In Canada, music teachers are very fortunate to have several exam systems to choose from. Two of these systems include Conservatory Canada and The Royal Conservatory of Music. They both offer many excellent resources for assisting teachers and they both have an accredited examination system which includes all levels of study in many disciplines.
Every seven to ten years, The Royal Conservatory of Music revises their syllabus and teaching materials. The previous revision for the Piano Discipline was in 2008. The changes to the Piano Discipline for 2015 are extensive, exciting and sometimes overwhelming! These changes involve all aspects of the curriculum, including repertoire, technique, ear training and sight reading.
For this blog post, I would like to focus on the new 2015 Royal Conservatory of Music Technical Requirements, comparing the new material to the previous requirements of 2008. Here are some of the main differences between the 2008 and the 2015 Technical Requirements, as listed in the new Royal Conservatory of Music Syllabus:
Across the board, the 2015 technical requirements are more streamlined and easier to understand. Generally, there are less requirements per grade. However, teachers need to study the syllabus very carefully because there are quite a few additions as well.
Previously, one of the hardest thing for students on exams was the confusion of having to do scales hands separately or hands together, one octave, two octaves or three octaves, legato or staccato. Scales, triads or chords were sometimes hands separately two octaves AND hands together one octave. This has now been simplified. For the most part, staccato scales have been removed altogether.
Minor Dominant 7ths have also been removed. They are the same as the major Dominant 7th so it tended to be confusing for students.
Here is a grade by grade comparison (Level A - Grade 10). I have listed some of the main changes in each grade:
Level A - new C+ Triad Sequence, ascending only, solid and broken.
Level B - slight changes to Penta-Scales. Students are now required to do all inversions ascending and descending for broken triads.
Grade 1 - minimal changes. Requirements reduced from 26 to 23. Chromatic scale is now 1 octave instead of tonic to dominant only.
Grade 2 - huge changes. Requirements reduced from 41 to 24, six key signatures instead of eight, no natural minor scales, no contrary motion. However, there is one more formula pattern.
Grade 3 - huge changes. Requirements reduced from 53 to 23, 2 fewer key signatures, no hands separate AND hands together scales. All scales are hands together, 2 octaves except the chromatic scale. All triads are hands separately only, 2 octaves.
Grade 4 - requirements reduced from 54 to 33. Seven key signatures instead of 8, no f#- scale, no cadences required for triads. All triads are now hands together, 2 octaves.
Grade 5 - requirements reduced from 59 to 43, no f#- or c#- scale, formulas have been changed from E Flat+/c- to A+/a-, no diminished 7ths.
Grade 6 - two fewer key signatures, 2 formula patterns instead of 3, no hands separate 4-note chords, arpeggios root position only.
Grade 7 - four fewer key signatures, no b flat-, 2 formula patterns instead of 4, no hands separate 6ths or broken octaves. Cadences are longer.
Grade 8 - four fewer key signatures, no 3-octave staccato scales, formula patterns changed from A+, B+, B flat+, b- to E flat+/e flat-, no octave scales. Cadences are longer.
Grade 9 - six key signatures instead of twelve, no b flat-, g#- or f#- scales, c#- and f- formula patterns instead of b flat- and g#-, no chromatic octaves. More complicated cadences.
Grade 10 - Huge changes. Requirements reduced from 294 to 108. Six key signatures instead of twelve, no formula patterns, no special exercises, Alternate pattern chords only (no regular broken chords). Cadences are more complicated.
I have found in my own teaching that it's so much easier for students to have this material written down on one organized chart. The 2015 scale charts are now available on our website in hard copy or in digital format. Student Technique Organizers are a great resource for both teachers and students.
Here are some of the reasons that my students love using The Student Technique Organizers:
Scale Charts save time. They are super organized, simple and easy-to-use one-page colour-coded guides for each grade.
Charts are also weekly practice guides. All the material for each level is divided into six days.
Students or teachers can write specific information in the boxes i.e. key signature, raised notes, fingering reminders etc.
Technique is a very important part of any piano exam. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post entitled "Terrific Technique Takes Time". In this article, I talked about the Seven Timely Tips for Terrific Technique. These tips have helped me as I have prepared my students for their practical exams and I hope that they will help you as well. Practicing technique every day is like going to the gym for your fingers.
Successful technique requires great Preparation, Perseverance, Patience and Practice.
Have your students take time to prepare their scales, chords and arpeggios well and they will be rewarded with greater technical facility and an increased confidence to do the best that they can on their practical exams.
