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26/07/2017

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Is ABRSM listening?

ABRSM responds to criticism about the changes to the Music Theory exams for next year.


ABRSM responds to criticism about the changes to the Music Theory exams for next year.


Today's post is a follow up to a previous post in which I reported about the changes to ABRSM Theory from next year.

(You can read about the changes HERE)

It seems they are aware of some of concerns of many and have issued a reply. I am interested whether you think their response is adequate - really listening to teachers, so please let me know your thoughts ON OUR FORUM. It goes as follows:



A healthy debate

News of the updated exam papers has led to some debate. We know from research and recent feedback that many people welcome these changes. We also know that some teachers have concerns and I’m going to write about some of these here.

The value of theory

Learning about music theory and the way music works is such an important part of any music education. It gives students the tools they need to get the most from their musical activities, whatever they might be. Because of the value we place on music theory, we’ve recently spent time reviewing the exams. We want to ensure that they assess the right things in the right way, are encouraging and supportive, and give candidates the best opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.

Responsibility, consultation and research

Each year thousands of candidates all over the world take ABRSM exams. As an awarding organisation monitored by official regulatory authorities, we take our responsibilities very seriously. This involves reviewing and refreshing all our assessments on a regular basis, a process which is always founded on consultation and research. We talk to experts. We listen to teachers and students. And we take into account best practice in assessment and question design – not just in the world of music but more widely as well.
In reviewing our Music Theory exams at Grades 1 to 5 we followed all these steps. The result? We’re making a number of small changes. We’re modernizing the exam papers and focusing more clearly on the building blocks of music theory – the essential tools that give students access to future musical progress and opportunities. And while there’s a small change in the skills needed in certain parts of the exam papers, the underlying knowledge students need to cover and the standard of the exams is staying the same.

What about creativity?

As part of this process we’re removing rhythm-writing, melody-writing and word-setting questions at Grades 1 to 5. Some teachers are concerned that this might reduce opportunities for students to be creative. However, while we would always encourage creativity in learning, research tells us that these questions are often answered in a way which suggests a formulaic or even ‘space-filling’ approach. So following consultation we decided to replace these questions. This has allowed us to focus more on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of music theory, give candidates extra opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in this area, and increase objectivity and consistency in the exam marking. 

I’d also like to reassure everyone that we are not replacing these questions to make the exams easier. In particular, at Grade 5 we are continuing to ask candidates to apply their knowledge in a wider context when they answer questions on musical extracts. This is something which requires a similar approach to the melody-writing question and calls on similar higher-level thinking. So, importantly, the knowledge and understanding candidates need is not changing.

Moving up to Grade 6

There is also a concern that without melody-writing at Grade 5, candidates who want to carry on to Grade 6 Music Theory, with its requirement to write original music, might not be adequately prepared.
It might help here to explore the difference between Grades 1 to 5 and 6 to 8. In many ways, these two sets of grades have different roles to play. At 1 to 5, the focus is on developing a good grasp of the basic principles of music theory. The revised papers now reflect this more clearly. Grades 6 to 8 then give opportunities to demonstrate this knowledge in an applied and more creative way.
When making the changes at Grades 1 to 5, we’ve been careful to ensure that despite the slight shift in focus at Grades 1 to 5, the step-up from 5 to 6 won’t change. Once students have passed Grade 5 they should have the tools they need to start tackling the different requirements of the higher grades.



Why multiple choice?

One result of our research into question design is the introduction of multiple choice questions for musical terms and signs. Multiple choice questions are widely accepted as an effective assessment method and they will be familiar to the majority of candidates from their experience of taking other tests and exams. But does this mean we’re ‘dumbing down’? Absolutely not. When multiple-choice questions are well-designed, the likelihood of being able to give correct answers through guess-work is very small. We are continuing to assess a full range of terms and signs, and candidates still need to learn these thoroughly to do well in this section of the exam.

So what do you think? Does this response answer any concerns you may have had about the changes. Please let me know your thoughts ON OUR FORUM, and let's have  as ABRSM calls it, some "Healthy debate" .

21/07/2017

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Changes to ABRSM Music Theory

In the summer of 2017, ABRSM announced that it was changing it's music theory exams as of the beginning of 2018. The announcement is titled, “Improving our Theory Exams”. However, are these changes are for the better or worse?

This summer, ABRSM announced that it was changing it's music theory exams as of the beginning of next year.
ABRSM Music Theory in Practice















The main changes from January 1st 2018 were:

Introducing multiple choice questions for the musical terms and signs. This will be more like the style of questions used by Trinity College and by the way our Android App "Musical Terms and Signs" quizzes you using multiple choice answers. I'm sure many students will welcome this change as it will make the exam EASIER, but will it make you a better musician? In real life when you are given a musical direction you have never seen before - are you given a multiple choice?



