Seven things to stop doing if you want to carry on enjoying music

Carry on listening

Carry on listening

1/ Stop thinking that your musical tastes are set

If you don’t expand your listening repertoire you could be missing out. The music you enjoyed when you were a teenager is almost certainly not the music you favour in your thirties because, as each year goes by, your tastes continue to develop and expand. If you stop imagining that your musical tastes are fixed and unchanging you will be open to enjoying a virtually limitless world of styles and genres. For example, as we gain musical maturity, we begin to appreciate a wider range of harmonies so, although you may not have liked jazz a few years ago, you might love the more dissonant sounds now. 

2/ Stop being too busy to listen

Being too busy will prevent you from setting aside the time to listen. You’ll avoid buying concert tickets in case you can’t make it on the night and, if you do manage to attend a concert, working too hard may cause you to lose concentration or even fall asleep during the performance. Being too busy will stop you relaxing as you listen to a concert on television or radio. Listen to recorded music while you do something else if you really cannot find the time to stop what you are doing and focus attentively.

3/ Stop being over-critical

Be discerning but don’t be over-critical. If you approach every concert and recording with the intention – conscious or otherwise – of picking out what is wrong with it, you will spoil your enjoyment and that of your companions. If a concert is clearly substandard, just leave at the interval but, if it has redeeming features, stay and enjoy them. Be open to new interpretations of music you know well and avoid making a hasty judgement right from the start of the performance.

4/ Stop limiting which performers you hear

Well-established performers are, of course, amazing but young, up-and-coming artists have a freshness and enthusiasm that can be just as engaging and moving. Enjoy the deeper wisdom and insight of the more mature performer and also treat yourself to concerts by young musicians who are still immersed in wonder and awe at the music they are performing.

Don’t dismiss support musicians and just arrive at a gig in time for the main artist – you could be missing out on an astonishing new performer who will take your breath away.

5/ Stop damaging your hearing

Listening to loud noise damages hearing so, if you work in a noisy environment, wear ear defenders. Moderate the decibel level carefully if you use a headset or earphones for listening. For loud concerts, invest in a good pair of musicians’ earplugs that lower the decibel level without distorting the sound. Take a break from sound regularly each day and give your ears a rest throughout the night, by wearing your earplugs if necessary. You may think that, if your hearing becomes less acute, you can just turn up the volume, but hearing damage comes in many forms; you could develop tinnitus, a whole range of noises such as whistling and hissing that can actually sound louder than anything you want to listen to. Even worse, you could develop hyperacuity in which every sound, even normal speaking, seems to be intolerably loud. Protect your child’s hearing too – some toys make noises that reach an ear-damaging decibel level.

6/ Stop letting your personal situation get in the way

If your partner does not enjoy the music that you like, or if you do not have a partner, go to a concert with a friend or join a social group that does concert visits. You may need to take a break from concerts if you have a baby, but you can still listen at home and begin your baby’s music education at the same time. Once your children are old enough, take them with you. Children are very receptive to all sorts of music, particularly if you are personally enthusiastic and if they are prepared beforehand. Remember that musical tastes are, to a great extent, formed by the music we grew up with and bear in mind that parents are supplying the next generation of performers, teachers, composers, producers, technicians and concert-goers.

7/ Stop thinking you are too old to learn

The benefits of learning throughout life are well documented and, no matter what your state of health is, there will be some musical activity that you can enjoy, whether it is learning to follow a score, taking up playing or singing again or listening to a wider range of music. The internet offers an expanded horizon, allowing us to watch, listen and learn with such ease and convenience as would have been unimaginable in years gone by, so enjoy making the most of it, remember that maturity confers wisdom and never be limited by thinking you are too old. 


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Do you want to understand your child better?

Boy playin violin

It’s almost a silly question isn’t it? All parents want to understand their children better so that they can build a stronger relationship with them, communicate more effectively, help them with their problems, and share their joys. The same applies to teachers – if we know our students well, we can understand what motivates them and adapt our teaching accordingly.

The TAT Test

A few years ago I came across this fascinating technique, the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT. It’s simple, fun to do and it gives insight into all sorts of issues. Underlying motives can be revealed, concerns expressed and views aired in a non-confrontational way. All you have to do is show the child a relevant, but ambiguous, picture and ask them to make a story up about it.

