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26/12/2017

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New Year Resolutions and "How to Keep Them"

New Year is traditionally a time when many people like to make resolutions. Will you be making any MUSICAL New Year Resolutions this time?


New Year is traditionally a time when many people like to make resolutions. Will you be making any MUSICAL New Year Resolutions this time?

The New Year is a time when we like to make a fresh start, maybe do things a little better than last year. In terms of musical resolutions, maybe a good place to begin, would be to look at the mark sheet from your last exam and analyze where your weaknesses are. However a recent survey suggested that only an average 8% of people kept their resolutions. So "How Can We Achieve Our Goals?"

Maybe your goal is, for example, to improve your sight reading. The secret is to start small, give yourself achievable goals. So it would be better to say, "I will do one sight reading exercise a day" than "I will improve my sight reading this year." Don't try to be a perfectionist. If your goal is too high, you will get discouraged and give up.

Secondly - make yourself accountable. Tell someone about your goals. Get them to ask you how you are doing. You could even post your resolution in the comments below, Nothing like telling the world what your plans are to motivate you to stick to them, and if you leave a comment, I will check up on you in a month's time and ask how it's going. Maybe find a "buddy" who has similar goals to yourself from the comments and you can motivate each other.

So go on - do it -  write down your goal now, below this post and make yourself accountable. 

Here at MusicOnline UK, I would like to wish YOU all a Happy New Year where you will achieve all you plan to do.






19/12/2017

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Is it OK to take a break from practicing?

It's nearly Christmas, many people are having time off work or school and generally getting into a more relaxed mode. However, as a musician, should you take time off practice?

Is it OK for Musicians to take a break from practice?

From my teaching experience, many beginner students over the school holidays take a few steps backwards and take a week or two to get back to where they were at the beginning of the new term. On the other hand, you may remember in a previous post "The obsessive nature of a musician."  it was noted that we musicians can be a little OCD. So what is the balance?

Practicing incorrectly can be ineffectual, indeed doing your 3 hours a day whatever may have negative effects. The best practice comes when you have goals and goals in turn come from motivation. Sometimes excessive repetition can turn to drudgery and this will have a negative impact on your motivation. A small break on the other hand can give you a psychological boost, where you are mentally and physically fresh. If we compare this to professional sportsmen, they will often have a rest day once a week for both mental and physical recovery.

Let me give you some personal experience. When I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, I would probably say that my practice schedule was rather OCD. Now, I am a little more laid back. I still try to practice most days, but probably not as many hours as I did then. Surprisingly, I would rate my playing as better than it was then. It is definitely more musical without the pressure of having to compete with the high standard of those around me. I now play for the sheer love of music. If I take a week's holiday, it would take no longer than a day to get back to where I was before.

Please let me know what you think about taking a break from practicing, how often a week do you practice and does that change in holiday season ? I have set up a post on the MusicOnline UK Forum for you to share your thoughts and also see what others think.
http://www.music-online.org.uk/p/forum.html

13/12/2017

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The Examiner's Marksheet - INVESTIGATED

By looking carefully at the comments of the examiner's mark sheet, we can get a good insight into the ABRSM marking criteria  thus helping you to get a better mark in future exams.


Here is one such mark sheet from an exam recently taken by one of my students
By analyzing the examiner's mark sheetwe can get an insight into what they are looking for in the ABRSM marking criteria

Let's analyze it section by section.


Pieces

For those of you who find it difficult to decipher the examiner's handwriting which can at times be like that of a doctor's prescription let me translate:
First piece - A bright and stylish tempo with a good sense of pulse and played with even tone and contrasted dynamics. Briefly "something" (even I cannot decipher this word so if anyone can help please let me know in the comments below) rhythm only.  
You will notice that there is nothing in this comment about playing the correct notes, but rather, how the tempo, tone and dynamics resulted in a bright and stylish performance.

For the second piece there were similar remarks made;
The character was well conveyed at a confident tempo with well controlled and contrasted tone. 
Notice here however he adds, that there was
Just an occasional small slip and stumble
Even so, this piece still got a very high merit mark. If any of you saw to my post from last week, you will remember that I  mentioned how many students come out of the exam remembering just the wrong note or two they may have played and then think that the whole thing was terrible.

For the third piece, which incidentally gained FULL MARKS, again notice what things apart from just getting the right notes gained this excellent mark. He writes

A flowing and well chosen speed for the style. Hands were consistently well balanced and it was fully accurate in notes, with well contrasted dynamics.
So in summary, with regard to pieces, try to NOT just focus on getting the notes correct, but try to learn the piece as a piece of music


Scales


Here again, it's not just getting the right notes, notice how the examiner mentions the speed, musicality and tone. He writes

One slip in the broken chords but otherwise all fluently played with even tone at a musical speed. 
If you want to check the speed for your grade you can do so here

Sight Reading

What many students don't understand is that sight reading is not just a matter of getting all the notes correct, especially at the expense of losing the sense of pulse. Notice in the remark how much the examiner hints at keeping the momentum going
A slightly hesitant ending, but otherwise fully accurate at a musical speed with firm pulse.

