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Must we perform?

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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

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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   https://www.youtube.com/user/EMusicMaestroChannel

Aural Test Training     http://e-musicmaestro.com/auraltests/

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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 www.e-musicmaestro.com/auraltests

E-MusicMaestro Grades 1 – 5 ABRSM and Trinity piano exam piece videos with tips on interpretation and demonstration of good technique at http://www.youtube.com/user/EMusicMaestroChannel

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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: http://blog.oup.com/2014/11/music-teacher-presence-facebook/#sthash.s9apELDQ.dpuf)

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

MontythePenguin

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