Ever have that experience when someone mumbles and you have to say: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.” Usually, it is because they didn’t articulate the words clearly.

Music, too, can sound a bit like a mumble when we just play the notes and the basic rhythm and not much more. The music sounds clearer and is generally expressed better when played with appropriate articulation. There are all sorts of ways to articulate a note and these ways vary for each instrument.

In my Headstart Piano course*, which I’ve been using with my pupils for a number of years now, one of the early lessons on articulation shows the difference between playing staccato and legato. We learn ‘Raindrops’  to get the short staccato action played correctly, and then ‘Windshield Wipers’  to learn to play legato where the notes follow each other smoothly and connected. The tutor part that goes with it has a short, detached, staccato ‘raindrop’ part that the ‘wipers’ are smoothly wiping away in contrast. The imagery seems to be helpful in underlining the musical articulation.

image copyright © Headstart Piano 2019

(*Let me know if you want to be told when the online version of this course is ready.)

I was at an orchestra practice this week and was reminded how much care we have learned to put in over the years in making the beginning of a note sound clear and beautiful. For a string player playing legato, it is about eliminating any gritch sound at the very beginning of a note. Then there are various kinds of staccato, needing just the right amount of pressure on the bow to create each one.

In addition, there is a different kind of staccato that a string player can use to articulate notes. It is called pizzicato. Listen to the effect of the whole string section of the orchestra laying aside their bows to play pizzicato through the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony – Scherzo. Pizzicato. There is a delightful interaction with the wind sections who join in at times.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, 3rd mvmt

Accents played in the right place sound amazing when the whole orchestra observes them too. I’m reminded how the right accent on beat 1 can affect the overall flow of a piece of music. I had a pupil bring a new piece back to the lesson recently and play it perfectly. All the note values were correct, but it lacked an appropriate strength to the first beat. The music just drifted in and the rhythm lacked the ‘oomph’ it needed. This was all due to the lack of that slight accent on the first beat of the bar. Once that was fixed, the collection of notes was transformed into a piece of music.

Singers bring their own kind of articulation to music. In a choir we are taught to make sure our T’s and Ks are heard at the end of words. Choir directors delight in dreaming up warm-ups that will get tongues working in ways they never have before, just so the words in the songs are articulated correctly when the group sings together. Last week I chuckled at a choir of primary children going down the scale to “Red leather, yellow leather” briskly sung on each note. I was glad I was just the pianist!

As a musician, there is something very satisfying when you know the notes are played with the right kind of articulation for the piece.

As a teacher, I can tell that a pupil is moving from beginner status to advancing musician, when the notes being played are not only accurate, but also articulate.

How is your sight reading?

No matter the instrument, many of my pupils would love me to play through their new piece before they learn it so that they know how it goes, using their ears to pick it up. But if I were to do that, I would rob them of developing the skill of sight reading. More on how I help them later.

Sight reading is the ability to play a piece of music previously unseen or heard through skills gained in note and rhythm reading. Sight reading is tested in exams. For some, this is their favourite part of the exam; for others, the most terrifying.

The ability to read a piece of music and perform it with only a minimal look at it first is a highly useful skill for any musician.  Today I’m going to give some practical tips for those who find sight reading terrifying, but would like to improve in this area. Some of these are only applicable to keyboard players. Others are generally relevant. Let me know in the comments below what was the most useful to you.

  

Challenges and Tips

 

  1. Note reading is poor. If there is not a clear understanding of the difference between treble and bass notes, it will be difficult to learn any new piece. This principally applies to keyboard pupils, so those on instruments reading only one line of music will find it easier.

 Tip: Use note flash cards for beginner learners and frequent practice of individual note recognition at their learning level. Keep working at note reading until there is no confusion between the staves and the note recognition is instant. If you have trouble with a note on its own, it will be much harder in the flow of reading a lot of notes in a short space of time.

 

  1. Dependence on finger numbers and hand positions. This is a problem for keyboard beginners who get into an early habit of thinking a particular finger always goes with a certain note.

 Tip: Watch out for the learner who is looking for the finger position before identifying the note name. For beginners, it is especially important to have separate exercises to learn note reading independent of finger numbers or a particular hand position.