May I say that this student used my Sight Reading Trainer to help with this habit of keeping the pulse going  and again, here is a link  for you to practice this yourself 

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLRhVgcglVQ9ldTP-U_jVH1P2yhH3Ilfoa


Aural Tests


For this section, notice again how the examiner doesn't just remark on the fact that the answers were correct, he says

All accurate and musical responses

...and may I add that in their marking criteria for Aural tests the ABRSM official guidelines mention that they are looking for confident rather than hesitant responses. You could lose marks, even with the correct answer if you answer hesitantly.

So I hope that was an interesting journey through an examiner's mark sheet. Maybe you would like to dig out  one of your recent ones and let us know in the comments below some of the things mentioned that might give other readers more of a clue what they are looking for and how to get a better mark in a future exam.

Feel free also to use our new FORUM to start any music education related discussion and you can even share with us your recent exam successes there.

06/12/2017

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Getting Your Exam Results VS Your Expectations

After an exam we often focus on the negative but the examiner is also looking for the positive.

Feel free to share your exam successes on our FORUM http://www.music-online.org.uk/p/forum.html
Please share your exam successes on our FORUM 

It's that time of year again when many of my students have recently got their exam results. Maybe you too have had some good news. What has struck me is that immediately after the exam, when I ask them how it went most students will focus on the negative aspects of what might have gone wrong. I also get similar comments on my YouTube videos, like the following
After an exam we often focus on the negative but the examiner is also looking for the positive.

If you analyse this comment you will notice how much there is an emphasis on what went wrong but if you look at the ABRSM's official marking criteria, accuracy of notes is only one small aspect. The examiner will be looking for all of the following:

  • Pitch – accuracy, clarity, reliability of notes and/or intonation.
  • Time – suitability of tempo, stability of pulse, sense of rhythm.
  • Tone – control and projection of sound, sensitivity and awareness in use of tonal qualities.
  • Shape – effectiveness and clarity of musical shaping and detailing.
  • Performance – overall command of the instrument or voice, involvement with the music, musical communication.

Indeed, the above commenter, after I reassured him, said " I'm probably overthinking it".


Your results are then often, pleasant surprises and that is where I want to hear from YOU. I have recently started a FORUM for YOU, my subscribers and I would love it if you would share some of your exam successes there and by the way, feel free to use this FORUM to start a discussion on any topic related to musical education.

29/11/2017

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How to improve note recognition

In order to play fluently especially when sight reading a musician needs to be able to recognize notes instantly. 


I have in the past taken over students when they have changed teacher and noticed that when they are learning a new piece, or when they are sight reading, they will use acronyms such as "FACE" or "All Cows East Grass" when working out the notes. 
Using acronyms is OK for Music Theory when sight reading but is a very poor method of note recognition.

Maybe this describes you or if you are a teacher, describes some of your students. This technique would be fine if you were doing Music Theory, but for playing, it is a very limited approach. 

With this in mind I have prepared a "Note Recognition Flashcards" video where a note will appear on the screen for just a few seconds. You will need to play the note instantly before the next one appears. You can even use this video away from your instrument by simply naming the notes that you see. If you struggle with, or have a student that struggles with recognizing notes quickly, repeat this exercise a few times and you will soon be able to improve your note recognition.




Please let me know in the comments below if it has helped you to improve your note recognition.

18/11/2017

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The Art of Sight Reading

Sight Reading is a skill in which many people concentrate just on the pitch and forget about the rhythm.

Sight Reading is a skill in which many people concentrate just on the pitch and forget about the rhythm



With this in mind I am developing a new series of videos in which you play along with the test to force you to keep in time. Added to this, the skill of sight reading is developed by reading ahead  of what you are actually playing and so in these videos notes will disappear - just before you play them.


Give it a try with these pilot videos (more to come) and let me know what you think.

15/11/2017

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The Sound of Silence.

In my experience of teaching I often find that students don't know how to finish a piece. 

How to FINISH a piece of music.

They may have prepared really well, but as soon as the last note ends, they virtually spoil the performance. Today I want to talk about how to end a piece. What many younger students don't realize is that the last note is NOT the end of a piece. There is that moment, especially, but not exclusively, just after the end, when the listener needs to absorb what they have just heard. If you go to a concert hall, you may notice that the applause often does not start straight away. The audience is still taking the performance in. So when you finish a piece, don't be afraid to let that moment of silence happen. Don't jump away from your instrument as if shattering the "You could hear a pin drop" atmosphere. You'll notice I said, "don't be afraid". Some might find sitting like a statue for a second embarrassing, it takes confidence. Remember however, that the ABRSM marking criteria rate you not just on your technical abilities, but on delivering a confident performance and I would even go far as to suggest that, that moment of silence at the end might even be worth an extra mark in the exam.

I would like you to compare these two endings of a piece I recently recorded and see if you can understand what I mean.



I hope you could feel the difference in atmosphere at the end of the two extracts. In the first example it ends too abruptly, but the second example gives you time to absorb what you just heard. So the question arises, exactly how long do you hold the tension in the air before "finishing"? It's a little like rubato, you have to feel it, it can't be taught in a mathematical way, which again comes back to what I was saying about how an ABRSM exam assesses your performance as a musician. Another analogy: Have you ever heard of comic timing which one person described as 
one of those things where you know what it is when you see it, but you can't quite define it concretely, the "pregnant pause" right before the punchline?
I often suggest to my students, a piece finishes, when you notice sounds that you didn't hear before, maybe a car on the street, the buzz of an electrical appliance that's always there, but you never noticed. Give it a try and let me know what sounds you noticed.

