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

“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.

Why playing the piano is an excellent form of stress relief

What do you do after a long, stressful day at work?

Have a drink?

Sit semi-comatose in front of the TV?

Go to the gym?

When I worked in the Corporate world I did all of these, but found that none of them really helped me switch off from dwelling on the latest dilemma.   And – much as I love reading – I found I could rarely get lost in a good book as my mind would still be churning over the events of the day.   Reading became a luxury that I saved for my vacations, where I was able to leave work behind for days at a time.

However – when my job allowed me to get home at a time that would not cause serious disturbance to the neighbours – I found that the most effective way to completely switch off was to sit at the piano and really focus on my practice for 30-60 minutes.

Like many with stressful careers, I’d often find myself awake at 3 or 4 in the morning, my mind on auto-pilot and firmly back in the office!   But by visualising the playing of the piano (often testing myself on various melodic minor scales) I found I could calm my mind and soon drift off back to sleep.

The act of playing the piano – at whatever level – requires real concentration and full engagement of the brain.   Depending on the type of practice, different parts of the brain may be used.   Focusing on a difficult passage – through analysis, repetition and various technical exercises – will predominantly use the so-called ‘left brain’ – the logical and analytical thought processes which you engage to fully understand musical patterns and to utilise the best type of exercise to enable you to grasp it fully.

Playing through a piece with which you are already confident is a more creative act and therefore the ‘right-brain’ is probably dominant.  You have already worked through the technical difficulties and can apply your own creative interpretation to your ‘performance’ – even if the only audience consists of your cats!

Other aspects of your practice will also engage different parts of your brain.  Scales, aural and sight-reading (which I believe to be important for anyone serious about learning the piano whether or not exams are taken) require concentration and analytical ability.  I often find that adult learners love learning (or re-learning) their scales as they treat them as a real intellectual exercise – and it’s interesting how adults and children approach the learning of scales very differently.

One of my adult students loves to improvise and always finishes his practice with 10-15 minutes of improvisation – usually in the style of Philip Glass.   He always gets up from the piano on a creative high!

Given the variety of activities that may be undertaken in a practice session, and the full engagement of the brain that these involve, it is no surprise that there is no room in the brain for any other thoughts to disturb your focus and creativity.

There is also a positive physical impact of playing the piano.   One of the adult returners I have just started working with, Alison, 43, remembers the effect of playing a traditional piano.  “There is something about the vibrations caused by the strings and the impact that has on the wood – and therefore the impact on the rest of the body – that actually has a calming effect.  I remember as a teenager working towards my Grade 8 I would be aware of this during my practice and feel physically more relaxed afterwards as a result of this – this is why I am returning to the piano after so many years as I am looking to recreate that sense of relaxation I remember from those years”.

Studies also back this up.   The hormone cortisol is associated with the damaging effects of stress such as hypertension and impaired cognitive function.  Many studies have shown that listening to music reduces the levels of this hormone.  In 2011, however, a study specifically looked at the effects on cortisol levels of playing the piano and compared these to participating in other creative activities.  Whilst all the creative activities involved led to markedly decreased levels of cortisol, piano playing was found to be significantly more effective than the other activities involved (e.g. calligraphy and clay-modelling) at reducing levels.

This comes as no surprise to me given the positive impact it has had on my own life.  I have always played the piano for pleasure but returned to it more seriously when I was going through a particularly stressful time in my life, and I found that it made an immeasurable difference – so much so I gave up the Corporate world to set up my own Teaching Practice!   I am also working with a male student, 45, who suffers from anxiety and depression.  He started learning the piano a few years ago (he is now working towards Grade 4) and also finds that the focus and engagement of the full brain really works for him as a way of alleviating his symptoms.  He says, “Focusing on playing pieces or practicing technical exercises takes my mind off negative things. Even slowly picking through a piece is a positive experience and, as I improve with practice, I get the benefit of achieving something positive and rewarding. I always feel happier and more relaxed after even fifteen minutes at the keyboard”.

So if you are looking for a way to relax, unwind and take your mind off your daily worries – as well as learn (or re-learn) a wonderful and creative activity that will be with you for life – then taking up the piano may well be what you are looking for!

Ref: ‘Plano playing reduces stress more than other creative art activities” Toyoshima, Fukui, Kuda, Nara University of Education, Japan, August 2011. 

Can a 3-year old really concentrate on a piano lesson for 30 minutes?

Phoebe, 3

Phoebe, 3

Often when I tell parents that my piano lessons for 3-4 year olds are 30 minutes long they look at me as if I am somewhat unhinged – surely they can’t concentrate for that long?

