How to Improve your sight-reading!

I've recently added some exciting new additions to the Improve your sight-reading! series. A special book in the piano series for teachers...

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and completely new editions for flute and clarinet....

with new editions for oboe, bassoon and saxophone to follow soon.

It's always been my contention that everyone can learn to sight-read. It just takes some methodical teaching and learning. I hope the Improve your sight-reading series presents enjoyable and systematic material which, if worked through carefully, will ensure sight-reading success.

In this short video, I've outlined how best to improve your sight-reading and use the method.  Hope you enjoy it and find it useful. Do post any questions or thoughts below...

 

 

 

Making a study of studies

Mention Baermann, Blatt, Muller, Cavallini, or Stark to any self-respecting clarinetist and the response ought to be one of great reverence and gratitude. Why? Because they’ve all contributed to the huge depository of clarinet studies. That hoard of wonderful unaccompanied pieces that help us to improve our playing. Studies are an essential part of a clarinet player’s (and indeed any instrumentalist’s) development. The fact that we don’t generally perform them allows us to approach them in a rather different way, in comparison with the way we approach our pieces. Of course it’s not that we shouldn’t play or teach studies with the same degree of musicality and artistry that we bring to pieces. It’s knowing that they won’t be performed, knowing that they are just being studied for our own benefit, that puts them in a rather different psychological place in our minds. Studies are there for us to concentrate purely on our playing and on developing our technique. We can focus all our preparation into the nuts and bolts of making the piece work technically without worrying about how other ears (apart from our teachers’, perhaps, and possibly an examiner!) might perceive it. 

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How to get the most out of studies

When approaching a study piece with a student, I start by first identifying the fundamental technical areas – for clarinetists, for example, these are tone, articulation and finger work. I then break these topics down into their myriad of constituent parts. For example, within the area of tone, there are studies to explore the taking and extent of breath; evenness, gradation, colour and beauty of tone; the whole range of dynamics and changing dynamics; controlling tone in different lengths of note and in different registers, and much more besides. Obviously each study has a number of other ‘active’ ingredients moving alongside the central objective and it is this amalgam that makes them really interesting to explore. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients, including the key of the study, I always encourage students to then examine that key (the importance of which can never be underestimated!) through its scale, arpeggio and any other related patterns, and then by making connections with the other ingredients. And we’ve explored all of this before actually playing from bar 1! 

Studies in practice

Take an example study from More Graded Studies for Clarinet Book 2. The study, called Zazz, in F major, features key ingredients such as articulation colour, crossing registers, syncopation and wide leaps. So, with a 4-time pulse in mind, initial lesson or practice activities might include work on the scale and arpeggio over a two-and-a-half or three-octave range, using different kinds of articulation (accented, non-accented, staccato) and thinking about clean and neat finger movement across the registers. Next you could try playing the scale or arpeggio with each note off the beat (or a combination of notes on and off the beat). Then how about playing F major in octaves – maybe also in tenths. Then more mixing and matching ingredient work could follow, combining any of the ingredients. The rhythm of the first two bars would fit a one octave scale perfectly – having got this under control, extend the pattern over three octaves, add the various articulation patterns. Next you might improvise some slightly more extended phrases using these ingredients and trying to give them a jazzy-like character…the possibilities are endless!

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This is all imaginative preparation very much in the spirit of Simultaneous Learning – making connections, working with the ingredients in a logical, positive and musical way. And all this before we’ve tried playing from bar 1!  Once into this kind of work you might look deeper still and notice there are also some C, B flat and D flat major, D and E minor triadic patterns – more ingredients to explore and combine. Finally, when the decision to begin at bar 1 is finally made, so much of the piece is already understood. Ingredients have been explored and can be instantly brought to life in a musical and vivid fashion, and the technical objective of the study can be fulfilled, and some! Let’s take studies seriously - they can have an extremely beneficial role to play in our, and in all our pupils’ development.

A trip to the epicentre of culture… and some thoughts on exams…

It was with a strong sense of anticipation and exhilaration that I touched down at Vienna airport for my first ever visit to this wonderful city – in many ways the cultural centre of the world.

 

I was only scheduled to be there for two days but was determined to pack in as much as possible. The main part of those two days was speaking to teachers at the Vienna Musik Schule (six hours each day!) on Simultaneous Learning, The Virtuoso Teacher and other topics. 

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On the first evening, the excellent Susanne (my host), took me straight to Mozart’s house.  There was a real a frisson of excitement as we walked along the very street that Mozart must have done so many times in the 1780s…

Mozart's street

Mozart's street

 

The second evening we visited Beethoven’s apartment. Ludwig lived on the fourth floor – up many many steps.  We arrived only ten minutes before closing and I had the impression that the custodian was not best pleased to see us!   Nonetheless we had time for a good look round.  Though I really wanted to play a few notes on B’s piano another custodian’s rather severe and protectionist glance at me as I approached the keyboard suggested maybe looking rather than touching!  Again, the excitement of being in Beethoven’s rooms was tangible.

