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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!


Follow Jaak on YouTube and on his Blog 


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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


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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

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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How to control nervousness.

We all know what it's like to be nervous when we have an exam or performance, but how can we successfully control our nervousness so that it doesn't affect our playing?

We all know what it's like to be nervous when we have an exam or performance, but how can we successfully control our nervousness so that it doesn't affect our playing?

Notice that this post is entitled, "How to control nervousness",  not "How to get rid of nerves". You can't get rid of nerves. However you can be familiar  with nerves so that you know how to control them and when you get nervous as you play, you recognize what is happening to you. Some of you might start physically shaking, others start playing faster or more quietly and inwardly. You need first of all, to remember what happens to you and then deal specifically with that.

Then you need to identify why this is happening. It all comes back to the "fright and flight response" which is a biochemical reaction that both humans and animals experience during intense stress or fear. The  nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to occur throughout the body. This however can work to your advantage. Increased adrenaline in your body can help you concentrate better. You do need however, to be able to control these changes in your body so that they do not overcome you.

Key to controlling nerves is "self belief". You need to have confidence in yourself and this comes from being prepared. You know that you can play this piece, you have done all those hours of practice, so there is no logical reason why someone listening to you should make you play worse. 

You need to have confidence in yourself and this comes from being prepared.

Also try to play in front of other people at any opportunity. The more familiar you are with this experience, the less of an effect it will have on you. With this in mind you could video yourself playing and have it included on our MusicOnline UK stage, a FREE platform for our subscribers to showcase their performances. You'll be surprised how closely, playing for a video recording resembles the stress of playing for an exam or concert. Email us at for more details.

Then, I would recommend trying to immerse yourself in the music, in expressing your emotions through your performance. You have done enough preparation that your muscle memory will take care of the physical playing of the notes. FORGET about the notes. Enjoy the music.

There are also physical things you can do. One technique is called square breathing. Just before you are about to play, find a square or rectangular object in the room. From the top left, follow with your eye the line across the top as you breath out whilst counting to 5. Then follow down the right side of the square, whilst breathing in deeply, again counting to 5. Then out again crossing along the bottom and in again going up the left side. Not only does this slow breathing help to relax you, but it refocuses your mind away from that which is giving you stress. 

Another physical technique, is to close your eyes and imagine your whole body from top to bottom relaxed. Start at your neck. Is there any tension there? Release it as you slowly breath out. Then work your way down, consciously relaxing every muscle in your body with every out-breath.

I would be very interested about YOUR experiences with nerves and what you find helpful in controlling them. So please leave a comment that might help someone else.


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FAILED - Should I Appeal?

Is it worth appealing an ABRSM result?

Is it worth appealing an ABRSM Result

So the result arrived and to your disappointment the mark was considerably less than what you expected. Should you appeal and what are the chances of your appeal being upheld?

This situation actually happened to a whole batch of my students back in the Autumn of 2014. I always give my students little mock exams before the big day, and so far I have been pretty close, usually plus or minus 5 marks what they got on the day. However on this one occasion the marks came back with the whole group consistently about 10 marks below what I expected. Fair enough, one student may have had an off day, nerves got the better of them, but all 9 of the students from that batch. To me it seemed more than a coincidence and so I decided to appeal.

Today, I will explain how I went about it, how YOU can appeal an ABRSM result and what the outcome was in my case. 

In those days, that is before 2016, you had to pay a fee for a Practical Exam Appeal, so one needed to be extra sure that the mark was indeed unfair. Now no fee is charged, so you have nothing to lose.

First of all, you need to download an appeal form and the links are below. Note that it is a slightly different form for UK students and international students, but both will be needed to be posted back to the quality assurance department in London, the address being on the form, as soon as possible and no later than 6 weeks after the exam for UK students or 4 weeks after results were issued for international students.

This form has two uses, one is for Formal Appeal and the other for Informal Feedback. The way in which your complaint will be treated is different depending on which box you tick.

To stand a reasonable chance of your appeal being upheld you will need to show that there's an obvious discrepancy between comments, marks and official marking criteria. With this in mind you should then study in detail the marksheet you received from ABRSM and compare it with their published marking criteria which can be found on the link below.

ABRSM Marking Criteria

Try to identify any discrepancies you can find between the marks and comments you were awarded and the criteria they publish and note these in as much detail as you can on the appeal form.

This form should then be posted back to ABRSM with the original mark form and in the case of international students an unedited
recording of the candidate performing the exam pieces and a selection of scales and arpeggios as well as a letter verifying that the candidate is the performer and the recording is unedited, stating the date of the recording. UK students may still be asked to provide such a recording at a future date, but this is not necessary initially.

Then you cross your fingers. If your appeal is upheld the ABRSM will either give you
  • a voucher equivalent to the value of the original exam (this can be used to enter for the same grade exam free of charge within one year of issue or as part payment towards a higher grade within the same timeframe); or
  • a full refund of the original entry fee. 
However, they will NOT amend retrospectively any marks as a result of a formal marking appeal. That means your result won't be changed but you can take the exam again for free and more importantly in my opinion, you will personally feel justified in saying that the mark was unfair.
In my case I received a very long letter which initially seemed to be backing up their examiner, but right at the end, the following paragraph was key:
Regarding the mark form comments for the supporting tests we did sympathise with your concerns over the quality of the comments. Some choices of phrase were not wholly supportive of the mark awarded, they were not also as explanatory or clear as they could have been and in the light of the disappointing standard of the mark form comments, we are happy to uphold your appeals on this occasion.
If you are interested, a copy of the letter is below (with personal details removed) for you to view.

Appeal Response letter

So in answer to the original question  - "Should I appeal?" if you really believe that your marks on the day are not in line with the ABRSM marking criteria or that the supporting comments on the mark sheet don't tally with the marks, then YES. Please leave a comment below if there is anything about this process you want clarifying more.