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23/05/2018

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GDPR for Music Teachers - Make sure you are LEGAL

If you live in a European country, you have probably received a whole load of emails recently, from companies asking you to accept their updated privacy policy. This is because the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) come into force on 25th May 2018 and requires that all businesses issue a privacy statement to all clients and contacts, regarding the data held about the individual.

GDPR for Music Teachers - Make sure you are compliant
This also includes music teachers, as they hold personal data about their students such as phone numbers, email and postal addresses, dates of birth (for exam entries) etc., and these are often stored on digital devices such as phones or computers. It will become a legal requirement on 25th May 2018, that all businesses which hold data about individuals comply and non compliance can incur fines of up to €20 million, or 4% annual turnover – whichever is higher, depending on the severity and nature of the infringement.

This article will explain what you need to do if you are a music teacher and want to stay legal.

Basically, any processor of personal data must disclose what data is being collected and how, why it is being processed, how long it is being kept, and if it is being shared with any other parties. Users have the right to request a copy of the data collected by a processor and the right to have their data deleted under certain circumstances.

Here are some questions that might help you ascertain what you need to do.

1. Do you have a record of the personal data you hold?

2. Have you explained to your students why you have personal data and how you use it.

3. Do you have a plan in case people ask about their rights regarding the personal information you hold about them.

4. Is your storage of data secure. This can include locking filing cabinets and password-protecting any of your devices and cloud storage that hold your students personal data.

There has also been some confusion as to whether music teachers need to register with the ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) that keeps a register of all businesses that hold data about individuals in the UK.

Most organisations that process personal data must notify the ICO of certain details about that processing and this includes a £35 admin fee. However, the Act provides exemptions from notification for organisations that process personal data only for accounts and records in connection with their own business activity and some not-for-profit organisations (i.e. if you give piano lessons for free) and organisations that do not process personal information on computer (i.e. if you only have hand written records)
Further information about these exemptions can be found here
https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-data-protection/exemptions/

So basically most teachers won't have much to worry about or do, to be in compliance but they should provide a privacy statement to which all their students should consent and I have made a sample privacy statement which you can copy and use for your own students HERE

Please do pass on this article to anyone who you think is affected by this new law coming in tomorrow and make sure that we all stay legal.

21/05/2018

ABRSM 2019 Piano Syllabus.

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

      
      

16/05/2018

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Depth vs Breath

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


09/05/2018

Developing Aural Skills

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




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


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

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


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

03/05/2018

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Scales Fingerings - are they important?

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

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


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

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

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

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

26/04/2018

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Maintaining Motivation

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

How to maintain the motivation to practice


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


18/04/2018

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How to play semiquavers evenly

Many years back, an excellent teacher of mine showed me some brilliant exercises to get semiquaver passages even and I would like to share them with you today. The problem often arises with the weaker fingers such as 4th and 5th. For example, when moving from the ring finger to the little finger it is easy to "trip" and rush onto the last note.

In addition to this, it is not only the rhythm that can be affected, but sometimes the evenness of tone. A typical example is the "bumpy thumbs" in a scale of B major. If you play this scale you will notice that the thumbs are always together and the natural tendency is for the thumb to play a little harsher than the other fingers. Try it now and see if you can hear that the thumb notes, are slightly heavier. So lets get to the exercises, which by the way, are suitable for any instrument, not just piano. The first couple use dotted rhythms.
Use these rhythms to play semiquavers evenly

In example A you start with the longest note and alternate long - short - long - short - long - short etc, with a slight emphasis as you would naturally do on the first note of each group and in example B you swap this around. The longer you can make the dotted note and the shorter the demisemiquaver, the better. A lazy almost  triplet rhythm, will be less effective.

Applying this to the scale of B major, you will notice that the accent falls in different places in each octave, contrary to the natural tendency to only accent the thumb notes.

The next pair of exercises uses triplet rhythms.

Using triplet rhythms is an excellent exercise for getting semiquavers even.

Again try and make the long note of each group, as long as possible and the triplet as quick as possible, remembering to slightly accent the first note in each group of four, for maximum effectiveness.

Finally after playing each of the four exercises, you should play the passage normally with straight semiquavers trying not to accent any note.

So why not give it a go, try it on your scales or another passage that involves fast semiquavers and let me know in the comments below if it made any difference to the evenness of your playing.