Beethoven's piano

Beethoven's piano

We also visited Haydn’s house (closed unfortunately) and by the time we did (and had consumed a wonderful piece of Sacher Torte) we had to leave Schubert, Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg and the rest for my next visit. 

Haydn's House

Haydn's House

The fact is that Vienna exudes culture – the air is heavy with it and the Viennese and Austrians in general delight in it. And they are keen for the young to be immersed in it too.  Thus, all children have access to free music tuition by a large team of very committed teachers. But there was one serious issue: all children have to do a ‘one-size-fits-all’ exam after a certain amount of learning time, in order to access these free lessons. 

The Government, who pay for the lessons, understandably want to see that their money is being well spent.  But is an exam the answer?  It turns out that this exam causes both students and teachers quite a lot of stress.  And this caused me to offer some rather provocative thoughts.

My deep dislike of our public exam system in the UK stems from the fact that all children are different and, most significantly, learn at different speeds.  We all have (quite substantially) different brain processing rates – that’s how it is and that’s fine.  So we need to create an education system that acknowledges that. The graded music exam system does this, if used at its best, in that pupils are never required to enter. They choose to when they are ready. The one-size-fits-all approach of public exams only suits a small number – and the rest end up thinking: I’m not good enough… I can’t do it… I’m a failure.   And the number of learners with mental health problems in this country, which result from our public exam system should ring far more alarm bells than it seems to do.

I suggested that the Austrian teachers write letters to their government expressing their concern that the exam idea is not a good one. To replace it we simply need to define what happy and well-developing young musicians look like - at any time. In my opinion they look something like this: smiling, enjoying their music, thinking always how well they are doing in comparison to their own previous work. They shouldn’t be trying to fit in with someone else’s set of one-size-fits-all demands and requirements that may indeed suit some, but almost certianly won’t suit the majority.

The teachers seemed to agree with this.

So, if I haven’t stirred things up too much, I’m looking forward to my next visit!

Another new year! Any resolutions in sight?

Another new (academic) year approaches! Hope it’s going to be a happy one. If it’s going to be a really happy (and productive) one, we need to be armed with some new year’s resolutions.  So have you made any, or is it going to be a case of business as usual? If you haven’t made any yet – and forgive me for being a little presumptuous – I’d like to get in on the act! Actually I wrote a post on this subject in 2015 (which you can find on my official Facebook site). But I’d like to explore a slightly different and more personal angle this year.

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Ok – none of us ever want to be wrong about things… or at least admit that we might be wrong, but it is possible! So let’s get into the habit of questioning our choices, our decisions, our strategies, and our suggestions. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Maybe they work for some and not for others. And of course it’s much easier to go with what we’ve always gone with. But perhaps we might find some stimulating new ways forward with a bit more consideration. Our pupils certainly deserve it. Somewhere in our minds we have some pretty strong beliefs and values, and some weighty and deeply help principles that shape and determine the way we teach and who we are musically. Well, let’s subject these beliefs to some hefty rigorous evaluation and if we come out with the same ones after having done so, then fine. On the other hand, we might discover that some interesting recalibration could take us to exciting new pastures. 

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Actually we can subject anything to this energizing scrutiny. To what do we attribute our pupils’ success or failure, for example? How do we know if a pupil has learned what we were trying to teach them? Why do we think some of our pupils practice more than others? Are we prepared to let pupils do things they don’t understand?  Do we have expectations for pupils?  Why? Are these helping them or hindering them?  Are we teaching to feed our egos or for the greater good of humanity? Big questions! How about some smaller sized questions then? When and why do we teach scales? What are our favourite words to describe musical character? With what kind of pen or pencil do we write out our pupils’ practice notes (if we do write them notes)? How do we greet our pupils? How do we send our pupils off at the end of lessons?

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What are you thinking about this? Good questions… I’m on for a bit of soul searching? Or maybe Unnecessary questions – I’ve got quite enough to think about.

Well… it’s up to you. But if we do allow ourselves some time to question some of these things (and there are many more!) we can only benefit. And benefit in really significant ways.  So here’s the resolution for this new academic year: question everything!

Happy New Year!

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The Myth of Difficult and a wonderful trip to China

Just back from an extraordinary two weeks in China.  I spoke to something like a thousand teachers in Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.  Ostensibly I was talking about sight reading (many of my sight reading books have been translated and published in Chinese) but naturally the whole thing was wrapped in a rich overlay of Simultaneous Learning. And I wondered how the Chinese would respond, well known, as they are, for a rather more austere, ‘old fashioned’ reactionary style of teaching. 