Spring is in the air and many music students are busy preparing for practical exams.
As the exam approaches, quite a lot of time is spent preparing and memorizing all the required pieces. However, it is VERY important that students also take time to work on their scales, chords and arpeggios. Successful technique requires great perseverance, patience and preparation.
Here are seven teaching tips that have helped my students to do their very best on the technical portion of their exams.
Take Time to Learn Correct Fingering
Fingering matters. Learn the correct scale fingering from the start. Fingering is also essential for fluent triads. Watch the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the middle of the triads.
Say the finger numbers out loud as you play scales hands separately. This will help to reinforce fingering. Learn to play one key correctly before attempting to play the others.
Drill, drill drill. Muscle memory takes time. Playing scales correctly is like learning to ride a bicycle….with enough practice, they eventually become second nature.
Skeleton Scales are a fun way to help students learn fingering and visualize patterns. Play a C+ scale (RH) - 1 on C, 2 and 3 together on D and E, 1 on F, 2, 3 and 4 together on G, A and B, 1 on C and so on up and down the scale. Repeat with the left hand. Once you have mastered C+, try this exercise in different keys.
Take Time to Use The Metronome
The Metronome is your best friend. Play scales with the metronome from the very beginning.
The metronome is also 'The Great Controller'. You must learn to control the notes…..you can’t let the notes control you!
LISTEN carefully and make sure you are not going faster or slower. Try to ‘Catch the Beat’.
Slow practice gives you time to listen and think about arm weight and tone production. The scales need to be played consistently and correctly. Only then can you start to increase the speed.
Remember…..Slow practice is really Fast Practice in Slow Motion.
Take Time to Discover Patterns
Know your key signatures. Watch for and compare Relative Major and Minor scales. Did you know that the descending Melodic Minor scale is the same as it’s Relative Major?
Watch the 4th finger in hands-separate scales. It is almost always played on the same key. The 3rd and 4th fingers generally take turns.
In the hands-together scales with the pattern 123123412312345, the 3rd fingers generally play at the same time.
Identify all of your required scales that have the same patterns and practice them one after the other.
Memorize these three tricky scales separately (f#-, g#- and c#- melodic). Be careful because the pattern changes on the way down.
‘The Student Music Organizer’ has a very handy Comparative Fingering Chart on the back inside cover. This can be colour-coded to show which scales share the same fingering patterns.
For hands-together scales, watch the right hand on the way up and the left hand on the way down.
For scales containing lots of black keys, watch black and white keys for patterns. i.e. G flat+ - play the white keys closes to the 3-black keys. D flat+ - play the upper white key each time. B+ - play the lower white key each time.
I call d- and g- harmonic the ‘Grand Canyon’ scales. You have to jump from black key to black key across the canyon (2 white keys). The f#- harmonic scale has a white-white canyon!
Dominant and Diminished 7ths also have patterns with the white and black keys.
When arpeggios start on black keys, the thumb generally comes on the first white key (unless the notes are all black).
Take Time to Practice Technique All Year Long
Technique will not cram well…..practicing all year long builds confidence and finger strength.
All technique should be up to grade speed before applying for an exam.
Challenge yourself - strive to have your technique at the speed of the next grade.
Scale Charts save time. You can tell at a glance what’s hands-separate, what’s hands-together, what’s one octave or what’s 2 octaves. The major keys are in upper case and the minor keys are in lower case.
The Scale Charts are colour-coded and easy-to-read: green for hands-separately, white for hands together. Diminished 7th are also colour-coded. There are only 3 of them…the rest are inversions of the originals.
Scales are listed on the top of the chart, chords in the middle and arpeggios at the bottom.
The charts are also Weekly Practice Guides. (divided into six days)
You can write specific information in the boxes i.e. key signature, raised notes, fingering etc.
On-Line digital Scale Charts or regular charts will be available shortly for the new 2015 requirements.
Take Time to Plan Your Exam
Start your exam with technique. This helps to warm up your fingers. It also lets you get a feel for the piano and the arm weight required to produce the sound that you want AND it gives you time to relax and feel comfortable in the room before playing memorized pieces. When you start with your technique, you are telling the examiner that you are well prepared….go ahead, ask me f#- melodic….I CAN DO IT!!
In your exam, mentally prepare to play each scale, chord or arpeggio. Pre-think the patterns and where you are going before you start.
Listen carefully to what the examiner has asked for…then repeat it over in your mind. Is it right hand or left hand, Harmonic or Melodic, legato or staccato? Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the request.