10/04/2018

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Why hands separately practice is unhelpful.

Should you start to learn a new piece hands separately or straight away hands together? This might be a controversial topic and I would be interested in your thoughts, so leave a comment below how you usually practice.

Why hands separately practice is unhelpful.


Obviously it is easier to work on one hand alone, but is it really beneficial? With my own students, I try to get them to put hands together as soon as possible, OK one play through of a section with one hand is acceptable, to familiarize oneself with the notes, but more than this is not helpful. I will explain why and feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

As soon as we start repeating a physical action over and over, we develop muscle memory. When we start a piece hands separately, continuing to practice like this for a period of time, we will develop two distinct muscle memories. When eventually we come to putting these two memories together, it's like we are starting from scratch. You can't add two separate memories together to make a new memory. All the time you have been practicing separately has been effectively a waste of time. It's like you are learning a completely new piece.

This is very obviously noticeable when moving from Grade 1 ABRSM piano to Grade 2. One of the biggest hurdles I have found with my students, jumping from the first Grade to the second is putting scales hands together. They may well have been able to play a single hand G major with each hand, one at a time, perfectly. However, as soon as I ask them to try it hands together for the first time, the muscle memory they developed previously - single-handed - completely falls apart. Fingering goes right out the window. Usually one hand tends to copy the other (incorrectly) and they now need to develop a completely NEW muscle memory.

On this point, it is interesting to note, that in ABRSM piano exams, students generally prepare scales hands together only, from Grade 2 and above. However the syllabus requires that you can play them separately as well. You might think, "well that is easy, if I can play hands together a certain scale, of course I could do it with just one hand" and so you might tend to not practice it such. However, it has been known, that a student has been asked for a one handed scale in an exam and that has completely thrown them off, because they have never practiced it single handedly, resulting in a very poorly executed scale. It all comes back to muscle memory.

Let me know if you agree with my theory, maybe before you practiced otherwise and something today has made you think. Or maybe, you're not convinced. All polite thoughts on either side of the coin are appreciated.

04/04/2018

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How to use a metronome correctly.

A metronome can be a very useful piece of equipment, especially when learning faster, more complicated pieces.
A metronome can be a very useful piece of equipment, especially when learning faster, more complicated pieces. Very often students will try to attempt learning a piece too quickly, with many hesitations and these inconsistencies in tempo will remain if we don't first practice slowly enough. You should always practice at a speed that you can comfortably keep going at without hesitation. Then you can use a metronome to very gradually build up the tempo as you develop muscle memory. Many modern metronomes which you can download onto your phone or ipad have a tap tempo function, meaning that you can tap the beat of a speed which you think you can maintain and the metronome will remember that speed in beats per minute (bpm).

As you increase the speed, only do so very gradually so that the hesitant playing does not return. Traditional metronomes increased by intervals of 3 bpm from 60 - 72 and by 4 bpm from 72 up to 120 and these incremental changes are ideal for increasing the speed  gradually. Don't try and run before you can walk.

I tend not to go too far below 50 or above 150, because beyond these extremes the beat becomes too slow or too fast and thus harder to follow. Instead, I subdivide or double the beat. For example, if I wanted a beat slower than crotchet = 60, I would first convert it into quavers and use quaver = 120 and then go lower from there as a quaver beat. When I achieve a quaver = 120 comfortably, I would then go back into a crotchet beat increasing further from crotchet = 60. Of course if the beat subdivides into threes as in compound time signatures you could subdivide a dotted crotchet = 50, into quaver =150



A word of caution here - although metronomes can be very useful in building the speed of a fast, complicated piece, they can also make your playing very mechanical. Therefore you should do as much practice with and without a metronome and when without, you can add little nuances such as rubato (which is not an excuse for hesitant playing by the way).

29/03/2018

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Exam Done - What Next?

Do I take a break from exams for a while, or launch straight into the next grade?

Many of you will probably just have done a music exam and before we get into this week’s post, I’d like to congratulate those of you who passed recently. And I want to give a special shout out to some of you who have told me about your recent successes, for example Millie Maskell who got 123 marks - a merit in her Grade 5 Violin and Emily Kate who gained 135 - a distinction on her Grade 6 Piano!