 

Well… I couldn’t have hoped for a more positive response.   Music, and learning instruments in particular (especially piano and violin) is of course hugely popular and important in China.  In their enormous population of nearly 1.4 billion people, 40 million plus are known to be learning the piano alone.  I was taken to the Music Conservatoire in Xi’an – one of eleven conservatoires in China – and this is a photo of the vocal department (really!). I think that gives a good idea of the extent of their music teaching!

 

China has its own graded exam system (10 grades) but they also subscribe to international systems, so there was quite a lot of discussion surrounding the usual aspects of exam preparation.  They were particularly interested in how you teach the upper grades so I decided to be a bit challenging and began my (6 hour) talks telling them boldly that Grade 1 is no easier than Grade 8 and Grade 8 is no more difficult than Grade 1.  No shortage of puzzled faces!

 

But I explained, in a number of ways, that nothing is difficult if you’re always doing the right thing, for the right reasons at the right time.  The word difficult is such an emotional one. And a meaningless one too (in this context).  If you can’t do something, it’s just that you can’t do it – it’s not difficult.  It’s a word we use as an excuse, or to make people feel sorry for us.  Teachers have a powerful responsibility to ensure that they don’t give pupils things to do that they can’t do.  It’s demoralising and gets in the way of progress.  I’m not suggesting we don’t give our pupils challenges – but we must make them appropriate – or the same will happen.

 

So if we always teach in a logical and sequential way (the basis of Simultaneous Learning) our pupils will always be able to do what they are doing and will always be positive in their learning.   The faces became more interested.

 

So, I continued, if a pupil is doing Grade 8 at the right time – no problem. They know how to manipulate all the ingredients that come together to make ‘Grade 8’.   It certainly has many more ingredients to manipulate compared to Grade 1 – but they are not more difficult!  Grade 8 is more complex than Grade 1 but it’s not more difficult.  And you teach it, fundamentally, in the same way.

 

The faces relaxed and they got it.   I felt this a major breakthrough.   The vast majority of the teachers that came to my presentations were of the younger generation.  And they were very open to this new kind of thinking.  I was very excited by this understanding – as were they! 

 

I found the Chinese very warm hearted, eager to learn and indeed very good learners. They also asked good questions.  Many would stay on afterwards to ask more.  It was all very rewarding.   I also enjoyed the Chinese food - no knives and forks in sight most of the time, so my chopstick technique also improved considerably! 

 

I’m much looking forward to my next visit.

 

 

Have your pupils un-got again…?

I rather like the idea of un-getting.  The expression to unget did exist at one time – back in the 13th century - but fell out of use in favour of the conventional to forget.  But to forget suggests our pupil has temporarily lost the particular information or the understanding of how to do something and with a little reminding that information or skill may return.  But that really isn’t very helpful.  What has probably happened is that our pupil has un-got, or in other words, our pupil has lost that knowledge or skill rather more permanently.  And that’s because they (almost certainly) didn’t get it securely first time around.

 

If we are teaching effectively, using the idea of continual incremental progress (through appropriate logical and sequential Simultaneous Learning activities) then all pupils should be making lots of progress. Maybe between ten and twenty bits of progress each lesson or practice. But is this progress permanent?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  And if it’s no – (and it’s often no) this is not a reason for frustration, annoyance or any negative-type reaction.

Whatever it was that we taught, for some reason our pupil has un-got it. A reminder will probably only lead to un-getting it again.  So we have to re-teach it, using appropriate explicit connections – maybe the same ones as last time, but better still, a mixture of the same ones and some new ones – to help our pupil see how that information or skill fits into the broader fabric of their understanding. We re-teach it with the same enthusiasm as we taught it the first time. And we do it with absolutely no sense of frustration, no sense of exasperation or irritation…

Ultimately our pupil will get it. Which means they understand it, and they can apply that skill or information in different contexts or situations. Getting things often requires much reinforcement.  Much more than we think.  But as Virtuoso Teachers, that’s what we do.

Who is a good learner?

I was working with a relatively new pupil today and something very important emerged from this lesson.  She was quite upset at not understanding something – it happened to be something rhythmical.  We talked for a bit and this is the gist of what I wanted her to understand:

Being a good learner is knowing that it’s okay not to know.  Pupils shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing or understanding things.  They should simply acknowledge the fact and tell their teacher, who will then explain – or indeed explain again… and maybe again…and again... (making different connections and in different ways, Simultaneous Learning-wise.)

In school, pupils can be embarrassed if they don’t seem to know what their peers know… and teachers can sometimes get frustrated if pupils don’t know things …and so pupils learn that it’s bad not to know things. 