Successful exams require strong technique and strong technique takes time. Work on your technique all year long, not just before an exam. Practicing technique every day is like going to the gym for your fingers.
Take time to prepare and you will be rewarded with a greater technical facility and you will have the confidence you need to do your very best on your exam.
Exams…the very thought can strike fear into the hearts of many a student! But they can also be an important part of the musical journey. Successful exam preparation is a HUGE part of what we do as teachers. I often say that passing an exam is like opening a musical door. As a student completes an exam, he passes through that door and enters a whole new level of music.
There are many wonderful Conservatory systems offering graded exams for students. I use the Royal Conservatory of Music Examination (RCM) for my students. It’s a great way for them to logically and systematically pass through the various levels. This past year, 9 of my students completed their piano exams, ranging from Grade 1 to 8. All marks were 84% or higher. Several were 90% or higher including two Grade 7's with 92%. My Grade 8 played his exam just 2 weeks ago. He received 91%!
I would like to share with you some ideas that have helped me prepare my students for exams.
(Note....I'm giving away FREE mock exam charts at the end of this blog post).
KEY #1 BE READY
Are You Prepared for the Next Level?
Moving too quickly through early grades can lead to discouragement later on.
Students need to have the technical facility and sight reading skills before they start taking exams. This can take two to three years for a beginner.
Each student is different. Sometimes it's good to do a junior exam so that students become familiar with the process. Other times, it's better to wait until they are older and more mature. Some students need a certain grade for a school credit.
Exams are not for everyone. Some students enjoy doing recitals or master classes. Others prefer competitions. The most important thing is that they learn to love music. Find out what they like. Encourage them to do lots of different styles of music, including duets and trios.
KEY #2 GIVE IT TIME
Long-term Planning is Critical
Once a student is ready, it can takes 6-8 months to prepare for a junior exam (Pre Gd 1 - Grd 3). Intermediate exams may take an entire year. Senior exams usually take longer.
All of this depends on how hard they work, how quickly they learn and how busy they are with family, school and other activities.
Last-minute preparation leads to frustration for both the student and the teacher.
An effective learning technique that I use is....have students learn and memorize their exam pieces early in the year, put them away for a time and don't play them, then bring them back and perfect them.
Have them play other pieces at the same time. That way, they don't get tired of their exam pieces.
Technique, Sight Reading and Ear Training are worth over 30 marks on an RCM exam AND they can't be crammed. Work consistently on these areas throughout the year.
KEY #3 PICK PIECES CAREFULLY
Strategic Piece Selection
Try picking pieces that are in the syllabus but not in the current books. Students love to feel that they are doing something unique. It’s also refreshing for an examiner to hear something totally different.
In the RCM system, you can replace one study with a Popular selection OR a ‘Teacher’s Own Choice’ (Grade 3 and up).
Pick pieces that will highlight the student's strengths.
Here are some interesting and varied pieces that my students have chosen recently. All of these pieces work well for exams.
Perform each piece at least once in a master class or recital before the exam.
Do a video of each piece before the exam. It's a great memory check because it simulates the exam experience.
Have a special Exam Master Class about 3 weeks before exams.
Have each student perform their pieces, one after the other, as a concert group. There usually isn't time for studies.
Have a 'Scale-a-Thon' at the end of the class....here's how it works:
Each student receives a small plastic bag.
You will need the 'Scale Charts' or technique books for each grade and a bowl of M&M’s.
Call a student’s name and a scale or triad from their grade.
Students take turns running to the piano and playing their technique for each other.
If they do it well, they can put an M&M in their bag. The goal is to get as many M&M's as possible.
Before the class, students work harder on their technique knowing they are going to be playing them for others.
After the class, the younger students work harder to improve because they've heard what the older students can do.
KEY #6 MAINTENANCE PRACTICE
Maintaining a Piece is Like Mountain Climbing
Students sometimes struggle to keep fast-paced pieces at performance level.
Having a piece ready for performance is like making it to the top of the mountain. However, if you are not careful, it will start to slide down the other side! Jelly Fingers set in!
Get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain. What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course....he should be your best friend.
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion.
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
All fast pieces should have a maintenance speed. You can practice it up to speed as well...but only if you have paid the price with slow metronome practice.
The fast speed should be a little under the suggested metronome speed. Adrenaline will take care of the rest! If a student has practiced slowly with the metronome, he should be able to control his piece in performance.
