On Saturday 6th July 2019 I held my 10th student concert. My twice-yearly concerts provide an opportunity for all my students to perform to a friendly audience. Because many of them don’t take formal piano exams, the concerts provide an alternative goal for them to aim for, preparing a selected piece or pieces of their choice to a high standard. Unconstrained by the requirements of an exam syllabus they are able to select any piece that they like and, most importantly, motivates them to play! Often they will be keen to learn a piece from a film such as Nathan, 10, who played the theme from Jurassic Park:
Daniel, also 10, chose Hedwig’s theme from Harry Potter:
Both Nathan and Daniel found good arrangements of these pieces in books. However, Dan, 11, chose to arrange his chosen song – A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman – himself, using a few different arrangements he found online as inspiration:
Pop songs are also a popular choice for my students. I try to discourage them from using sheet music arrangements of current songs as sometimes such arrangements can be of variable quality. However, lead sheets – which provide only a melody line and chord symbols – can be a great way to learn the basics of a song whilst allowing for a creative interpretation of the core ingredients. Luca, 13, used a lead sheet to create his own arrangement of Coldplay’s Clocks which also contained his own improvisations based around the chord progression:
Gabriel, 10, also used a chord progression from a famous song; but rather than use any aspect of the actual melody he used this chord progression to create his own piece. He challenged the audience to see if anyone would be able to recognise the song but because he had changed it so much from the original (John Lennon’s Imagine), no-one was able to identify it!
There were also a couple of debut performances including this from Jago, 4, who played I Like Coffee – a wonderful and very popular rote piece. Do make sure you check out the look on his face when he takes his bow at the end and realises everyone is clapping for him!
Sophia, also 4, was playing in her second concert and performed her version of Mary had a Little Lamb – she had worked out how to harmonise this herself:
I love to play duets with my students. Here’s Myla, 6, and myself playing Broadway Star:
And Izzy, 11, and I playing Simple Samba:
These twice-yearly student concerts are a great opportunity for my experienced students to prepare a chosen piece to a high standard and for some, to perform their own composed or arranged piece. For my new and very young students it’s a lovely way to boost their confidence and provide them opportunities to perform in a friendly and informal setting. For me, it gives me a wonderful opportunity to look back on previous performances and see how my students are growing and developing both as pianists and as people. I’ve now hosted 10 concerts and plan to host many more – watch this space!
I tell all my beginning students, whether they are 3 or 63, that there are three different ways to learn a piece of music: by ear, by rote, or by reading.
Learning music is about learning patterns. The aural patterns of the pitch, harmonies and rhythms, the visual patterns of the black and white keys on the keyboard, and the visual patterns of musical notation. A truly well-rounded education encourages students to become adept at understanding all of these.
Too often this is completely overlooked in more traditional piano lessons. I certainly was never taught how to play by ear and only really learnt how to do this when I returned to piano and teaching as an adult. There’s a myth that you can either play by ear or you can’t – that it’s an inherent skill you’re either born with or not. And whilst it is certainly true that some find it easier than others (just as some find learning to read music easier than others) – it can be taught to anyone.
For complete beginners we’ll start with a two or three pitch tune such as ‘See Saw’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ – focusing on the movement of the pitch up, down and repeating (often the hardest to hear).
Once the basic melody is learnt we’ll transpose it into different keys, finding the different patterns of black and white notes on the keyboard. We’ll talk about the concept of the key or the ‘home’ note – the one that makes it sound finished. And then we’ll learn to harmonise.
Harmony is the chocolate sauce to the melody’s ice cream – i.e. ice cream is nice on its own but it is enhanced massively by chocolate sauce. We’ll start by harmonising with just two notes (or chords for older students) – Mary had a Little Lamb being a perfect example. Then we’ll progress to songs needing three or more harmony notes – Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah being a popular choice for adult students who often learn this very soon after commencing piano. By teaching harmony we also learn about pulse – because not only do we need to know what note/chord to play but also when to play it – and the answer lies on the strong beats.