I’d also like to congratulate the 5 students of mine who entered exams this term who all got either distinctions or merits and if interested you can see their results
here 

So, as I was saying, many of you will probably just have done a music exam as we come up to the Easter break and if so, there comes the question, "what do I do next?" Do I take a break from exams for a while, or launch straight into the next grade? I want to talk about the pros and cons of both sides of the argument, but also please leave a comment below, what you usually do and why.

Taking a break can be a good time to explore more repertoire. You have probably been playing the same three pieces for many months now and this can sometimes take the joy out of music, even forgetting why we started learning an instrument in the first place. This will do wonders for your sight reading and can even help with some of the aural skills such as questions about style and period as you encounter a bigger variety of music. There is a danger that our music education can become just an exam factory, we prepare only a narrow range of music and skills needed to pass a specific set of requirements on one particular day.

Then again, there is the argument that exams provide goals by which you can measure your progress, and that goal in itself is a stimulation to work harder. Be honest with me here now - how many of you practice harder, the nearer you get to an exam? I have had students in the past who have decided after just one or two exams, that they didn't want to do any more and just play fun pieces instead. I have to say that these students, very soon stopped making any real progress and invariably soon after gave up completely.

So what is the best solution? I believe there is a middle ground, a third option. Instead of forgetting about exams completely, it might be good, as you prepare for a new exam, to have some other "fun pieces" on the go at the same time. Maybe not study them in such depth and keep changing the repertoire regularly. An even better solution is to play in various groups with other students or a local orchestra. Obviously this is more difficult for pianists, but maybe you could find some orchestral instrumentalists who are looking for accompanists. If you are a pianist, this is a skill that could be very useful for you in the future. 

Another situation that will keep you on your toes is to play in concerts. Push yourself forward and offer to play in a school assembly or a local church for example. I have had some beginner students in the past, pre-grade 1 even, whom I taught in a school and after suggesting that they played their simple little pieces in a school assembly, really started to blossom. They inspired their peers who were filled with admiration, they practiced a lot harder knowing that they would be playing in front of others and began to enjoy their playing much more. The simple act of sharing our music with others is why we learn an instrument, isn't it? Are you learning an instrument to spend the rest of your musical life sitting in your bedroom playing to yourself?

As I said at the beginning, please do add your thoughts to the comments below, how you break up the tedium of exams without losing that stimulus to keep improving.

21/03/2018

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Instant Key Signature Recognition

You should be able to recognise key signatures instantly

Following on from my previous post about what to look for when sight reading a new piece of music, today I want to look a little more in depth at key signatures. In the past, I have had students who when trying to work out a key signature, of a previously unseen piece, start counting up the lines or spaces to the various, sharps or flats. This obviously takes up a lot of time and in an ABRSM exam for example, it is NOT the best way to spend the 30 seconds preparation time. You should be able to recognize key signatures instantly. In grade 1 for example, you will only get either one sharp or one flat, and you should know without working out the pitch of these accidentals on the stave, that they are F sharp and B flat

With this in mind I have prepared a little flashcard challenge video. Each card will show you a key signature and you simply need to play the tonic major triad of the key signature you see within 5 seconds. So for example if you see two sharps, play a triad of D major. This will not only help with sight reading, but also music theory. So are you ready? Click on the video below and see how well YOU know your key signatures.


14/03/2018

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Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre is a routine you use every time you  start off in a vehicle. For those learning to drive it is taught as a mantra so that it becomes an automatic process. So what has that to do with music education?

MirrorSignal, Manoeuvre is a routine you use every time you  start off in a vehicle. For those learning to drive it is taught as a mantra so that it becomes an automatic process. So what has that to do with music education?


In my experience, when a student starts learning a new piece or is doing a sight reading test, the first thing they do is to work out the pitch of the first note. If it were a sight reading test, they may well finish the test and then I would take the music away and ask, "What was the key signature?" to which, they often wouldn't have a clue how to answer because they never looked in their mirrors, to use the driving analogy and moved straight out into the traffic without checking what was coming. Boom - a musical accident waiting to happen.

So what should be the musical mantra before we start off into moving musical traffic. I would suggest the main thing before even looking at the notes is key signature. It is the first piece of information given on the stave after the clef  signifying to me that it's important. 

Secondly, take note of the tempo, style, and performance directions. In an ABRSM sight reading test a distinction is only given for sight reading when the candidate incorporates these performance directions. You should always try to sight read musically,  not just mechanically.