Motivating music practice

This was a conversation with one of my piano students, Edward, aged 6 as he studied a picture of a boy playing the violin.

Me: What is the boy in the picture thinking? Can you make up a story about him?

Edward: He’s feeling sad because he has to do his practice and his prep so he never gets to play with his friends.

Me: Does he like playing the violin?

Edward: Yes and he wants to play well … He might like to have a year of playing and then a year off. He might ask him mum if he can do that.

Me: Then would he have to practice even more, to make up for forgetting a lot in the year off?

Edward: Oh I hadn’t thought of that.

Me: What advice would you give to this boy?

Edward: Probably he could see his friends on some days and practise on others.

Me: Does he have any friends who play?

Edward: Yes – his friend, George plays.

Me: Would he like it if George came into some of his practices every week?

Edward: Ooh yes!

Me: They could make up some music together and play duets.

The outcome

Subsequently, Edward began playing duets with his friend, really called George, whom I also taught. Edward started practising much more regularly and enthusiastically. Everyone was happier!

Here’s an easy piano duet to try…

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What do children really think about doing their music practice?


Why practise?

I loved doing my piano practice as a child and I never needed reminding to do it, probably because I never thought of it as ‘practising’ but more as doing the real thing – I was just having a nice time playing the piano. It is a pity, I think, that we use the word, ‘practice’ instead of ‘play’. Rather than suggesting enjoyment, ‘practice’ conjures up a tedious, isolating and difficult activity that is necessary to prepare for the real business of ‘playing’, which seems to be conceived of as some time in the future.

Why do children begin playing an instrument?

The ABRSM Making Music report (2014) found that the main reasons children wanted to begin playing were because they enjoyed music and because they liked the sound of the instrument, yet teachers thought that the main barrier to pupils making good progress was lack of practice / motivation. It seems paradoxical that children said they wanted to play and yet did not feel motivated actually to do it.

What do parents think?

I would love to know (comments welcome) what parents of musical children think are the reasons for the following:

  • why their child takes music lessons
  • why their child does their music practice, or not
  • why progress is being made, or not.

My own views on motivation to practise

I am guessing that my own experience as a piano student was fairly common in that I was never taught how to structure my practice, nor even told how much practice I should do. I just played until I could play better but, gradually, I devised strategies of my own, which I have continued to develop over years of study and teaching. In fact, as a teacher, one of the things I find endlessly fascinating is finding ways of engaging each individual student’s interest in practising effectively, using a whole range of learning strategies that continue to expand as the child’s knowledge, technique and capacity for learning develop.

I have come to the conclusion that I need to make a substantial part of lessons a template for what to do at home during the week’s practice so that students understand how, as well as what, to practise and, hopefully, feel motivated. I also welcome parents sitting in at lesson time and, if they prefer not to, I like to talk to them after lessons to update them on progress, for the child to explain to them what they have learned that day and to say what I would like their child to do over the next week.

Why do children want to do music practice?

I once asked all my younger pupils why they wanted to practise. Before I asked the children the question, I summarised my own assessment of their achievement, motivation and enjoyment of playing. The balance between these factors varied according to the child’s individual personality and preferences and I was able to see a fascinating connection between my prior assessment and the responses given, with just a few surprises.

This was the question

‘Why do you want to do your piano practice?’

Here are some of the responses.

I wonder if you can guess which children practised, which ones enjoyed their playing and who were the high achievers – my prior assessments are at the end.


I had this really horrid piano teacher before and I never wanted to practise. He used to shout at me. If you get a nice teacher you want to do it for them. Sometimes when you have a practice your friends come in and it’s annoying. If you’ve got a grade coming up you’ve got an aim so you want to practise, and the same with concerts.


I want to practise to be a good pianist and to get onto my grades quicker. I enjoy it at all times. It doesn’t make any difference what I play. I get them off by heart in my head and then start playing them. I’d think of the notes sometimes where I was going wrong and sometimes I’d just get them straight in my head.


I’d always wanted to play. I played with this lady up the road but she shouted and it didn’t work out. I like practising now because it learns me to play better things and you’re more encouraging than that other teacher was. She didn’t explain how to play the notes right … she just said play it.

