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.

Be collaborative

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.

Further reading:

The Perfect Wrong NoteWilliam Westney

The Inner Game of MusicBarry Green

The Art of PractisingMadeline Bruser

Some years ago, when I was preparing for one of my performance diplomas, I received some mentoring from a concert pianist acquaintance. On placing my copy of Liszt’s Sonnetto del Petrarca no. 123 on the music desk of the piano, he commented that there was “an awful lot of writing on it” and that it might be better if I worked from a clean score. I replied that I found the notes, annotations and personal doodles helpful; he then told me an anecdote about A Very Famous Pianist who would work from a photocopy or second copy of the score and put the original away in a drawer. It was only when I was working towards my Fellowship diploma, for which Schubert’s Sonata D959 was the main work in the programme, that I recalled this anecdote and I invested in several copies of the Henle edition of the sonata – one was my “working score”, the other a clean score (I also had a Barenreiter edition of the score because I found the introductory notes useful). As you can see from the photo, the working score of the Schubert is really quite messy – and I suspect my concert pianist acquaintance would be appalled by the number of annotations scrawled upon it.

I recently revisited the Liszt Sonetto and was genuinely horrified by the mess I’d made of the score – so many annotations, directions to myself (such as “Head up!” to remind me not to dip my head into the keyboard to give the impression of profound emotion!) and sundry other scribblings, many of which I now found illegible or incomprehensible. I wanted to play the piece but the annotations were simply too distracting. And because it’s an inexpensive score, to rub out all the markings would make a mess of the paper….  A clean score would mark a clean start.

At the most practical level, annotations can help us find our way around the music. Fingerings in particular need to be marked up and are invaluable when returning to a previously-learnt piece, enabling one to (re-)negotiate tricky passages. But a clean score of a previously-learnt work can be very liberating – as I found when I returned to the Schubert sonata with a view to reviving it. With a brand-new score, I noticed new details in the music, so much so that at times I felt I was learning a different piece – and then the anecdote about the concert pianist who put his clean scores in a drawer really made sense to me. If you have spent weeks and months – years even – with the same score, the same familiar pages, now dog-eared and friable from so much use, you stop seeing all the notes and personal markings. A clean score is a useful wake-up and a chance to refresh the music.

Students may be reluctant to write on their scores, perhaps seeing the text as something inviolable. As a teacher, I encourage students to mark up their scores: the act of writing a note is an important part of the learning process, and besides, notes made in pencil can be rubbed out when no longer needed. Also, some editorial markings in scores, especially in exam pieces, can be confusing – fingerings may need to be changed or a bar or section might require some additional clarification. Because teaching is about respect (or at least it should be), I never write on a student’s score without their permission (though I have witnessed other less respectful teachers scrawling bossy notes across a student’s score without asking first).

Annotations and the other writings on our scores are also incredibly personal and significant and represent our own special relationship with the text, and a specific time in our musical development. Our notes and markings may be intimate and private, and, almost diary-like, chronicle an evolving relationship with the music.

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(Header image: part of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations score)


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Buy me a coffee

Speaking-the-Piano-front-cover-1-e1530256784320This is the fifth book by acclaimed Scottish pianist Susan Tomes, and unlike her previous books whose primary focus is on the exigencies of life as a professional musician – from ensemble playing and touring, coughers in the audience to concert attire, or dealing with reviews – this latest volume is a series of reflections on learning and teaching.

At a time when music education is under serious threat, at least in the UK’s state schools, Speaking the Piano is in part a paean to the wonderful teachers Susan herself has studied with, including the renowned Hungarian piano professor, Gyorgy Sebok, a celebration of teaching and learning, and a heartfelt plea to retain music education as part of the school curriculum.

My own musical education, acquired internationally and continuing well into adult life, was a fascinating experience. It had an impact on me and my approach to life far beyond the arena of music. As time went by I began to teach the next generation of musicians, and found that the experience of teaching was as fascinating as the experience of learning.

– Susan Tomes

The book is divided into two sections, Teaching and Learning, and in the first section, Tomes draws on her experience as both a performer and teacher as well as her interactions with adult amateur pianists in the Piano Club which she recently established. Her wisdom is evident on every page and her writing is, as always, eloquent and intelligent, but never didactic. She is sensitive to the difficulties faced by many adult amateur pianists – and even some professionals too – in areas such as anxiety, harnessing the imagination, notation and reading music, understanding tempo and dynamics (not only physical but also psychological aspects of interpreting these markings), gestures and movement at the instrument, and myriad other issues, large and small, which face pianists and musicians in general whenever they go to play the music. She writes with honesty and clarity, using her own experiences as a student and teacher as the basis for sympathetic advice and guidance, and one has the sense throughout that she firmly believes in lifelong learning and that a teacher should always be adaptable and open to new insights and ideas, which may come unexpectedly from interactions with students. The book also celebrates the passion and commitment of the amateur pianist and gives encouragement to those who may find learning the piano at once wonderful and also frustrating.

The second part of the book on learning offers longer essays on the masterclass experience (good and bad), the wonders of jazz improvisation, and different genres of music. The final chapter – ‘Music Lights Up the Brain’ – discusses the pleasure of music, and the process of studying and learning music, the skills required to become proficient, and how teaching music performance at a high level (for example, in conservatoire) is a highly specialized art. Tomes also touches on scientific research into the benefits of playing a musical instrument and how learning music in school encourages children to develop self-confidence, cooperation, creativity and collaboration, and ends with a plea to “kindle a fire which will light the young musician’s path as they set out on their own journey of discovery”.

An engaging and engrossing read for music teachers, musicians and music lovers alike.

Speaking the Piano

Boydell Press UK, 2018

Meet the Artist – Susan Tomes




Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains.

This thoughtful and well-argued article appeared on the Gramophone website, an “insider’s” view of the way music is taught in UK state schools.

 Read the entire text here