Then move off carefully into the musical traffic. Let's try an experiment. Look at the following extract for 10 seconds and then answer the questions that follow to see how much information you took in.



  • What was the key signature of this extract?
  • What was the tempo marking?
  • What dynamics do you remember?



08/03/2018

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The Show Must Go On.

The title of this post is inspired from being ill with flu this week and not really feeling like making my regular blog post. But then I remember you my readers and how you would be waiting for this weeks “ramblings” and thought to myself - The Show Must Go On.

What do you do if you make a mistake in a music exam?

This week I want to talk about what you do when you make a mistake in a performance. Even top professionals sometimes make mistakes, but one thing you never hear them do, is stop. I have often said that rhythm is more important than pitch and if you go back to correct the mistake you are then compounding the error by spoiling the flow of the music, making a second mistake. To be honest, half the time, unless your audience knows the piece very well and you keep going they probably would not notice. If you stop to make a correction it will be blatantly obvious that something went wrong. Listen to these two versions of the same extract. CLICK TO PLAY

In the first there was a mistake - but unless you know the piece it’s quite unlikely you would have noticed. In the second, there are hesitations and corrections and it is much more obvious to everyone.

But what about in an exam. The examiner WILL know the piece. Should you correct mistakes in this instance, because he will know if you made one. Again the answer is NO. The exam is marked not just on getting the pitch of the notes correct, but on an overall musical performance. Any attempts to correct will spoil that performance.

So next time you play a piece you should know well, just be aware if, in “performance mode” you keep going whatever, or are in the habit of correcting mistakes. Let me know in the comments below.

03/03/2018

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ABRSM Grade 1 Piano - Mock Exam

I recently gave one of my students a mock exam just before their real exam and asked permission to video it so as to recreate some of the pressure of the real exam. 

What you will see is exactly as it was, no retakes, no editing out mistakes, for you to get an idea of what kind of mark can be expected from various performances and also so that the student could feel that pressure of doing one's best performance on just one attempt as one would in the exam. Below the video I have also given some comments and marks as would be expected in a real exam.




Scales

Apart from the slip on the initial G major these were well known and were played at a suitable tempo. Therefore I would expect them to get about 17 marks out of 21

First Piece - When The Saints Go Marching In - Trad American


A well chosen tempo with some good dynamic contrast conveyed the character of the piece. Only a few lapses in the articulation would probably result in a distinction of about 27 marks out of 30

Second Piece - Dans La Foret Lointaine - Trad French

For the most part very accurate notes and rhythm with generally good dynamic contrast between the hands immitating the echo of the cuckoo. There was a moment of confusion at the end and the tone wasn’t always 100% in control giving a merit mark of about 25 marks out of 30

Third Piece - La Donna e Mobile - Verdi

A well chosen tempo with some dynamic contrast conveyed the character well. There were a few slips and hesitations which spoiled the continuity a little but overall a merit of about 24 marks for this piece could be expected.

Sight Reading

The first half would have been perfect if it had been an octave higher in the OTHER hand. The second half struggled to represent either pitch or rhythm of what was printed and so unfortunately this would probably score only 8 marks, below the pass mark of 14.

Aural

Almost perfect responses which were both confident and musical giving a distinction mark of about 17 out of 18. The overall mark for this exam would be a pass of 118 marks out of 150

27/02/2018

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ABRSM Aural - How Well Does It Assess Aural Skills?

ABRSM Aural Tests and Trinity College Aural Tests are quite different, not least in the fact that Trinity doesn't involve any singing. So which is better at assessing Aural Skills?


ABRSM Aural - How Well Does It Assess Aural Skills?

In this post I want to explore whether singing in particular, is necessary to assess Aural Skills and how Trinity College Aural Tests get round this requirement or even improve on it.

In the early grades many of the tests are the same in both ABRSM and Trinity, such as, clapping the pulse, identifying dynamics and articulation and recognizing where a change occurs and whether it is a change of pitch or rhythm. However, in Grades 1-3 of ABRSM, you are required to sing back three short phrases to develop your melodic memory. In Trinity Grades 1 & 2, this is replaced by stating whether the last note of a phrase is higher or lower than the first and then by the 3rd Grade up to Grade 5, you need to identify the interval between two notes. If anything, this is what you need to do, for the sight singing tests of ABRSM, identifying the difference in pitch between notes. As you go through to higher grades in Trinity, your ability to hear in your head what you see on printed music is also assessed by studying a copy of some printed music and identifying changes that the examiner makes to what is printed, either in pitch or in rhythm. At first this will be in the melody but for Grade 8, there will be three changes which could be in the harmony or the melody. This listening out for lower parts has a similar objective to singing the lower part of the higher grades at ABRSM.