The second change is to remove completely the writing an answering rhythm question in the lower grades and also the writing an 8 bar melody question in Grade 5. Again I'm sure many students will welcome this change. I know from my experience of teaching this section, that a lot of students found it one of the hardest parts, but my question is again, "Will it make you a better or worse musician?" Are we simply technical analysts or creative artists? 


JOIN THE DISCUSSION ON OUR FORUM


Here is a comment I found on a forum discussing the changes: "One of my recent Grade 5 candidates really enjoyed and blossomed with the composition question. Early attempts were abysmal and I don't think he'd mind my saying that, but he commented later that it was one of the things he had most valued. I suppose if you are simply taking the exam as a qualifying thing, rather than looking at all round musicianship, it may matter less."
This in itself poses another question. Why do ABRSM make it a requirement to have Grade 5 Theory before doing a Grade 6 Practical exam? Isn't it because they claim to value all round musicianship? And yet they are taking away the most creative element of the theory exam!!

The third change is the removal of yet another section from the Grade 5 exam, the SATB short to open score question. With regards to this I am somewhat in agreement. The old style question was just a lot of copying out notes, but couldn't they just have made this question shorter, maybe just converting one bar from short to open score or vice-cersa?

What I find even more disconcerting is that they are not updating the workbooks in line with the new syllabus. It seems this is just to save money. Their official statement regarding these work books is;

We are not making any changes to our Music Theory in Practice books for Grades 1 to 5. They still cover all the knowledge and skills you need for our Music Theory exams at these grades from 2018. The sections on rhythm-writing, word-setting and melody writing will not be directly relevant to the exams from 2018, but overall Music Theory in Practice continues to provide plenty of valuable teaching and learning material for the exams.

As I said before, in my opinion, this is just a money saving exercise. Then regarding the book,  First Steps in Music Theory and The AB Guide to Music Theory (Part 1)  they state;

We are not be making any changes to these books. They cover the basic principles of music theory and provide a thorough introduction to the knowledge and understanding needed at Grades 1 to 5. They continue to offer valuable support for exam preparation from 2018 onwards.

Of course to change this book, it would be too expensive for the board who charge nearly £40 for a ten minute practical exam. 

If you would like to see a sample of these papers you can find them HERE

Updated 28/01/2018

19/07/2017

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How to turn pages - WITHOUT throwing your music on the floor.



How does one turn that page without running the serious risk of the music ending up on the floor?

We've all been there - either a long piece with multiple pages or even a shorter piece with bad editing so that the page turn arrives at the most inconvenient moment. How does one turn that page without running the serious risk of the music ending up on the floor? 


Page Turner

This is quite a luxury for some and you need to find a good one. Someone who instinctively knows when is the best moment to turn the page and also won't get in your way. Here's a little know fact. In ABRSM exams, although candidates are not allowed to bring a page turner into the exam, the accompanist of a grade 8 or ARSM exam MAY do so.

Photocopying

Generally, the photocopying of music is illegal, but in certain situations it is permitted. Obviously, in your own home, copying a sheet of music that you have already purchased to help with page turns, isn't going to be problem, but what about in an exam situation? The ABRSM's official line is;
  • The making or use of photocopies of copyright works is not permitted. Application should be made to the copyright holder before any copy is made. It is the Applicant’s responsibility to ensure that candidates act within the law with respect to the making and use of photocopies. ABRSM reserves the right to withhold the exam result of any candidate where it has evidence of the use of an illegal copy in connection with that exam.
This all seems a bit of a hassle, writing for special permission to copy one sheet for a page turn.

Memorizing

If you can do it, this is the ultimate solution and in many ways better for the music itself. I personally performed all my exams from memory, it helped to get more involved with the music rather than be distracted by the notes. If memorizing a whole piece is too challenging, I have a few students now, who memorize just the first or last page of a three page piece. You could even just memorize a few bars and turn the page at a more convenient moment.

Dog-Eared Pages

This is quite an effective method and I use it all the time when accompanying for exams where I haven't had the time to memorize the piece. Also many of the videos I have put on YouTube of exam pieces use dog-eared pages. You need to be careful though, to remember to re-fold the corner of each page everytime before a performance, as a flat dog-ear isn't as easy to get hold of. Another variation I have heard of is using mini post-it notes on the bottom corner of each page, but these need to be staggered if you have more than one turn, otherwise you might end up grabbing two at a time.