When I start a piece I think, ‘I can’t do that!’ but then I practise it and I think it’s easy and I want to do the next one.


I know I’ve got to practise otherwise I’ll fail the exam. I want to play something I like … it’s more important to like it if I’m not doing an exam. I don’t like my parents listening – it embarrasses me.


Sometimes I’ve got nothing to do so I practise.


A tune you know and like, if you’re determined to get it right. I’m practising for my exam because I want to pass and I like the pieces.


My mother says, ‘Your lesson’s tomorrow and you haven’t done any practice. Don’t you think you’d better get on with it?’

Sometimes I practise to avoid doing homework … I enjoy it once I’ve started.

I like it when my mum says, ‘That was nice, the piece you played today.’ I wish my dad would like it when I play and listen to me.


Wanting to learn … I enjoy learning new pieces. And Mum makes me. It’s a good thing she makes me practise, otherwise I wouldn’t learn and she’d stop my lessons.


Because it helps you to learn. Whether I feel like it depends on what sort of tune I’m playing. I like dances. It’s better when someone listens to me … Mum listens and Gran and Grandpa.


When I’ve got a tune in my head and I want to play the music, like a TV tune. You practise when you’ve got time.

My prior assessments

I assessed motivation by how regularly pupils practised and, more subjectively, by obvious enthusiasm for playing, how cheerful they were in lessons and improvement from one lesson to the next.

I was able to keep a fairly accurate track of practice because most of the pupils attended a preparatory, boarding school.


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Motivated by exams, but otherwise does insufficient practice, enthusiastic about some pieces


Practises sporadically, making slow progress, seems to enjoy lessons


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Variable motivation to practise, making some progress, seems to enjoy lessons


Well motivated to practise, steady progress, seems to enjoy lessons


Well motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Motivated by exams, otherwise usually practises only what he enjoys most, which is often his own compositions

Four main reasons for practising had emerged overall:

  • Achievement
  • Enjoyment
  • Approval of family and /or friends
  • Because of their teacher (which was pleasing!)

What do you think? What can you do?

I think that teachers and also parents of children who have music lessons would find it revealing to repeat the process and I would be really interested for you to comment on what you find out.

Help with practising Aural Tests (suitable for ABRSM and Trinity exams, all grades)

ABRSM (2014) Making Music

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Must we perform?


Must we perform?

I have been following a pretty heated social media discussion about whether music students should have to perform pieces or songs. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that playing an instrument ought to be for the purpose of performing in public and that the end result of learning should be performing.

One teacher went so far as to say that she requires participation for any student who isn’t an adult and that those who are unwilling to perform are ‘welcome to find another teacher’. It is not clear to me why the distinction was made between adult and child learner.

Another teacher likened participation in performance to playing in a basketball team: ‘Would he have the option to play or not? No … There is no choice involved in the studios I teach in. It is compulsory’.

A lone voice suggested that perhaps students might have a choice.

Performing is of educational value, I think – it motivates students to practise and to achieve and it can illuminate the teaching and learning processes. When I’m teaching I sometimes find myself asking questions like, ‘Which line do you want the listener to pay attention to in this phrase?’ or, ‘How could you make this piece tell a story?’ I want the student to let the music unfold and explain itself although, during the lesson, the ‘performance’ is for me, an audience of one, or for a ‘virtual audience’. Students concerts can also show that we are good enough teachers and help to showcase our studios – and there is nothing wrong with that.

Certainly, practising performing is essential for anyone who wants to gain qualifications in music, since confidence, concentration and focus in performance are only developed by practising doing it. For this reason, I organise performing opportunities for my students; I expect that they will want to take part and mostly they do, but it is not compulsory. Because I have taught many students who were working towards Advanced Level Music Performance examinations, I have organised weekly Piano Club, during which students may play for each other in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Attendance was compulsory but playing was by choice, when ready. Students may choose to perform a whole piece or they might play a section of work in progress. After each student has played, I invite positive and constructive comments from the other students. The experience builds confidence and trust that the audience appreciates the good points in their playing and is on their side. It also builds a sense of belonging to a community of pianists.