08/11/2017

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Perfect Pitch - can it be learned?

Perfect Pitch, also known as Absolute Pitch is the rare ability to sing a note without reference to any other note. Some say that you are either born with it or not, but according to a recent poll I took with my subscribers, 55% of you said you believed it can be learned. So lets find out.
Perfect Pitch, also known as Absolute Pitch is the rare ability to sing a note without reference to any other note. Some say that you are either born with it or not, but according to a recent poll I took with my subscribers, 55% of you said you believed it can be learned. So lets find out.

The method we will use is called association which, in psychology refers to a mental connection between concepts, events, or mental states that stems from specific experiences. A little like Pavlov's dog. Let me explain. Have you ever made a mix tape or playlist that you listen to over and over again? After a while, at the end of any song in that collection you  can already hear the first note of the next song. Your mind has associated them, by them being repeatedly next to each other. The songs may even be in totally unrelated keys. In our experiment you are going to associate a sound of indefinite pitch, in this case, that of running water with the note A. Also, at the same time, whenever you watch the training video I want you to imagine the colour green and when you try to reproduce the note, imagining this association will help trigger those connected pathways in your mind.

At the end of this post there will be a  training video. You will need to listen to it many times daily, to train your memory to reproduce the note A. I would suggest the best time to listen to the training video is just before bed, so that your subconscious mind can absorb the new associations as you sleep. You could even go to sleep listening to it. However, the more times you can listen to it, the better the results will be. You can listen to it whilst you travel, when doing the ironing, when you're in the gym. Any time your mind is free. If internet access is a problem  and you can't watch the training video , I have also produced a downloadable audio on  which you can put on your ipod or phone to listen to offline.
This audio track repeats a few times with ever increasing periods of silence to develop your longer term memory and  the YouTube version will also contain some deliberate mid roll adverts. You are welcome to skip or listen to these adverts, either way the extra distraction will help train you to focus on that one note. Additionally, if you feel that the training is becoming easy, you can increase the periods of silence by pausing the video for a few minutes during the silence. I would suggest that after a month of repeated practice YOU too can develop perfect pitch. 

So ARE you ready. Please do come back here and let me know how you are progressing with the experiment. Good luck.

You can either watch the training video on YouTube below or download the audio file to use Offline HERE





02/11/2017

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The Way Ahead

Find out about the future direction of MusicOnline UK for the year ahead.

Following feedback I received from you about what you find useful  here at MusicOnline UK, this week I want to talk about the way ahead, my plans for the year to come, so as to best serve your music educational needs.

It seems that Aural and Theory Training are the most popular and my other videos with piano performances and sight reading practice less so. With this in mind, I will be completely redoing all the theory videos, improving the quality, and eventually producing printable worksheets for all the lessons on this blog. This is also to reflect the changes that are happening to the ABRSM theory syllabus for next year.  I have also had some requests for the higher grades in theory, and this will be a plan for the future. 

Regarding Aural Training and the video series "E Aural Trainer", you may have noticed that there were some PREMIUM videos added recently. After many hours of work producing these videos and creating a new paid subscription channel - MusicOnline UK PREMIUM, which gave more practice at the Aural Test requirements, YouTube announced 

  • On 1 November 2017, viewers will stop being charged for any existing subscriptions. We'll let all current subscribers know via email one month before paid channels are turned off.
  • On 1 December 2017, all paid content will automatically be made private.
But fear not, for those of you who subscribed to my paid channel, or those who would have wanted to do so in the near future  I have moved all these videos onto my Patreon page where for only a $2 per month subscription, which you can cancel at any time, you can access all these videos as well as the theory worksheets as they appear over the coming weeks AND your subscription also includes, private email support on any music educational topic even including marking a theory past paper if that is what you need.

Then there are the videos specifically related to piano. From next year I will be putting all new piano videos on a new channel specifically made for such videos, called "Chen Piano", so if you want to keep up to date with the latest posts in this area please subscribe to this channel as there will be no further piano performances on MusicOnline UK. However, I will start posting on this blog, teaching notes for all the ABRSM piano pieces when the new syllabus comes out next summer

The Sight Reading Trainer I will continue to update. I am  in the process of adding the 30 second gap to look at the test, reflecting better the exam experience, to all the original videos. I have also started a new series of the disappearing note - an advanced technique of sight reading which will force you to look ahead of what you are actually playing.

And last but not least - my weekly "Ramblings of a Music Teacher" will continue every Thursday.  I was touched by a comment made by Yvonne Han, on my recent questionnaire about what videos you like on my channel.

my weekly "Ramblings of a Music Teacher" will continue every Thursday.  I was touched by a comment made by Yvonne Han, on my recent questionnaire about what videos you like on my channel.
Please do let me know in the comments below what you think about the future direction of MusicOnline UK.