 

  1. Counting skills not developed. If you cannot count as you read the music, it will be harder to work out the rhythms in the flow of the music.

Tip: Counting aloud helps you hear if you are keeping a steady beat at a speed at which you can play accurately. Learn to count the whole piece for the value of the smallest note value. For example, a piece only in crotchets (quarter notes) is counted with 1 beat per crotchet. If the piece also has quavers (eighth notes), then the whole piece should be counted as for quavers (with ‘ands’ inserted as part of the count) not just where the quavers occur. This helps to decode the music to keep up with each beat of the bar and also helps the learner to look ahead to see what is coming in order to put the note into the beat—not the other way around.

 

  1. Playing is not regular and often. I noticed when I came back to playing for a choir after the lockdown that I was a bit sloppier than usual when given our first piece to play on the day. It wasn’t hard. I simply had not been playing as much as usual and it showed. If you are only playing at your instrument about once a week (like when you have that quick practice before a lesson!), you simply don’t maintain that instant recognition of notes and rhythms as well.

Tip: The way to deal with this is to play a little and often, establishing where the same notes are in different pieces. Do this work on more than one piece a week, so you learn the notes and rhythm patterns in different contexts. As an advanced musician, my mother was an amazing sight reader. She told me one of the reasons was she became good at it early on was by reading a lot of hymns where 4 notes often change together with each beat. Along with that, she also played music in a range of contexts as a music teacher. You don’t have to be a music teacher, but the habits bring results.

 

  1. Limited knowledge and fluency with scales. A thorough grounding in scales is going to help you with fluency, along with key recognition. You are more likely to identify the appropriate sharps and flats needed. Playing the wrong sharps and flats are common mistake areas when sight reading a new piece, and it is easy to lose a sense of the piece’s tonality.

 Tip: Have a regular way to practice scales and be particularly aware of the scale that goes with the key of a piece you are learning.

 

  1. Only working on one piece a week. This applies mostly to beginners. I have noticed that pupils who only practice one piece a week may learn it quite well, but may also memorise it and play it without reading. They are practicing fluency, which is good, but their ability to read in various contexts may stagnate.

 Tip: It is most helpful to develop good reading skills at this early stage if there are 3-4 pieces being practiced each week, so notes are recognised in different contexts.

 

  1. Not revising older, easier music. This is similar to the previous point but adds to it.

 Tip: Revision of older, easier music is so beneficial to the reading process. It gives a sense of achievement, showing how far learners have come, but it also builds reading confidence as they enjoy playing the easier pieces. In addition, pieces they may have learned by memory need to be read when they later ‘forget’ how to play them. So then, that is more reading practice too.

 

  1. Undeveloped ability to read ahead. This is a key aspect of sight reading. Your eyes need to be on the bar ahead, while you are playing the bar before.

Tip: This skill usually happens over time. A careful teacher will monitor it and make sure it is happening. The more you can read notes and rhythms well, the more you can look ahead. Lots of practice playing accurately at the level you are comfortable at, with the difficulty level slowly increasing, is the most ideal.

 

  1. Inability to move on without going back to fix mistakes. This challenge crops up for those who are frustrated if the performance isn’t perfect.

Tip: This simply has to be practiced by taking the piece at a speed at which the learner can keep the steady beat and look ahead. To move on without going back to fix mistakes is so important to good sight reading and some notes may have to be missed to keep with the steady beat. In an piano exam situation I have advised pupils to revert to using just one hand if the music gets too difficult. They will at least get marks for keeping the beat and flow of the music going.

 

These are just a few pointers for a big subject that can’t be covered in one blog. A good sight reader keeps all of these areas in a delicate balance, and if one area doesn’t develop very well, the overall ability to sight read is affected.

Back to what I mentioned at the beginning. When pupils play through their new music with counting and note skills (and separate hands playing as appropriate), it not only helps them develop their own reading skill, it helps me, their teacher, monitor the progress of their reading skill. Sometimes, after working through the selection, they may still not have a sense of how it will sound once practiced, so I may play it through for them so they know what they are aiming for. At that point it is a delight for me to show them what they have already started to achieve, having just put the hard work into reading it for themselves.

