Play it really fast!

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to teach an especially talented student. I suppose what I mean by that is a student who is not only talented but also very advanced. The prospect is made that much more interesting when the student happens to be very young. A student of mine for example who is somewhere around the 11 year old mark and about to take grade 8.

This student is very technically adept. They actually practise (a lot!) and when you ask for something to be done, it somehow magically is. This is almost the dream student... almost...

There is however, a tiny thing missing. But what an important thing it is. Imagine tackling a second movement of a Mozart sonata. Now, something I’ve come to realise with more musical maturity is that the key to understanding Mozart’s piano sonatas is listening to and understanding his opera. The more you know about Mozart’s opera (or at least his symphonies) the more you understand his piano writing. You start to hear opera in the sonatas - you can imagine the kinds of voices he could have been thinking about for each passage.

Second movements tend to be slow. They also tend to be very lyrical - soaring right hand melodies. In fact, during my A-level teaching, I often have students mistaking them for pieces from the romantic era. You get the idea, theses are pieces that have to be loved and understood.

Imagine then the frustration of hearing a young student playing it really rather fast (almost double the speed) and proclaiming that it is much more interesting when played fast. It’s not that I can’t understand their point of view - at that age, it is fast and exciting things that tend to stand out. But I see someone who has talent and technical ability but as yet lacks the musical maturity to understand that music can be slow and beautiful. Trying to explain that playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique is (in some ways) as hard as playing Chopin’s first study is something of a lost cause.

I am of course always pleased and proud to have a student who is so dedicated as to be able to play Chopin’s first study should they wish. These people do not come along too often. To nail the point, I suppose it is that I recognise that they are so tantalisingly close to perfection. Yet there is no way to make them see it. I shouldn’t wonder as I think I had the same effect on my teacher at a similar age. It is something that (for most people) only comes with age. One more example. Have you heard of Einaudi? Modern composer who tends to write lots of relatively slushy but to some extent attractive piano music. Young people seem to lap it up - it really seems to inspire them to learn various passages which I’m all for. The amount of students at my school who ask me to teach them how to play various little sections of one of his pieces. But what happens? They go off and play it at more than twice the speed of the original!

I know they will change - one day, they will take as much pleasure in playing a beautiful slow movement as they currently take in playing something flashy. Its just a shame it can’t all come at once.

Myleene Klass

I just happened to watch an episode of Countdown and who should be the guest in dictionary corner this week? None other than Myleene Klass.

At one point she was talking about hosting the Classical Brit Awards and said it was one of her favourite jobs - it was like “soul food”. Well, if the Classical Brits is like soul food for Myleene, that should tell you everything you need to know about her musicality.

Please have a read of the best article I’ve read about the Classical Brit Awards here. Please - no emails about elitism... some things should be protected.

Differentiation

As well as teaching piano, I teach music in a busy South West London school. In education, differentiation is a common word. A recent talk at my school put me in mind to make a blog post about it as it is an area of great difficulty in music. Differentiation is discussed all the way through teacher training, it is discussed after every lesson observation. It is generally an expected part of effective education.

If you’re not sure what is meant by differentiation in education, it is essentially planning a lesson (each and every lesson in fact) with the expectation that there will be varying levels of ability within the class. Therefore, if you give the same activity, worksheet or even question to every member of your class, you are not effectively differentiating.

Imagine you are planning a maths lesson and you have designed a lovely worksheet for whatever topic you happen to be teaching. You should know your students well enough to know that many of them will learn in different ways. Some learn well just by listening, some by watching you demonstrate while others learn best by doing it themselves. You should also know that while some will surge ahead with the topic you have designed your worksheet around, others will need to spend much longer and will need to attempt it several different ways.

Naturally, you would have produced two or three different versions of your worksheet to cater for the varying ability ranges well as an extension task for the high-fliers. You might also have carefully hidden the fact that you are giving an easier sheet to the lower-ability members of the class. What’s more, you will do this for each and every lesson you ever teach.

So, why does differentiation touch a nerve with me? Read these two sentences and see if you don’t agree:

  • It is not uncommon to have in a year 7 class, a grade 6/7/8 musician sat next to a a pupil who does not even know how to identify a single note on a piano keyboard.
  • Music has a wider range of ability than perhaps any other subject.

In most subjects, you can be fairly sure that even though your brand new year 7 class, fresh into secondary school will have (sometimes vastly) differing levels of ability, they have all covered ‘roughly’ the same topics in primary school. With music, this is never true. This is the real crux of what I am saying - in my opinion, it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE for a student who has never had any external music lessons to enter school in year 7, be taught music only in timetabled music lessons and to go on and get an A*, A ,or even a B at A-Level. I would venture that this is not the case with ANY other subject.

How do you realistically differentiate a lesson when half of your class don’t know where middle C is and two or three are already musical high-fliers? Do you recruit the musicians to help train the lower abilities? From one angle, that’s not a bad idea - it’s certainly inclusive. But it’s hardly presenting much of a challenge for the musicians; at least not a musical challenge. Do you split them up entirely?

The fact is, nobody ever really answers the question on differentiation in music. I always ask it - and I asked an expert only last week. You always get the same reply - something along the lines of “that’s a very interesting question which we will explore further”... We never do...

Teaching music is quite challenging for various reasons, but it’s always fun. Trying to come up with new and better ways to challenge and include the entire class never gets old. But spare a thought for music teachers on the odd occasion - by definition we just don’t fit into the same mould as other subjects. Perhaps more on that in a future post.

The Hardest Lesson Of All

I was having a conversation with a student recently about what really is the hardest thing in learning music. It’s not technique or being able to play lots of fast flashy notes. You see YouTube videos of very young people doing that all the time. But that’s not it.

The hardest thing is to be able to listen to yourself and actually know what you want to hear. Let me give you a comparison. If an artist wants to paint something like a portrait or a landscape, they have to have a pretty good idea of what they want the finished result to look like. If they don’t, not much is going to happen on the canvas - or at least not much of interest.

It’s similar for a musician - if you don’t know what sound you want to come out of the piano, you’re not going to be able to make that sound.

Have a listen to one of these five year old kids playing ridiculously hard pieces of music - they usually don’t have the faintest idea about the actual music they are making. It’s just a mechanical exercise in most cases. Technically impressive, yes. But musical?

So how do you learn this? Well, it’s something that takes time. The more repertoire you play, the more you will get it. But most of all, you just have to reach a point of musical maturity where you move away from having to have a teacher tell you: “play this bit softly, then crescendo here blah blah blah”. If a teacher has told you how and when to play everything, it’s not really you playing. It’s certainly not your heart and soul being poured into the piece. You are technically reproducing a series of events that you have learned. Well, that’s what computers do - we as humans have the ability to decide for ourselves what really sounds good. The only good use of a very good technique is in enabling you to achieve the sound you want. If you only want to be impressed by the technique itself, then music is perhaps not what you are really interested in.

Try to really listen to yourself when you are playing. Always ask yourself: If I bought a CD of this piece and that is what I heard, would I be satisfied? Most of the time, the answer should be “no”. Getting the answer to be a “yes” is a process that is much more far-reaching than simply playing the notes.

First Lesson

My first piano lesson at music school was unlike any other lesson I had experienced. My previous teacher, the brilliant Susan Steele in North Devon was the first person who really taught me piano. By that I mean that with her, I began to really develop my understanding of music and what we’re actually trying to achieve when we play. Without her, I would never have gotten to the stage where I could have gone to a specialist music school.

My piano teacher at Wells was John Byrne and lessons with him still stand out in my memory as some of the most musically inspiring experiences of my life. My first lesson was initially a scary experience - mostly because of the horror stories the older students liked to tell about just how much Mr Byrne expected.

Being a specialist music school, I had three hours of piano tuition each week. One and a half hours on Tuesday and the other one and half on Thursday. I remember vividly my first lesson taking place on a Thursday. I know this with such certainty because he asked me at the end of the lesson to learn an entire first movement of a Mozart sonata from memory by the following Tuesday. This was a feat I wouldn’t have dreamed of before. But I practised and practised and to my amazement got it done. And what did he say the following Tuesday when I played it to him and thought it was the best I’d played it so far?

“We’ve got a lot of work to do”.

You might think this was somewhat deflating - it wasn’t. Actually, quite the opposite. The work we had to do was a truly exciting prospect. So, what had happened in that first lesson?

Well, we played a scale and a chord....

That’s it.

A C-Major chord and a C-major scale for one and a half hours. On paper it sounds like the most boring lesson imaginable. But it was the very beginning of my true understanding of the piano and the technique required to make the instrument truly shine. Mr Byrne set the metronome to around 126 BPM and asked me to play a single octave C-major scale. I had to count eight metronome clicks on each note and then had to take care to ensure that the notes I played were a) exactly with the click and b) exactly together. I would count how many were accurate and tell him at the end. I think I confidently said that around eight of the fifteen notes played were accurate. He said..

“Nope - none of them”.

It seems like such a simple thing - to demand such perfection from yourself. But it was something that had never really been addressed. It’s something you see all the time - good people playing lots of fast notes that sound impressive, but not really listening to them. If you don’t know what sound you’re trying to create, you’ll never create it. Forcing yourself to listening for such a degree of accuracy starts to bleed into all of your playing and it becomes a more and more pleasurable experience.

Playing the chord was all about showing me how to create a good tone and how to drop the weight of your hand/arm/upper body into the note. It was a way of playing that was so new and advanced. It opened my mind to some amazing possibilities in piano playing and I knew that from that point there would be a lot of work to do to mend my technique but now there was a way forward. It was a truly inspiring moment and I try to use the same techniques today with my students.