How many times were you told as a child or teenager during your piano lessons that “practice makes perfect”? It’s a well-worn cliché and like most clichés it contains more than a grain of truth.
Not only does regular practice make our musical more secure, deliberate, focussed practice makes the music permanent. So “practice makes permanent” might be a better mantra.
By “permanent”, I mean not only note accuracy (and the ability to reproduce that accuracy on numerous occasions), but also a secure knowledge of the music as a whole and its individual components, an understanding and interpretation of markings in the score, and myriad other details of the music as well as the context of its creation.
This security gives the musician another advantage beyond the ability to play the music accurately, technically and artistically; it also fosters creativity. The act of practicing in a very disciplined manner transforms ability into skill, and that skill can then be applied to create. Thus, musicians who have persisted on this path are able to bring greater expression and artistry to their playing, and are able to create exciting and enthralling performances, not once but time and time again. These skills are the result of many hours of hard graft combined with a real passion for the task in hand, the cultivation of which is called “grit”, a term coined by psychologist Angela Duckworth, who received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her research into the subject.
“Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance……Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it”.
– Angela Duckworth
Grit is connected to mastery – the willingness to set to a task with a passion, acknowledging both triumphs and setbacks along the path as opportunities to learn and grow. It is also about accepting that a task – be it learning a musical instrument or sports training – is a long-term project, a marathon not a sprint.
Grit is also allied to the “growth mindset” (an idea developed by Dr Carol Dweck), which is the acceptance that one’s ability to learn and improve is not fixed, that the brain grows and changes in response to a challenge, and that setbacks and failure can in fact be the spur to greater endeavour and perseverance. People with a growth mindset appreciate that failure is not a permanent condition, but rather an opportunity to learn.
Both of these definitions apply perfectly to the study of music, and most professional musicians – and quite a few serious amateurs too – would understand and practice the concept of grit, even if they don’t know or use that word to describe their activities. For many amateur musicians in particular, it is “the journey not the destination” which is what makes learning and studying their chosen instrument so compelling. They willingly submit to the task with a genuine passion and actively relish the commitment required to improve their capabilities.
Talent doesn’t make one “gritty” – and natural talent can in fact be a hindrance to one’s development as there is a tendency to become complacent. Talented people may not follow through on their commitments, while their more gritty counterparts are willing to persist in the task.
Grit enables musicians who are serious about the craft and art of music making to continue on the path to mastery with passion and commitment.
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I have been rather disturbed to learn from a couple of teaching colleagues, in discussions in response to “that” tweet from the ABRSM, that music examiners are actively discouraged from saying “well done” to a candidate after their exam performance or writing similarly positive comments on the exam mark sheet. Personally, I can’t see the harm in offering such praise; in fact, I see it as a force for good, something which can help students, especially young children or more anxious players, to find the exam experience more positive. And it’s far more friendly than a rather curt “thank you” from the examiner at the end of the session.
Exam mark sheets are problematic too. Not only does one have to decipher the examiner’s handwriting (which can be as impenetrable as a doctor’s!) but the language can be opaque, full of special “examiner-speak” which is not always easily comprehendible to students and their parents. The often rather brusque comments may seem negative even when intended to be positive. When I taught regularly, I would highlight the good comments for my students and would also go through the mark sheets with them to help them get the best out of the comments and to understand how the more negative feedback could be used to inform their practicing in future.
Within the teaching studio, we should always provide a supportive environment to encourage learning, motivation and confidence. Sadly, some of us will remember dragon-like piano teachers from our childhood who highlighted errors but rarely praised; a few even resorted to physical abuse such as rapping a student’s knuckles with a ruler. Fortunately such abusive practices are rare today and should always be called out.
Negative feedback, such as continually picking up a student over small slips and errors, or constantly asking them to play a section again to “get it right” rather than allowing the student to play through the whole piece before offering critique, will dent a student’s confidence and erode their ability to trust their ability and their musical self. It will also make them more dependent on a teacher’s feedback, anxious for praise and the “credentialisation” that comes from it. This approach is not conducive to encouraging self-critique and independent learning.