In the RCM exam system, a student is allowed to chose the order of the exam (i.e. doing pieces or technique & studies first, order of studies, order of pieces).
Here is my preferred order for an exam:
Start with technique. It should be well prepared...I have my students play their technique at the speeds of the next grade.
Doing technique first gives them a chance to try the piano, settle into the exam, and warm up their fingers.
Studies will be next. They do not NEED to be memorized, but they should be anyway. Having the music as a 'security blanket' will take away the pressure of 'having' to memorize studies.
Choose the order of songs so that they start and end with their strongest pieces. Alternate fast and slow songs for interest and variety.
Ear Training and Sight Reading are always done last.
KEY #8 MOCK EXAMS WORK
Mock Exams - An Essential Part of Exam Training
Do mock exams on the last 3 lessons before an exam. Students feel much more comfortable with the whole exam process by the third mock.
Pretend to be the examiner. Run through the entire exam exactly as it will be done on their exam day.....minimal cordial talking only, have them wait quietly while you write, no comments or feedback from examiner, only written comments. The first time that they experience this can be very unnerving.
I use the graded Mock Exam Sheets (for sale on this website). They are fillable PDF files. I can write in them for the mock exam, save them and then e-mail the sheet to the student at the end of the exam. Each Mock Exam Sheet comes with a handy Percentage Calculation Chart.
I do give them marks on their mock exam. I explain to them beforehand that I are not their examiner, that this is just one moment in time and that their mark can certainly change on the day of their exam. I usually mark harder than the examiner. I just want to make sure that they are in first-class territory (80%).
You can ask your students to print their mock exam sheets and tape them into their Organizer for future reference.
A practical piano exam is made up of many different components….Technique, Studies, Pieces, Ear Training and Sight Reading. Preparing for a piano exam requires that all of these things peak at the same time. I like to compare an exam to a musical box….we add each of these prepared elements to the box one at a time until the box is full. Then and only then is the student is ready for their exam. Good luck preparing your students for their music exams.
Summer is a great time to relax and enjoy the nice weather. But for music teachers, summer is also the time to prepare for the fall. There is always so much to do before regular lessons resume. Organization is the key to having a well-run business. With a little planning ahead of time, you can sail into September knowing that everything is ready to go! That way you will spend less time worrying about all the things that you have to do and more time enjoying the time off. I would like to share with you a few great organizational ideas that have worked for me.
One of the first things that I do when preparing for the upcoming season is to work on my Yearly Studio Calendar. I have an Excel chart that I use to generate a one-page Calendar for parents and students. I can use the same chart each year. I just change the dates and add all the important information that I feel my students and parents need to know for the whole year (i.e. master classes, recitals, festivals, holidays, deadlines, exams, upcoming events, vacations, etc). In late August, I e-mail this to all of my parents along with a reminder of their first lesson date and time. I place a copy of the Calendar on the bulletin board in my waiting room. I also tape a copy in the back of each student’s Organizer so that I can refer to it at their lesson throughout the year and highlight any upcoming dates. I've included a link to my original file for the Yearly Studio Calendar in this post. That way, you can download it and change the information to suit your own teaching year.
The iPad is an amazing tool. For me, it was definitely worth the investment. (See previous Blog Post called 'The iPad and the Music Teacher'). The Calendar App is one of the best studio organization tools on the iPad. I love how it backs up automatically to the cloud so that I don’t have to worry about losing my information. Entries can be colour coded to keep track of lessons that have been changed or missed. You can also write notes pertaining to a lesson directly on the individual entires. The search function is fantastic. In an instant, I can see all of the lessons for one particular student for the entire year. I also find the Contacts App very useful for keeping track of all student information. My iPad has revolutionized the way that I organize my business. Here's a link to help you get started. This article will help you with the basics of using the calendar App.
I have a very handy ‘Performance Tracking Chart’ (Excel File) that I use to organize all student performances throughout the year. Once I’ve completed my yearly calendar, I set up this chart with student's names and dates of all master classes, recitals and other performances. Then I print it and put it on a clip board that I keep beside me in the studio. I can use this chart for performance planning throughout the year. In September, the first thing we do is pick a Master Class piece (for the end of October) and a Christmas recital piece. I will also use this to help plan performances for exam preparation. I can keep track of all performance pieces for all students throughout the year on these sheets. I find it easier to work with a paper copy in the studio. I can fill it in as I’m teaching. Every two weeks or so, I will update the chart on the computer with any changes or additions and print it again. This gives me a running list of all performance pieces being worked on by my students at all times. I also list the students' pieces in their own Organizer. There is a column in the chart for keeping track of the total playing time for pieces which is useful for timing recitals and Master Classes. Here is the original file of my ‘Performance Tracking Chart’. This will allow you to input the names, dates and events to suit your own studio.
