More basics

It is the beginning of Term 2, and fortunately the two week holiday has not seemed to break our momentum too much.

However, a few reminders about effective practice are always timely.

  • While it is good to play songs through completely, this should not be the only way you practise.
  • If you make a mistake, make a note of it and come back to work on it.
  • Play the tricky bit 5 – 10 times until it is correct, then a few times to check that it stays correct.
  • In this repetitive practice time, speed is not at all important.  Slow down so that you can get it right.
  • Gradually increase the speed every few repetitions.
  • When you have played the section correctly a few times, try incorporating it smoothly back into the piece.
  • You may need to practise the transitions slowly to make sure they are smooth.

This kind of sensible and disciplined practice will always be more fruitful than playing once through your pieces and ignoring all the mistakes.

If there are consistently many mistakes, or places where you have to stop and correct yourself, you are probably trying to play too fast, or maybe you should even go back to playing hands separately.

Well done for aiming for excellence!  Disciplined application will always lead to success, and is the means by which a  more musical performance will be the result.

Above and beyond


I was an extremely literal child, so it shouldn’t surprise me when my students are the same.

When I ask them to try playing the first line hands together, that is generally exactly what they do.

When I write in their homework books “Practise the first page hands separately”, that is usually what they do, even when the first page ends abruptly in the middle of a phrase.  (In fact, “Practise the first page hands separately” to a child generally seems to mean only do the right hand because it is easier!)

Over the last few weeks, a handful of students have seen how a little extra application can result in an extremely happy teacher!  (Congratulations, Sophie, Adam, John, Margie and any other students who come in and practise with headphones on while they are waiting for their lesson.)

Of course the children who follow my instructions to the letter are completely correct, but how I appreciate it when a student wants to excel.

I have outlawed the shrug in my studio, along with the word ‘whatever’, as I try to teach that near enough is not good enough!

Of course I am not imposing an unrealistic ideal of perfection upon my students, but paying attention to notation and observing the correct rhythm is not optional in music.  The composer used the language of music to notate their exact wishes, and it is up to us teachers to teach the meanings and to encourage students to respect the authority of the score.

So again I congratulate my students who are respectful of the music, and approach their studies with enthusiasm and care, and who do more preparation than I specifically asked.

Surely this will also help in life, as excellent preparation and effort bring success and a higher level of achievement than just trying to scrape by with the bare minimum.

Find your passion!

I have just returned from a volunteering trip to Ghana.

I went to share my skills and passion by helping to teach in a music school in the city of Takoradi.


What did I find there?

I found students who shared my passion for music, and who deeply valued the opportunity for music training.

I found students who might not have their own instruments, so who came into the school several times a week for lessons, and who then stayed for hours to continue practising.

I found single-minded purpose which kept them at their tasks and ensured success.

Most keyboard students were learning with the aim to be able to play organ for church services.  One student I taught had been learning for only two weeks when I arrived, and when I left two weeks later, was already playing simple hymn tunes hands separately.

To me this was amazing.  Hymn tunes are in four parts and can be a challenge to a beginner, but as this was his goal, the student was working towards it with no hesitation.

How can I translate this experience for our use in Sydney?

I guess what we can take from this is to have some purpose, some reason, and some goal, which will keep us motivated and working towards a particular achievement.  This could be an exam, a concert, or something as simple as being able to play our favourite film music successfully.

I encourage all of my students to appreciate what opportunity they have at their fingertips, and put to good use the times they spend in their lessons, and the private practice times that they need to carve out in order to excellently achieve their goals.

I hope that with my help they can find a goal, a genre, a piece that will excite them enough to focus on the end product and push through the work necessary to achieve this final result!


Over the past few weeks, I have accompanied students for over a dozen HSC music exams, and over forty AMEB instrumental examinations.

As a piano student, I never knew of accompanists or their roles in exams, as my examinations were a solitary affair.
For all other exams though, the student needs accompaniment for several of their pieces, to show that they can play in ensemble, and to more correctly represent the solo with harmonic accompaniment.

When I sat for my 7th Grade piano exam, the examiner actually wrote in my report that I could be a good accompanist.  For years I took this as an insult (along the lines of ‘Those who can’t, teach‘), but now I actually work as an accompanist, a role which I love, and realise that it is a skill which is highly specialised and extremely challenging.

What makes it difficult?
Well, the unexpected is quite stressful!  Students are prone to memory lapses when nervous, and I have had children leave out anything from a few notes to a few pages.
Physical logistics often increase the degree of difficulty, when the student or choir is behind me, or on another floor!  (I have played in churches where the choir is behind me a full storey below, and the closed-circuit TV is not functioning, which makes using my ears and wits all the more important.)

What have I learnt about performing and what pointers can I share?

Enjoy!                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Exams can be extremely stressful, particularly when students are putting themselves under undue pressure to succeed.  After months or years of preparation, there is no more to be done on the day than a last practice, then to try to enjoy the exam, as nothing else can now be changed.

Be in the moment.
If you do make a mistake during the exam (or concert), move on.  Don’t spend the rest of the time punishing yourself or thinking about it, or things could quite easily spiral into more mistakes and memory lapses.  Performance is very much a mental game (why else do elite athletes now come with their own psychologists?) and like sport, can be won or lost in the mind.

Focus on the good.
Once it’s over, nothing can be changed.  Of course it’s helpful to know where improvements might be made, but to obsess over one wrong scale or one missed sharp is to lose sight of the big picture – a lot more went right than went wrong.

Learn what you can change.                                   
What is in your power to change for next time?  Nerves will probably always be a slight factor, but students can practise in performance settings.  If not enough practice was done and the mark reflected this, then do more practice next time!  Try to embrace the experience and celebrate the successes.  A B+ grade is not a fail.  Be proud of your achievements.

I am preaching to myself here too.  Many times I have lost sleep the night after a recital, as I am so angry at myself and disappointed about one mistake.  I have had to learn how to put this in perspective and to remind myself that the mistake maybe took one second in a one hour concert.  This is hardly a failure.

Music is to be enjoyed.  Sure, exams are helpful to provide markers and motivation to succeed and progress, but they should never completely overtake the enjoyment of learning for its own sake.