Cutting your music

It sounds like sacrilege, but another alternative is cutting your music. This works best for instrumental music with accompaniment, where they may be a few bars rest here and there. You could cut just under where there are a few bars rest, or in more continuous music, where there are a few beats rest, so that you could turn just half the page at this moment. Hopefully, if the edition lends itself, you will have an opportunity in the top of the next page to turn over the bottom half of the previous. (I hope that made sense)

Technology

More recently music has been available in digital form where you can store entire an library on your ipad for example. With this it is easier to swipe a single page without the risk of picking up two pages at a time, or worse still throwing your music on the floor. Further still there are now hands free devices like "Blue Turn" which connect to your tablet through bluetooth. 



 IK Multimedia iRig BlueTurn Bluetooth Page Turner for iOS and Android

BlueTurn Bluetooth Page Turner for iOS and Android







Let me know in the comments below - what methods you have used or if you have any horror stories of page turn fails.



16/07/2017

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Piano Technique: Seating and Posture.

In this post you will learn how to sit correctly at the piano, so that you will have full control and avoid some of the problems associated with bad posture.

Check Out My "Piano Specific" YouTube Channel



First of all the position of the seat is of great importance. The height should be so that your elbows are just above the keys.



The position of the seat is of great importance. The height should be so that your elbows are just above the keys.


The distance from the piano is also very important. Most beginners will bring the chair close up to the table as if they were sitting down for dinner. This is incorrect. You should be far enough away so that your elbows are just in front of your body and you should sit on the front half of the chair or stool only. This will give you more freedom of movement. 

You should be far enough away so that your elbows are just in front of your body.

Also you should sit on the front half of the chair or stool only. This will give you more freedom of movement.


You should sit on the front half of the chair or stool only



Next you need to think about your back, this should be straight but not tense. Imagine you are a puppet hanging from a string attached to your head. Any tension will translate into your fingers and make you play worse apart from giving you a sore back if you sit for hours in a slouched position. 

Your back should be straight but not tense. Imagine you are a puppet hanging from a string attached to your head.  

Moving up from the back, make sure again that your shoulders are also relaxed and not tense. I see so many students who when approaching a difficult passage, seem to completely lose their neck as their shoulders rise.

Make sure that your shoulders are also relaxed and not tense.

Finally when you place your hands on the keys your wrist should be level so that there is a straight line from your elbow to the first knuckle of your hand. From there the fingers form a relaxed arch shape as if you had a small piece of fruit between your hands and the keys with each knuckle rounded.

When you place your hands on the keys your wrist should be level so that there is a straight line from your elbow to the first knuckle of your hand


Oh and a final note - make sure your nails are not too long. Apart from being dangerous, you could rip your nail off between the cracks in the keys at high speed, it will enable you to use the tips of your fingers (one of the most sensitive parts of your body) to feel in contact with the instrument. There are no nerve endings in your finger nails. It will also avoid an annoying clicking sound as you play.

Make sure your nails are not too long



If you found this post useful please  subscribe to this blog to stay up to date with more tips on piano technique.


11/07/2017

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Choosing the right piano.

Digital or Acoustic? For beginner students this is a big decision. An instrument of quality is a major purchase, but then again, what are your goals. Are you playing for fun or do want to make it a career? 

In my experience as a teacher I have been asked to recommend an instrument many times and as I travel to the homes of the students I teach, I come across much variation in the instruments I see students learning on. In this article I will pass on the same advice that I give my students and at the end I will tell you what I personally use.


Alesis Harmony 61, Portable Keyboard with 61 Full Size Velocity Sensitive Keys, Built-in Speakers and piano lessons
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Electronic Keyboard.

When I start a new student who has had little or no lessons in the past, this instrument is often the one that already exists in the home. Some prospective students even inquire about lessons  and have nothing at all yet to practise on. The benefit of a keyboard is mainly, that it is a financially cheap alternative, until you know for sure that you want to take your studies further. It is a sad fact that there are many students who don't carry on for much longer than a few months when they realize that learning an instrument requires dedication, hard work and time practising, so to spend hundreds of pounds or dollars on a quality instrument at the very early stage is probably not advisable. Added to the financial aspect, a keyboard is very portable. However, even at an early stage, make sure a keyboard is placed in such a way that you are using correct posture when playing. Try also to get one that is touch sensitive, so that you can control the dynamics.

Yamaha YDP142 Digital Piano   
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Digital Piano.

As a student even approaches grade 1, the above instrument would not be enough. The range of notes is not even enough to play all the pieces required at a grade 1 exam. Added to this, the keys of a keyboard are much lighter than one would find in an exam piano. The change in the weight of the keys on the day, would be so different that it would severely affect ones playing if one were not used to it. This is where digital pianos go one stage further, using "weighted keys"  to mimic the feel of a real piano. They can be a good alternative to a real acoustic piano right up until grade 8. For some people, space might be a problem, where to put a full size piano. Another advantage is, that they require less care. You never need to get them tuned, worry about temperature or humidity and generally they are less expensive than a new acoustic piano. You can also adjust volume or use headphones if you don't want to annoy the neighbours.