25/10/2017

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How to choose your exam pieces.

Should a student choose for himself or let the teacher decide his music exam pieces?

This week's topic comes from yet another question from one of my subscribers.

Should a student choose for himself or let the teacher decide?
Firstly, let me thank you Rohan for your question and by the way, if anyone else has a question they would like me to cover in a future post please leave a comment below.

Secondly, I want to thank those of you who took my poll this week where I asked whether you chose the pieces yourself or your teacher chose for you. Interestingly, the vast majority of you, 72% said that you chose yourself.
Statistics show that the majority of students choose their ABRSM exam pieces rather than let the teacher decide.
There were also some thought provoking comments below the poll.
One of you wrote,
"The teacher plays all the songs for me, and I choose."

...and this is exactly what I do with my students.

Another contributor adds

"I choose what I like, or sometimes, I choose what piece is easiest to play."


Should a student choose for himself or let the teacher decide?
Now, this raises an interesting point. I totally agree that you should play the piece that you like, if the music inspires you, then you are much more likely to play it musically and far to often we forget that in exams, the examiner is not just marking you on your technical ability. If you enjoy playing a piece, the examiner will enjoy listening to it and no doubt you will get a better mark. As to the second point this contributor raised, I never advise my students to play the easiest piece, mainly because there is no such thing. All pieces have their own areas of difficulty, even though that might be,  for example speed for one piece and awkward stretches for another. That said, there will be some pieces which suit certain people better. As another subscriber "Nighthawks" wrote,

"I told him what pieces I liked and he told me what he thought I would be good at and we go from there. "

Maybe a student with smaller hands might avoid a piece with big stretches. With this in mind I do tend to point out to my students the areas of difficulty in EVERY piece, but still I like them to decide mainly on which one inspires them the most simply from listening to it. I have had students who see one piece is a page longer and immediately decide against it before they realize that very often this piece includes a lot of repeated sections and doesn't involve as much learning as it first appears. 

I will leave you with a question related to this picking your favourite piece idea. How many of you start learning your pieces with the, lets call them, more fun pieces, i.e. the C list pieces in ABRSM exams or do you have a different criteria for choosing which piece you start learning first. Please let me know in the comments below. 

18/10/2017

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What makes "The Perfect Practice Session"?


What should you include in a daily practice session and how long should you spend on each section.

This post is in response to a question I received on my YouTube channel, after last week's, which I thought would make another interesting topic for today's post. 



The Viewer Nighthawk wrote:
What should you include in a daily practice session and how long should you spend on each section.

First of all, thank you for the question Nighthawks and by the way, if anyone reading this has a question they would like me to consider covering in a future post, please leave a comment below.

So, to the topic in hand, "What Makes the Perfect Practice Session?" Of course there is not one simple answer, but I think some basic principles should cover what would constitute a "Perfect Practice Session".

Firstly, I would include all of the above areas everyday, i.e. Pieces, Sight Reading and Scales. I would be interested to know at this point, honestly do you incorporate all three of these aspects every day? You can let me know in the comments below.

Scales are probably a good idea to warm up with and once they are known they don't take that long. To go through every scale for your grade every day, should take from 5 minutes for Grade 1, to half an hour for Grade 8.

So, many people, to be blunt, suck at sight reading and if I'm honest when I was going through the grade system, it wasn't my strongest point. However, this is because it is simply the most neglected part of daily practice. If you're learning a new piece then by definition, there will be some sight reading involved, but very often this kind of sight reading is very tentative and with a poor sense of pulse. Even with a new piece, try to keep the flow going, playing slowly with a metronome to force you to keep in time. I have also developed a sight reading trainer HERE  which will do just that, force you to keep going as you play along with the videos. Why not give it a try and do at least one example EVERY DAY.

Finally and everyone's favourite - the pieces. Last week I talked about some bad practice habits that don't make effective use of time. For me to prescribe a set time for a particular grade misses the point. Rather, for a "Perfect Practice Session", you should prescribe for yourself a goal for that session. By all means, play through once some of the old stuff that you have already learned just to keep it ticking over, but spend 90% of your time achieving a specific goal for that day. For example, you might want to increase the speed a particularly tricky four bar section using a metronome. Your session can be described as "perfect" not dependent on how many minutes you spent, but on whether you achieved your goal for that day.

A couple of final points. Firstly, it might be a good idea to split your day's practice into a couple of sessions. Sometimes after a period of time, our muscles and also our concentration need a break to work at optimum level. If you are getting to a point of frustration where you can't achieve what you want - STOP and come back later, refreshed and calm. Secondly, you have probably seen some of my video performances of the grade pieces. I find the quickest way to learn for example, a Grade 8 piece in just a few days, is with a metronome. I probably use the metronome in my practice about 75% of the time. Obviously there comes a point you need to wean yourself off this tool so as to play musically and not mechanically, but for learning technically difficult passages, especially fast ones, it is the most effective method I can recommend.

I said at the outset, that I would be interested if anyone has any other questions I could consider for a future post, so if you haven't done so already, please leave a comment below.

11/10/2017

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Seven Bad Practice Habits that will Hinder your Progress.