Cadences and modulations are tested by both boards, as one goes through the grades, although in Grade 8 ABRSM you are required to name the chords at cadence points, which could be any of the following, 
 I, Ib, Ic, II, IIb, IV, V, Vb, Vc, V7 or VI
...quite a list!!!

As any of you who have listened to my help video on how to do this will know, this has more to do with theory knowledge than Aural Skills.

It has been my experience, that the parts which the majority of my students struggle with in ABRSM Aural, are the singing parts. Does that mean they are bad at Aural, that they cannot hear? Or that they find the singing itself difficult?

Please let me know in the comments below if you think singing is  necessary, to assess aural skills, if you identify with what I said about the singing parts being the hardest.

Back at the beginning of the year, ABRSM, in my opinion dumbed down their theory exams. I wonder if something similar is in the pipeline for their Aural Tests in the near future. If so, remember, you heard it here first.

20/02/2018

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Vertical Tennis - A Common Problem of Beginner Piano Students

It has been the case, many times in the past, that I have taken over a student when they wanted to change teacher. Often this came with accompanying bad habits. Even with students that started from the very beginning with me, it could be easy to let bad habits start developing if they were not kept in check.

One of the main things I come across is a student's tendency to always look at their hands. This is a natural reaction when first starting out on the piano, but if left unchecked will lead to problems later, not least an inability to sight read music fluently. Even if the student is watching the music in between notes, this constant nodding up and down between hand and page becomes a bit like watching vertical tennis. 

Invariably, such students make mistakes precisely at the moment they are looking down at their hands or at least, hesitate at that moment and to be honest, a hesitation in music is a mistake. To overcome this habit, I have often hovered a sheet of paper just above their hands so that they cannot see them and to their surprise, they often play better when hands are not visible.

But what about when you have large leaps of hand position. Surely you need to see where you are jumping  to. Not necessarily. Can you find your mouth with a spoon lifted from a bowl? I rest my case. If we repeat any muscular action enough times, we can reproduce it accurately without thought or visual aids. Try it out. find a piece of music that you need to move your hand position and repeat the jump enough times so that you could do it with your eyes closed. At first, it is likely to be a bit messy if you are not used to doing this, but with time and perseverance accuracy will improve.

Related to this is the worst thing ever invented for beginner students - note stickers. They not only don't encourage students to learn the positions of the notes, but also actively encourage them to look down, rather than up at  the page.

Then there is writing the letter names on the music. OK, this will make the student look up more, but they will be at a disadvantage in the future with regard to sight reading skills. Very often, this also encourages the student to concentrate on just the pitch of the note at the expense of rhythm, which leads me to my last moan for the day.

Playing without a sense of pulse. Even when learning a new piece, however complicated or easy, there should always  be a steady beat. This may be a very slow beat as you are tackling a particularly demanding passage, but a beat should nonetheless be there. This will eliminate hesitations later, speed being achieved gradually with metronome only after you can play in time at a slower pace. If you can't play a piece in time without hesitation - you're playing too fast.

I would be interested in your thoughts on some of these bad habits. Do you identify with any of these, do you have any more things you think should be included - leave them in the comments below. 

14/02/2018

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Music and emotions - Valentines special

How does music have the ability to affect our brain and emotions in a way that plain noise does not?


Music is a common phenomenon found in all cultures of the world and crosses the boundaries of language. The styles of music themselves vary greatly in these various cultures, but through them all, a common ability to effect our emotions exists.

But how is music able to evoke emotion in such a way?

Even to the untrained ear, music possesses something that noise does not - structure. This structure is most obviously perceived by rhythmic patterns. Indeed, powerful emotions can be evoked by just percussion instruments such as tribal drums. The brain even has neural oscillators which it can synchronize with the pulse of the music. On a deeper level, melodic phrases have a predictable structure that form recognizable patterns which are pleasing to the ear. Going still deeper, the overall form of the music also is based on patterns and structures such as Rondo or Sonata for example. All these predictable patterns are perceived by the brain as "pleasing" and so induce a positive experience for the listener.