There can be little doubt that music can be a means of communication. If we look at the most natural way of making music this could be said to begin with the dialogue between mother and baby, sometimes called motherese, which has a gestural vocabulary that is similar across all cultures; mothers and babies raise and lower their voices, simultaneously changing their expressions and moving their hands. In this definition, communication is of importance in music making, but it is a very private form of dialogue and does not involve an audience.

Charles Darwin’s suggestion that the function of male birdsong is to communicate the male’s capability of protecting its territory, thereby seducing a female, has been put forward as evidence that the purpose of music is communication. The comparison between bird and human seems spurious and simplistic to me, however; does the bird consciously know it is ‘performing music’?

Perhaps music is simply what the performer says it is and wants it to be, so we can choose what, if anything, we want to express when we play. Stravinsky, famously, said that music is:

essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.

It is wonderful to share music, to perform it and to listen to performances but playing simply for the joy of playing, whether or not anyone is listening, seems to me to be intrinsically worthwhile too. There is, perhaps, a case to be made for studying, but not performing, a piece of music that is at the edge of one’s capability technically, but within one’s intellectual and emotional grasp. It is impractical and also dogmatic to suggest that a public performance is essential, at some point, for music making to be valid. Those who genuinely want to play for their own pleasure and not necessarily for the purpose of communicating, competing or gaining certificates are free to make that choice.


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How to Impress a Music Examiner


My top tips

Practise performing Perform your pieces several times for different people before the exam date. If you suffer from high level performance anxiety, get professional help. Know which repeats, if any, you will make in the exam.

Prepare all elements of the exam Confident aural, fluent sight reading and accurate scales are all ways of getting extra marks. Use internet resources to help you and to make learning more interesting, but be sure to choose only high quality websites.

Be ready on the day Arrive in good time, but not so early that you start to build up anxiety. Before you walk in the exam room, take your instrument out of its case (unless you are a pianist!) so you are ready to begin. Find your reading glasses if necessary!

Smile and be polite When you walk in, give the examiner a big smile – it will not make any difference to your mark but it will make you feel positive and confident. If the examiner asks you which part of the exam you would like to do first (or next), answer politely and say, ‘please’. If you have an accompanist, thank them for playing for you.

Know where to stand for the aural tests Stand side by side with the piano, facing ahead so that the examiner can see your face to talk to you and watch your hands when you clap.

Make a good sound Create a beautiful, positive tone when singing or playing. Record yourself before the exam, so you know how you really sound.

Be fluent Keep the continuity – if you make a mistake, pretend it didn’t happen and keep going in pieces, songs and sight reading.

Be accurate Accurate intonation is very important in singing and playing. Listen to whether you keep in tune with the accompanist and whether you stay in tune when unaccompanied. Making a slip or two on the day sounds very different from misreading notes or rhythms.

Be expressive Give the examiner reasons to award extra marks by using varied dynamics, articulation and also pace changes if appropriate. Show the phrasing of the music with crescendos and diminuendos. Have a clear idea of the mood or meaning of the music – is it cheerful or sad and does this show in the pace and musical detail? What do the words of your song mean and do you show this in your voice and face?

Be stylish Play or sing in keeping with the style of the music, according to when it was written and who was the composer – your teacher will help you with interpretation of style.  It’s easy to find videos of pieces and songs on the internet but do ask your teacher which are the best ones.

These ten tips are my own personal recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of any examining board.

Sandy Holland is a music teacher, examiner and director of E-MusicMaestro: online music education resources.

Piano exam piece videos

Aural Test Training

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How to be a bad music teacher: ten terrible things to remember

Ten bad things to remember about music teaching … and ten good alternatives imgres

1/ Sit and listen to a piece all through, picking out the mistakes … or teach actively first – small sections, slowly

2/ Praise indiscriminately … or say what was good and what might be improved

3/ Just teach the notes first, then add on the details later … or insist, from the start, on correct fingering and articulation

4/ Count out tricky rhythms in jazzy pieces … or fit the tune to words, resulting in correct, memorable rhythms

5/ Don’t bother about tone production … or demonstrate and teach exactly how to create a beautiful sound

6/ Teach music reading by note naming (and write the notes in) … or teach by interval and pattern recognition

7/ Don’t let parents sit in on lessons … or invite parents to observe, so they understand how to support practice time

8/ Test sight reading and aural only just before an examination … or teach the concepts first, a little every lesson

9/ Don’t tell your students how to practise – they’ll work it out … or give specific advice and instruction

10/ Teach only how you were taught  … or keep up to date, with professional development courses, online resources and the best Youtube clips.