Are you using your practice time effectively? Half an hour of effective practice is worth many more hours of bad practice and bad habits are the biggest enemy to effective practice. Let's consider some of the ones I frequently come across in my teaching experience and if you identify with any of these, or want to mention anything I haven't covered, please leave a comment below. 

Half an hour of effective practice is worth many more hours of bad practice and bad habits are the biggest enemy to effective practice.

Bad Habits: A Musician’s Worst Enemy




1. Playing too fast

If you're making mistakes your playing too fast. Whatever speed you choose, you should be able to keep the pulse going. Remember, a hesitation in music is a mistake. Many beginner students concentrate on pitch and forget about a fluent rhythm. Once you can achieve fluency at a slow speed, then speed up with a metronome.


2. Correcting mistakes

Of course we all make mistakes learning new pieces, but what I am referring to is just correcting the note that went wrong. Very often the mistake happened because of what was immediately before, maybe an awkward jump, bad fingering or breathing for wind instruments. Always go back a few bars and run into the moment where the mistake happened. Think of it like doing the long jump in athletics. If you messed up a long jump you would attempt it again with the run up too.


3. Practicing from Memory

OK, to a certain extent, you will start to learn a piece from memory as you practice for a period of time and developing muscle memory is a good thing. However, the danger starts when you stop noticing what is on the page so that you will increase your chances of forgetting what’s really written in the music, not just the notes but dynamics, rests, tempi markings, and everything else. Even if you know a piece from memory, it is a good idea to have the music in front of you and follow it  as you are playing.


4. Not listening to yourself

This is connected to the last habit. When we play too much from memory, we can stop listening to what we are playing and develop a kind of selective deafness. Why not make a recording of your playing and then listen to it whilst following along with the music. You might be surprised what you hear.


5. Always going from the beginning

The beginning of a piece, is what you probably started learning first and so you know the best. It has had the most practice and so logically needs the least. It would be a better idea to start your practice from the newest section of a piece, which needs the most work. Then, when you play the whole piece from the beginning at the end of your practice  as a kind of performance, it will redress the balance where the part that needs the most practice, gets the most practice. Also, there are students who, if they make a mistake, cannot restart from the middle of a piece, but always need to go back to the beginning, because this is the only way they ever practice and their muscle memory is not programmed to start from anywhere else. Imagine if this happened in an exam or performance. How many restarts would the examiner's patience extend to?


6. Tension

Does your back ever ache after sitting at the piano for a period of time? Do you ever notice your shoulders going up when trying a difficult passage. Do you lean into the music, as if being closer will make a technical passage somehow easier. Always try to focus on being relaxed and if you notice any of these signs of tension, reduce the speed so that you can play without these bad habits, before speeding up again.



7. The "sniff" and other involuntary body reflexes

I have some students who have developed various involuntary body responses whilst playing, such as a tongue sticking out when playing a technically difficult passage. Whilst these may or may not affect your playing, (it could be yet another sign of tension) they might distract from a musical performance. At the bottom of this post is an extract from one of my recent lessons where the student,  adds a sniff at various places in the music to help keep the timing, but before you leave, please let me know in the comments below, if you identify with any of these habits, or if there are any others that are worth a mention. 

So here is an excerpt from the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano piece  "Cruella de Vil" rearranged for "Piano and Sniff"
  

08/10/2017

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Ask Government and Parliament to Support Free Movement for Musicians Post-Brexit

Click HERE to sign this Petition

Most professional musicians and performers rely on touring and performing in the European Union to make a living. 
Being able to travel is essential to keep a music career going. Being able to travel easily is equally important as gigs are often organised at short notice. 
We need free movement to continue for musicians working in the EU, with minimum administrative burdens.
Before the European Union, travelling in Europe was tough – it was expensive, heavy on the admin, and time-consuming. Musicians who’ve had to go through the visa process for the United States know how costly and confusing it can be. We don’t want musicians’ rights in the EU to go backwards, and we don’t want music in the EU – or the UK – to be restricted by unnecessary expense or bureaucratic burdens.
“Music, and the performing arts more generally, rely on exchange of ideas and interaction between performers of different nationalities. Music flourishes in an open world with no borders — not a closed-off island that looks inward on itself” – MU General Secretary, and founder member of Darts, Horace Trubridge. 
Over 100 MPs and Peers have committed to protecting musicians’ right to move freely and easily in the European Union (EU) after Brexit.
Let’s show the Government, MPs and Peers that they must support musicians working in the EU.
Click HERE to sign this Petition

05/10/2017

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How long should I take between grades?

What is the average time between music grade exams?

What is the average time between music grade exams?


This question is often asked by students and teachers alike and there is not just one simple answer, but in this post I will give you my thoughts on the subject as a teacher of over 30 years experience. I have heard it said that one grade per year is about average, although an exceptionally talented student might progress quicker. However, the question I asked at the beginning “How long should I take between grades?" is different from “What is the average time between grades?” There is a danger that we can turn learning music into an exam factory, where we are comparing ourselves to others trying to be better or quicker than our peers. And this doesn’t just apply to students. Sometimes teachers and parents can put pressure to progress through the grades quickly.