How to critique well
Be respectful and kind
Teaching is about respect, between teacher and student and vice versa, regardless of the age or ability of the student.
Use language which focuses on the playing rather than the person and make the critique collaborative. For example:
DON’T SAY: “You played some wrong notes in Bar 12.”
DO SAY: “Let’s take a look at Bar 12 together and see if we can work out what happened there.”
By involving the student in a problem-solving exercise, we hand them greater autonomy and encourage them to find their own solutions.
Accentuate the positive
In my experience, most students, regardless of the level at which they play, are alert to errors and will be quick to point these out if asked to comment on their own performance. When I taught regularly, I always asked my students to self-critique after they had played and would preface this by asking them to “find three things you liked about your playing today”. (It says something about our education system, and an undue focus on “getting it right”, that it took some coaxing to steer students away from highlighting mistakes first and to instead focus on “the good bits”.) These needn’t be complicated or expansive, especially for younger/less advanced students – good use of dynamics or articulation, a well-shaped phrase, observing expression marks etc. When it came to my turn to comment, I would also begin with some positive comments and praise. This sets up a supportive and encouraging atmosphere between teacher and student which leads to a better environment for learning and progress.
Be humble and open-minded
The teacher isn’t always right, and even the most junior students has something fresh and insightful to about the music they are learning. Be willing to listen to students’ ideas and help them put them into practice, if applicable, or guide them to understand why something may not be appropriate in the context of the music.
The best teachers want to become ‘redundant’ by giving their students the tools to become confident, independent learners. Giving critique and feedback in positive terms is an important part of this process.
The Perfect Wrong Note – William Westney
The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green
The Art of Practising – Madeline Bruser
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has received a barrage of criticism in response to a recent ill-judged tweet in which it stated that “Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get. That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.” (via Twitter, 24 September 2021)
The first and most glaring problem with this, amidst a host of other issues, is that the word “intrinsic” is used incorrectly here. “Intrinsic motivation” comes from within. Exams, testing and assessment of the kind ABRSM promotes are “extrinsic” or external motivators.
With regard to learning music, in addition to taking a music exam, extrinsic motivators include participating in a festival or competition, receiving a favourable written report, receiving praise from others for a performance (teachers, friends, parents), receiving a certificate, trophy or reward.
We all have intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our lives – we are all a mixture of both. If you play the piano for no other reason than because it gives you pleasure and a sense of personal fulfilment, that is an intrinsic motivation. If your parents and/or teacher are pressuring you to play the piano and pass grade exams, or you have to make a living from your playing, that’s extrinsic motivation.
The trouble with extrinsic motivation is the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more we starve our intrinsic motivation, which can lead to lack of motivation, feelings of failure, anxiety and even depression. Unfortunately, outward displays of achievements or material gain are all too common in our Insta-driven world – signals which say “look at me, look at my achievements, envy me” (just think for a moment about how Instagram really makes you feel…).
The graded music exam system is primarily built upon extrinsic motivation. Marks and certificates (“rewards”) are awarded to successful candidates, and this reward system makes the prospect of progressing to the next grade and the next smart certificate very appealing to students, and their parents and teachers. But it’s actually a superficial form of learning, based on “if/then” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that“), which simply reinforces extrinsic motivation and is only effective in the short-term. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden do the work for an exam, only to revert to not practicing once the exam is over. And putting students on an “exam treadmill” is unlikely to encourage a real love of music. Thus, exam success is not the “virtuous circle of motivation” as the ABRSM tweet suggests, but rather a vicious circle of superficial values founded on a desire for external endorsement.
Exams are a great short term motivator, but they generally don’t encourage students in finding sustained motivation, success and joy. Sadly, for some – students, teachers, parents – certification of musical achievement is regarded as the ultimate goal of instrumental learning and confirmation of musical competence, an attitude which I find profoundly unmusical.
