“That’s not a sharp sign, it’s a hash-tag!” – teaching music in the digital world

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Me as a child. Complete with pink ribbon. Honest.

Browsing in Chappell’s the other day I found myself transported back in time by nearly 40 years. I found a copy of John Thompson’s ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play – A Book for the Earliest Beginner’ – revised and updated many times. This had been my first piano book which I used when I graduated from sitting on the piano stool with my father and playing a few rudimentary tunes, to ‘proper, big-girl’ piano lessons (at the age of 4). Looking through the book I saw it had been modernised to some degree but still contained the same songs I remember learning, together with some of the same illustrations!

Remembering back to my own piano education made me realise quite how fortunate I am to be teaching today. As a young child I had a wonderful teacher and I was lucky that music came relatively naturally to me. I also had great support at home, particularly from my father who is also a pianist. But I remember so many of my school-friends starting the piano and giving up months or years later. And, as I write about here, so many adults today tell me that they wish they had kept with the piano into later life.

But (nearly) 40 years ago teachers were limited in their options of teaching materials and other resources – they either had to rely on tutor books or create their own resources, which would have been laborious and manual. And although it has always been possible to make learning fun, and create games out of practice and theory, this would have required a lot of imagination, time and effort.

These days, for the cost of a few hours browsing on-line, (and sometimes just a few pounds) it is possible for a teacher to find some fantastic fun and educational resources which pupils love to use – particularly when it means they have a great excuse to play with mum or dad’s ipad!

Here I write about a few of my favourite digital resources and their uses:

note squishNote-reading: There are numerous apps designed to help with note reading. One of my favourites is Note Squish – iphone app (69p). Like the fairground game ‘bash a mole’ the child has to read the notes on a stave and then bash the mole bearing the right letter. Great fun, and also some good options so you can set difficulty levels . Young beginners can be tested on just a few notes at a time (as little as two) whilst more advanced students can be tested on notes with numerous ledger lines. There is also an option to work in ‘Sol-Fa’ (do-re-mi) but unfortunately this currently is in relation only to the C major scale so does not teach the concept of ‘relative’ sol-fa. Still, I have left a customer review on the App Store site so hopefully they will rectify this in a future release!

Ear-training: As I write about here I believe that ear-training is a fundamental part of all music education and should be taught accordingly. I have to say that this was the one area where my own education fell short – it was restricted to exam time where we had to practice the dreaded ‘aural tests’. I am passionate about incorporating ear-training into my piano teaching from the very beginning (hence my use of the Kodaly-inspired Dogs and Birds approach) and it is so much easier these days with so many great apps on offer.

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So much fun it is frightening…..

I have just discovered the marvellous ipad app ‘Blob Chorus’ (free). It has wonderful graphics and animation and is aimed at children, but frankly I have spent at least an hour today playing it myself and laughing out loud at the expressions on the Blobs’ faces (just before they burst) when you make a mistake. It can be used with the earliest beginner – with just 2 different tones to distinguish between – to more advanced learners who need to identify notes from the whole scale. In fact, I introduced it in a lesson today and both me and my pupil spent 10 minutes in fits of laughter – not sure what Mum thought sitting in the other room!

For slightly more formal aural training, an app simply called Ear Trainer, has a comprehensive range of exercises (even on its free ‘lite’ version) which are progressive. This is a more sophisticated option and will be suitable throughout a learner’s education. I use this myself now.

Rhythm training – I love the ipad app ‘Rhythm Cat’ (free). The learner has to tap along to a rhythm with or without a backing track. Rhythms become progressively more complicated and introduce more types of beat, and after a certain stage the backing tracks are eliminated which makes it even harder. This is great for very young beginners who often struggle with the concept of pulse or the introduction of notes with different timings. I have found a noticeable difference with some of my youngest pupils in their understanding of different rhythms as a direct result of playing this game.

Scale practice – whether or not exams are taken, the knowledge and practicing of scales is vital to the development of all-round musicianship. The ‘scale-box’ app is specifically designed with ABRSM Grade 1-5 exams in mind. It is a simple app, one which tells student which scale to practice (according to the exam syllabus) but what I like is that it really encourages the student to be self-reflective and rate their own performance – which means they really need to listen to their playing and consider what aspects of their playing constitutes a ‘good’ performance (not just getting the right notes, but evenness of tone, pulse and clarity of sound)

forscore-ipad-sheet-music-1As well as games, the digital world brings many efficiencies when it comes to selecting pieces to learn. Whilst a good tutor book remains critical to the development of learning – and the very best ones are invaluable – it is always a great idea to mix things up and introduce new concepts, styles and – of course – new mediums. And I have to say my pupils love it when I place my ipad on the music stand with a beautifully rendered copy of a piece I have found on line (legally and for free) and selected just for them. The days of managing folders of photocopied manuscripts are certainly behind us.

And finally – Spotify and Youtube. For little or no cost it is possible to find numerous performances and recordings of absolutely anything that may help with developing a real interest in, and love for, music. I am currently compiling my own You Tube channel of favourites (click here) inspired both by my teaching and personal passions. One warning however – a student should never watch or listen to only one version of any particular piece. The danger is that they will come to believe that it is the only way to play the piece and not be open to different interpretations. When I recommend a recording or video to a student I try, wherever possible, to recommend an alternative – and very different – interpretation of the same piece (see, for example, the comparison of Lang Lang and Horowitz both performing the Mozart B Flat Major sonata on my You Tube channel. It is probably difficult to find 2 more contrasting pianists and performers!)

So – back to the title of this blog. Has a pupil ever said this to me? I have to admit that – no – they have not. I just thought it was a bit of a clever title. Because ultimately I think that the digital world brings endless positive opportunities for music teachers and learners to make learning fun, creative, beautiful and fulfilling. And for that I would not turn the clock back 40 years.

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