Try E-MusicMaestro resources:

Aural Test Training free at

E-MusicMaestro Grades 1 – 5 ABRSM and Trinity piano exam piece videos with tips on interpretation and demonstration of good technique at


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What really goes into creating a professional internet music resource?

Today I read Deborah Rambo Sinn’s entry in the Oxford University Press’s blog, in which she highlighted some crucially important issues regarding the problems of music teaching being an unregulated profession and also the widely varying quality of resources and advice available on the internet and subsequently posted on Facebook. Deborah drew attention to the problem of ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ with regard to professional musicians and educators as opposed to, ‘Untrained teachers whose main goal is keeping kids happy […] by using well-marketed, but substandard and mostly self-published literature that is woefully lacking in sound pedagogy.’  (See more at:

Not so long ago, in fact, I wrote an article for EPTA’s Piano Professional magazine on a similar theme regarding Youtube videos which, already ubiquitous when I wrote the article, are now multiplying at an alarming rate. Youtube is an amazing resource – I use it frequently both for myself and in my teaching. The videos are often inspirational, instructional and informative. Often, they are sadly lacking in musical integrity, technique and even, in some instance, accuracy. The worrying situation is when videos of poor musicianship or technique are emulated by other students as examples of how to play.

We have a growing culture of embracing free access to information via the internet, which is wonderful and it is my own opinion that every professional and each company using the internet to promote or sell their service or products ought, if possible, to give something worthwhile for free.

The problems arise when people become unwilling to pay for the quality that a true professional provides. It would be good, in a way, to wish that one could provide a free, quality service for the good of music students on a simply altruistic basis, but in a society where professionals need to earn a living this is not only impractical but also unethical. It is generally true, as the saying goes, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

At E-MusicMaestro we provide free Youtube videos to help students and teachers with the basics of keeping up accurate piano practice of repertoire pieces and exam pieces in between lessons. Our main internet business, aside from our individual teaching and examining work, is providing online music education resources such as Aural Test Training online, which teaches as well as tests aural perception and helps to prepare students for taking ABRSM and Trinity practical exams. We give a few free examples for those students who already have highly developed aural skills to run through the format of the tests and for potential subscribers to try out the resource. We charge for full subscriptions to our resource because we are professional musicians and because the creation of resources is massively expensive, not least in terms of time. We do need to earn a living!

What goes into creating a professional internet music resource? Here’s a brief summary of what was involved in creating Aural Test Training:

  • Decide on the format, according to what we want to teach and test online
  • Brief our web developer, who comes up with a design
  • Talk through and refine the design
  • Write wording of examples
  • Write The E-MusicMaestro Guide to Aural Tests
  • Buy use of copyrighted artwork for the web pages
  • Pay our web developer for the initial creation of the structure
  • Create examples that are similar, but not identical to, typical exam-type questions
  • Compose music for the examples and spend hours sourcing out-of-copyright examples
  • Have the piano tuned (again!)
  • Record the examples on our conservatoire model grand piano
  • Hire professional singers for the sung tests
  • Record the vocal examples
  • Edit, master, produce the recordings
  • Produce high definition videos that are annotated to help with the learning process
  • Load videos to video hosting company (and pay fees)
  • Load files to the content management system of our own website
  • Create soundfiles that help with learning
  • Set hundreds of questions and answers
  • Have everything checked independently to ensure accuracy and quality assurance
  • Back to our web developer for setting up the payment system – hours of work again – and payment
  • Test the system before going ‘live’
  • Consult with lawyer on various business-related issues
  • Put high level security measures in place to protect our copyright
  • Put the system ‘live’ – at last!
  • Respond personally, every day, to every enquiry from subscribers
  • Pay for costs such as web server and site maintenance
  • Liaise with examining boards to keep them informed of our latest developments
  • Advertising costs
  • Social media management
  • Continue development, monitor use of our resources
  • Onwards and upwards to Grades 6 – 8 Trinity aural …

How many hours does this take? How much does it cost? It’s infinite and it’s partly a labour of love … of music and of those who play and sing.