Then again there is the element of pitch and harmony. Going back even to Pythagoras, there were theories of what intervals were considered "perfect" because of the coincidence of the certain frequencies of the different notes in a certain interval. For example, without going into too much physics here, the frequencies of the notes in a perfect fifth have more in common mathematically than those of a minor 2nd.. Unconsciously our brain perceives all these patterns and structures as something pleasing. Just think for a moment about the meaning of the word "harmony" outside of a musical context.

Talented composers manipulate the emotion within a piece by knowing what the listener's expectations are. I'm sure there have been many times when you anticipated what is coming next in a piece of music that you have never heard before. The composer can either fulfill your expectations or maybe surprise you with something unexpected and thus play with your emotions. Expectation builds anticipation, which when met, results in a  psychological reward, releasing feel good hormones.

So what does all this have to do with music education? Many times when my students are about to take exams, I advise them to forget about the notes and concentrate on being musical rather than mechanical - To enjoy the music and let that enjoyment come out in one's performance. Let those neural oscillators synchronize with the pulse of the music, appreciate the patterns in phrase and form, appreciate the way the frequencies of the different notes in a chord harmonize. Get away from just playing the right notes and try and find the beauty in the structures which the composer intended.


And just for Valentines below is a video of Liszt's Liebestraum No.3. But as you listen to it, try to do so in a different way. Try to identify the brain pleasing structures and patterns whether rhythmic, melodic or harmonic. Be aware of your expectation and anticipation and as they are met, sense those  psychological rewards and feel good hormones.


07/02/2018

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ABRSM Marking Criteria - Aural Tests

How do ABRSM mark Aural Tests?


This post is inspired by a recent comment I received on a video - "Help I Can't Sing", on my YouTube channel 
Can I ask what marks your students who can't sing have got for the aural tests? Especially those who can't sing but are good at the rest of the aural.  Have any actually refused to sing, and does that mean they get 0 even if they were willing to do the rest? It seems a bit odd to me that you get an overall mark for everything.
... which raises some interesting questions that maybe many of you are wondering.

  • How do you get zero marks?
  • Is the mark an average over all the tests?
  • Do you lose marks for every mistake?
  • What if you really cannot sing?

First of all, if you got everything completely wrong in the Aural Tests would you get zero marks? Strangely the answer is "No". Zero marks is only awarded if you don't even try, so even a pitchless grunt is worth more than keeping your mouth shut.

Secondly, if you got everything correct, would you get full marks. Again, strangely, the answer is also "No, not necessarily".  According to their officially published criteria, to get a distinction, in the aural tests, that is 17-18 marks you need to be not only correct but also musically perceptive and confident. What does that mean in practice? The term "musically perceptive" particularly applies to the final tests in each grade, which ask about different characteristics of music, such as dynamics, articulation, tonality, tempo, structure, texture, or style and period depending on which grade you are taking.

Being able to listen to music and then talk about what you hear is musical perception.

In contrast to "confident responses", the lower marks are described in the official marking criteria, with phrases such as "cautious", "uncertain" and "vague". So even if you get a question correct, but your tone of voice is uncertain - for example with that rising intonation at the end of a phrase which sounds more like a question than a statement...  if you are hesitant in answering, giving away signs of uncertainty... you will lose marks. Even if in yourself you really don't know the answer, sound as if you do.  You never know it might be right anyway.

Obviously, the best remedy for feeling and sounding confident is good preparation and our series "E Aural Trainer" will adequately prepare you to feel ready for any grade. 

But what about if you really cannot sing. It is actually very rare that students really cannot sing. This is usually a confidence issue. The best preparation, practicing singing back phrases regularly will help boost that confidence. If you want a whole hour of practicing just this - click HERE 

Also bear in mind that you don't get marked separately on the individual tests - it is an overall impression of your aural ability that is used to arrive at your mark. The wording in the marking criteria is very interesting on this topic. For example the official ABRSM criteria for a merit (15-16 marks) is "strengths significantly outweigh weaknesses". This sounds almost like saying, "most of the tests correct" but there is a subtle difference. The examiner is looking for an overall sense of your aural ability, not if you got test A correct, but test B wrong. The description for a pass below merit (12-14 marks) is "strengths just outweigh weaknesses" and that for a fail of just below pass (9-11 marks) the other way around, "weaknesses outweigh strengths". Now there are in many grades, four tests. What if you got exactly half of them correct, which of these two descriptions would fit, just above pass or just below. Can you see, the marking by individual test mentality doesn't fit this model.