They end up thinking:

 

If pupils don’t know something – or if they don’t get something – they simply ask and teachers explain – maybe for the second, third or hundredth time.  We don’t mind.  That’s what we do. And, as Virtuoso Teachers, we also recognise when a pupil isn’t understanding something for a more serious underlying reason, and address this issue. But that’s another conversation for another blog…

We need to teach pupils it’s okay if they don’t know, or if they don’t understand.  And we teach them to ask – ALWAYS.

Good learners are not the ones who happen to know things.

Good learners know that not knowing is okay and all they have to do is ask.

What shall we do next?

I don’t think a day goes by without my thinking about, or discussing with colleagues, the process of Simultaneous Learning.  My present thoughts and discussions have led me to a simple question which I believe lies at the very heart of the approach. Not only will this question allow lessons to flow collaboratively and in a very positive direction – it will also teach our pupils what to think when they are practising.   Which is what we must do in lessons if we want our pupils to do any.

What shall we do next? It’s the question we should be putting to our pupils (in some form or another) on a regular basis.  For if we don’t, how will they learn what to think when they are practicing? In this way we are setting it up for them to begin thinking for themselves? Aim rarely to tell pupils things. Especially if we can figure out a way to encourage them to work it out for themselves. Telling pupils just makes them more dependent and less confident. Instead, together work out the next best thing to do. 

When it comes to expecting the average pupil to do some practice, “Go home and practise Minuet in G” simply won’t do the trick. They may go home and play through Minuet in G (if they can). Maybe they’ll correct some errors - if they recognise any.  More likely is that they will embed a few more mistakes in their already uncertain understanding and performance, which we will then have to sort out next lesson.  All contributing to the kind of reacting-to-mistakes teaching we are so keen to eradicate.

Instead let’s ask them what shall we do next?  Ideally with our Simultaneous Learning Map of our Musical World to hand. 

Click to download Simultaneous Learning Musical Map of the World

Click to download Simultaneous Learning Musical Map of the World

Let’s play the scale of G major, we decide.  Once played we ask a follow up question: how did that go?  And if we set up the activity well (as we do in SL) the answer hopefully will be… it went well.  And pupils think (with a little encouragement from us) “I made some progress!”   

And so we continue… what shall we do next?  Maybe the answer comes back… “look to see how my understanding of G major and the scale will help me play the piece.”  or “let’s look for G major patterns in the music,” or “I could play G major again using the different dynamics in the piece… or in the character of the piece.”

Maybe we’ll have to wait a bit until our pupils are able to make such practical and logical responses.  But maybe those responses will develop quicker than we might suppose if we go down this route on a regular basis.   

Having set this up, when our pupils go home to practice they continue to think in this manner – instinctively.  “What shall I do next?”  and then “how did that go?”  will become a kind of spontaneous reflex. Practice becomes a sequence of relevant and explicitly connected activities, all managed by our pupil.   And each time they work out the next activity and negotiate it successfully – they knowingly make progress.  They’ve gone up another level.   It’s a highly motivational approach.

 

 

 

 

A trip to Eastern Germany

Just back from an amazing trip to Germany.  The Improve Your Teaching series has been translated into German recently and this was my second visit in the last couple of months to work with teachers.  This time I was invited to a music school in the town of Zeitz, about 50 kilometres south of Leipzig.  The invitation was to the Anna Magdalena Bach Music School,  so named because this is the town where JSB’s wife was born and it’s where they met.  In fact after my session I found and stood outside Anna’s house – the two of them must have done so, many times, at precisely the same spot nearly 300 years ago.  It was a haunting and evocative moment.

Zeitz is an extraordinary place.  Walking from the station (Max, my translator and I had just arrived from Leipzig) there was hardly a soul to be seen.  The roads were empty.  Many buildings just a shell – houses, factories and churches with no roofs and the glass windows all shattered.  It was like being transported back 50 or 60 years into another world.  But when we arrived at the musikschule all was suddenly transformed.  A warm-hearted building – and the room I was presenting in was gloriously decorated with a chandelier and lovely chairs.  And suddenly there were people – musicians and teachers who had arrived from the seemingly deserted town.  The musikschule began to wake up with music issuing from many of it’s Hogwart-like spaces and we began to discuss music, teaching and learning.

I talked about being a Virtuoso Teacher and about Simultaneous Learning and could see these ideas feeling quite new to most of my audience.  But we had a very lively chat afterwards and it all seemed to go down well. My thinking is always developing and I like to feel that no two sessions are the same.  At the moment my predominant thought is the importance of teaching the right thing at the right time.   I occasionally hear stories of pupils being given music which is too advanced and their teachers getting annoyed that they can’t play it… 

One teacher came up with the perfect summary for the day … it’s really just about being kind they said…

 

Photos from left to right..

Bach's grave in Leipzig; Entrance to Musikschule; Plaque outside Anna's house; Me outside the Musikschule; The Musikschule; The lovely room we were in; some books; Matthias the school head; Max my excellent interpreter.