I had a chat with a parent this week about how her child had started so well with piano lessons and then recently the enthusiasm had waned. She didn’t know why and I’d noticed it too. During the lockdown Zoom lessons I noticed that their keyboard’s touch-sensitive function was not operating, and it was a fairly new keyboard. Somehow the setting had changed to non-touch-sensitive. Consequently, that piano feel was lost. Once we got that fixed and I had a good look at the music we were covering, the pupil got back on track and was clearly much happier.

Also during the Zoom sessions, I discovered that some pupils were practicing on pianos that needed serious tuning. One piano had middle C sounding a complete semitone lower! For a beginner (or indeed any player), this is significant stuff. It means that when they play at their lesson, wherever I teach them, the piano will feel strange. They won’t play for me as confidently and that will affect their overall experience because the instrument feels so different.

Reflecting on times when I’ve lost confidence in my music playing, it is usually through thinking that someone else could do a better job than I’m doing. I might make more mistakes, have less musical skill, play with poor musical expression and the ‘imposter syndrome’ creeps in. But even just reading that back reminds me how ridiculously easy it is for any of us to allow the loss of confidence to undermine our enjoyment of our own musical experience. It is time for us to appreciate the simple joy of making music whatever stage we are at and appreciate the value of learning at that level. Our sense of fulfillment can come from seeing our personal progress.

 

How much do you think social media affects a loss of confidence? I’ve had conversations about how we only seem to post on social media all the good things that are happening, like when someone travels overseas—remember that thing that people did before lockdown—and then posts selfies in exotic places. Others are reticent to post what seems mundane by comparison. A current equivalent might be when someone has found an amazing backdrop picture to put in their Zoom link, while some of us have no idea how to do that and have to resort to the blank wall look and face to match. There I go, comparing again.

The potential for a loss of confidence in learning a musical instrument is something that must be addressed. It can lead to the learner giving up and realising in later life that they gave up too early. When you see it happening, here are some things you can do.

 

  1. Check that the learner has a good instrument, and that it is set up right. If you need advice from your tutor, seek it. Check this link if you want to upgrade your keyboard. I have 3 keyboards that I reviewed on my resources page. It will show the sorts of things I look for in a keyboard. Just scroll down from the top to Physical Piano Teaching Resources to see the reviews. 
  2. Have them play music that they enjoy at the beginning of their practice. Once they are in the swing of things, go to the areas that need a bit of work, or to new music to cover.
  3. Be involved in whatever way you can. Even if you are busy, your child needs your verbal encouragement and affirmation. I can give it at the lesson, but what you add to that at home is massive.
  4. Avoid comparisons. Help them see how far they personally have come since they began lessons. This is why it is good to maintain earlier pieces that are easy to play. When they are discouraged you can fall back on those pieces to help them see what they have achieved.
  5. Keep practice times short and manageable. These may be different for each child.
  6. Have another look at your reward systems. I have quite a lot of information on this in my course on How to Teach Your Child the Piano Like a Pro . But for those of you who are not teaching your own, you may like to redo the star chart on the fridge and lower your expectations on what is required to earn a star on a regular basis. If you would like a copy of this star chart, let me know.
  1. Get comfy on some bean bags in the lounge and have a music listening date to some music on the instrument they are learning, to simply enjoy the sound of the instrument. Don’t focus on what they can’t do, but focus on the beauty created at the instrument. Remind them that all musicians had to start with basic things first and build up, one step at a time from there.

 

A loss of confidence in our learning does not need to last. It can be turned around with a kind word at the right time, a fresh goal, a change in perspective. Whatever it might be, I hope there is something here that can help in some way and be an encouragement to you.

One of the big reasons people sign up for weekly music lessons is to have regular accountability with someone who is going to keep their learning on track.  But if you were to miss the lesson once in a while, would it really matter?

