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ABRSM 2019 Piano Syllabus.

The New ABRSM 2019-20 Piano Syllabus will be released on 7th June, but you can pre-order your copy NOW



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Depth vs Breath

You've probably heard the phrase, "Jack of all trades, but master of none", and this can apply to the way we learn our pieces. However, it can also be the case that opposite describes more often many students.

You've probably heard the phrase, "Jack of all trades, but master of none", and this can apply to the way we learn our pieces. However, it can also be the case that opposite describes more often many students.

A typical student will practice three exam pieces for a very long period of time and know them in great depth, be able to perform them from memory, know every dynamic, articulation and nuance, even in their sleep. This in depth knowledge is very important and the ability to play a piece as the composer intended it is not only rewarding to the performer, but also to his audience. However, considering that the average period of time between exam grades can be just under a year, there is not a great breadth of musical experience happening if this is all that a student practices.

I want you to think about what aspects of taking an exam are your weak areas. Many of you will probably answer, "sight reading and aural." I have mentioned before about not letting music lessons just become an exam factory and playing a wide breadth of music albeit in not so much depth will do wonders for these two areas. You might be thinking, "OK sight reading I get it, playing lots of different music will definitely improve my reading skills, but Aural? How does that work?"

I will let you into a secret. Have a guess which video on my YouTube channel gets the most watch time of all my videos every month? It is the one entitled "E Aural Trainer - Recognizing the Style and Period of a Piece of Music". That tells me that this is an area that many are looking for extra help with. Now, I'm sure you'll agree with me, if you played fifty pieces of music a year instead of maybe just three with a little analysis of where they came from, I'm sure this aspect of Aural Training would be less of a problem.

So where do you find such material to broaden your musical experience. Well for example, if you are an ABRSM student you will have a book of nine pieces (or more for grade 8) of which you have only prepared three. It seems a bit of a waste to never even look at the other six. And if you are above grade 1, you will also have old books from lower grades. I would suggest you just play through some of these pieces from lower grades, maybe spending no more than a week on any particular piece. Then again you can try and play in ensembles or if you are a pianist, maybe accompany other instrumentalists

I would be interested to hear from you, how many pieces a year do you reckon you get through, even if it is  just three and how this topic of depth versus breadth has affected your  musical experience.


Developing Aural Skills

Aural Training is, from my experience something that is often left until just before an exam. Typically a teacher will get one of the ABRSM Aural Tests books out a lesson or two before the big day, or a student will start scouring YouTube for some extra help in a last minute panic, realizing that their aural skills are a little lacking. Many might simply think, "I'm just not good at Aural, but it's only worth 18 marks maximum in an ABRSM exam". 

But would you start preparing your pieces only a couple of weeks before an exam? Of course not. Aural skills can be developed more easily than you think if you spend just a few minutes a day practicing them.

I'm sure most of you are aware of my E Aural Trainer video series, which can help and I have recently been doing some interactive live streams a couple of Sundays a month where viewers participate answering questions on aural training but there are also things you can do yourself.

At the heart of ABRSM Aural, whether you like it or not, is singing. Here is a little exercise you can try that will help develop this area.

  • Take a short phrase from a piece you are currently playing, say just four bars.
  • As a warm up try to sing the melody while you play.
  • Then sing it again without your instrument.
  • Without looking at the music, but by using your inner ear, try and name the interval between each note
  • Next, try to sing the bass line while you play just the melody line.
  • Finally sing the melody line and then the bass line, backwards, paying attention to the rhythm as well as the notes
Aside from the singing, whenever you hear a new piece of music, try and identify certain features about it, for example
  • The time signature
  • Dynamics
  • Major or minor tonality
  • Texture and structure
  • Style and Period
  • Can you identify any cadences or modulations
  • Try and pick out a bass line
There is so much music around us in our everyday life, not just when we are in a practice session, so make use it rather than switch off as if it were background music in a department store. And by the way, you could even use that for Aural Training. In the car? After a certain song has finished, switch off the radio for a second and analyze what you have just heard. Walking along the street and a car horn beeps, sing the note a 4th below the sound you just heard. Doing the vacuuming? Hear the pitch the motor is making and sing a third higher along with it. It makes surprisingly  pleasant harmony. The possibilities are endless. Have you got any more ideas how you can use everyday life for Aural Training - put them in the comments below


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Scales Fingerings - are they important?

Scales Fingerings - are they important?
When taking over students who have previously had other teachers, it has been surprising how many of them were using random fingering for their scales. Very often they would play them fluently, without mistake and as the ABRSM regulations on scales points out, fingerings are for guidance only and you do not need to follow them as long as the end result is not affected. So is strict fingering important.

One of the key words I used in my opening phrase was “random”. It is OK to use a different fingering in some cases. In fact, there are some scales where I even recommend changing from the standard suggestion. The problem arises when you don’t use the same fingering every time. Let me explain why.

First of all, bad fingering produces uneven results. For example, most scales tend to avoid putting thumbs up on black notes and if your fingering is random, OK, you may get away with it, even 90% of the time, but there will be moments when your fingering will lead you into awkward corners, such as forcing a thumb up on a black note, or finishing on a little finger one note short of the end. This invariably leads to a poor legato or unevenness in the rhythm.

Secondly, if your fingering is not consistent, but changes every time, you will never develop muscle memory and without muscle memory, you will never be able to play scales fast without hesitation.

With this in mind I have made a new FREE resource for you. I am putting together a video reference chart for every scale you will ever need for any grade. Starting from today, you will find all majors, harmonic and melodic minors played at a slow tempo, 2 octaves for you to be able to follow the fingering carefully.
However, this is only the beginning, in the coming weeks I will be adding links for every single scale, arpeggio or broken chord for any grade, so return regularly for updates and if there is a specific scale you want help with urgently leave a comment below.

So say goodbye to bad, random fingerings and say hello to efficiently training your muscle memory today.


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Maintaining Motivation

It is not an uncommon occurrence that some of my students, particularly the beginner ones,  don't always practice enough. Usually the desire and intention is there, promises are made that this week will be better, but when it comes to the following lesson, it can often be the case that there has not really been much improvement.

How to maintain the motivation to practice

One suggestion that I offer in such circumstances is to have a schedule. A typical conversation, might start,
"So will you practice more this week?"
 "Yes," comes the reply they are expecting I want to hear. To which I reply,
"Every day."
"When every day? What time? When you get home from school, after dinner, in the morning, exactly when?  

... and after a little discussion it might be that we make a little practice diary for them to fill in each practice.

Now this might seem too babyish for a more mature, advanced or self disciplined student, but is it really. Could you not ask yourself  the same questions? Is a practice diary just for younger children or would even an adult benefit from setting themselves goals to achieve rather than aimlessly filling in half an hour of playing their instrument (notice I didn't say practicing).

However, motivation is not just dependent on setting strict goals and schedules, but also on desire and getting enjoyment from practicing, especially some of the more tedious aspects such as technical work or scales. One of the best ways start enjoying what you are doing is to see the results and these results come from those self disciplined plans mentioned earlier. It is a circle which can be either positive or negative.

A positive circle starts with discipline = results = motivation
A negative circle starts with no goals or plan = slow progress = loss of desire to continue.

Maybe in the past or now you might feel in this negative circle and what you need to kick start this circle into reverse is a little self discipline and goal planning.

Please feel free to share in the comments below what you do to organize your practice schedule, or is there something else that motivates you?

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