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On Teaching

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

National Autistic Society Autism Friendly Award logo

I am particularly proud to have recently been awarded the Autism Friendly Award by the National Autistic Society, in recognition of the “exceptionally high level” of autism friendly provision I provide for my piano students.

I was the first piano teacher to receive this Award and, at the time of writing, am the only piano teacher in Wales to hold it.

You can read more about how I teach autistic students on my Autism Disability and Accessibility here and on my blog post here.

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light brown bunny sitting in black top hat

A recent lesson with a young beginner got me thinking about something that has fascinated me for many years: the art of illusion.

Is it our job, as musicians, to simply create something, whether that’s a story, an emotion, a landscape, or a dramatic effect, or is it our job to also be magicians, to create illusions, even to cheat?

Alfred Brendel has talked extensively about the ability of the piano as an illusionist, because of its immense range and its capabilities in terms of timbres and sonorities. Do you want your music to sound like a choir? With the right combination of imagination and technical understanding of the instrument, the piano can do this. Do you want your music to sound like a voice, accompanied by a harp? In the right hands, the piano can do this too.

It never fails to amaze me of the capabilities, not only of the instrument, but of my often very young students, to grasp the concept of the piano as not simply being a ‘piano’, but of being far more than simply the sum of its parts. I have a wonderful enduring memory of a teenage student who was working through a Mozart sonata (forgive me, I forget which one, I’m terrible at these things...) who ‘orchestrated’ the entire piece, not only in his head, but managed to somehow emulate the different timbres of the instruments through the touch he was using. It gave his performance an extraordinary and rather beautiful (and possibly unique) interpretation, and yet, everything he did was a trick of the mind, to get his listener to believe it was a clarinet here, strings there, a solo flute there, and BOOM! there is the Tutti.

Daniel Barenboim has talked, both in his publicly available recorded masterclasses, and his book Everything is Connected, of the art of creating an illusion of a crescendo on a single note at the piano – a musical concept that is technically impossible as the piano string, once struck, can only ever decay. But what a pianist does with the notes surrounding that single note can make a listener believe that the note in question is, indeed, getting louder.

And so we return to my young beginner from earlier this week. We were doing nothing as complex as orchestrating a Mozart sonata or attempting to create a mind-bending illusion of a crescending (if that is even a word) single note. No, my student was struggling with a marked crescendo that was only of a single bar in length, but needed to travel from a piano to a forte for the full dramatic effect. She couldn’t quite manage to get every right hand quaver along the route louder than the last. Or even most of the quavers louder than the last. So I suggested we cheat a bit, and use the left hand, which only had 2 accompanying notes. What if she were to only get louder using those two notes, would that make the music sound like it was actually getting louder much more gradually? Could she be like the magicians that Brendel and Barenboim were talking about? Well, she tried it, and after a couple of runs through, go the hang of it, and the effect was magnificent. She created an illusion of a gradual crescendo.

But here’s the real kicker.

In learning this little snippet of magic, after a few more attempts, my student inadvertently managed to actually create a true gradual crescendo. Sometimes, when we turn our focus to something attainable, and something a little (if you’ll excuse the cliché) outside of the box, a different sort of magic happens, and we manage what we originally thought we couldn’t do.

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dumbo the elephant sitting on the floor with his ears out wide
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The ABRSM have just announced they are in the process of revamping their piano scales and arpeggio syllabus. The biggest change is that there are less elements required at each grade, which is particularly striking at grades 5-8, where currently candidates need to be able to play all keys at grade 5, with the inclusion of both types of minor scales at grade 6.

This current scale syllabus creates a challenge for any student in terms of practice load at grade 5 and above, but beyond that, there is something fundamental that the ABRSM have tapped into about the purpose of exams. And that is the validity of the assessment itself.

Assessment Validity

In simple terms, the validity of an assessment is a measure of whether or not (or by how much) the assessment is actually measuring what it set out to measure. An excellent example of this is the still-fairly-recent outcry about the new GCSE English language exams, which require large quantities of set texts to be memorised as the exams changed from being open to closed book. The assessment is supposed to measure a school child’s ability with the English language, but this change meant that it was measuring, for a large part, their memorisation skills. The validity of the GCSE exam was brought into question, and for this reason remains to this day a bone of contention amongst secondary school educators, parents, school children, and the Department of Education.

