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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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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

E-MusicMaestro Summer Music Course for Singapore Students – Course leaders Peter Noke and Sandy Holland

Singapore course small copy

The first E-MusicMaestro Summer Music Course for students from Singapore was held this year at Duvale Priory in Devon, UK.

Fourteen music students of mixed ages, accompanied by their teacher, Elizabeth Lim Seok Wah and by several parents, travelled to England to take part in this course. The party was met by Peter, who accompanied them on a visit to the Roman baths in the historic town of Bath and of ancient, awe-inspiring Stonehenge. There was a memorable tour of Wells Cathedral School, where a special concert had been organised, after which there was time to experience evensong at Wells Cathedral.

The music course consisted of three activity-packed days with course leaders, Peter and Sandy and guest tutors, drummer Andy Gleadhill and Richard Michael, professor of jazz at St Andrew’s University. Parents were invited to go on a further sightseeing tour and shopping trip to Dulverton and then Exeter, to relax in the sunshine in the tranquil surroundings of Duvale Priory or to join in with the music course.

The approach to learning was active and creative, with all sorts of musical instruments available in addition to the pianos. The warm-up activities were energizing and students learned in an engaging way about the different eras of music, after which there were closely matched team quizzes. Creative music was very much emphasised, with a whole range of composing and improvising activities provided, encompassing a wider spectrum of artistic activity that also included movement and painting.

The drumming session led by Andy Gleadhill provoked an excited response, since African Drumming was new to the students. The approach was absolutely hands-on, with a drum for everyone and progression through easy techniques through to more challenging cross-rhythms – a great success!

Richard Michael was already known and loved by many of the students, having previously led an E-MusicMaestro jazz course in Singapore. As ever, his inimitable style and irrepressible enthusiasm for jazz were inspirational.

The course took place in the lovely functions barn just a few metres away from our accommodation. All students received tuition from Peter or Sandy in duet playing and there were opportunities for performing, with a concert on the first evening for duets and for the day’s group compositions.

There was a students’ cricket match in the safe, enclosed garden overlooked by Duvale Barn, our home for the duration of the course. One parent went fishing in the private lake and had his catch cooked for dinner that evening. Even the course dog, Couber had a great time paddling in the shallow River Exe and running through the long grass! Duvale Priory owner, Rosena provided delicious meals and there was a games room with snooker table for anyone who had time to play in between course sessions, piano practice and eating.

The course culminated in a wonderful, final concert that involved every student in a performance of words, mime and music, devised by Elizabeth and her students. We were able to sit back, relax and enjoy the music before handing out certificates to the participating students, who gave us gifts and cards of appreciation.

Many thanks to Elizabeth for giving us the opportunity to work with her lovely students.

A few of the many appreciative feedback comments from parents and participants:

“Thank you for putting in so much time and effort to make the workshop a wonderful and successful one.”
~ Tricia and Gracia’s mum

“Your passion for music is amazing and truly inspiring. I’m glad my kids have come on board this journey! Thanks!”
“My girls had an enriching and great time.”
~ Mrs Loke

“Your lessons were really ‘our-of-the-box’ and your approach to teaching was really interesting. Thank you for your invaluable lessons”
~ Terence

“I really enjoyed your lessons and found them to be incredibly enriching! Thanks!”

“Thank you for making the lessons and games fun! I enjoy it very much!”
~ Tricia

“Thank you for teaching us. I love your lessons very much!”
~ Gracia

For enquiries about bespoke E-MusicMaestro courses for music students and professional development opportunities for piano teachers please contact Sandy Holland at:

Aural Test Training suitable for ABRSM examinations at:

How to teach and play piano – better !

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Aural Test Training for ABRSM exams

Our new E-MusicMaestro Grade 6-8 Aural Test Training programme is now online, in addition to Grades 1-5,  and we have a new video to celebrate!

√ Grades 6 – 8 Aural Test Training gives practice possibilities for all tests in both treble and bass registers along (where sung), with help files for most tests.

√ E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training is the only web-based resource where you can experience a wealth of practice materials professionally recorded using an acoustic piano, with ‘live’ singing responses.

√ The practice materials are expertly designed to promote not only better aural test results but also to help music students to become more accomplished musicians in the process.

√ Access these materials at home on your desktop or laptop computer or on the go, via your iPad, or iPhone or Android.

√ A monthly subscription of just £2.99 gives access not just to one grade, but to all grades 1 – 5 so you can begin a grade lower and build up your aural skills.

√ £4.99 per month accesses all grades 6 – 8 for as long or short a period as required. This price structure offers incomparable value for money along with great flexibility of use.

√ It’s easy to subscribe for small monthly payment, made via the safest possible, online system in which credit card details are securely encrypted so that they are never visible. For your security we are fully PCI compliant.

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