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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.

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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.