Minster Upright Acoustic Piano Gloss Black
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Acoustic Piano.

Nothing can really match the responsiveness and tone of an acoustic piano and it would be a must for anyone wishing to make a career out of playing. It would even be a better alternative for any student. One would find that the keys respond to one's touch just that bit more than a digital piano, and they should be less noisy. If expense is the issue, a second hand one would be a good alternative, but get it checked out thoroughly first. Here is a few things you might want to look for:
  • A neat alignment of the internal parts, e.g. hammers
  • Signs of woodworm
  • Rust on the iron frame
  • Any cracks in either the iron frame or the sound board
  • Any broken or missing strings
  • Do the pedals work
  • Are there any funny rattles or vibrations as you play an entire chromatic scale of the whole range of the keyboard
If in doubt get a professional piano tuner to take a look with you before purchase, better to pay his fee than waste hundreds on a bad second hand instrument.

So what do I use? Well, despite the superior quality of the acoustic piano, for reasons of space more than anything, I own a digital piano. I purchased a quality instrument, from musicroom.com , (although  the links to the illustrations in this post are from Amazon ), with which it is hard, (but not impossible) to tell the difference in tone quality  between it and an acoustic. You can check out the quality for yourself  here and by the way, if you like the video below please SUBSCRIBE to my "Piano Channel


The actual model is of the same as that pictured above - a Yamaha Arius YDP 142 although in a different colour.

Let me know in the comments below if you found this information useful, or if there is any other advise about pianos you wish to know.

09/07/2017

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The importance of Music Theory.

Many musicians play by ear and they play very well, but they can't read a note. So, "why do I need theory?" 

Many musicians play by ear and they play very well, but they can't read a note. So, "why do I need theory?"

Music theory is the study of how musical ideas are communicated to each other. Put more simply, it is how we read and write music. Even the musician described above, who can't read and write music, uses music theory in terms of knowing, for example, which chords to use on his guitar. 


Without an understanding of how music is written and read, students can only learn music by ear and memorization. This often requires listening to a piece of music multiple times until they can play it by themselves. Although this is a valuable skill, how would they learn a piece if it had never been recorded before, or there was no-one to demonstrate it to them. Learning just by memorization, creates barriers in learning new music. If you can read music, you can learn it much more quickly by yourself and without the need to listen to someone else's performance on a CD, itunes or YouTube.

Further, if you have a musical idea, you can communicate this idea much more easily and with many more people if you can notate your ideas.

Imagine you couldn't read or write English, you could only speak it. For a start you wouldn't be reading this blog, but seriously, think what limitations that puts on you. You could never find out information for yourself, but would always have to rely on someone else to tell you verbally. Also, you could only communicate verbally thus greatly limiting the audience of people you can share your thoughts with.

It is well known that in order to take a higher grade (6 or above) practical exam with ABRSM, you first need  to take their grade 5 theory exam. This is not the case with Trinity College London exams, but you may not be aware that in Trinity exams, theory knowledge is required in the practical exam, as part of the supporting tests, where you need to answer theory type questions about the specific pieces you are playing. For example, in a Grade 4 Trinity Practical exam, you may be asked about modulations to closely related keys, about tonic and dominant triads, or about intervals.

The ABRSM way of doing things is completely different, separating theory from practical into a written exam, which doesn't relate to the pieces you are playing. One disadvantage to this is that many students don't even think about doing any theory until they get to grade 5 practical and then they panic. If you are an ABRSM student or teacher, it would be a good idea to always do theory alongside your practical work and relate it specifically to the music you are playing. This would do much to dispel the reputation that theory is dull and boring book work.

Beside simply being able to read music, learning theory will give you a keen sense of musical awareness and enhance your creativity. It also will help your aural skills. For example, recognizing a modulation or a cadence  is a lot easier if you understand what a modulation or a cadence is.

Some might argue that theory makes music too analytical. Music is all about expressing emotions. However, I will finish with this thought. Think about some of the great masterpieces of music that you have heard, that have really moved you emotionally. Don't you think that the composers of such masterpieces, were masters of music theory.

If you are interested in improving your music theory, try our Complete Theory Course from Grades 1-5 or if you just want to test how much you already know try one of our Android Apps.



07/07/2017

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How to pass an ABRSM exam - Scales

Many students find learning scales rather tedious and as such may neglect preparing them well for an ABRSM exam. However, they are possibly one of the easiest parts of the exam to get full marks in.


