A conversation with one of my adults students this week prompted this post. Sarah is a very confident woman in her mid-40s, who runs her own business, and who started having lessons with me, as a complete beginner, three years ago. She took Grade 1 last Spring and passed with a Merit. Spurred on by her success, she decided to study for Grade 2 and will take the exam in July. She’s worked really hard, and is playing far, far better than she was a year ago. Focussed and articulate about what she wants from her lessons, it surprised me when, at her lesson yesterday, she admitted she was having serious problems with the Bach/Petzold Minuet in G minor (ABRSM Grade 2/List A). She played it perfectly well, a little hesitant in places, but she made a good attempt at the mordents and other ornamentation, and was clearly thinking about how to shape the music.

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked when she had finished. “I thought that sounded really good.”

“It’s because it’s Bach!” she replied. “I can’t believe I’m actually learning music by Bach!”

So, somewhat in awe of the music, she was finding it hard to focus on her practising. I knew exactly what she meant: I had a similar experience when I started learning Chopin’s First Ballade last summer. Now, would all professional pianists, and those amateurs who have mastered such big, virtuoso works, please stand aside for a moment, and allow me to explain. When I first started taking lessons again as an adult, nearly three years ago, my confidence and self-esteem were pretty low. A brief, but unsettling experience with a less than savoury piano teacher in 2007 had not helped, plus I was getting no support from anyone, least of all my family, about my music. I was working entirely alone, with no one to critique my playing or reassure me I was “doing it right”. My current teacher is the most patient, skilled and supportive teacher I have ever had, and with her encouragement, I have overcome both my shyness about playing for others, and my inability to trust my musical self and tackle advanced repertoire. When she suggested I learn one of the Ballades or Scherzi, I knew she had not suggested it just to please me: she knew I could cope with it. I started learning the G minor Ballade that same afternoon…..

Playing it for my teacher at my next lesson (I’d learnt about a third of it by then), I was doing fine until I reached the beautiful, lyrical section before the restatement of the opening theme. I was really enjoying playing my teacher’s beautiful antique Bluthner, but then I remembered I was playing a Chopin Ballade, one of the big warhorses of the concert repertoire, and I found myself completely in awe of the music, and its composer. Tense and unable to focus, it all went to pieces…. Amazed at the sheer beauty and inventiveness of Chopin’s writing, I couldn’t quite believe I was actually playing the piece, to my teacher, on a Wednesday morning in north London: in my mind, I was playing to a full house at the Wigmore Hall, with the ghost of the composer at my elbow, nodding benignly as if to say “Yes! That is what I meant.” Such wide-eyed fantasising does no harm, now and then, but it can prevent one from getting to the heart of the music so that one can begin a serious study of it.

This, I think, was my student’s difficulty as well. In the early grades, the pieces are simple and often aimed at children, and many are written especially for the syllabus, I suspect. While some of the pieces are really imaginative (John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’ from the previous syllabus, for example), it is always refreshing to come across “real piano music”, and I think an early student can feel daunted, perhaps by the responsibility that is placed on one to interpret and play it well.

I pointed out to Sarah that the Minuet in G minor comes from the ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena’, a collection of pieces, in two volumes, which Bach presented to his second wife. It is quite possible that these were pieces Mrs Bach, and other members of the family, played at home. This was domestic music, to be enjoyed by the family. These were not concert pieces, nor music for the church, though there are suites and partitas, and chorale settings amongst the works. With this in mind, I urged Sarah to stop being so much in awe of the piece and to simply enjoy playing it (while practising it carefully too, of course!). It is rather plaintive and elegant, and benefits from careful articulation and shaping. The ornaments are not too demanding, and offer a good introduction to Bach’s ornamentation in general.

Crass as this might sound, it’s important not to get too overwhelmed by the music. Allow yourself to stand back from it, give yourself some perspective. Marvel at the genius of the composer, but don’t be afraid of it! Study it, play it, and, most importantly, enjoy it.

