Is ignoring a problem a valid response?

Well, it’s that time of the year again…. By the end of the week, I will have accompanied over sixty exams in the last 6 days.  Part of the wonderful variety of my job means that I accompany from Preliminary to Grade 8 examinations, accompanying many different instruments – violin, cello, flute, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, euphonium are on the agenda this week.

Once again I am filled with wonder at the level of preparation (and lack thereof ) which I encounter during the rehearsal period.

This time, I am seeing one thing over and over again.  I am not sure if I haven’t noticed it before, but it seems to be particularly prevalent at the moment.

Last week I was rehearsing in my studio with 2 brothers while their mother observed.

At the end of one piece, I said to the elder brother, “That song is mostly ok; you just need to work on the bad bits.  You can’t just pretend they don’t exist.”

His mother laughed uproariously.  “That’s exactly what he does – I’ve just never heard it said so succinctly before!”


Over my years of teaching, I have noticed this aspect of human nature: if we are good at something, we tend to do it more, since it makes us feel good about ourselves.  If we are not good at something, we can tend to avoid it (this is how I feel about golf) because our ineptitude makes us feel bad about ourselves.

Time and again, I find myself teaching discipline and hard work in addition to music.

Two weeks ago, I again had 2 brothers and their mother in my studio.  The younger boy was struggling with a particular part of his violin piece.  I got him to do it correctly once, then again, then again.  We spent maybe 5 minutes on 4 bars, but by the end of this short time, his face had brightened, and he didn’t hate the piece so much anymore.

And yesterday, teaching one of my own students, she admitted that she had not really practised one of her pieces over the last week.  The exam is less than 2 weeks away, but she was ignoring one-third of her programme, because it was all too overwhelming.


What is my advice?


Facing a problem head-on will actually diminish it.

In fact, like many of the things we procrastinate about, often when we face it, it becomes much less of a problem than we anticipated.

Sure, there may still be some hard work ahead of us, but isn’t it better to just start?  Then break into bite-size pieces: 1 bar, or 1 phrase, then slowly piece it together.

It can be done, but it must be faced and attempted, and the satisfaction that comes with completing the task is the satisfaction of doing something well, and eventually succeeding.

How long to practise?

It is so important to be clear to students about one’s practice expectations.

The problem is, that these can and do change.

Most of my students remember hearing me tell them to practise five or ten minutes daily.  This is indeed what I say, when they are beginners!

The problem occurs two, three or five years later, when the student believes that this is still true.

Unfortunately, with increasing skill and level of difficulty, comes increasing practice commitment.  The teacher expects it, and only sometimes remembers to communicate it to the student.

Even last week, when I was reiterating the need for more practice to a student, he still only heard what he wanted to hear.  I said “twenty to thirty minutes” and he told his mother that I said “twenty minutes”.

So what is reasonable, and what is practical?

It is difficult to say in these busy times, when students probably learn at least two instruments, have several sporting commitments, and also have the lure of the internet, X-box and TV.

I have students attempting higher grades who cannot manage much more than half an hour’s practice most days.  In the olden days when I was learning, this was a laughable amount.  I got up at 5:30am every day of my life, aged 11 to 18, and did at least an hour’s practice before breakfast.  When preparing for exams, the amount increased to anything from four to eight hours.

So I am finding again and again, that I must educate my students both in music, and in how to acquire music.  And the acquisition of musical skills and mastery does not happen without considerable time and effort.

But in so many ways, my discipline to music training has had a flow on effect in my life and taught me so much about perseverance, commitment and work.  I really do believe that anything worthwhile requires effort, and it is part of my job to share this outlook with my students, and to endeavour to inspire this in them.

Exams: pros and cons

This week marks an exciting time for Stellar Music School, when members of two classes will be sitting for their first AMEB piano exams.  Most of these children began with the school, and have now reached the Preliminary level.

We specialise in classes at Stellar Music School, as we feel that music should be a shared experience, quite apart from the healthy competition which can be a great motivator in inducing practice!

Exams are not compulsory at our school.  I love it when parents agree that no formal goals are necessary; and that their children should learn for pleasure.  A weakness of the exam system and the unmotivated student can however mean that a student only learns three pieces a year.  This can prove quite soul-destroying for the passionate teacher!

However, I must comment on the fact that my exam students have achieved more than I would have thought possible in the last few weeks!  Their pieces have been fine-tuned to a higher than usual degree.

It remains to be seen how we all perform next Saturday, but already I am extremely proud of these students and their achievement!