The Student Music Organizer is another great time-saving teaching tool. Each September, my students start a brand new book. The book is written on 8 1/2 x 11” paper so there is lots of room for writing notes. It is is designed to last for an entire year of lessons so you don't have to buy 2 or 3 smaller notebooks. At the end of the year, you will have a complete record of what has been done for the entire year. Parents love it as well. If they have a question, I can tell them to check the Organizer! Here are some of the sections included in this great resource:
Goal Setting Section — I do this on the first lesson so that we know how to plan for the year.
Favourite Piece Section — This is very helpful when planning recitals, festivals or exams.
Exam Planning — for students doing an exam in the upcoming year, we start planning right away.
Practice Planning — after we have set goals for the year, we then decide together how much time they will need to practice each week to attain these goals. This time can then be broken down into smaller sections so they know how long to spend on each aspect i.e. pieces, technique, sight reading
The Organizer contains 35 Assignment Pages. These sheets can be filled out during the lesson. Each page contains a chart for recording weekly practice. There is also manuscript across the bottom and the pages are numbered so you can refer back to a scale or exercise assigned earlier in the year.
The back of the book contains lots and lots of valuable reference material. You will find extra manuscript paper, a composer chart, summary sheets for musical time periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionism and Modern), music dictionaries, basic music theory reference guides and a wonderful comparative fingering chart for keyboard instruments.
♫ A SPECIAL NOTE ♫…The Student Music Organizer Website is having a fantastic 15/15 sale! For the entire month of August, teachers will receive 15% off of their entire order if they order 15 organizers or more. Use the discount code AUGUST at checkout to take advantage of this terrific deal.
Have a great rest-of-the summer AND have fun getting organized for September.
♥︎ Remember, Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: "Over the River and Through the Woods" by garlandcannon
Maintaining a piece for performance is a lot like mountain climbing.....I tell my students this all the time.
It's also very much like trying to tame a wild horse!!
This is the time of year when students are busy preparing for exams or recitals. They work very hard to learn and memorize a piece and get it up to tempo. However, sometimes students struggle with keeping that piece at performance level. The faster the speed of the piece, the harder this is. And so we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses.....
Having the piece ready to go is like finally making it to the top of the mountain. But what happens then? If you are not very careful, that piece will start to slide down the other side of the mountain! Jelly Fingers will set in!! You need to get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain.
What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course!
So what does all of this have to do with wild horses? If a student practices a piece over and over again at a fast pace, that piece can turn into what I call a 'wild horse'. We talk about that horse galloping across the field, totally out of control! What we need are reins so that we can get that horse under control.
And what do the reins represent? You guessed it.....the metronome!
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
The metronome should be your best friend. I encourage my students to name their metronome.....I call mine George V!! I've gone through a few metronomes in my time!
George V is a much more sophisticated model than his predecessors. I LOVE this version (Korg KDM-2). I especially love the middle button on top. I can tap along with a student and know exactly what speed they are playing. I can also tap the exact speed that I would like for a piece and it will tell me instantly what that speed is. And unlike a traditional metronome, it goes up to 256 (which I actually used this week with a student!)
This past January, I had 3 students do Royal Conservatory of Music exams.....two Grade 7's and one Grade 8. All of them did quite well.....one received First Class Honours and the other two First Class Honours with Distinction. I also had two Grade 10 students audition for University and College programs. This June, I have students doing exams for Grade 1, two Grade 4's and Grade 5. For each student, the challenge is the same....how to maintain the faster pieces.
Here are some effective ideas that I have used with my students:
Preparing to maintain a piece starts on the very first day the piece is introduced. I work with the student to divide the piece into logical sections, according to phrases and form. (I will talk more about this in a future blog post). I label these sections with capital letters and circle the letters. If there are more than 26 sections, we use double letters. I also have the students figure out the basic key signature of each section, making special note of sections that modulate to a different key. If the piece is in a certain form, then we label these sections as well. i.e. Exposition, Development & Recapitulation.
Draw a box around any tricky areas that needs extra practice and label these as Box #1, Box #2 etc. These should be practiced separately until they are fluent.
Learn the piece in small sections, using the metronome as soon as possible. