Check out the new ABRSM syllabus 2021-23 review from EPTA! It was a privilege to review grades 2 & 3 with Kathryn Page, Murray Mclachlan, Liz Giannopoulos and Margaret Murray McLeod.
Close Encounters of the Remote Kind
By Amy Wakefield
As close encounters are no longer a ‘thing’ currently, I decided to hold my very own ‘Zoom concert’ with an eager set of pupils! I must admit to feeling slightly anxious that the first ‘encounter’ might be the type that did not quite go according to plan.
I decided to use the ‘Pro’ Zoom membership to avoid cutting my concert short (and to avoid confusing those who already feel wrong-footed by the technical requirements of this age of anxiety!). This now means I can technically hold an event for 24 hours instead of the 40 minutes that forms part of the basic membership package, though the idea of a 24-hour session does make me shiver somewhat! Ultimately, I did feel that this was a worthwhile investment and it made managing the event so much easier, and it is something I would totally recommend if you plan to make this a regular thing.
Now, the first ‘port of call’ is to convince everyone to join! Many of you will doubtless have discovered that our pupils are feeling especially anxious about the huge changes to the pattern and method of their learning that are taking place at the moment - and who can blame them? So here are some suggestions I made to my younger pupils that might prove useful.
Tips for the overly anxious pupil:
1. Ask them to try placing their favourite cuddly toys next to their device, or anything else that would make them smile!
2. Talk to them about how they feel and try to reinforce the positives!
3. Encourage them to try practice performances first, using family members or friends as a non-threatening and receptive audience.
4. Get them to practice recording performances on their phone or iPad.
5. If a pupil is feeling particularly anxious, you could ask them to play something as simple as a scale, to get them used to the idea of performing in this context.
Most people seemed to have already tried Zoom at some point already, be it for a family quiz or for a work- related meeting, so it was remarkably simple to convince pupils to join. Pupils who were suffering from anxiety were also made aware that their participation was totally optional and that they could try watching the first concert to avoid any feelings of being overwhelmed.
So, invites were sent out by email for the start time at 3:00pm. I realised that logically I would need to begin the meeting at least 10 minutes early so pupils/parents could position their devices, figure out the microphone and camera and set up ready to start performing. This also meant that people in my waiting room could ‘trickle’ through without interrupting the performance of others. Note to self - be careful to check the waiting room regularly and not daydream – after all, it is is my job to let them in and not someone else’s!
The concert began very positively, with a sea of beaming faces staring at me, ready to begin. It was a great joy to see all my pupils together again after such a long gap. I have now figured out how to use the ‘mute all’ function on Zoom, so feeling confident I informed my virtual audience that I was about to make use of it. Second note to self - do not mute yourself and then try to introduce everyone, as this will not work! Luckily one of my teenage pupils (vastly more ‘computer savvy’ than me) gave me a polite ‘heads-up’ that no-one could hear me. The rest of the session seemed to go very smoothly. I issued an important warning before I began about not recording the session so as to safeguard those who were under 18. So, as well as myself, one pupil at a time would be ‘un-muted’ in such a way as to allow me to first introduce their piece and then allow them to perform. My pupils seemed to take to this like ducks to water and seemed very comfortable indeed with the whole premise. No doubt I’ll find out in this week’s lessons if anyone found the process too intimidating.
Ok, 3rd note to self – when a pupil is coming to the end of their performance, stop sitting back and enjoying the moment! You need to ‘unmute all’ so everyone can hear the clapping! One has to be on the ball for this kind of thing to avoid a hugely awkward silence. I promise I did get better! How fabulous it was to hear all this lovely music performed in such a variety of ways. It was very interesting to ‘tune-up’ violinists with an A before their performance (backing tracks can be used so they can put their own devices on at home and I have also tried sending across pre-recorded accompaniments of my own making). Some students did prefer to play ‘a capella’ however.
The concert concluded with a performance of my own, because I always reassure nervous pupils that I will perform if they will! On reflection, I would definitely say that this was a ‘close encounter of the right kind’. I have received so many messages from grateful pupils, giving me the thumbs up for their first ever remote concert. So much can be gained by harnessing the power of this valuable technology, from shoring up pupils’ confidence, to giving them something to work towards while in isolation, to helping parents to feel that they are ‘not alone’. I have to say that this is something I hope to repeat on a much more regular basis. It may not be quite the same as my own summer concert (complete with cakes, badminton and climactic prize giving) but it is certainly a more than worthy alternative. Actually, I am starting to think that when we all ‘return to planet earth’ that I might continue organising such events in between actual concerts. Highly recommended!
Co-ordination from the Very Beginning
by Amy Wakefield
As professionals we often take for granted the ‘simple’ art of playing hands together! It seems so long since we did this ourselves but when you look back, don’t you remember the proud moment when you ‘accomplished’ that first hands together piece? I certainly do! But is it as obvious as just practising/reading notes/doing what is on the page? Or can we actually prepare pupils way in advance and speed this process up in a way that feels enjoyable and natural for the learner? I’m sure we all have our own methods and ‘magic ingredients’ for aiding this learning process and preparing our pupils suitably, but here’s a selection of my own.
I think firstly, it is highly important to build hands together playing into learning as soon as possible. For example, those tunes which many of us teach by rote in the very first lessons (i.e. ‘Hot Cross Buns’) can be great fun to do in contrary motion and it seems to be exciting for children to take it to this new level! Rather than waiting for a tutor book to introduce hands together playing (which can sometimes take rather a long time) one can make up extra parts to accompany in whichever hand. I like to always say to the child, ‘now how can we make this even more exciting?’ This of course wouldn’t be appropriate later on- I certainly wouldn’t like to think of our great composers turning in their graves! However, I think this method makes children even more excited about the challenge and leaves them thirsting for more.
Find exciting material for technique! Technique doesn’t have to be ‘off-putting’. There are some rather foreboding articles in circulation which I think can make teachers feel almost frightened to be overly technical. I have to say my pupils like this bit of the lesson where they get to experiment more, asking themselves ‘how many ways can I move around the piano?’ It is less about the note reading and it is also possible to teach some of this by rote (which of course children love) and in my experience students just love patterns! Patterns are so easy to pick up on and it is much easier to practise hand/finger position without always having to work on reading notation! My own personal favourites include ‘Junior Hanon’ by John Thompson, ‘Animal Magic’ by Fanny Waterman and ‘Dozen a Day’ - but there are so many options available.
Back to hands together playing. I love using Paul Harris’s rhythm exercises in the ‘Improve Your Sight-Reading’ series. Paul recommends performing these rhythms in a different way each time. So after combinations of tapping, clapping and improvising with these I devised another technique which I call ‘Jumping It’. Get your pupils to stand up (quite good in the middle of a lesson when you want to stretch your own legs!) and assign a movement for each hand, i.e. left hand = hop on left leg, jump when hands together and so on. This is an excellent way to integrate some kinaesthesia into lessons and certainly gets you both smiling. Amazingly (for me at least!) with one talented pupil this turned into a sort of ballet-piano lesson with an ‘arabesque’ on a tied note and ‘glissés’ on the rests! You never know where this ‘learning journey’ could take you if you let your imagination run riot!
On a more serious note, I also believe that singing is the key to opening up strategies for coordinating the brain and the hands - at any level. In my own practise, singing the melody line and tapping the accompaniment in various combinations can actually save hours of repetition. I am by no means a scientist but I do feel that there is so much more to hands together co-ordination and polyphony than just the physical aspects. If we can find ways to improve through mental practice or singing this can be musically advantageous and also a rather soothing palliative to the at times frustrating process of, for instance, adding the difficult layers of a fugue together!
Other ways to work on co-ordination include using scales and arpeggios. Try to challenge pupils to play these in contrary motion as soon as possible (rather than just sticking to Grade 1 scales). Students seem to really enjoy using scales and arpeggios in Russian form because of the surprising journey this creates as opposed to just playing these in ‘regular form’ all the time. Of course, you can also use the device of ‘dueting with your pupils’ (I play one hand, you play the other). I also highly recommend regular use of the metronome to help embed the excellent rhythmic grounding which is so essential to effective coordination. Shut that piano lid whenever you can and tap the rhythms from pieces (or if on an electric piano - use body percussion!). When working on note reading, ensure that pupils are reading their music vertically as well as horizontally (be creative with your pencil/highlighters), getting pupils to draw lines and symbols for when hands are separate/together.
I believe that a healthy combination of all of those things (and much more along the way - don’t we all come up with something new every week that we didn’t use before!) will lead to even more confidence, enjoyment and love for music making in our students, which is after all our chief aim!
How to motivate students when they appear to have no motivation?-
By Amy Wakefield
First of all I think it is important to ask ourselves what is the root of the problem? Why does this pupil appear to lack motivation? Of course there can be many factors in a pupil’s life which can affect motivation. For example, a pupil doesn’t seem to be applying themselves with enthusiasm in the lesson.. what could have happened in this individual’s day? I personally have had situations where pupils have been bullied at school, difficult circumstances at home or it may be (I find this only too regularly!) that pupils feel stressed and ‘over worked’ at school/work and in extra curricular activities. Have they decided to learn the piano or is it someone else’s idea? Being a piano teacher requires understanding and above all I always make it very clear to the pupil that this is their decision in the end!
Taking all of these factors aside, I find that if all is well with the pupil’s lifestyle and general motivation, this should also reflect in their playing. If this is not happening, I have to ask myself- what could I be doing differently? Clear long term and short term goals and at least a conversation with pupils (if appropriate, parent too) should occur regularly to find out what is is that they want to achieve on the piano and include short and realistic targets. I also feel it isn’t enough to just ask them what kind of music they wish to play but also to educate pupils on different styles. Sometimes it can be really effective to say ‘how about we play one piece of music which I choose and one that you choose’ this means that pupils feel they are learning something that they have chosen so they feel they are in charge of their learning but also we can choose pieces which we know as professionals will really develop the pupil as a musician. Sometimes, maybe in the case of a transfer pupil, knowledge is not thorough enough, it might be that they have not completed enough music theory along the way or they are not connecting their sight-reading skills and this can mean that learning their pieces takes a long time! Its up to us to diagnose these problems and find a way to help pupils connect the information so they can learn at a pleasing rate but of course this may take time, patience and lots of encouragement!