It is true that exams are a good way of measuring progress, it is rewarding to feel that you have passed a certain level and this reward can be a motivation to try even harder to achieve the next level. I have had some students who didn’t want to do exams, just learn “fun pieces” but their progress has always been slower.
Despite all this, we must never forget that we are learning to be musicians, not just technicians and musicianship is a skill not best learned by playing the same three pieces for 6 months or more. One of the best ways to learn musicianship is to play with others. This is a little harder for pianists, but still, you can try to find duets or even accompany other instrumentalists. I said earlier, that those who just want to play “fun pieces” often do not progress as well, but that is not to say that you shouldn’t incorporate other music into your practice. On the contrary, EVERY practice session should involve something not exam related. The more pieces you are exposed to, the better a musician you will be and regularly having something new to learn, even if not to the same standard as an exam piece, will do wonders for your sight reading. Is it a coincidence I ask, that so many people are bad at sight reading? Not a coincidence at all, these bad sight readers are the ones who only practice three pieces for the exam and nothing else, to the point where they have memorized them and effectively have done no real reading of music for a period of many months.

So in answer to the question at the beginning, yes I think exams are very useful in measuring progress, they motivate you to work harder and you should try to achieve at least one grade per year, but NOT at the expense of becoming an all round musician.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments below, do you practice other pieces apart from the exam material, if not, have you seen your sight reading suffer and how long was it between your last two grades, I’d love to hear from you.

27/09/2017

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Tricks to Remember Major Scale Fingerings.

Getting the right fingering is essential for executing scales proficiently and fluently - here are a few tricks to help.

Getting the right fingering is essential for executing scales proficiently and fluently - here are a few tricks to help.

Getting the right fingering is essential for executing scales proficiently and fluently, but I'm sure you, like many of my students, find remembering the fingerings a little daunting, especially considering the sheer number that you need to learn for the higher grades. In this post, I will be sharing a few tricks which might help and by the way, if you have any tricks that I don't mention, feel free to add them to the comments below to help other readers. 

Let's first consider the basic scales C, G, D, A and E majors. I'm sure you are all aware that these follow a basic "3 - 4 - 3" finger pattern and when you came across the first three in Grade 1, you probably had little problem learning these. One of the greatest challenges for students between Grades 1 and 2, is putting these scales hands together. I like to point out to them, that "3's are always together", so if you are using a third finger in one hand, you should be doing the same in the other hand at the same time. Then, I like to liken the hands together scales to a couple dancing, where the man leads. On the way up the right hand is the man, that is to say that it will do the changes of "3 - 4 - 3" just before the left hand and on the way down, the roles are reversed where the left hand leads  the 3 - 4 - 3 pattern. The mistake that many students make is to think that any fingering will do as long as they play the right notes. This is not true. OK, sometimes you get away with it, but invariably mistakes happen just after the fingering goes off course. Make sure you start slowly to ingrain the correct fingering into your muscle memory.

Next let's go onto the flat scales, that is, B flat, E flat, A flat and D flat majors. These all follow one pattern. In the right hand ascending and  the left hand descending for all these scales, the thumb always goes after the black note or group of black notes if there are more than one consecutively.
The right hand  descending always puts 4th on B flat, and the left hand ascending,  always uses 4th for the first cross over.

Finally that leaves F major, B major and F sharp major. To be honest, B major despite its many sharps, is one of the easiest scales, because there are only certain places where the thumb can go and that's where you put it. Interestingly, in all three of these scales thumbs are always together in both hands, except for the very first and last note in the case of F major. If you want to see these principles in action here is a video for all major scales clearly showing the correct fingering below. 




23/09/2017

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Music Connects

Connect with other Musicians around the World

Connect with other Musicians around the World


Music is a highly social activity and here on MusicOnline UK, I wanted to offer you my readers the chance to connect with other musicians around the world, through  LIVE CHAT. Just click on "CONNECT" in the menu. You can also connect with me if you have any questions about music-related topics. Who knows you might make some new friends. 


Please note ABUSE OF THIS CHAT BOX WILL GET YOU BANNED - KEEP  IT NICE.

21/09/2017

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Why do we want to listen to sad music when we are sad?


Why do we want to listen to sad music when we are sad?

It turns out that the majority of you, nearly 60%, said you prefer sad music. This would seem a little bit of a paradox. In this article I will explore WHY.

In a recent poll about the personality of a musician, one of the questions I asked was whether you prefer to listen to happy music or sad music. By the way, if you want to take part in the poll you can do so HERE


It turns out that the majority of you, nearly 60%, said you prefer sad music. This would seem a little bit of a paradox. Surely no one would want to feel sad rather than happy. Or is there something in sad music which actually makes us feel better. I have read many theories on this topic recently, trying to find answers to this question. Some suggest that we feel better listening to sad music because it is not our own sadness and we actually feel better knowing that it is virtual and not real. I personally don't agree with this argument. Others argue that there is an emotional reward when we show empathy towards others and listening to sad music is like showing empathy for the music. Indeed musicians, it has been shown, tend to have more empathy. Others will state that sad music is simply aesthetically more beautiful. 