E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training


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The Grade Music Exam Syllabus: easy guide by E-MusicMaestro for parents and first-time candidates

© Copyright 2006 Corbis Corporation

The grade music exam syllabus is written principally for teachers who are preparing candidates for music exams. The terms therefore tend to be specialised and are not always clear to non-musician parents and first-time candidates. This guide is an attempt to explain, in non-technical terms in as far as possible, what is examined and how it is marked.


So first, some definitions …

Piecea piece of music or a song, of difficulty appropriate to the grade

Scales – technical exercises consisting of groups of notes, pitched step by step

Arpeggios – technical exercises made up of just the most ‘important’ notes of the scale

Sight reading – playing music not seen before, after a short time to prepare

Improvisation – making music up – a few notes are given and the candidate has to make up the next notes to produce a complete phrase of music

Technical exercise – a piece specially designed to require technical skills appropriate to a particular instrument or voice

Musical Knowledge questions – questions related to the pieces played, such as naming a note in the score or giving the meaning of a musical term

Aural tests – listening tests that show musical memory and perception


  • notice changes in loud or quiet, fast or slow in a tune played by the examiner
  • sing back a short tune just played by the examiner
  • spot the difference when a tune is played with an altered note

Intonation – whether or not the notes are played or sung in tune (this obviously cannot apply to the piano or organ)

Musical detail – aspects such as loud and quiet playing, pace changes and playing the notes smoothly or not, using the pedal for pianists, as required by the style and character of the music.

Style – relates to the era when the music was composed and to the conventional way of interpreting music from that period in history.

Character – the mood of the music, created by a combination of many aspects, including the notes used in the tune and also the way the music is played.



Next, some information on the exam and the syllabus …

Examining boards

The major examining boards for graded music exams, operating worldwide but particularly in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand are Trinity College London and ABRSM.

How long does a music exam take?Who takes music exams?

Grade music exams take between ten and thirty minutes, depending on the grade.

Who takes music exams? 

 There is no age limit – anyone is eligible to take a music exam.

© Copyright 2008 Corbis Corporation © Copyright 2005 Corbis Corporation

How is a music exam marked?

The examiner writes a report form during the actual exam. The report form summarises strengths and weaknesses in the way the music was performed. Examiners do not offer advice to the candidate about how to play or practise, nor do they advise teachers on the best way to teach. The report forms and certificates are then sent to the person who entered the candidate, usually the teacher.

What criteria are used?

The criteria for achieving a pass in a music exam are based on general musical elements and principles and therefore they are broadly similar for each examining board.

Because general criteria are used, examiners do not need to be experts in playing every instrument, but they do know how each instrument should sound when played well.

The criteria used by an examining board are freely available to the public, in the printed syllabus and on the website for each examining board.

Marks are awarded depending on to what extent the candidate’s performance matches up to the best standards of achievement possible in that exam.

Trinity exams have a maximum mark of 100: Pass 60, Merit 75, Distinction 87.

ABRSM exams carry a maximum mark of 150: Pass 100, Merit 120, Distinction 130.

Pieces carry more marks, relatively, than other skills in music exams. Each piece is marked separately, rather than a global mark being given for the overall standard of the three pieces.

Do all music exam boards examine the same things?

The major music exam boards ask for three pieces or songs but there are some differences between Trinity and ABRSM in the supporting tests.


Trinity grade music exams compared with ABRSM music exams

Trinity skills examined

Trinity Initial Grade – Grade 5

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios plus three technical exercises

Any two of these – Sight reading

Aural tests


Musical knowledge questions

Trinity Grades 6 – 8

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios plus three technical exercises

Sight reading

One of these – Improvisation

Aural tests

Trinity marking criteria

  • Notational Accuracy & Fluency (7 marks): getting the notes and rhythms right and playing without hesitations or stumbles
  • Technical Facility (7 marks): ability to create a good sound and to control the instrument or voice – aspects such as playing with varied articulation (eg legato and staccato) and pedalling for piano
  • Communication & Interpretation (8 marks): playing or singing in a manner that is and engaging for the listener and suitable for the style and character of the music

