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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. (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
here 

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

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