Here’s Keiva,7, who worked out how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star by ear, harmonised it, and then created her own arrangement using different left hand patterns and adapting the melody: “Keiva’s Little Star”.
We will also transpose harmonised pieces so that students learn which notes / chords to expect depending on what key they are playing in – later on they learn about the function of chords and can find chords 1, 4, 5 and 6 (and others) in different keys. They quickly realise that many songs they know share the same chord progressions, even if they may be written in different keys. This can lead to great fun with ‘mash-ups’ where the student transposes two songs which share a progression into the same key and creates their own arrangement of both. Here’s Jem, 8, playing a mash-up of Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill and George Ezra’s Shotgun – both of which he learnt by ear – accompanied by a backing track app which I often use in my teaching.
Rote teaching has recently become much more popular in Piano Teaching circles and rightly so. However, it has traditionally been criticised for teaching children to play more complicated pieces than they are able to read and thus discouraging them from wanting to learn to read – the pieces they are able to read in the early days seem comparatively boring. However, because I make it clear from the outset that I teach pieces in three different ways – and, to begin with at least, the ‘reading’ pieces may be the simplest – I have never found this to be a problem as expectations are clearly managed.
Rote teaching really encourages students to become familiar with the pattern of white and black keys on the keyboard. I also teach pentascales and chord shapes fairly early on so that students are able to recognise the patterns of the different keys and can relate this to pieces they are learning. Rote learning encourages them to use the whole of the keyboard and not just a few notes around middle C. Often they also use the pedal to great effect.
Here’s an example of one of my students performing a rote piece “Thunder Showers’ by Paula Dreyer at my student concert after only 3 months’ of lessons; this is Madeleine, 8, who had not yet started learning any notation at the point when she was able to perform this piece:
As students progress, rote learning is often combined with and superseded by learning by ear – the more knowledge they have of melody and harmony the better they can work out songs for themselves.
Of course a purely classical approach to piano teaching would only really focus on this way of learning pieces. This was certainly the teaching that I received. Lesson one – open a book and point to middle C. Many students may gravitate to this way of learning – particularly if they are wanting to play the classical repertoire. However, for many students a reading-only approach is much too restrictive and can result in putting them off the piano altogether.
I do not start teaching notation to beginner students for a few weeks at least – depending on their age and abilities. Often I won’t introduce notation for a number of months, particularly for very young students. (I have a small number of adult students to whom I don’t teach notation at all – they are not interested and / or find it too difficult – rather we just focus on developing a really thorough understanding of chord patterns, learning songs of increasing complexity by ear as well as their own improvising and arranging).
I always begin with rote teaching – so that they learn about the piano keyboard; and ear pieces – so they learn the basics of melody, harmony, beat and rhythm. This is all re-enforced with improvisations and maybe their own compositions. When notation is introduced they find it easier to relate it to what they already know: they can see that the contours of up and down in the notation mirror what they already recognise in terms of the patterns of up and down in pitch and on the piano.
I explicitly refer to the pieces that they are learning by notation as their ‘reading pieces’ so they understand that these are invariably simpler (to begin with) than other pieces they may be playing already.
Here is Nathan, 9, playing JS Bach’s Little Prelude in C. This is a piece full of broken chord patterns so his ability to be able to identify these chords when first seeing the piece really sped up the learning process:
Combining the 3 Approaches
As students choose to learn specific songs (often pop songs or songs from films) I will often use a combination of all three approaches, tailored to the individual in terms of what they find easiest. I will encourage them to work out basic melodies and harmonies (i.e. chord progressions) by ear – using their knowledge of how chords work to help. Some students may need a fair amount of prompting to get there – so elements of rote teaching come into play. And for those students who find reading easier I may also use some sheet music as a prompt for this. Notated arrangements of pop songs are often complex – primarily due to the rhythmic syncopations – so I encourage the students to use this as a guide only to assist them in playing what they hear. They may also use the chord symbols to help with the chord progressions. But I rarely encourage them to play exactly what is written – rather to create their own arrangements suitable to their ability level and tastes.
