Student Concert – June 2016

Student Concert – June 2016

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Leia, 7, and myself play ‘Brand New Day’

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Daniel, 8, plays ‘King Arthur’s Adventure’

My student concerts are becoming a twice-annual event now and I held my latest one on June 25th 2016 at St Mary with St Alban’s Church in Teddington.

Twenty-two of my students aged between 4 and 12 performed to an audience of over fifty family members and friends.  Three of the students included their own compositions in their performance.

Once again, all the students had worked really hard in preparing their pieces, and each one introduced themselves and their pieces clearly and acknowledged the audience’s applause with a bow following their playing.

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Ella, 4, plays ‘Welcome to My Home’

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Charlie, 11, plays her own composition “Chameleon”

In hosting my concerts, I hope to create enjoyable events that allow the students to share their music and enable their friends and families to see the results of their work.  In addition, the experience provides a great boost to the students’ confidence. It is particularly rewarding to see how the students grow in confidence over time as they become more experienced in performing.  Every one of my  students deserves to feel really proud of themselves!



Personalised biscuits for all the performers 


Student Concert – December 2015

Student Concert – December 2015

On Saturday 5th December I hosted my third student concert at St Mary with St Alban Church in Teddington.

Esme, 5, plays Jingle Bells

Esme, 5, plays Jingle Bells

Once again, the concert was well attended by families and friends of the 22 students, aged between 3 and 13, who performed.   There was a bit of a Christmas theme with various versions of Jingle Bells and Silent Night including glissandos, chromatic scales, rhythmic chords and some real bells being rung!

Me with all the performers

Me with all the performers

In addition to this, six of the students performed their own compositions including brothers Luca, 10  and Ethan, 7, who wrote a dramatic piece called ‘The Fearsome War’ and Iris, 5, who wrote her own piece ‘I Saw Birds’ after only 2 months of learning.

All students introduced themselves and their pieces clearly and concluded their performances by taking a bow.

Ruby, 12, plays Refections

Ruby, 12, plays Refections

It was lovely to see how those students who had performed before had really grown in confidence since their first performances and also to see how those students performing for the first time overcame any nerves and were clearly pleased with themselves for what they had achieved.  This positive impact on students’ confidence is just one of the many reasons that I am such a big believer in student concerts and I write about these further here.   But ultimately the concert was a fantastic opportunity to share music and to celebrate the students’ hard work.



Click here for a video of Luca and Ethan playing The Fearsome War

Click here for a video of Keiva, 5, playing Rainbow Swing and Soaring at Sunrise.

Did somebody say biscuits?

Did somebody say biscuits?


Handing out personalised biscuits handmade by Antonia, mother to 4 of the performers

Handing out personalised biscuits handmade by Antonia, mother to 4 of the performers


Charlie, 11, plays her own composition 'Whirlpool'

Charlie, 11, plays her own composition ‘Whirlpool’

Izzy, 7, and myself play  Butterfly

Izzy, 7, and I play Butterfly

Oliver, 10, plays Not So Silent Night

Oliver, 10, plays Not So Silent Night

Thea, 9, plays Over the Rainbow with her mother Antonia

Thea, 9, plays Over the Rainbow with her mother Antonia

On Exams & Creativity: Notes From An American Teacher – A Guest Post

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.

Piano Exams: A Tale of Two Piano Students

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.

For more on exams please see :

What is Grade 1? 

Exams: to take or not to take? 


12 Reasons why student concerts matter

12 Reasons why student concerts matter

My students and I are currently preparing for our next student concert.  As well as practicing their pieces in their lessons, we are also working on their wider performance skills – introducing themselves clearly and then finishing their pieces with style and taking a bow.

Whilst formal piano exams may not be right for all students, taking part in regular student concerts really does benefit every student – not just in terms of refining skills by preparing pieces to performance standard, but also in developing wider skills and confidence that will see them through many aspects of their future lives.

Teaching colleagues of mine, Andrea and Trevor Dow from TeachPianoToday, compiled this great list of reasons why student concerts (recitals) are so vital.  This list is written for parents and I am grateful to them for allowing me to share it below.  I’ve also included some photos of my past student concerts.

1.  Recitals provide a tangible goal to work towards. In having a set date and a pre-planned performance selection, your child learns how to manage their practice time and what it feels like to polish and perfect a piece.IMG_6970

2.  Recitals provide an opportunity to feel successful. Learning the piano requires many, many hours of solo practice. Performing gives your child the recognition they deserve for their hard-work.

3.  Recitals provide an opportunity for you to show your child that you value their involvement in music. Setting aside time in your busy life to attend a recital supports your children and their peers and shows your child that your family values music.IMG_6963

4.  Recitals provide a chance for your children (and you!) to reflect upon where they’ve “come from” when watching beginning students.  Progress at the piano can sometimes feel slow, but watching younger students perform reminds your children of the gains they have made and motivates them to continue to progress.