 Many students find learning scales rather tedious and as such may neglect preparing them well for an ABRSM exam. However, they are possibly one of the easiest parts of the exam to get full marks in.
FOR A COMPLETE LIST OF ABRSM SCALES CLICK HERE

In fact it was the ONLY in the scales section of the exam that I always got full marks, many years ago as a teenager. 

I would recommend starting your practice with scales, it not only gets them out of the way if they are not your favourite thing to practise, (a bit like eating your least favourite vegetable first on your dinner plate) but also it acts as a good warm-up for your pieces.

Added to this I would recommend that you take time to learn your fingerings accurately. In order to play scales securely you need to develop muscle memory, so that your fingers “automatically know where they are going”. Muscle memory is only developed by repeating the same action over and over again, and this in turn can only be achieved if you use the same finger pattern every time. By the time you get to the higher grades, the scales will be going so fast you need to be on autopilot, you won’t have time to think!! Check out this video  for the different speeds of scales at various speeds.


Next I would recommend that you think of the scales in groups of 4. This is how they are written out in the ABRSM scale books, and by doing so it will help you develop an even tone. By playing them in groups of four you will naturally stress a different note in each octave and so they will sound more even. On the other hand, many students with will play with "bumpy thumbs". Take for example the scale of B major. In this particular scale the thumbs in both hands are on the same note and also on the only white notes in the piece. If you try to play it now, without thinking of groups of four you may well notice a "bump" on every thumb note. Now try  it again, thinking in groups of four and you will be naturally stressing a different note in each octave, B, E, A#, D#, G#, C#, F# and then back to B.

Finally, mix up the order you play your scales. If you always play them in the same order, when the examiner asks you for a random scale on the day this might put you off. With this in mind I often suggest to my students, to make scale cards, that is, little pieces of card with the names of each of the required scales written on them. Then you place all these cards in a pot and pick one at random. If you play it well you can place it in a different pile of “correct” scales. If you play it wrong, don’t play it again now, put it back in the pot and try a different scale. It will come up again later and you want to practise getting it right first time, not 2nd 3rd or 4th time in the exam. This will also ensure, that the scales you have the most difficulty with, will get the most practice. Continue like this until the entire pot, has been transferred to the “correct” scales pile. And then the next day start again.

Also don’t forget to practice them hands separately, even if you are on a higher grade. You may be surprised to know, how many of my students can play very well a scale hands together, but if I ask them to do a single hand, it completely confuses them. Be prepared for this in the exam.

I hope you found this post useful and if so please share. By putting into practice the suggestions I have made, you too can get full marks in the scales section of an ABRSM exam.

06/07/2017

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How much should I practise?

How much should I practice? Will someone who practices 8 hours a day necessarily be better than someone who does only 2 hours?

There are many theories about how much one should practice and how often. 

For example, on an ABRSM forum I recently read, someone advised 15 minutes a day for Grade 1, up to an hour and a half per day for Grade 8.

However, I think this question itself completely misses the point. Of course, 15 minutes a day would not be enough for a higher grade, but does that mean that someone who does 8 hours a day will be better than someone who does only two?

Not necessarily..........

Much more important than how much practice you do, is the quality of your practice. Just analyse for a moment now, your last practice session. What percentage of the time did you spend playing stuff that you already know quite well? Many students, for example will always start playing a piece from the beginning even though that is the section they have been learning the longest and know the best.

Here's an idea you could try. Imagine you have a long piece you have been working on and you could divide it into four sections A, B, C and D. No doubt you started with the A section and have been working your way through chronologically until now, where you are just learning the D section. Start your practice each day with the D section. Then do the C and D sections together. Then try from the B section to the end and finally play through from the beginning once only. This method will ensure that the least familiar section gets the most time.

Whatever method you use, make sure you spend the most time on the thing that needs the most work. Oh and don't forget sight reading!! This is often a student's lowest mark in the exam. Why? Because they spent the least time developing that skill.

I hear from a lot of my students, especially ones who are in the middle of final exams in school, during this summer term, that they have very little time. I have some sympathy, but I am a firm believer, that if you really want to do something, you will find the time to do it. Back in the day when they were called "O" levels instead of G.C.S.E.'s, I took grade 8 on two instruments, within a week of each other in the same term as I took nine "O" Levels. Yes it was in the days before internet, ipads, Xbox, mobile phones and social media, but still, it took self discipline and that motivation came from the desire to succeed. I would start by going through the complete scale list every day and regularly use a metronome on technically difficult passages to build up the speed. Each session had a goal, it wasn't just a play-through.



That said, it is advisable to break one's practice time up into smaller sections. Your mind will be fresher if you take a break and you could even cause yourself "injury" by practising too long in one go. If you are doing other exams at the same time, music could also be a break from such academic pursuits and vice versa.