Here’s Gabriel, 10, performing his own arrangement of “This is Me’ from The Greatest Showman. This is an arrangement that involves playing the melody by ear and block chords in the left hand. (As students get more advanced, we learn different left hand patterns and also learn how to voice chords in the right hand so that the melody is projected). He worked this out primarily by ear, with some prompting by me in the form of rote teaching. This is played in D – the original key.
Here is Elizabeth, 9, who had only been having lessons for 6 months when she performed this arrangement of Jar of Hearts at my student concert. Because she had not been playing long, I transposed this into the key of C for her and she used basic fifths in the left hand with the melody in the right hand. She learnt this mainly by rote, but helped by working out aspects of the melody by ear.
The role of exams in such a teaching approach
My views on the exam system are detailed in other blogs (see here and here for examples). The majority of my students choose not to take formal exams. Rather I hold 2 concerts per year to provide all my young students with a performing opportunity, as well as periodic house concerts for my adult students. Of my young students, less than half choose to take exams and only two out of my 20+ adult students do. Clearly when preparing for exams, the learning is predominantly via reading. However, the students’ knowledge of scale and chord patterns gained from rote and ear work certainly speeds up the process of interpreting the dots on the page! I also ensure that there is a break of at least 9-12 months between exams to focus on all the other ways of learning pieces, as well as other activities. This does mean that my students tend to take longer than some of their peers to go through the ‘system’ – but I am very confident that they end up being much more well-rounded musicians than those who are on the exam treadmill. Even more importantly I think there is less chance of students’ giving up the piano altogether when they are given a variety of ways to learn the music that most interests them. My primary aim in teaching is to encourage a lifelong love of playing the piano and I find that this way of teaching offers the best chance in meeting this aim.
I was very pleased to be able to write a review of the new ABRSM 2019 – 2020 syllabus for the excellent blog by Tim Topham.
Tim is an internationally-renowned music educator, piano teacher, writer and presenter.
Through his blog and podcast at timtopham.com, he regularly inspires more than 20,000 teachers across the globe to become better educators for their students. He has also set-up an international community of dedicated and creative teachers – his Inner Circle – of which I am very pleased to be a member.
Readers of my blog will know my views on the place of piano exams in a musical education. Whilst exams can be an excellent motivator for some students, too much focus on exams can be detrimental to the development of all-round musicianship and, at worst, can put a student off playing the piano altogether. Many of my students choose not to go down the exam route and I will only enter students for exams when they are fully ready. Please refer to my ‘Guiding Principles‘ for more information about my approach to piano exams.
I am very pleased to present this guest post from Oregon-based teacher Doug Hanvey. Contrasting the UK and US approach to learning the piano, Doug has written a really interesting post about the importance of creativity in piano lessons and how this is not always compatible with an approach that solely focuses on formal exams.
I’m delighted to write this guest post for Rebecca sharing an American perspective on the graded exam approach to piano teaching and alternatives to it.
As is easily observable from my website and blog, I take a highly-creative approach to teaching piano. Even in the U.S. – which from Rebecca’s posts contrasting the British exam process to ours may appear to offer a slower-paced, more creative approach to piano teaching – I am definitely an outlier among my colleagues.
Perhaps the closest thing to the British exam process in Oregon, where I teach, is the 10-level “Syllabus” program that covers technique, music theory, sight reading, rhythm reading, and repertoire. The Syllabus program is offered by the Oregon Music Teachers Association, a division of the Music Teachers National Association. (I am a member of both organizations.) The program includes the usual adjudications (our euphemism for “exams”) to measure students’ progress.
While the main Syllabus program does not incorporate creative activities such as improvisation, we are fortunate to also have a special Jazz Syllabus that does include improvisation.