Minuet in G minor – attr. Petzold

This afternoon a new experience for me: “assessing” the student of another teacher (whom I do not know) to give my opinion as to whether the child is ready to take her Grade 2 this summer. The mother of the child (who is 11) contacted me last week, and I was interested to learn that the other teacher has declared that the child can only take the exam if she can be guaranteed to pass with at least a Merit, or, better still, a Distinction. This revelation interested me, and set me thinking: is this whole exam rigmarole about encouraging our students, or bigging up Teacher’s ego?

I’m fairly new to the exam game: I’ve been teaching for less than five years, and since nearly all of my students came to me as complete beginners, exam taking is a relatively recent endeavour. Interestingly, most children are keen to take a piano exam. In these days of “dumbing down” in our schools, particularly in state schools, where Sports Day is no longer about winning the egg-and-spoon race, and where “everyone’s a winner”, it is cheering to find that children have not lost their competitive spirit, and many of them actively rise to the challenge of taking a music exam. There is no obligation to take exams in my studio: it is entirely up to the student, but I think the children like having some concrete indication of their progress and achievement, and a smart ABRSM certificate, complete with its royal crest, is worth 100 Well Done stickers in the practice notebook.

In my (limited) experience, it takes about two-and-a-half terms’ study (approx. 30 weeks of lessons) of the exam syllabus for a student to be ready to take an exam (early grades). Some children, the quick learners, and the really talented ones, can happily whizz through the repertoire and technical work and can be ready in less time. When I was learning piano as a child, I took an exam once a year, and as soon as I’d completed one exam, instead of spending time working on “step up” repertoire, I would move straight on to the next grade’s syllabus. Thus, exams became a chore and I felt tethered to a deathly dull treadmill.

And here’s the real nub of it, to me: boredom is a great enemy to successful learning – and it was this point that made me agree to hear the child this afternoon. If she does not take her Grade 2 exam this summer, she will have to wait for the winter exam season (November-December), a further six months, and plenty of time for her to grow bored with the pieces. Boredom can encourage sloppy, mistake-laden playing. When you’re bored with a piece, you stop caring about it, and when you play it, you simply go through the motions, typing the notes, instead of playing musically. Mistakes which creep in at this stage can be then incredibly hard to unpick. Equally, any sense of the music can be lost, as one churns through the same bars over and over again.

Of course students want to do well in their exams, and of course I want them to do well. And I admit I was pretty damn chuffed when, last year, one of my adult students, who was extremely nervous on The Day, passed her Grade 1 with a very creditable Merit. However, exam successes are not for the glory of the teacher – that is only a tiny part of it. To me, it is more about encouraging talent and giving students the motivation, and interest, to continue with their study.

A pass, whether a straight pass, a Merit, or a Distinction, is a huge achievement. It is not easy to take a music exam. It is you and the instrument, playing in a strange place, to someone you have never met before. That is nerve-wracking in itself, nevermind remembering to complete all the required technical work correctly, play the pieces accurately and musically, cope with the sight-reading exercise (the bugbear of many a young musician!) and complete the aural tests. So, please, let’s celebrate our students’ achievements, both large and small, and ensure that at the basis of our teaching is encouraging a love of the instrument, and its wonderful and varied literature.

My wonderful students (and their teacher)

I’m posting this clip in honour of my super-keen adult student, Andy, who is learning a reduced version of this piece. He’s been having lessons with me for a year, and has only recently taken his Grade 1, but has a voracious appetite for learning new work and is not afraid of a challenge. For example, at his lesson today, eager to add more texture to the over-simplified left-hand part, he tried the full left-hand part, a series of arpeggiated semi-quaver figures. So, this post is for Andy, a very good friend of mine, who I’ve known since I was a small child, and for all keen and passionate amateur pianists – myself included –  who do it simply because we love it!

The Promise from The Piano (a film by Jane Campion, music by Michael Nyman)

Apple tree iPad stand

I’ve recently become the proud, selfish, and somewhat geeky, owner of an iPad. Not, I hasten to add, the iPad 2, which is apparently already hard to come by, just over two weeks since its release by Apple. I decided that the additional cost (c£100) was not worth all the extra bells and whistles: I don’t need a camera and I don’t need all that memory/power, since my primary motivation for purchasing an iPad (apart from the need to add yet another Apple gadget to my toybox) is to use it as a teaching aid.