May I offer another explanation here. If you are very sad in your own real life do you feel better in yourself if you can express that emotion in some way, maybe have a good cry. It is a scientific fact that crying releases endorphins, the body's own hormones that make us feel better. When we listen to sad music, we can express our emotions through the music and this in turn can release the same biochemical reaction that makes us feel better. Scientific studies have shown that at the peak emotional content of a particular song, your brain is likely to release dopamine - a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Why do musicians linger just that fraction longer in a kind of rubato pause on a particularly poignant chord in an emotional piece. To enjoy the moment, even though that moment might be tragically sad? A paradox for sure.

Interestingly, the same is true for watching sad films. Why do we watch them. To feel sad? Or to release some of our sadness through empathizing with what we are watching. Also bear in mind that much of the emotion we experience in films is induced through the music of a powerful film score.

Now I said the beginning, that 60% of you preferred sad music, which means possibly, that 40% of you might totally disagree with me, feel free to leave a comment below on anything I have mentioned.


13/09/2017

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The "Obsessive Nature of a Musician" - Decomposing the Musician - Part 2

Is an obsessive personality characteristic of a musician?Following on from last week's post about the personality of a musician, where we discovered that a large majority of you who took my poll were introverts, this week I want to look at the obsessive nature of musicians. By the way, if you haven't taken the poll yet you can do so HERE

In the survey only 20% of you said that you were not obsessive at all, 50% being mildy obsessive and 30% VERY obsessive. I believe that this goes along with being an introvert and also some of the other questions in the survey. For example, most of you said that you were "single minded" rather than "easily distracted". A similar proportion of you describe yourselves as organised. Are these results surprising? Not really. First of all musicians need to devote large amounts of time to practice. This activity in itself requires a somewhat obsessive nature. They need to be very strict with themselves to stick to a schedule ignoring distractions.

Added to this, musicians exist in an environment of pressure to perform well. Concerts and exams, for example can create a competitive characteristic within us.  Do you for example, compare yourself with other musicians in a competitive way trying to be better than your peers? Please leave a comment if this describes you.

However, here comes a word of warning. Being overly obsessive can lead us to practice an instrument to a point where  doing so can cause physical injury. The famous violinist Itzhak Perlman recommends practising no more than three hours a day. 

Watch the video - Itzhak Perlman on Practicing




In fact, researchers have found that setting goals to outperform others seems to undermine musical performance. There is also a danger that we can engage in this activity to the point where health deteriorates, relationships are strained, and finances can suffer.

Now, I'm not advocating that a musician should not have a structured approach to practice, but maybe a more healthy way would be to always try and be better than yourself, rather than better than others. Additionally, as musicians, I believe we will be better in what we do, if we have a life outside of music. A person who is passionate about life, will be more passionate when they perform. Conversely,  a student whose life is only about music, can end up being very mechanical in their playing. 

07/09/2017

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Trinity vs ABRSM - The new syllabus 2018-2020

Trinity vs ABRSM - The new syllabus 2018-2020

Compare the differences between Trinity vs ABRSM
Grade 1 Trinity Piano 2018-2020
This summer the new 2018-2020 piano syllabus was published by Trinity College London and out of curiosity I thought I'd take a look. I've always been an ABRSM person, took their exams many years ago and now teach their syllabus to my own students. However in this post I would like to point out some of the differences between ABRSM and Trinity College and I would be interested in your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. 

VIEW THE COMPLETE LISTS OF TRINITY COLLEGE LONDON PIANO PIECES
Gr1  Gr2  Gr3  Gr4  Gr5  Gr6  Gr7  Gr8



First of all, ABRSM is much bigger worldwide than Trinity College and by many it is considered better. Being bigger, it has more exam centres and so unless you live in a big city like London, you might find yourself having to travel a long way to take your exam. 

LISTEN TO ABRSM PIECES  HERE

Regarding the exam itself, the biggest difference I noticed is in the supporting tests. In ABRSM as you probably know, you have to play three pieces, do scales, aural tests and sight reading. In Trinity there is a choice. You pick only TWO of the following four supporting tests: 


 Sight Reading; Aural; Improvisation; 
Musical Knowledge about a piece you are playing. 

This means that a student can focus on his strengths - for example if you really find the aural difficult, you won’t be penalised. Then again, does the ABRSM approach make for a more all round musician? Should everyone, for example, be able to sight read or is it a cop out to let the student decide if he wants to avoid sight reading through his entire studies on an instrument? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

The scales seem of a similar difficulty, but there are less of them in Trinity. Many students, especially in the higher grades feel inundated by the sheer number of scales they need to know for ABRSM. Is knowing the complete cycle of fifths both major and minor at Grade 5 piano a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?  
To make up for the fewer number of scales, Trinity College has additional Technical exercises, short little pieces which test things like tone, balance, coordination flexibility whereas ABRSM tests this in the main pieces. 

Then there are the pieces themselves. My first impression is that they are a little easier especially at the early grades. I’ve made some video recordings of both the new Trinity College Piano syllabus and that of ABRSM.  Have a listen and tell me if you think they are in fact easier than ABRSM. However, the difficulty of the pieces is not the only difference. In ABRSM you need to choose three pieces one from each of three lists A, B and C. In Trinity College, again you need to choose three pieces, but these can be ANY three from the whole book. There is even an option where one of the pieces is a duet, where your teacher would accompany you in the exam. You can even offer you OWN composition as an alternative to one of the pieces. The idea behind the ABRSM forcing you to play from three different lists, I guess, is that you will get experience of playing different styles of  music. In my opinion, although the Trinity option might be more popular with students, that of the ABRSM in the long run might produce better all round musicians. What do you think? 