So instead of me prescribing exactly how long you should practise, which you might have been expecting when you saw the title, I would prefer that you went away with more thought about how you practice.

Please let me know in the comments below your experience. How much do you do and how do you structure your practice? And finally, if you found this post useful, please share on your social media, without of course, getting too distracted by your iphone and forgetting the piano sitting quietly in the corner.

05/07/2017

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How to play anything - FAST

Let me tell you a secret... To Play fast, you need to practice slowly.

A recent viewer on my YouTube Channel commented on one of my Grade 8 videos,  "As a grade 3,  this is the most depressing thing to watch. I doubt I'll ever get that good!"

Have you ever felt like that when looking at a new piece that seems impossible? I’m sure we all have at sometime. But, today I want to let you into a secret... that you can play pretty much anything you want to, and faster than you ever thought you could. So what is the secret?

Well basically, to play fast, you need to practice slowly. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it? But it's not. Let's back track here. When you were a baby, just learning to feed yourself with a spoon, probably a large percentage of your food, ended up on your face, rather than in your mouth. As time went by, you gradually got more accurate at knowing where your mouth was, so that now, (or at least I hope so), you can feed yourself without major mishaps. You have developed muscle memory. Your muscles that put the food in your mouth, remember what to do by themselves, without you having to think about it. This muscle memory, was developed by repeating the same action, over and over again. The same is true when it comes to learning a piece of music. You need to get to a point where you can play it, without thinking about it. Where your fingers know where they are going on their own. To do this there are a few basic principles you need to apply.


  1. You need to start at a speed which is easy and comfortable. There must be absolutely no hesitation. If you can't maintain the beat - IT'S TOO FAST. Many students who when learning a piece, keep stopping or stumbling every couple of bars or even every couple of notes. This is pointless practice. 
  2. You must use exactly the same fingering, every time you practice a passage. If you are training you muscles to know where they are going without you thinking about it, they must repeat over and over, exactly the same action, with the same fingers. OK, a little bit strangely, but let's go back to the analogy of a baby learning to feed itself. The process would be slightly more complicated, if every time it went to feed itself, its mouth was in a different place.
  3. Practice in sections. Don't try and tackle the whole piece in one go. However, a word of caution here. When practicing in sections, always overlap a bar or two from the preceding and following sections. If you don't, when you come to put the sections together to make a whole, there may well be gaps and/or stumbles between them.
  4. Use a metronome. Apart from the piano itself of course, a metronome is probably the most used piece of equipment that I have. When you have found a speed that you can comfortably master, then, and only then, gradually increase the speed. The incremental steps of a traditional metronome are a good guide: 50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 63, 66, 69, 72, 76, 80, 84, 88, 92, 96, 100, 104, 108, 112, 116, 120, 126, 132, 138, 144 etc. I tend not to go much slower than 60 bpm, because below this, it gets harder to feel when the next beat is coming. I prefer to subdivide the beat. That is to say, instead of play crotchet=40 I  would use quaver=80. The same is true for very fast beats. Minim=72 is easier to follow than crotchet=144.
  5. Reach that magic moment. "What is it?" I hear you ask. The magic moment, is when you are starting to increase the speed and you get to a point where you suddenly realize that you weren't even thinking about what you did. Your fingers knew where they were going by themselves. You get to the end of a certain passage and say to yourself, "How did I just do that?" This is a great feeling, and from there the sky is the limit. Keep increasing the speed up to the desired tempo.
  6. Once you have technically mastered a piece, practice WITHOUT a metronome. A metronome is great for learning fast passages, but it can tend to make pieces sound mechanical rather than musical. At this point you can add more creative nuances, a bit of rubato here and there depending on the piece.
I challenge you to try this method on a piece you are practicing, that is technically difficult. Find that magic moment and then come back to this post and leave a comment below if it worked for you. 
                           

          


04/07/2017

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How to pass an ABRSM exam - Sight reading

Along with Aural - Sight reading is one of the most dreaded parts of an ABRSM exam.

Along with Aural - Sight reading is one of the most dreaded parts of an ABRSM exam.


In my experience, it seems that this section of the exam is not prepared as much as, for example the pieces and scales. Added to this, you have probably been playing the same three pieces over and over again for the last few months and have virtually memorised them, and in so doing you are not really “reading music” every day. To get better at sight reading you need to incorporate some music you have never seen before into your practice every day.

How should you practice sight reading? Again, in my experience, most students focus primarily on getting the notes the correct pitch at the expense of keeping the beat going. If you look at the marking criteria for a sight reading test, the FIRST thing that is mentioned for a distinction is, “Fluent, rhythmically accurate” followed by “Accurate notes/pitch/key”.