Exams are also a form of “credentialisation” (that Grade 5 with Merit, a Grade 8 with Distinction), the popularly-held belief that credentials will open the door to further success, advancement, recognition and enhanced status. In their tweet, the ABRSM are, in my opinion, guilty of credentialising music – it’s all about being judged (by others), gaining status, “how well you can do, how good you can get”. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude that pervades musical childhood and adolescence, and beyond, reinforced by grade exams, diplomas, end of year assessments, festivals and competitions, which risks turning music performance into some kind of competitive points-based activity, and which amplifies the fear of doing something wrong and being marked down for it – again, profoundly unmusical. Credentialisation also encourages feelings of superiority and inferiority or envy (think again how Instagram really makes you feel…..). In practice, it doesn’t really encourage students to become motivated, self-determined, and, above all, happy, self-fulfilled learners.
I accept that graded music exams and assessments can be useful in benchmarking progress, or to show that the student has reached a certain level of competency, and the preparation for an exam (and the prospect of a good mark) can foster commitment, motivation to practice, and focus. When I taught privately in south-west London many of my students (and their parents) were keen to take exams (this may have had something to do with the affluent, aspirational demographic where I lived). Grade exams also help non-musical parents understand where their children are in their progress – but they can also impact directly on the attitudes and behaviour of students, teachers and parents for the reasons outlined above. The implication in the ABRSM’s tweet is that music exams demonstrate competence as a musician; most musicians, music teachers or those who play an instrument for personal fulfilment and pleasure would disagree with that assertion.
Instead, we should be encouraging intrinsic motivation – motivations and values without external rewards, which come from within, and which encourage self-determination, task persistence, self-evaluation, autonomy, purpose/intent. These values are associated with the kind of in-depth learning which emphasises achievable goals and mastery, and they can set students on a path to both long-term success and personal fulfilment. Learning music is a life-long endeavour and therefore it’s important to consider how the learning environment and the way in which students are taught and supported can help promote long-term intrinsic motivation.
Thus, instead of reminding students that they must practice in order to pass the next grade exam, we should help them understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. That it’s not about the next grade and certificate, but rather cultivating a deeper understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the music. When my students told me they wished they “played better” on the day on the day of the exam, or achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, I would remind them that the exam is a one-off, a fleeting moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which can tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire and improving one’s technique, musicality and artistry. All that good, important work can never be taken away nor undermined by any examiner, adjudicator or critic. Knowing this can give students better insight, control and investment in their learning, rather than tempting them with transitory “if/when” rewards, and fosters a better type of motivation than simply practicing for the next exam, festival or competition. At the most basic level, this is about encouraging students to enjoy playing the piano, to find greater personal satisfaction and creativity through the joy of music and a sense of accomplishment from having played a piece or even a section of a piece well, regardless of the level at which the student plays. By fully engaging students in the learning process, giving them the opportunity to play the kind of music they want to play, and encouraging their confidence and self-reliance, we can help them become independent, self-motivated learners – skills which they will carry forward not just in their musical development but also as important life skills.
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As concert life begins to return to something resembling “normal” after months of silence – the result of government restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic – venues, promoters and indeed the performers themselves can do a great deal to help audiences book tickets and get back to the live music and opera which they enjoy.
I’m both a concert-goer and also a publicist and it frustrates me when venues and artists make it difficult for audiences to access information about events and book tickets. It also makes my job as a publicist more frustrating when I don’t have the right information to share with potential audiences.
Now more than ever we want to encourage audiences back to venues so let’s make it easier for them.
Here some thoughts on things which deter audiences and suggestions on how to optimise potential audience engagement and retention:
- Artist websites which do not list concerts in order of most recent. Who wants to scroll through someone else’s calendar to find the right date?
- Artist website listings which do not include live links to the venue or ticketing site
- Artist website listings which have broken or incorrect links to venue or ticketing site
- Venue or ticketing sites which omit crucial information such as ticket prices and concert start times; such information is only available if you click through to another page/site. (Studies show that people usually abandon a site if they can’t get the information they want within three clicks.)