At this point, I don’t use make use of either Syllabus program, though if I did, I would probably use the Jazz Syllabus, if only for its creative requirements. Like Rebecca, I believe that teaching students with an emphasis on passing formal examinations, while certainly valuable in its own way, can also feel restricted and lacking in creativity. I strongly believe in the value of teaching musically creative activities such as arranging, composition and improvisation. Now it’s true that the more time given to these skills, the less time there may be for developing high-level performance skills. Still, at least for most of my students, I believe it’s well worth it. There is, after all, a glut of virtuosic pianists in the world today. For that matter, the average piano student is not going to aim for, let alone attain, a virtuosic level. Why not offer such students a broader musical education that allows them to express themselves creatively in more ways than just learning to interpret others’ music, stimulating their enjoyment of piano lessons as high as it can go?
Like Rebecca, as a child I was never formally taught to improvise or compose. Instead, I taught myself until I received formal training later. As a teen, I even stopped taking piano lessons for a few years because I wasn’t enjoying the emphasis on the performance of classical repertoire. If someone had asked me if I wanted to study with a piano teacher who would also teach me how to compose or improvise, I would have been thrilled. In fact, when I was about 16 I took matters into my own hands by seeking out and studying composition with a doctoral student at the Indiana University School of Music.
Like Rebecca, I now teach my students the way I wanted to be taught. My students can learn to play by ear, to improvise, to compose, and to arrange – creative activities that stimulate musical engagement and provide additional options for personal musical expression. (This isn’t to say I have anything against the classical canon, which I also deeply enjoy playing and teaching.)
As the majority of my students are adults, I don’t have to decide about using the graded Syllabus program. Few, if any, of my students would be interested. Instead, with beginners I most often use a standard method such as Faber or Alfred along with materials I’ve personally developed.
To keep things interesting and creative for both myself and my students, sometimes I’ll take a piece in the method book and have a student compose an original arrangement of it (a procedure I’ll be explaining to interested teachers on my blog later this month), or use it as a launching point for improvisation.
Like any teacher, I want to develop good players. More important for me is developing good players who also have a broad set of creative musical skills. But most important to me is that my students become musicians who love music so much that they play piano and are creative with music for the rest of their lives.
Doug Hanvey is a piano teacher in Portland, Oregon.
This week I was delighted to receive the news that one of my 11-year old students had passed her Grade 1 piano exam with a very good distinction. The student started with me as a complete beginner 2.5 years’ ago at the age of 8.
Although she doesn’t come from a musical family, she has always been really enthusiastic about learning the piano and has great support at home. She has always shown a real interest in music and loves writing her own compositions as well as learning a variety of pieces. After nearly two years’ of learning the piano we talked about whether she wanted to prepare for her Grade 1 and she was very keen to do so. Over the course of about six months’ she worked really hard preparing her pieces, scales and practicing for the sight-reading and aural tests. It has to be said that during this time we did less work on other aspects of her musical education – such as improvising and composing – as the exam preparation took priority. However, the exam did provide the opportunity to prepare three pieces to a really high standard as well as developing the other skills necessary to succeed in the exam.
Because she had worked so hard for the exam, she actually really enjoyed the experience on the day itself. It was lovely to receive a text from her immediately after the exam saying she thought she had done well and was ‘very happy’. Two weeks’ later when I received her results I was over the moon as all her dedication and hard work had really paid off.
I have another student, a ten year old boy who started learning the piano at the age of six with his school. The approach of his school to piano education was one of getting students through their exams as quickly as possible – an approach I describe as the “exam treadmill”. He took his Grade 1 after only about 18 months’ of study. His mother is a good pianist herself and worked very closely with him and he achieved a merit. He was very quickly entered for his Grade 2 and again, with very good hands-on support he achieved another merit. When I started teaching him he had just completed his Grade 3 – having started down this road soon after completing Grade 2. By this time, he was very disillusioned with the piano and his mother was having a difficult time getting him to practice regularly. He passed his Grade 3 with a good grade but by this time he wanted to give up the piano completely. After nearly four years’ of study he had achieved his Grade 3 but had spent nearly all of this time preparing for exams with limited opportunity to explore other repertoire or to learn about other aspects of the piano such as improvising and composting.