Then there is the “musical detail” such as dynamics and articulation. These also will get you more marks in an exam and finally in the marking criteria for a distinction there is mentioned “Confident presentation”. A sight reading test is an assessment on how well you can convey the music as a whole performance, NOT if you can recognise the pitches A, B, C etc - that is a theory exam!!

In an exam you are given up to half a minute to prepare. Now at this point, most people will tentatively start to try and work out the pitches of the first few bars. This is a waste of your 30 seconds. Try and get the rhythm in your head, look out for dynamics and articulation marks, try and get a sense of the music as a whole.

I would practise sight reading with a metronome, maybe set to a slowish tempo if necessary and keep going whatever. If you miss a note, DON’T go back and correct it, you’ll only upset the flow and rhythm of the music and this effectively then counts as a 2nd mistake. You can’t erase the first mistake, and the examiner is not interested if you can improve on your wrong note, he wants to hear a performance of the music as a whole, which conveys as best you can, the character of the piece.

With this in mind, you might find helpful, a playlist called "Sight reading trainer" which I have prepared on my YouTube channel, in which you get a few seconds to look at the piece and then you need to play along with the audio which forces you to keep time.

03/07/2017

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It's like riding a bike

How to avoid constantly looking at your hands when playing the piano.

Something I say probably every day in my teaching, especially with beginner students, is that play the piano is like a riding a bike. 


Imagine the first day you got on a bike, maybe at three or four years of age, you know, the one with stabilizers. Now remember how you tried to master the skill of trying to get your feet to go round the correct way. Your mum or dad were probably calling out to you, "Don't look at your feet, look where you are going!" as you forgot all about steering the bike. Sound familiar?

Well this is a lot like many beginner students, even using a simple hand position, which doesn't involve any movement of the hand, just keeping the five fingers in close position. They feel more confident if they can look at their hands, instead of the notes in front of them. Then however, just like on a bike, if looks at one's feet instead of where one is going, there is an accident waiting to happen.

Piano Stickers are the WORST thing you can do as a beginner. Not only do they not help a student to learn the note names, but they encourage them to be constantly looking down away from the music.I try to encourage all my beginner students to feel the notes without looking down. Maybe at first they feel uncomfortable doing this, but eventually this will develop better sight reading skills. One of my pet hates is those note stickers you can buy to stick on the keys. They are the WORST thing you can do as a beginner. Not only do they not help a student to learn the note names, but they encourage them to be constantly looking down away from the music. This will produce at best - hesitant playing,  and at worst completely losing your place.

If the habit of looking down is deeply ingrained, as sometimes happens when I take over students who previously learned with a different "teacher" I sometimes do a little experiment. I hide their hands by suspending a sheet of paper just a few centimetres above so that they can't see them. To their surprise, they invariably play better when they can't see their hands.

I am interested in you thoughts, either as a student or a teacher, so please leave a comment below.

02/07/2017

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How to Pass an ABRSM Exam - PIECES

In order to get a good mark on your pieces in an ABRSM Exam, it is not just a question of getting the correct notes.

In order to get a good mark on your pieces in an ABRSM Exam, it is not just a question of getting the correct notes.

That might be good enough to pass at lower grades, but at the higher grades there must be a sense of involvement when playing - communicating the mood, style and character to the listener.

First, let's take a look at the marking criteria. According to the officially published marking scheme a distinction would include:



  • Expressive, idiomatic musical shaping and detail 
  • Assured 
  • Fully committed 
  • Vivid communication of character and style

Compare these two examples of the same piece set for Grade 8 Piano

 

I think you'll agree that, although the first one was 95% note accurate and kept the pulse going, the second, had more expression, conviction and musicality. With this in mind, getting a good mark in an ABRSM exam, starts right back when you choose your pieces. You should listen to all the options available and then choose the one that inspires you. You will play a piece better if you enjoy it.

The next step, is not to start learning the notes immediately. but listen to other good performances of the piece. make notes of how others interpret it, the shaping, the phrasing, the dynamics etc. Remember - you are a MUSICIAN not a TECHNICIAN.

Then, if there are any particular technical difficulties, start practicing slowly. maybe with a metronome. If you are stumbling on a particular passage, you are playing it too fast. Don't try and run before you can walk. You'll find that slow methodical practice, gradually increasing the speed, will develop muscle memory, so that eventually you will be able to play it faster - effortlessly. On the other hand, if you start practicing too quickly, constantly making the same mistakes, you are reinforcing the habit of making those mistakes. It will be even harder to break that habit later.