ABRSM Grades 1 – 8

ABRSM skills examined:

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios in selected keys for each grade (singers instead perform a traditional, unaccompanied song)

Sight reading

Aural tests

ABRSM marking criteria:

  • Pitch: correct notes for all instruments and voice, with correct intonation – ie playing or singing in tune
  • Time: correct rhythms, suitable speed / pace changes and fluent playing
  • Tone: consistently well controlled sound – clear and pleasant to listen to
  • Shape: musical detail eg gradual increase or decrease in loudness that goes with the musical phrases, or variations in loud and quiet
  • Performance: playing or singing in a manner that is and engaging for the listener and suitable for the style and character of the music


General advice for supporting tests

Scales and arpeggios should be:

  • accurate in notes and correctly pitched in intonation
  • fluent and rhythmical
  • musically played with a confident sound

Sight reading should be:

  • fluent and accurate
  • musically played, with appropriate detail
  • confident sounding

Aural tests should show:

  • accurate answers
  • perceptive listening
  • confident replies to questions

Improvisations should show:

  • appropriate development of the fragment of music given as a stimulus
  • fluency
  • confidence


How to do well in a music exam

The best advice is to prepare thoroughly in every aspect to be examined.

Pieces are, of course, the most enjoyable part of the exam preparation but those candidates who neglect to practise scales and arpeggios, who are not competent sight readers or who have not practised developing their aural skills or improvisation skills will lose marks.


Help with preparing for a grade music exam

Develop music aural skills with E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training:


Video demonstration and advice – ABRSM grade exam piano pieces:


Video demonstration – piano syllabus pieces, Trinity and ABRSM 2015-16,as from August 2014

Practise ABRSM piano scales, grades 1 – 5 with Scalebox:

Pre-exam online video assessment – a new service from E-MusicMaestro, offering expert, specific advice as well as an assessment of your playing. All instruments and voice.

For details and booking:

Please use email title, Performance Assessment.


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Good instrumental teaching


What is good teaching?

Whether you are beginning as a teacher, getting back into teaching after a break or just reviewing your practice, I’d like to share with you a few points that I try to bear in mind myself, as a piano teacher. We all have a preferred and individual teaching style, but these are some reminders that I give myself from time to time.

Good teaching has a clear focus, with definite goals based on musical principles. Good teaching results in good learning. Teaching should build on current understanding and promote future progression. Good teaching ought to be enjoyable for the teacher as well as for the pupil and if I am not particularly enjoying the lesson I ask myself why and aim to do something about it!

Once a student has played for me I like to think of something genuinely positive to say and then to discuss potential improvements to that piece or to the student’s technique in relation to any particular technical or interpretative demands.

What we teach

What we teach is best formulated according to agreed, conscious learning objectives for a particular student, whilst being sufficiently flexible to respond to the needs of the student in any particular lesson. Both short-term and long-term goals should be set for each student, for instance this lesson’s objective may be to teach the student how best to practise legato pedalling, whereas the long-term goal might be to pedal a Schumann piece well enough to pass the Grade 5 examination in six months’ time.

Be adaptable – if a pupil comes along with an idea for making up some music, this can be a powerful motivating tool and the other plans for the lesson may be incorporated later. A student who is involved in setting their own learning targets will be more engaged with the learning process but of course we have to guide students as to how they might improve their playing.

How we teach

Different students have preferred learning styles and it is helpful to know what these are so that we can both teach that student most effectively. The most relevant preferred learning styles for the pianist are:

(i) Kinaesthetic – these students will prefer to learn by ‘finger memory’ of melodic and chord shapes and they will probably be good at this way of memorisation

(ii) Visual – these students will prefer to learn by looking at the shapes that the music makes on the keys and they will probably be good sight readers

(iii) Aural – these students will prefer to learn by remembering how the music sounded. They may like to learn by rote more than by reading music and they will probably be good at memorising

(iv) Combination learners – these students will be able to draw on a range of learning styles.

Being a creative teacher

I like to begin teaching a piece by focusing on an aspect of it in a way that resonates with the individual student’s preferred learning style.