- Badly-designed or difficult-to-navigate websites – especially those with stark white text on a harsh black background, the kind of design which fries the eyes……
- Over-long or egocentric descriptions of artist and programme. Ditch the self-indulgent self-promotion and instead focus on fulfilling your potential audience’s (“customers”) hopes and desires.
- Meaningless/boring programme biography notes recounting every teacher, competition and orchestra the soloist has played with. [See above!]
- Ditch outdated rules/concert etiquette and unnecessary or inaccessible jargon in programme notes. Instead use more casual language and aim for readability in both programme notes and marketing materials.
- Concert listings, programmes and even printed tickets should include information such as concert length (in minutes) or end time. These details are important for people who may have a train to catch post-concert.
- State whether there is an interval and how long it is.
- Consider adding a “newcomer’s guide” to your website, with information to make new concert-goers feel more comfortable (classical music and the etiquette surrounding it can still feel very intimidating and confusing to some people)
- Venues and promoters should be mindful of the fact that not everyone has the facility or inclination to book online and to show ticket details on a smart phone (not everyone has a smart phone). Do not exclude those people who do not have access to this technology. An example here: A pianist acquaintance of mine described a neighbour who has had a stroke but who loves going to concerts. He cannot use a smart phone to show a ticket or scan a QR code and has difficulties with speech, reading and cognition. Although he has a printed vaccination status certificate, he has trouble remembering that it’s in his pocket to show at a venue. Thus, concert halls and other venues should be ready to allow alternative methods of proving Covid status for people who are not able to take advantage of the digital world.
- In the age of Covid, audiences need clear information about venue policies regarding measures to ensure audiences, staff and performers are kept safe (pre-attendance testing, temperature checks on site, vaccination status, mask wearing, social distancing etc.). If your audiences feel confident and comfortable about visiting your venue, they will come.
- Audiences need clear information about social spaces, refreshments, access to lavatories and other practicalities of the venue. This kind of information is even more important in the age of Covid when some people may not wish to congregate in crowded social spaces.
- Front of house staff should be welcoming and courteous.
- Engage with audiences through feedback forms, surveys, and other post-concert follow up to find out what they liked and disliked about the concert (this kind of contact can also makes audiences feel “special” and “looked after”). Curiously, it’s the things they disliked which should inform the way you present future concerts. Put simply, you won’t gain or retain audiences unless you understand their anxieties around the concert experience.
- BUT don’t bombard audiences with post-concert marketing material encouraging them to subscribe, join a friends’ scheme, donate. Instead encourage them to come to more concerts with incentives – for example, discounts, free drinks, backstage tours, a chance to meet the artists….
- Artists who use social media have a powerful tool with which to engage with audiences before the event. This can create a connection between performer and audience before a single note has been played and also helps break down barriers and preconceptions about classical musicians being distant, elite or inaccessible. British pianist Stephen Hough is an excellent example of someone who uses this kind of engagement through Twitter: he might tweet an image of two piano stools on the stage where he is due to perform and ask the question “which stool should I choose?”. By doing this he draws the audience into his world so that they feel they are active participants.
These are not complicated suggestions – and many organisations and venues already have these types of “audience/customer relations” measures already in place. By focusing more explicitly on the customer experience, artists, promoters and venues can better encourage and retain audiences and give them the best concert experience from the moment they decide to book tickets to when they leave the building, and beyond.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” – Henry Ford
Darkness and light pervade Cordelia Williams’ latest release, Nightlight, which explores the many facets of nighttime – its turmoil, terror and tenderness, and the longing for and consolation of light – through a programme of brooding, atmospheric and ultimately consoling music.