So in summary, my initial little curiosity has opened up a lot of questions as to the PROs and CONS of these two examining boards so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

05/09/2017

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Decomposing the Musician - Part 1

Are Musicians Introverts or Extroverts?

In a recent poll is was found that the majority of musicians would describe themselves as introverts.

About a week ago I published on YouTube a "Musician's Personality" quiz and the response, I have to say has been very interesting. It seems that there definitely are certain personality traits shared by the majority of musicians. Now if you want to take the test BEFORE you hear about some of the results, (it might bias your answers if you do so afterwards) you can do so by clicking this link - Musician's Personality Test

Added to this, the more people who take part, the more accurate the results will be.

So.... the two most definitive results, that emerged and that I want to discuss today were in answer to the questions;
  1. Are you sensitive to other people's feelings?
  2. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
Regarding the first question, I have to be honest, I anticipated that most people would say YES, they are sensitive to other people's feelings. The result backed this up - a massive 96% of those who answered said yes. Of course many of us would not like to admit if we were insensitive and could answer not honestly, but if we think about it, being a musician requires sensitivity, it's all about communicating emotions and feelings, communication being a two way thing. Especially those of you who play in ensembles, need a high level of empathy to communicate non verbally when performing. However, is this "empathy" a pre-requirement to make a good musician, or does being a musician develop empathy. As I delved into this subject further I found an academic study by Cambridge University where Researchers looking at group education sessions for 8 to 11 year old children showed that engaging in regular music-based activities with others - from ensembles to simple rhythmic exercises - can conspicuously advance empathy development, increasing a child’s capacity to recognize and consider the emotions of others. If you are interested there is a link to this article below.

The second question produces a more surprising result. One might think that musicians are extroverts. They often play in front of large audiences, expressing themselves openly through their instrument, quite the opposite of what one would expect from a quiet, shy, retiring type. However, the survey returned a result that 92% of you who answered were introverts. It is true that in order to spend enough time practicing to become really good at music, you have to enjoy being alone for long periods. Playing music with and for other people is social, but in a highly structured way that's easier for introverts. Could it also be that we use our instruments to hide behind and we transform into an extrovert only with our instrument in hand (or in throat in the case of singers). In real life are we the one who stands in the corner at parties, not the best at starting conversations especially in larger groups of people. Please leave a comment below if this describes you, do you hide behind your instrument, but without it are you shy in social settings?

As I said at the outset, these are only a couple of the results and I will be commenting on other questions in future weeks, so stay tuned and watch out for the next in the series of "Decomposing the Musician"

Further Reading
http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/music-of-kindness-playing-together-strengthens-empathy-in-children

01/09/2017

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Music Theory Course

This post is to announce the start of a complete theory course that will cover grades 1-5 of most of the Music Examining boards such as ABRSM or Trinity College. 


It will be an ongoing process so please be patient as I add material. Links to the individual lessons will appear on the page "Music Theory" which can be found on the main menu.

Here is an example of what is to come - but please note that each lesson will not be posted here on the blog, but rather on the "Music Theory" page.


Time Values, Bar Lines and Time Signatures


Download a FREE worksheet on this topic from

1 semibreve = 2 minims = 4 crotchets = 8 quavers = 16 semiquavers
1 semibreve is equal to

1 semibreve = 2 minims = 4 crotchets = 8 quavers = 16 semiquavers
2 minims, which are equal to

1 semibreve = 2 minims = 4 crotchets = 8 quavers = 16 semiquavers

4 crotchets, which are equal to

1 semibreve = 2 minims = 4 crotchets = 8 quavers = 16 semiquavers

8 quavers, which are equal to

1 semibreve = 2 minims = 4 crotchets = 8 quavers = 16 semiquavers

16 semiquavers.


The above stave contains three Bars separated by Bar Lines.  At the end of the line there is a "Double Bar Line"  At the beginning of each bar there is a Time Signature.


The above stave contains three Bars separated by Bar Lines.

At the end of the line there is a "Double Bar Line"

At the beginning of each bar there is a Time Signature.

The top number of a time signature tells you how many beats are in a bar, and the bottom number tells you "what type of beat it is".

For example, in the first bar there is a time signature of 2/4.

This means that there are two beats in a bar and the beats are crotchets, or put more simply there are "two crotchet beats in bar".

The second bar has a time signature of 3/4 meaning "three crotchet beats in a bar". Notice that this doesn't necessarily mean three crotchets in that bar - it could be, as above, a minim and a crotchet which adds up to the same as three crotchet beats.

In the final bar there is a letter "C" which stands for "common time". Common time is just another way of writing 4/4 (i.e. four crotchet beats in a bar).

N.B. In Grade 1 you will only see time signatures with crotchet beats. In other words the bottom number of the time signature will always be 4 (or it's marked as common time which means 4/4).