Finally I would like to say, far too often, Aural Test Training is left to the last minute, a lesson or two just before the exam. This is too late to develop aural skills. It's just enough time to scare you into thinking you can't do it. Would you start learning your pieces a couple of weeks before an exam. I don't think so. With this in mind, start developing your aural skills now - not at the last moment before the exam.

30/01/2018

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Why Hand Positions Technique Can Raise Your Piano Playing to a New Level - Guest Writer Jaak Sikk M.A.

Guest Writer - Jaak Sikk M.A. 
Lecturer and Phd Student of the Estonian Acedemy of Music and Theatre
Jaak Sikk on YouTube 


One of the fundamental things that makes a difference in piano practice is having a goal in mind while practising. It is easy to slip into emotional playing and repeating material of the piece over and over just 'as it comes'. Going through the piece and analysing it in a way that hand positions and fingering is in the focus can be beneficial from many aspects.


For beginners it can be very helpful to have simple and easy to follow goals. But it is not always simple to find that type of clear ideas what to practice and be sure that they are really helping the pianist to improve. Finding out hand positions is a relatively easy task to do and useful to pianists regardless of the level of playing abilities.

Hand position can be seen as setting of fingers on certain keys. Usually these positions appear in right and left hand separately. Occasionally, depending on the style and musical texture, it is advisable to find positions which involve both hands. It is common that one hand position enables to play several bars without moving fingers away from the position.



So why should you pay attention to hand positions?


Hand positions are a great way to figure out fingering for playing the piece. If you put your fingers on the keys, forming a position that lasts for example for two bars, it naturally gives you a variant of fingering. Very often there are more than one option for hand position related decisions. In these cases it is possible to choose the best option according to the physiological specifics of the hand and preferences of each pianist.

Having clear hand positions helps to create a 'safety buffer zone' in time for, lets say a few bars. What does that mean? If your fingers are already in the right place for two following bars, you do not have to worry about missing notes. It gives you a lot of technical and text related confidence and freedom in piano playing.

As being in the position helps you to 'be in the right place in advance', you do not have to struggle with finding right notes in the last possible moment. As positioning also makes the hand movement more aware and structured, it is easier to play with exact rhythm. Hand position and fingering related erroneous choices are the ones that can distort rhythm and dynamic sensitivity a lot.

Thinking in positions can help to improve sight reading skills a lot. If the pianist is able to see which notes can be played in one position ahead, the mental tension will be remarkably lower and the material to concentrate on reduced. I would even say that without grouping notes and intertwining them with hand and finger placements on the keyboard, it would be very hard to sight read efficiently.

As in general you can be less worried about “hitting the right keys”, you will have less mental burden and there is more capacity of mind left for dealing with musical part of piano playing. Being better at piano technique means, that you can put more emphasize on musical part, isn't it so? A good example is Vladimir Horowitz. When to look at his playing, several signs show that he is having a long sight ahead of time and a lot concentration has been put on forming natural hand positions for playing.

Hand positions are and will be one of the fundamentally important subjects in piano technique. But no magic trick exists, so every pro has its cons too. Being aware of hand positions can help the pianist to improve a lot and achieve new qualities, but it also brings in new challenges. One challenge is 'staying flexible' and maintaining a relaxed and expressive wrist for example. But as always, every new skill brings another problems and opportunities to develop further. I call this next step from hand positions “clever finger technique”. This technique helps to maintain flexible wrist and also active and sensitive fingers while using hand positions. But about this already next time...

Best wishes and thank you for reading!

Jaak 


Follow Jaak on YouTube and on his Blog 

24/01/2018

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Help I can't sing!

Is YOUR singing like this? Get help  HERE

From my experience, the aspect of the ABRSM Aural Tests that many students find the most challenging, is SINGING.