The album was conceived over several years when Cordelia was nursing her newborn sons in those countless broken nights of early motherhood, where one hovers in a strange, shadowy realm between sleep and wakefulness, alert to the slightest murmur from the baby. The recording is dedicated to “those who experience despair or sublime melancholy during the hours before dawn, who are searching for solace, peace or impossible hope. To anyone lost who is waiting to be found by the light.” (Cordelia Williams).
When preparing the music for the album Williams pondered the phrase “dark night of the soul”, now used to describe our most profound trials and challenges, but which actually comes from the late sixteenth-century poem of St John of the Cross. Here “dark night” refers to the process of leaving behind the self on a journey towards an unknowable destination of light. The organisation of the music on this disc follows a similar path, from the melancholy and anxiety of Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor to the hope and consolation of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn). The result is an intense chiaroscuro journey through music that is both disturbing and consolatory.
The disc opens with Mozart’s unsettling, almost hallucinatory Fantasia K.397, here played with a brooding intimacy, perfectly paced and poised. The piece neatly introduces the themes of this album with its switch to the joyous brightness of D major before reprising the darkly-hued introductory measures, and ending on a single open D (not the “traditional”, more familiar ending for this piece). The pedalling here is exquisitely managed, creating a romantic, ambiguous wash of harmony.
Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 portrays the sea at nighttime, from “the quiet of a southern night on the seashore” (Scriabin) to the agitation of the deep ocean, briefly relieved by gentle moonlight on the water. This is most powerfully portrayed in the molto perpetuo finale whose turbulence is tempered by episodes of lyricism, warm and light as themes and textures spill and wash over one another.
Two tender Consolations by Liszt, both in warm E major, provide an interlude of quiet contemplation before we are plunged into the disturbed, dislocated world of Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D958. This is the biggest work on the album and like the Mozart Fantasia, it presents all the themes of the disc in an exceptionally fine performance which is sensitive to Schubert’s quixotic shifts of mood and harmony. The Adagio has a special stillness in its opening before descending into a darker, more psychotic realm. There is little consolation in this sonata and the finale, a swirling fevered Allegro dance.
Out of the darkest recesses of Schubert comes Thomas Tomkins’s A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times, a work which seems to encapsulate our strange Corona days in its sense of isolation and regret. It is elegantly presented by Williams who appreciates both its composure and stark poignancy. The music wears its age lightly (it was composed in 1649 after the execution of King Charles I): played on the piano, it has an appealing contemporary crispness.
The unadorned melancholy of the Pavan contrasts beautifully with the Chopinesque filigrees and hypnotic ostinato of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, a work which bears more than a passing resemblance to Chopin’s Berceuse in its structure and idioms, and which is increasingly finding its way onto classical albums. Williams’ performance is tender, warm and leisurely, a welcome lullaby during the long, dark night.
The final work on the disc is Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn). Composed three years before he died, it shares some characteristics with the late piano music of Brahms in its introspection and intimacy, but ultimately this is where darkness is replaced by shimmering light as the terrors of the night are forgotten in the dawning of a new day. The hymn-like Im ruhingen Tempo gives way to more lovely, quirky movements and a sense of lightness and joy but tempered by the more unsettled Bewegt. The final movement is gentle and contemplative, tinged with valediction, but ultimately uplifting. Here at last light and hope shine through.
Thoughtfully conceived and exquisitely performed, Nightlight is also notably for the fine sound quality of the recording – a perfect mix of warmth and colour, intimacy and depth. This could well be my album of 2021
Nightlight is released on the Somm label and is also available to stream.
That’s the view of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the major UK (and worldwide) music examinations board. It’s a view I don’t happen to agree with and this emphasis on “assessment” and testing rather than encouraging musicianship, musicality and, above all, enjoyment in making music, is one of the reasons why I stopped using the ABRSM exam syllabus only a few years after I started teaching piano privately in 2006. For me, this tweet is a sign of just how out of touch the ABRSM, an organisation which apparently prides itself on being the “gold standard” for music education, has become.
Unfortunately a lot of people – parents and teachers – think assessment and “getting your grades” is what learning music is about. You can read my thoughts on this subject here.