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MusicOnline UK Teaching Notes - ABRSM Piano 2019/20 Grade 4 - C2

A Kwela for Caitlin

Richard Michael

ABRSM Grade 4 Piano 2019/2020.

Teaching Notes

This energetic Kwela has swung, offbeat quavers - often cut short by rests and would ideally suit a student with a taste for jazzy pieces and a strong sense of rhythm.

At the start, make sure you have a legato LH (which happens to be the tune) to contrast with the light RH staccato chords.

Another thing the examiner will be looking out for, is your dynamics. Sometimes they change very quickly in this piece. Within the dynamics, you will also notice that there are often many accents. These should not be overdone, but try to give a little extra lean on these notes. For example, an accent within a "piano" dynamic, should stay "within the context of piano".

The rhythm of the last line, particularly bar 39 is quite tricky and you might find playing off a metronome helps here.


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MusicOnline UK Teaching Notes - ABRSM Piano 2019/20 Grade 4 - B1

The Reef (No. 5 from in Southern Seas)

Walter Carroll.

ABRSM Grade 4 Piano 2019/2020.

Teaching Notes

One of the things an examiner will award marks for, is when your performance conveys the style and character of the piece. "The Reef" is a very dramatic composition, so will need big contrast of dynamics. To achieve a strong fortissimo, try to use the weight of your arm, not being afraid to come away from the keys a little in the opening chords. As you leap off each chord, land ahead of time on the following chord, thus making the big changes of position easier. However, not only the fortissimo but also, the quieter sections need noting. The crescendo/decrescendo patterns in bars 5-8 & 15-18, need to be very wide ranging to imitate the crashing of the ocean waves against the Reef.

There are many staccato markings in this piece, which strangely are at the same time as pedal markings, which effectively "neutralizes" any staccato effect. Therefore, the purpose of these markings is to indicate the type of touch needed, rather than the acoustic effect achieved. However, be careful at the end of bar 10, the last beat is not pedalled and so these notes will sound staccato. You may also have noticed in the above video performance a slight ritardando in this bar.

In bars 19 & 20, there is yet another kind of articulation, that is slurs with staccato dots and these should be played separated but not too short.

Finally, notice that the last 4 bars should be a little slower.


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An honour indeed !!

Thanks to YOU guys this blog has been awarded a position in the TOP 10 UK MUSIC EDUCATION BLOG list. The full list can be found HERE.

These blogs are awarded and ranked based on following criteria
  • Google reputation and Google search ranking
  • Influence and popularity on Facebook, twitter and other social media sites
  • Quality and consistency of posts.
  • Feedspot’s editorial team and expert review
So thanks again for your continued support.


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MusicOnline UK Teaching Notes - ABRSM Piano 2019/20 Grade 4 - A3

Petit Jeu

Georg Philipp Telemann.

ABRSM Grade 4 Piano 2019/2020.

Teaching Notes

First of all, notice the title of this piece. It translates as "Little Game" and so your aim should be to make this piece sound playful.

LH quavers are lightly detached throughout, in keeping with the style of music from this period. Also notice, that all dynamics and articulation marks are editorial. Feel free to be creative with dynamics, but as you do so, remember that music from this period uses stepped or terraced dynamics. It might be an idea to make  any changes on the half bar, that is after three quavers, which is where phrases start and finish. Play this video again and see if you can notice any variations from the ABRSM edition.

Talking of the starts of phrases, notice that this piece starts with a three quaver upbeat. Try not to make the notes in this "part bar" too heavy, (despite the editorial forte marking), but rather lead them into the first beat of the first complete bar, which is where the  natural accent should lie.


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MusicOnline UK Teaching Notes - ABRSM Piano 2019/20 Grade 4 - A1

Bagatelle in C

Ludwig van Beethoven.

ABRSM Grade 4 Piano 2019/2020.

Teaching Notes

The major section of this Bagatelle, poses a challenge in achieving a good legato. The official ABRSM Teaching Notes  for this piece suggest, pedalling between each quaver beat may help maintain the legato, but the tempo for this section is quite fast and especially at Grade 4 level it might cause more messiness than help. In any case, it would be a good idea to practice a good legato fingering initially WITHOUT pedal to start. Some notes are impossible to make legato between successive chords, such as when there are repeated notes, but the technique is to lift those notes which are repeated and make the rest of the chord legato.

This page will be a resource for students and teachers taking the ABRSM Piano Exams 2019-2020, including audio samples, teaching notes and video tutorials.