I have blogged before about the piano teacher’s need to keep abreast of new technology. If we can’t offer it in our studio, we are going to lose students, especially younger students who are turned on by gadgets and gizmos. It is already clear that such gadgetry can be put to good use during teaching: I have a gallery of composer photos in my iPad, a selection of pictures of old pianos, including Beethoven’s and Chopin’s, diagrams of the guts and action of the piano (grand and upright), and a pot-pourri of “oddments”, including an old photograph of Rachmaninov’s huge hands, and a picture of Glenn Gould hunched at the keyboard in his characteristic crouching posture. The iPad, when produced during lessons last week, was met with oohs and aahs of delight: the kids loved it, and I could feel my street-cred rocketing as we scrolled through the pictures together. “Look how small the keyboard is!” Eli exclaimed on seeing a picture of a Clavichord. “Is that really Beethoven’s piano?” Ben asked, with awe.

Add in a powerful iPod capacity, loaded with exam music, ‘Fran’s Easy Guide to Classical Music’, and a selection of other music of interest, plus a score-reading app which plays the music as you read it, or can print it, wirelessly, straight from the iPad, and you’ve got a neat and versatile all-in-one teaching tool.

Today, IMSLP (International Music Score Libary Project/Petrucci Music Library) announced plans to develop an IMSLP app for use on the iPad, selling the idea to users with the catchy, green tag “make music with free public domain scores without chopping down trees”.

A number of score reading apps already exist. I use ForScore, which allows you to upload your own scores in PDF format, or download from IMSLP or Pianostreet.com or other sites which offer PDF downloads. The programme allows editing and annotating so that you can add your own notes and comments to your scores. It also has a link with your iPod so that you can listen to the music as you read it. It’s neat and fairly easy to use, though it can be a little quirky. I am just getting to grips with it. I like the portability of it: I was actually annotating Debussy’s Sarabande while commuting to my ‘other’ job yesterday.

IMSLP’s announcement suggests that traditional scores may eventually become obsolete as musicians opt to load their scores onto their iPads, or similar e-reading devices, and prop them on their music stands, instead of carting around a hefty Henle or Wiener Urtext edition. James Rhodes proved this point during his encore in Cambridge last year, playing a Chopin Prelude from his iPad. I still hold that this is just showboating, crowd-pleasing gimmickry (the fact that he had to pause in his playing to swipe the iPad to turn the page shows that the app is not perfect: if he’d been using a proper score, the music would have filled a two-page spread, thus removing the need for a showy page turn), but it more than demonstrates that it is possible to play from such a device, and I do not think it will be too long before we see string quartets or choral ensembles using iPads during concerts.

(A fermata here while the luddites throw up their hands in horror.)

The huge capacity of the iPad, and its neat, handbag dimensions, means that soon you won’t have to pack your briefcase with heavy Urtext scores. Just load them onto your iPad and off you go. But something’s not quite right: trying to sight-read through Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61 on the score reading app on my iPad the other day made my eyes strain and my head hurt: the smaller-than-A4 format is just not big enough for my cross eyes. It’s fine away from the piano: I can read it comfortably, but I can’t work from it at the keyboard. And I want to be able to scribble notes directly onto the score from the pencil I keep behind my ear. And, if I’m completely honest, I really love that smooth heavy cream paper and dusky blue covers of a Henle edition.

We all got very heated a few years ago when the first e-reader appeared and people lamented the death of the traditional book. But, amid all the hand-wringing and eye-pulling, book sales remain strong and while e-readers are becoming increasingly popular, it is unlikely they will ever replace a book, for various reasons (for example, a book containing many notes, index, bibliography etc is not suited to the e-reader format). I don’t think I will be giving up my Urtext scores just yet – I love all my annotations, my personal markings, hints and reminders, interspersed with notes from my teacher, and I particularly enjoy coming back to a well-marked score after a break from that piece – but I can definitely see the benefits of having scores uploaded to an iPad, and I welcome IMSLP’s initiative to develop an app, thus making their vast and fascinating resource more readily available. How we will react to an entire symphony orchestra all playing from their iPads remains to be seen……

IMSLP’s announcement

ForScore score reading app

iStand for iPad app

iPadPunk – articles on apps for musicians and music production