I know that, when beginning Satie’s Gymnopedie III, consistently using the Left Hand finger pattern 5-3-1 for root position chords (like A-C-E) and first inversion chords (like C-E-A), but using fingers 5-2-1 for second inversion chords (like A-D-F), can be of enormous help in achieving accuracy but the way I put this across will vary depending on the student.

Visual learners will be guided by how the patterns look on the keys compared with the notes in the score and kinaesthetic learners will become able to relate the feel of the hand position to the chord sequence to be memorised. Instead of telling my students about the fingering patterns, I may try asking them to devise a method or remembering the different chord shapes by choosing helpful fingering.

Aural learners will benefit most from remembering the sound of the chords. It is a useful and highly relevant exercise in aural development to encourage the student to hear whether the root (the A in chord A minor) is at the bottom, in the middle or at the top of the chord. Hearing this detail provides a quick accuracy check.

I think we should also develop students’ learning capacity in the ways that do not come to them so readily. If we know a student is probably going to learn pieces more by rote than by reading the notation, we could be positive about that student’s memorising abilities, whilst also encouraging better music reading by regularly providing easier sight reading opportunities. Nurture independence by showing students how to learn and practise effectively.

We can think of ways to engage those students who prefer playing by ear to reading from the dots. Playing the chord sequence of the Satie piece while improvising a melody with the other hand could be an enjoyable way of capturing the mood of the music, whilst memorising the chords. You could begin by doing this as a duet with the student, taking it in turns to improvise.


The means of assessing whether or not we have achieved our objectives must be clear to us, for instance we will know if we have really succeeded in teaching the correct time value of dotted rhythms in a Kabalevsky piece if the student plays accurately in the next lesson. If not, we may want to think of a different way of teaching rhythm in that piece.

The best way of judging whether we are helping a student to achieve long term aims may be through examination results but, if that path is not chosen, taking time to discuss the term’s achievement with the student may be a useful guide to how they feel about their playing and also helpful in formulating aims for future lessons.

Advice and resources for piano teachers and students:

Additional help for your teaching – 

Aural Test Training for music students:

E-MusicMaestro videos of piano pieces Grade 1 – 5:

Look out for more piano pieces on our new Youtube Channel as from August 2014:

 © Sandy Holland

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June 6, 2014 · 1:59 pm

An approach to performance anxiety

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” ~ Cicero

Playing Piano

So much has been written on the subject of performance anxiety that there seemed little to add to the wise words of Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey on awareness, trust and skill in The Inner Game of Music.

Certainly, I was greatly influenced by this bookwhen I read it a number of years ago. The approach I normally take with my own students, most of whom take Advanced Level performance examinations, is two-fold. Firstly I provide weekly performance opportunities at a lunchtime Piano Club, so that playing for an audience becomes routine and loses its power to frighten them. Secondly I ask them literally to talk themselves into being calm, focused and confident by repeating positive affirmations, aloud, to themselves when they are relaxed, for instance before bedtime and when they wake up.

The most effective statements seem to be:

When I play I think only of the music

When I perform I play fluently and musically

The examiner enjoys hearing my playing

When I perform I feel excited, calm,  focused and happy.

The affirmations must be placed in the present tense, not in the future, so it is not advisable to say, ‘When I give my recital I will play fluently’,  but better to say, ‘In recitals I play fluently’.

Recently, however, I read an interesting post by Daniel Miller on the Tiny Buddha website* about how gratitude can calm your nerves and make you more effective and I’m thinking that this could be added to my pre-recital support programme.  Gratitude has many benefits, including the capacityto promote happiness, health, self-esteem, as well as improving relationships and sleep patterns.

Thinking grateful thoughts could be helpful in taking the emphasis away from the importance of ‘Me’ in the recital and putting the focus where it belongs, on the music itself. Helpful statements could be along the lines of

I’m grateful that …

I am able to play this wonderful music

I am doing something I love to do as part of my education

I have this opportunity to play for a fellow musician who wants me to do well

I am privileged to play on a good, grand piano.

Gratitude can shift our focus from negative to positive thinking;  it can give us a more balanced perspective on the situation – if I make a slip I can keep going because I am well prepared;  it can allow us to stay in the ‘now’ moment rather than dwell on the outcome; it can take the place of fear.


*Tiny Buddha


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