After his Grade 3, I agreed with his mother that we would spend time trying to re-engage him with the piano without the pressure of any exams to prepare for. I’ve spent a lot of time with him exploring chords and chord progressions and how these are used in so many different forms of music – from his exam pieces to current pop-songs. Whenever we improvise together at the piano he always amazes me with his ability to come up with some really creative ideas on the spur of the moment. He has also shown a real ability to develop these ideas into his own compositions and has composed some really inventive and wonderful pieces. Most importantly, he no longer wants to give up the piano!
Reflecting on the experiences of these two students I am mindful of both how beneficial exams can be, but also how damaging they can be if used as an end in themselves and if students are rushed into them too soon. (In fact, many of my students choose not to sit exams because the time taken to prepare and formality of approach does not tie in with their own areas of interest – but that is the subject for another blog!) I could have entered my 11-year old student for a Grade 1 earlier – but she may not have achieved such a good distinction and she would have had far less opportunity to explore other aspects of the piano – and it would probably not have been the really positive experience that it turned out to be. Further, had my 10-year old student not been rushed into his exams in the early years of his study, he may not have experienced the same disillusionment that he felt when I first met him.
Looking ahead, I fully expect both students to do further exams. They represent a good benchmark of achievement and the process of preparing for them is a great motivator and provides the opportunity to really hone skills to a high standard. And, of course, it is a wonderful sense of achievement when the hard work is rewarded with exam success! My 11-year old, having just finished Grade 1, is in no rush to start on Grade 2 – rather she is now excited by the prospect of spending the next few months working on other pieces and returning to composing and other activities. We’ll start working towards Grade 2 when the time is right. And my 10-year old, having had some ‘time-out’ from the exam treadmill, will, I hope, approach his next exam positively, knowing that this is just one part of learning the piano. But most importantly of all I hope that both students will continue to play the piano throughout their lives and I feel hugely privileged to be part of their journeys.
“I am constantly surprised by how hard Grade 1 is”
As part of my continuing professional development I belong to an online community of piano teachers. Each month we research a specific topic, attend an online seminar (‘webinar’) and discuss the topic in our online forum. This month the topic was the ‘piano framework’ and – in particular – what skills and concepts need to be in place before entering a Grade 1 examination.
I have blogged before about the pros and cons of piano students taking graded music exams (click here). However, what really struck me by researching this topic further is quite how hard Grade 1 actually is!
Reviewing the set pieces of the main examination boards’ current syllabuses, we can see that a Grade 1 student needs to show a grasp of the following skills and concepts:
Keys of C, G, D and F major and A and D minor
Simple and compound time – 2/4, ¾, 4/4, 3/8, 6/8 time signatures
Single quavers, dotted rhythms , semiquavers, triplets
Triads and all inversions
Articulations including 2 and 3 note slurs, legato, staccato, tenuto
Full range of dynamics
Passing of thumb, stretches up to an octave
Comparing this to the levels which are common in the US, we can see that many of these are classified as intermediate level skills.
Looking at this extensive list it is hardly surprising that it can take a student 3 years or more before reaching a Grade 1 standard. I believe that many students are entered for Grade 1 too early before secure musical foundations are in place. It is quite possible to teach a child simply to pass a music exam – by drilling and teaching by rote. But if a student is entered for an exam after only 12-18 months of study, it is unlikely that they have a solid grasp of all the musical concepts which are being examined (although of course there are exceptions to this). Entering a pupil this early probably also means that they have not had the chance to fully explore the piano through improvisation, composition and other non-exam related activities.
So to answer the question “What is Grade 1?” It is a demanding assessment of a wide ranging set of skills and concepts which, for most students, require a number of years to learn, develop and secure. It is not something to be rushed into under the mistaken belief that it is easy – as it is anything but. For the right student, at the right time, it can be an excellent motivator and lead to a real sense of achievement. But introduced too early it can lead to unnecessary pressure, rushing through new concepts, and a ‘box ticking’ approach to passing the exam at the expense of encouraging wider enjoyment and creativity at the piano. And that is why I will never insist that my students take exams but will always support them if they wish to do so – when they are ready.