But how is the new GCSE English language syllabus related to the ABRSM Scales and Arpeggio Syllabus?

The answer is in the question of assessment validity. Is the current scales & arpeggios element of the grade exam system actually measuring what is sets out to measure? And does that change when we look at the new syllabus?

The current syllabus is very key heavy, by which I mean that candidates need to learn a lot of different keys at each grade, far more than other instruments, and far more than other exam boards. I’ve already mentioned that at grade 5, a pianist needs to be able to play all scales and arpeggios in all keys, with the addition of the ‘other minor’ at grade 6. This is an enormous feat of memory for many students, students who are often more than capable of understanding keys, playing scales when not overburdened with too many at once, playing and identifying them inside pieces, playing them with good technique, and playing them when given time to process the tonality of the key asked for. This, however, is not the same as needing to memorise this quantity, retain them, and recall them at speed, without context, and under time-pressure. Grades before grade 4 can also have this effect with many students. This sort of difficulty with memory is not an absolute problem, it is a relative one, and the burden, or load, of scales and arpeggios at lower grades is still high.

The focus on the need for an excellent memory is something which many musicians take for granted. We should be able to recall all scales and arpeggios easily and effortlessly. We should be able to play concertos from memory. We should be able to pick up an instrument and play something. We should, we should, we should, we should….

Should we?

Well, I have a dirty little secret to tell you. I can’t remember key signatures. Nope. Really can’t. I’ve been playing the piano for nearly 40 years, teaching for over 20, I have a music degree, a postgraduate diploma, several teaching qualifications, an Advanced Certificate, and I’ve been performing since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and reading music since almost that young. I use mnemonics to remember the order of the sharps and flats on the page, and a handy little second and third system to remember what they mean, depending on whether they music is in major or minor. I do this very, very, VERY fast, so it looks like I remember it, but I really, really can’t.

I also can’t play much from memory. Stick me in front of a piano with no music and it’s like a wall comes up in front of my brain. Neither can I remember opus numbers, keys of pieces, dates of composers, names of students (sorry!) oh I could go on…

Memory is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Because I tell you what I can do: I can play scales, in every key, really well. I also have students who can do the exact opposite of me. They can remember their pieces like they never even needed the score in the first place, but can they remember more than 4 scales at once?

I digress though.

Validity. What is the current assessment actually testing? Memory. It is testing memory. It is also testing evenness, and balance, and knowledge of keys, and understanding of tonality, but, and I cannot write this in enough boldface, only if the candidate can actually recall the scales well enough for them to be marked appropriately in the first place.

Dumbing Down

Is the answer then to ‘dumb down’ the exam syllabus?

Absolutely not. This is nothing to do with dumbing down. This is, at last, the ABRSM facing the 21st century square on and modernising their syllabus to reflect up to date understanding of human behaviour, research on assessment, and general good exam practice. It is finally accepted that it is no longer good practice to simply test a candidate’s ability to do something by testing their ability to recall something, and this is a good thing, for everybody.

Exams as Curriculum

Will this affect the teaching of scales and arpeggios in general?

I find this highly unlikely. The type of teacher who only teaches scales according to the exam syllabus is, of course, probably going to only teach the new syllabus, which is a sad state of affairs indeed, and something we teachers need to continue addressing.

But even if this were to happen, the current syllabus stops requiring all keys after grade 6, instead opting for a select few keys in various incarnations of thirds and sixths. I have not heard an argument against both the new curriculum and the old one, to the effect that the ABRSM should insist on an all key approach to be continued through from grade 5-8, just in case some teachers stop teaching E major after grade 7 (which I can well imagine some do.)

Scales are Important

Why learn scales anyway?

To save my typing fingers, and because Lisa Devlin, London clarinet teacher, has already written something far better than I could have said, I’ll direct you to this post. Please have a read of it :)

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