This is particularly, but not exclusively true for teenage boys. I have in fact, had students in the past, who when I asked them to sing for Aural Test practice, flatly refused, "No!! Don't want to." Or those whose attempts at singing resemble more a speaking voice than anything with a sense of pitch. Interestingly, singing is not required in any of the grades for Trinity College exams and there is some debate as to whether this section of the ABRSM tests, really assesses one's aural skills. But that's another topic, for another day. The fact is, they are there and those of you who echo the title of this post, "Help I can't sing" might be looking for a little assistance. 

Many of you may already have seen my post How to Pass an ABRSM exam - Aural Tests in which I have explained how many students are simply shy especially if the range goes a little high. I  recommended starting any note with a consonant sound such as dah or tah, which gives the note a definite beginning and so is more likely to be in tune. I also explained how to support your note with your diaphragm, which will give you more confidence on the day.


Another thing that might help one's confidence is lots of practice. With this in mind I have prepared an audio with 50 minutes of just singing back phrases. It goes right from a Grade 1 standard where you need to repeat simple two bar phrases using a range of only three notes, all the way up to a Grade 8 standard in which you'll need to sing back longer phrases that are the bass line of a three part melody. You can listen to a sample of it HERE 

If you want to hear the full version you can download it for the small price of just £1, HERE or for FREE for those of you who support MusicOnline UK through Patreon HERE












16/01/2018

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ABRSM fees - are they value for money?

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is a  registered charity. The ABRSM is one of the UK's 200 largest charitable organisations ranked by annual expenditure

ABRSM fees - are they value for money?

This Friday, 19th January 2018, is the UK online closing date for ABRSM exams and as I was getting the necessary information I needed for entering this terms students, I noticed as usual that the ABRSM fees have gone up again between £1 and £3 depending on the grades. I then decided to dig a little further to see how much they have risen over the last six years and as this table shows, there has been an increase of between 14% to 19% over this time period.


Grade     2012      2018    % change
Grade 1   £33.50  £40.00  19%
Grade 2   £39.50  £45.00  14%
Grade 3   £44.00  £52.00  18%
Grade 4   £49.00  £58.00  18%
Grade 5   £52.00  £62.00  19%
Grade 6   £61.00  £72.00  18%
Grade 7   £67.00  £78.00  16%
Grade 8   £79.00  £91.00  15%

For some grades this is about twice as much as wages have increased over the same time period. Of course these are figures for the UK so feel free to leave a comment about increases in the fees for other countries in the comments below.

So do these exams offer good value for money. Have ABRSM exams become elitist only available to those from well off families? And where does the money go? 

Then I conducted a poll on my YouTube channel and as of writing this post 55% of you thought that the ABRSM exam fees were extortionately overpriced . Of those who belong to the 45% who consider the fees good value for money, a couple of comments made interesting reading.


You might think that the examiners are paid very high wages, but according to one source I read ,
The money, is miserable; you earn more washing up in a hotel kitchen.
The same author also mentioned 
You can’t do the job unless you are prepared to spend a large chunk of your life on the road or in the air
....which may be a clue as to where some of the money goes. ABRSM examiners travel all over the world and never examine local to their home in order to avoid possibly examining someone they know or students of a local teacher they may know (even though it did happen on one occasion that an examiner of my students was a friend of mine at the Royal Academy of Music many years ago.)

It may surprise you to know that The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is a  registered charity. The ABRSM is one of the UK's 200 largest charitable organisations ranked by annual expenditure

According to Wikipedia, a charity is a
non-profit organization (NPO) whose primary objectives are philanthropy and social well-being (e.g. charitable, educational, religious, or other activities serving the public interest or common good).

According to their latest set of public accounts, the ABRSM raised over  £41,000 000 from Exam fees and just under a further £8,000,000 from publishing sales. You can view their public accounts here
 http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Accounts/Ends82/0000292182_AC_20170131_E_C.pdf

Now call me cynical, but although ABRSM is technically non profit making, it doesn’t have fat-cat share holders, my idea of a charity, even if not exactly the legal definition of one, is an organization,  that promotes the welfare of others, expressed by the  donation of money to good causes. OK the ABRSM does award to a lucky few free scholarships to study music, but pricing worse off families out of taking their exams seems somewhat contrary to the principle of a charity.

Added to this charitable organisations, are eligible for  reliefs and exemptions from taxation in the UK. such as income tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, stamp duty land tax and value added tax. How convenient.

So which side of the fence do you fall? Having heard more than maybe you previously knew, do you think that ABRSM exam fees are good value for money? Please leave a comment below.






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