Get the Official ABRSM Teaching Notes HERE

Another thing to bear in mind is that the dynamics are editorial suggestions only. You may have noticed that the video performance above uses different dynamics to those printed in the ABRSM Grade 4 book. Have a listen again if you didn't catch this the first time. For example, I played bars 5 and 6 piano returning to a mezzo forte in bar 9. Feel free to experiment, the examiner will give credit for creativity that is in keeping with the style and character of the piece.
In the minor, middle section, always be sure to keep the LH quieter than and just supporting the RH. This tonal control will also help achieve a good mark in the exam.

Finally, notice again in the performance above, that the tempo is not always strict. There is often an easing of the tempo towards the ends of phrases. As before, listen again and see if you can spot this.


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ABRSM Misprint?

If you are learning Blues in the Attic from the ABRSM Grade 3 2019/2020 Syllabus then read this.

Do you see what I see? The triplet quavers at the end of the bar would mean that the RH part of this bar has only three and a half beats (the piece is in 4/4 time). When I first noticed this, I decided to phone the ABRSM to let them know it was a misprint, or so I thought. Within a few hours they got back to me stating that the part was in fact, correct. The digit "3" under the group of quavers was actually a fingering, not a triplet marking. Well the notation here is at least ambiguous, so much so, that I'm sure many would read it as a triplet, indeed the number one result in a YouTube search for this piece, at the time of posting this, (a channel I would not recommend by the way, for students looking for good example performances), plays this three quaver group as a triplet. 

However, we now have it on good authority that they are just three normal quavers and so in fact there is no misprint. As a guide for the future, I decided to look through other pieces from the syllabus and found that all other triplet markings are in fact in a different type face, that is italicised. So if you ever want to know if a digit is a fingering or some kind of tuplet, fingerings are always in normal type face, tuplets are always in an italic type face.

Please share this article with anyone either teaching or studying this piece as I am sure it will be a common area for ambiguity.

For a hear how this piece should be performed and a fuller tutorial please watch the video below.


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Solitary Confinement - The Downfall of a Musician

The majority of Music Students spend over 80% of their time playing their instrument practicing in solitary

According to a recent survey I conducted on my Youtube Channel - The majority of Music Students spend over 80% of their time playing their instrument practising in solitary, that is, not to an audience or with others e.g. in ensembles/lessons. IF THIS IS YOU - read on....

It is true, that to be a good musician you need to spend many hours practicing. However, this very act in itself can be the downfall of a musician. We can spend so much time perfecting our technique or a particular piece, that we can lose sight of the reason we started studying music in the first place. Ask yourself now, "Why did I start learning an instrument? Just to perfect a certain piece and pass exams or to share the talent I have with others?"

Even thinking about that aspect of taking exams, it is interesting to note that the ABRSM criteria for a distinction on your pieces mentions, 
Vivid communication of character and style
Your aim is not to just play the notes correctly, but to convey the composer's intentions, to communicate emotion through musicality and this can be much harder when practicing on your own. I can speak from personal experience, that when I am playing to an audience, the senses are heightened, I feel a connection with the audience and that gift of communicating emotions to them through my instrument is a rare opportunity that many people on this planet will never have.

Added to this, practising on your own for long periods, can have negative psychological effects. You could liken it to working in a dead-end job where no-one seems to notice what you do and this mundane monotony can find it's way into your playing. On the other hand, playing well to an audience gives you the performer a reward. To use our work analogy again, wouldn't you feel more motivated in your job if someone acknowledged your efforts, praised the work that you do. As a musician, I guarantee you, sharing your music with others, will make you a better musician. 

"But I need to practice", I hear you say, "and I don't have the opportunity to play to others everyday." Well, I have an interesting exercise for you. Find a piece that you consider is up to performing standard and make an audio recording of it, trying to communicate the composer's intentions as if playing to a live audience. Then listen to your recording and be your own audience. You will be surprised at what you hear, that you never noticed when you were playing. Then, I have another proposition for you. I have opened a new discussion post on the MusicOnlineUK Forum HERE on this blog, where you can upload and share with the community, your recording and also listen to other people's recordings on which you could give feedback. It will be like having a virtual audience, complete with the "reward of sharing" that I mentioned earlier.

Of course, nothing can beat the experience of a real live audience, but if such opportunities don't come your way that often, I would encourage you make use of this community and not just keep your music confined to the privacy of a practice room.

If you found this post useful - please share using one of the social media buttons below


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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

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.


ABRSM 2019 Piano Syllabus.

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



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Depth vs Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Developing Aural Skills

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

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

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

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

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


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Scales Fingerings - are they important?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Maintaining Motivation

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

How to maintain the motivation to practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.


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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.


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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).


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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. (Feel free to share your exam successes in the comments below).

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

So, as I was saying, many of you will probably just have done a music exam as we come up to the summer 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.

Updated 16/07/2018


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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.


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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?


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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.


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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.


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.


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


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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.


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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. 


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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.


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