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.





Keeping pupils engaged - two fun excerpts from Tim Topham TV

Have much enjoyed my sessions with Tim Topham, the great music educator from down under.

Tim has extracted a couple of excerpts from one of our talks, which I've posted below..

One major principle that underpins the thoughts expressed in these little chats is the necessity to keep out pupils really engaged.  If they become disconnected from the learning we can draw the obvious conclusion that they won’t be doing any.  Maintaining that connection is a central part of the art of the Virtuoso Teacher. 

There are two sides to keeping this all-important connection active.  Being imaginative, energetic, and fun is essential …serving up what we want our pupils to learn in a clear, relevant, logical, sequential and engaging way.  And simultaneously it’s about noticing, immediately, if the light goes off behind our pupils’ eyes.   This point is so important.  If we lose our pupils engagement – even for a moment – that essential flow of energy is broken and we will have to re-establish it (which of course takes time).

Keep up a discourse with pupils, ask them pertinent questions, ask them to explain what they just did, why they did it; and make sure lessons are conducted in such a way that they know they can tell you if they don’t understand.  Be aware of your pupils’ reactions and mood constantly.

If this two-way flow of energy is maintained lessons will always be positive, and learning will always be taking place. 


John Davies plays Mozart

As all pupils of the great John Davies will know, John never played or demonstrated in lessons. This was never a disadvantage. John had many wonderful ways of making you bring the music to life and I suspect his lack of demonstration was quite deliberate. As a player, he broadcast on the BBC many times and happily at least two of those recordings still exist. Below this post is one of those recordings. It's the slow movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet. I also have a performance of the Iain Hamilton Quintet, which I will post soon. His sound is very expressive, liquid and lyrical. Below also is a recent article I wrote for the Clarinet & Saxophone Society Magazine...

Thoughts on the Virtuoso Teacher

I much enjoyed my short visit to Scotland a few weeks ago to do a Virtuoso Teacher Day at the University of Aberdeen under the auspices of the ISM. It’s always wonderful to meet a group of lively and committed teachers and, as usual with these days, many interesting topics were aired and discussed.  

Of course the central theme of the day was the concept of The Virtuoso Teacher. And as our society seems to become more and more disinterested in serious culture, it becomes increasingly important that we aspire to Virtuoso Teacher status. Or, in other words, aspire to teaching at the highest level in order to keep more of our pupils on board and inspired to go out there and be musically independent. 

"Teaching is about sharing"

What exactly do I mean by teaching at the highest level you may be wondering? It’s certainly very challenging trying to sum it up in a few words or in a single point or two (you’ll have to come to one of the VT days to get the whole picture!). And it’s got nothing to do with the level of our pupils. But if pushed, I would say this: teaching at the highest level is strongly connected with the necessity to teach with a generous, big- and open-hearted spirit. Teaching is about sharing. Of course we know more than our pupils. And we can do things a lot better than they can. But teaching is essentially a sharing experience… sharing our love and enthusiasm for music, sharing our deeply considered views on the music we teach and thus helping our pupils in turn to love and share their music. If we can pass this on, humbly and without ego, we have got a chance to help humanity remain cultured. For without culture, humanity becomes dry, cold and meaningless. This, in essence, is what being a Virtuoso Teacher is. 

A sunny day in Aberdeen for the Virtuoso Teacher talk with the ISM. 

A sunny day in Aberdeen for the Virtuoso Teacher talk with the ISM. 

Talking to teachers about the Virtuoso Teacher in Aberdeen. 

Talking to teachers about the Virtuoso Teacher in Aberdeen. 

Theoretically Speaking...

Theory has a bit of a bad name. Which is a shame. Because theory can be both a lot of fun and hugely helpful... like anything if it's well taught. Theory teaches us about how the world of music works - and through a knowledge of theory we can play with more insight and indeed more expressively. It teaches us about the nuts and bolts of our wonderful art.

I much enjoyed writing my 5-volume 'Improve your Theory!' series and I think I can safely say that it's probably got more jokes than most other theory books! I'm so delighted that Pamela Rose has decided to create some teaching videos based on my 'Improve your Theory!' series. She's a real theory expert and it's terrific to have such a generous endorsement. 

Here's Pamela's 1st instalment based around the opening pages of Book 1....