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.  

 

I’m going to tell you a couple of stories. 

I was trucking along life’s highway recently and came to a sign across the road that said: “Restricted access, conditions apply!”… or words to that effect.

“Bother,” I said… or words to that effect.

 I glared back at the portable traffic light stuck on red, as they sometimes are. Then I noticed a side road without a stop sign that I reckoned would get me past the road obstacle. It was worth a try.

Using common sense (which comes in handy for times like this), I went slowly and carefully down that road. It wasn’t quite as smooth as the route I was used to, but actually it turned out to be a bit shorter and the views were great.

To my surprise, I noticed in my rear vision mirror that some of the other cars were following me. They obviously got tired of waiting for the officials to come back from their extended break to fix the stop lights. It was great to know there were some folks on the new route with me in case I got stuck.  In no time we were all back on the main road again.

 

That was an allegorical story. Now for an actual one:

Back when we lived in Indonesia, we used to do a 2-day drive with our pre-schoolers (10 hours a day) as part of the journey to get to the village area where we worked.

I’ll never forget the time we got to the end of the first day’s drive to find a landslide completely blocking the road. We had to make the difficult decision to either return home the next day and come another route involving air travel and long bus journeys, or wait overnight with the possibility that the road might be cleared. We chose the latter after much deliberation, and later the next day we struggled our way through the partially cleared landslide and were back on the road again. Phew!

 

Life seems full of roadblocks at the moment. Sometimes it is best to hang in there, knowing that patience and persistence will win through. Other roadblocks may be opportunities to find alternative routes to get back on track.

Roadblocks happen in music learning too. Here are some parallels you may see in your child’s learning at times with a little help from the imagery of roadblocks on how to get through.

 

Go slowly through them

Most roadblocks are not difficult to manage if we just go through slowly when we get the green light. Break down the difficult parts of your music into a bar’s worth or part of a bar. Do it using separate hands. Keep the speed the same for both hands and go slowly with accurate counting. Once you have each hand sorted, then play the section hands together.

Roadblocks are not the whole journey

Sometimes you can see that the difficult parts of your music are just a small portion and the rest of the piece is fine. Don’t give up on a nice piece just because a small part of the piece needs a bit of work.

Figure a way through or around

There are different ways you can tackle tricky parts of your music. If you really don’t know what to do, just note that tough bit and have your teacher help you with it in the lesson and work on what you can do. It might be that the fingering needs to change, transitions between beats are uneven, or that you are simply leaving out a sharp or flat that was in the key signature.

Maybe the route is too difficult

Sometimes we tackle pieces that are simply too difficult for the level we are at. It might be that you need to park this piece until you are able to cope with the difficulty level.

‘Coney Island’

I remember when we had lots of roadblocks after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11. All through the city there were orange cones redirecting traffic when the roads were blocked off due to damage.  It is okay to detour and do something different when life is crowding in and it is hard to find time to practice. You could work on learning chord patterns, creating a piece of music, listen to some music in your practice time or find a song you would like to learn that isn’t in the book you are working through. At this time of the year some of my pupils like to learn some Christmas songs.

Improving the road

We know that the roadblocks are improving the road for the future. Regrouping can be a really positive time in your learning. Sometimes I find out more about the sort of music my students are going to enjoy when I do it. An honest look at the possibilities is going to help you ‘improve the road’, to discover new ways to make music and get your joy back in the journey.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

 

Some of my pupils were supposed to sitting their piano exams yesterday. But they couldn’t. The whole of New Zealand is in lockdown and everyone’s plans are changed.

It is an interesting challenge for these pupils. They were all at their peak and ready to perform this week, but the waiting time ahead brings uncertainty. I don’t want them to reach that point where their pieces are over practised and they become bored with them, affecting the future performance. Nobody knows when they will be able to sit the exams, so they will just have to remain as ready as they can.

 

There are so many life skills one gains while learning a musical instrument. Here is one I didn’t already have on the list: Patience in maintaining a readiness to perform.

 

Some people are not okay with surprises, but the ability to be flexible is valuable in a musician. It also adds a sort of adventure to the role. You never know what might happen. Somehow, we usually rise to the challenge and are better for it. Here are a few examples of this:

  • As child I had to be ready to play my latest piece at any time. My Dad would often call on us to entertain visitors who had popped in unexpectedly.
  • I can’t count the number of times I have had to sight read something as an accompanist for an instrument or choir.
  • Sometimes a key change is needed. If you are using a real piano, there is no instant transpose button, you must resort to real skills in transposing.
  • Then there are moments when someone bursts into song, expecting you to pick up the key and play along… so you do.
  • There was a time I became a sort of: “composer in residence” for a show where I had started out as rehearsal pianist. The musical director couldn’t make it to all the rehearsals and the producer kept needing songs rewritten and some new ones created.
  • I have a simple little piece for pupils who show up to lessons with a broken arm. Unsurprisingly, it is called Broken Arm Blues. It is the same piece adjusted for left or right hand. I first wrote it when a student thought he would be off lessons for a while. No such luck! (Let me know if you would like a copy and I’ll email it to you.)

 

An examiner I once heard talking to music teachers referenced the skills a musician needs for coping with surprises. He said that the two skills he uses most in such situations are: Playing by ear and Sight Reading. I couldn’t agree more.

So, we will wait and see when the exams take place. In the meantime, I can just hope that the experience is in some way setting my pupils up for being adaptable, flexible musicians later, with a story to tell and ready for any surprises.