I knew what he meant. One of the favourite pieces back in my childhood was ‘From a Wigwam’, out of Teaching Little Fingers to Play by John Thompson. It was a great suggestion from my son. I created ‘Distant Drums’ in that style and it has definitely become a favourite for many pupils.

As the school year gets underway, I hope there is something in there to inspire you as an encourager in 2022. Our kids today need us to cheer them on, and just showing your interest in simple ways is all it takes, whether you have a musical background or not.