5.  Recitals provide a chance for your children (and you!) to see “where they’ll go” when watching more advanced students.  There are few things more motivating to a piano student than watching their peers perform. They get to hear pieces that they will enjoy playing in the future, see more advanced technique first-hand and experience the pride that comes from becoming proficient at the piano.Edward

6.  Recitals provide a chance for your extended family to be involved in your child’s piano education.  Athletes get all the glory… everyone comes to watch soccer games but no one really heads over to watch a piano practice session! Involving grandparents and aunties and uncles in the recital audience gives your child an opportunity to share their hard work with the ones they love.

7.  Recitals provide a chance for your child to experience nervousness… and to realize that those feelings are okay. We like to protect our children from feeling uncomfortable, but in “real life” these feelings are part-and-parcel of being human. Early experiences with successfully conquering nerves gives children confidence.


8. Recitals give you the opportunity to provide genuine and heart-felt praise. Bring on the photos and videos and big hugs and flushed-face smiles.  Clap enthusiastically.  Let your child know just how much you recognize their efforts and watch their commitment to piano lessons soar.

9. Recitals provide a chance for your child to practice public speaking and to gain confidence in front of a group; two skills that will serve your child well in many other areas of his or her life. Speaking and performing in a safe environment means that your child gains important experience in front of a crowd. The earlier these experiences happen, the easier it becomes for your child as they enter adolescence and adulthood.Me with all the performers

10.  Recitals provide an opportunity for your child to get to know his or her peers who are also taking lessons. Making these connections helps to build community within a studio and helps your child to feel as though he or she belongs which results in increased interest in lessons.

11.  Recitals give your children the chance to hear live music. Young children rarely attend a lot of live concerts… and piano recitals are a wonderful place for your child to hear a wide variety of music. Nothing can replace the “live music experience” and when your child is an active participant in the event it’s even more rewarding!photo (14)

12. Recitals provide an opportunity for you to sit back and marvel at the pride-inducing sight of your own child making beautiful music! Piano practice is often done amongst a busy household with siblings, pets, vacuums, dishwashers and doorbells.  It’s rare that you have the opportunity to focus only on your child and the music they are making. These moments matter.IMG_0732

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Dulwich Music Festival

I am delighted to have been asked to adjudicate in the Dulwich Music Festival next Summer.

Festival Director, Lorraine Liyanage, writes:

“The Dulwich Music Festival is now in its fifth year. It is an annual event that takes place several times during the year to provide performance and feedback opportunities for pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. The piano competition is well established and fully booked months in advance. We recommend early booking. Some of the June classes are already fully booked.

Repertoire has been carefully chosen to allow complete beginners the chance to gain their first experience of performing to a friendly and welcoming audience. We seek out innovative repertoire by contemporary composers who also adjudicate the classes. In addition to the contemporary repertoire, we also have graded classes and recital and exhibition classes”.



Learning the piano: 7 points every parent should know

This is a great article by Dr Sally Cathcart for all parents of piano students.  I was lucky enough to have Sally as one of my tutors on The Piano Teachers’ Course which I took two years ago.  She is also the co-founder of The Curious Piano Teachers – a professional development network of which I am a member.  Of particular resonance for me, given my previous posts about exams, is point number 6, ‘Making Progress’:  “Most children are simply not ready to ‘take Grade 1′ within one to two years of learning the piano, at least not if you want them to keep learning in the long-term. Rush them through without the necessary understanding and you will find that quite soon they will feel defeated by the whole process and will be asking when they can ‘give up because it is boring’”.

The full article is here:

Learning the piano: 7 points every parent should know

Student Concert – July 2015

Student Concert – July 2015

On Saturday 4th July I was delighted to host my Summer concert at St Mary with St Alban Church in Teddington.

Me with all the performers

Twenty of my young pupils, aged between 4 and 11, performed in the concert to an audience of about fifty family members and friends.  Four of them performed pieces that they had composed themselves.  All of them introduced themselves and their pieces clearly.

I am a big believer in providing opportunities for my students to perform.  It has so  many benefits; the experience of preparing music to a high standard, sharing their music with a wider audience and the confidence  and sense of achievement that comes with overcoming nerves and showing what they are capable of.   Watching other children perform enables them to discover a range of music that they may like to play too – and, for the very youngest – allows them to see what they will be able to achieve in the future!

The mother of one of the performers wrote to me the following day, saying:


Oliver, 10, playing his own composition “Space Launch”

“I wanted to say that I was really struck by what a lovely recital it was – the atmosphere was relaxed but very focused. There was no tension and all of the performers were playing within their ability – so, as a listener, I never felt nervous wondering if they would get through a piece!!”

I was so proud of all my students after the concert – they had all worked so hard in preparing their pieces, and they all performed with enthusiasm and confidence on the day itself.   I am already looking forward to the next concert – at Christmas!


Edward, 5, playing “Love Somebody”


Thea, 8, playing “Grand Old Duke of York”

Me with my youngest performing student, Sebastian, 4.

Keiva, 5, playing "Wishing Well"

Keiva, 5, playing “Wishing Well”

The Programmes

The Programmes

What is Grade 1?

“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
  • Syncopated rhythms
  • Triads and all inversions
  • Seventh chords
  • Articulations including 2 and 3 note slurs, legato, staccato, tenuto
  • Full range of dynamics
  • Passing of thumb, stretches up to an octave
  • Direct pedalling

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.