I totally understand their reaction.  And if the lessons were all about sitting on a piano stool for 30 minutes, thumbs over middle C (as many of us may remember from our own early lessons), then they would be absolutely right.

The Dogs and Birds method is different.  No activity lasts longer than 10 minutes – many are only 5.  So that is 4-5 different activities we cover in one 30 minute lesson.

Today I had a wonderful lesson with my adorable niece, Phoebe, 3.   Teaching a family member is often more challenging as they know you so well they are less likely to be “on their best behaviour for the teacher“.  And Phoebe is certainly a little girl who knows her own mind!

P1010533However, as soon as she came in she was over at the piano looking for the ‘dogs’ (D notes).   Before I knew it, we had found all the dogs, placing the little animal tiles on each of the keys.   We then worked out where the birds were and then it was straight into singing – listening to the CD first and then wanting to “do it myself”.  After about 10 minutes, she was getting a little tired of the concentration – so it was onto the rhythm games.  Lots of marching, clapping and playing (well, banging) the piano  in an even “1,2,3,4” pulse.    This got the adrenalin going (and got me my workout for the day) ready for the ‘notation work’.   Which is story-telling using the large card staves.  Phoebe knows whereabouts on the staves the Dogs and the Birds live – and that they all have their own space – so was able to use the tiles to place them, thereby ‘composing’ her own piece.  (You will see from the photos we were going for a minimalist feel today with lots of repetition of the same note in one phrase).   We then played the piece on the piano – singing the notes (‘dog, dog, dog, bird, bird etc’) as we went along.

Deep in concentration....

Deep in concentration….

Before I knew it, 35 minutes had passed and we hadn’t even started the photo session!   Luckily Phoebe was still excited enough about the activities to continue with them whilst I took 42 photos – of which I have chosen just a few for this blog.

Phoebe pleased with herself!

Phoebe pleased with herself!

Why Music, Why Piano – and Why Early Years?

Why Early Years?

Many Piano teachers will tell you that the minimum age to start the piano is 5.

I agree with them – if we are talking about formal, structured piano lessons.

However, the approach I use – “Dogs and Birds” – is designed specifically for very young children and can be used from the age of 3.    It is based on the famous Kodaly principles for music education and has been developed over the last 12 years by Elza Lusher who trained as a piano teacher at the Liszt Academy in Hungary.

To quote from the very informative Dogs and Birds website:

“As with any other language, the language of music is best learnt from an early age. The benefits of teaching music to very young children through the keyboard are enormous. As well as learning to read, sing and play music, they also develop a basic sense of pulse, and improve their inner ear”.

I learnt to play the piano from the age of 4, and learnt to read music at the same time as learning to read.  In fact, I cannot remember there ever being a time when I could not read music – just like most of us probably can’t remember not being able to read.

And, whilst I am not suggesting that starting the piano young will automatically turn any child into a prodigy we should remember that Mozart was already composing by age 5 and Lang Lang started at 3, winning his first competition at 5!

Why Music? 

Again, to quote from Dogs and Birds:

“Learning to play the keyboard or piano from an early age has a tremendously positive effect on a child’s development, in particular reading and maths. It also boosts memory and relaxation and teaches concentration, co-ordination, patience and perseverance. It is therefore an excellent preparation or support for schoolwork”.

The study of music engages both the left and right brain – the intellectual, logical half which is used in subjects such as maths and science – as well as the creative, intuitive part used in english, and art appreciation.

So studying music from a young age should help with a child’s academic achievement and school career.   Is that all?

No.   Developing a love for music is something that will be with the child for life – if taught effectively from the beginning.   Whether or not they use music in any type of career, they will always have a very special past-time that will be with them throughout the highs and lows of their lives.  In fact, studies show that being able to play music – and the piano, in particular – is an excellent form of stress relief (I write more about this here).

Why Piano? 

The piano will repay efforts from day one – no months of learning to create a beautiful sound with a screechy violin or breathy clarinet!   It requires no accompaniment and yet is also an excellent form of accompaniment for all other instruments.  Therefore playing the piano can be both a fulfilling solo pursuit or a way to create music with others in groups of any size.   It is, in many ways, more difficult to learn than other solo instruments – particularly when it comes to doing very different things with each hand!   But it is therefore intellectually and culturally fulfilling.

So – in my very unbiased opinion – music is a wonderful skill to learn, piano is the best instrument to learn it on, and early years is the best time to start learning it!