Once you have learned a piece, both musically and technically, you should be confident when going into the exam. Remember, one of the marking criteria for a distinction, was an "assured" performance. Go into the exam believing in yourself and when playing, you should have done enough preparation, that you can forget about the notes and enjoy the music. That's right, I said "enjoy" in the context of an exam. If you enjoy performing a piece, the examiner will enjoy listening to it.

01/07/2017

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To play, or not to play..... FROM MEMORY.

You’ve been preparing your exam pieces for a few months now, played the same piece over and over hundreds of times and probably able to play it from memory. Should you play it from memory in the exam?

You’ve been preparing your exam pieces for a few months now, played the same piece over and over hundreds of times and probably able to play it from memory. Should you play it from memory in the exam? I will tell you what I did personally, when taking exams at the end, but for now let me highlight some Pros and Cons.

Having the music book there in front of you, even if you don’t use it can give you confidence. An exam is a stressful situation and different people react differently to nerves. Under stress it can happen that the mind goes completely blank. Playing without the music might look impressive, but you will not get any more marks for doing so in an exam. You may know all the notes, but little reminders, pencil markings on interpretation, might just help you on the day to focus on the finer details. That said, if you go to any professional concert, a soloist will usually play without the music. Is that just to show off? I think not. Once you know a piece well technically, you can fully immerse yourself in it musically, better without the dots in front of you. This will mean learning not only the notes from memory, but also every little nuance. Added to this, especially at the higher grades, page turns can sometimes be problematic. 

In an exam situation - I’m sure an examiner will be a little sympathetic if a page turn causes a minor hesitation, but more importantly, it adds to YOUR stress and if a clumsy page turn does cause you a minor mishap, this will have a psychological effect on the rest of your performance. 

So what do the ABRSM regulations state on this subject. Here is their official line:

"Performing pieces from memory is optional, but candidates are encouraged to do so if they consider it will enhance their performance. Candidates performing from memory must ensure that a copy of the music is available for the examiner to refer to if necessary. 

Notice here, there is a hint that playing from memory might make a performance better - but note that you need to have a copy of the music for the examiner. 


A NOTE OF CAUTION

To be honest, after many months of practicing the same piece, you probably know the pieces from memory anyway, whether or not you have the confidence to do this in the exam. The problem with this is, many students do very little actual reading of music at this stage and become terrible sight readers. ALWAYS incorporate some sight reading into your daily practice. You might be interested in checking out my other article 

What makes "The Perfect Practice Session"?



At the beginning I said I would tell you what my preference was personally when taking exams. I think you can possibly guess from the tone of some of my observations that I did my exams many years ago - ..... from memory, but I would be very interested to hear from you in the comments below - what is your preference and why.
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How to pass an ABRSM exam - Aural Tests

AURAL TESTS are possibly one of the most feared parts of an ABRSM exam, but they needn't be

Take your Aural Skills to the next level Click HERE

AURAL TESTS are possibly one of the most feared parts of an ABRSM exam, but they needn't be. With good preparation you can be confident of getting a good mark in this section of the exam.


It is interesting in the marking criteria for the ABRSM Aural section of the exam that a distinction is given for confident responses whereas you'll get between 12 to 14 marks for cautious responses even if you answer mostly correctly. So sound like you believe in your answer and respond without hesitation, even if you are not sure in yourself.


Secondly it is worth noting that it is always worth having a go. You'll get 6-8 marks just for having a go. Zero is only awarded if you don't even try. This rather strangely means that 1-5 marks don't exist.

The examiner should adapt to your vocal range and you could even hum or whistle the responses to the sung parts of the test if you prefer. However, singing is probably more suitable to most. When it comes to singing, I find many of my students are simply shy especially if the range goes a little high - practice at home just singing simple phrases increasing the pitch range of these gradually. I would recommend starting any note with a consonant sound such as lah, dah or tah. It gives the note a definite beginning and so is more likely to be in tune. Support your note with your diaphragm, that is the muscle you feel contracting when you cough - feel this muscle contracting as you sing, maybe placing your hand below your belly button at first to help sense this support. It will give you more confidence on the day and if confidence is your problem, practice doing this in front of other people to eliminate your embarrassment.


Finally be prepared, know what to expect - the tests follow a very precise formula. If you know what the question will be even before it is asked, this will help you feel more prepared. For example the C test in grade 5 aural asks you first about general musical features - however the same music will be used to ask later on, that time signature the piece is in. By the time this question is asked, it will be the third time you've heard this piece and you could be thinking about the time signature even on the very first playing.

To help you feel even more confident, I have prepared a training course  to help develop your Aural skills called “E - Aural Trainer” 
Click HERE to find out more and take your Aural Skills to the next level.


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Updated 06/12/2018




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