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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. 


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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.


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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"


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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


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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.