 

Being on lockdown for the last 40 days (due to the Covid 19 restrictions here in NZ) has given me a little clarity on this and I’ve been seeing the weekly lesson in a new perspective. It has been wonderful being able to carry through with the lessons as expected, even if only via Zoom. We did have a school holiday break in the middle and therefore a break from music lessons too, but that was useful for many adjusting to family life under lockdown. Once the holiday was over, the resumption of music lessons, along with the regularity of practice, gave pupils some normality to their unusual weeks.

 

(One of Emily’s lockdown Zoom lessons)

 

Some bored lockdown pupils were very grateful to have some music to focus on, so they did more practice than usual. It was a chance for them to shine, which I would not have seen if it wasn’t for the weekly catch up.  It gave me an opportunity to praise the progress, especially important for those who had been making slow progress for a while.

For others, even the short holiday break was too long, such that mistakes could become ingrained due to practice without accountability. Regular lessons are helpful to make sure things are being learned as they should.  It can be very discouraging for a young person to have to re-learn something they thought was correct.

It is also discouraging to have a long break at the point at which they are making good progress. This is particularly true of those in the early stages of learning where getting habits established is key to ongoing learning. Getting motivated to revise things already learned but forgotten can be a challenge. If the music skills are established over a shorter period of time, the pupil sees quicker progress and enthusiastically moves on to new material. The sense of achievement simply feeds the whole process and the resulting enjoyment makes the music all the sweeter.

I can speak from experience as to what it is like to have irregular lessons, even if I did have other advantages that balanced that issue in my music learning. My mother was my music teacher, and lessons were sporadic with a lot of the instruction coming from the kitchen while she was doing two things (or more!) at once. Maybe that’s another reason I see the weekly lesson as a hugely valuable way to make progress. Children work well with routines.

I address the challenges we face as parents when teaching our own in my FREE mini course called What does it Take to Teach Your Own Child the Piano. Click on the link to take you to the course if you are interested. https://accentmusicschool.teachable.com/p/what-does-it-take-to-teach-your-child-the-piano

One of the positives coming out of the lockdown is that Zoom lessons may be seen as not only possible but quite normal as a way of teaching a musical instrument. I had offered Zoom lessons at one of my schools for lessons missed, due to the huge number of school activities that often interfered with the regular lesson during school time, but was not often taken up on it. Now I think there may be a bigger uptake of that solution to timetable clashes. I have often seen those pupils suffer in their progress due to these missed lessons and I have been pretty sure that parents have not been aware of how much momentum can be lost when we are catching up on two weeks of practice instead of just the one, especially if it starts to become a habit.

 

To sum up:

Your child’s weekly music lesson is important. Let’s make the most of what we have learned through having to do Zoom lessons. Although the in-person lessons are still preferable, we can use Zoom again if we need to when we get back to whatever normal is. Whichever method, we need to value that regular lesson and maybe we will have a new appreciation of it.

Many who read my blog will be very conscious that this Easter the expression of faith in church worship around the world will look very different. Music plays a huge role in the expression of faith and has done so through the centuries in all sorts of styles and genres. For many people such musical expression is especially meaningful at key points in the year, such as Easter and Christmas.

 

Music can be composed, changed and rearranged to fit the setting, and it’s good for us to be able to embrace necessary change without hankering after what we might have had a few short weeks ago (or sometimes centuries ago!) The Gospel story we reflect on hasn’t changed, but maybe just now the way we express our worship will be a bit different. And that’s okay.

 

Since the lockdown here in NZ our fellowship of believers in our small community of West Melton have been having online services. Aspects of the service have been recorded in various homes and stitched together to make a service. As far as musical input is concerned, there has been a switch from the full band to a few instruments, or even just one, because recording with a makeshift setting in our homes is best kept simple.

 

So, given that it is Easter week, I’d like to share one of my favourite hymns on piano and cello for your times of personal reflection. It’s a first for me to play them both at once! Not quite… I recorded the piano a while ago, but only added the cello today.

 

If you do not follow any faith, or are unfamiliar with this piece, I hope you can still enjoy the music.

 

For those who know the words, I hope you will find it encouraging for this different time we are all going through. Know that our Heavenly Father is our “Rock within a weary land” and he is with us on this journey. We can still thank him for the eternal hope he has given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.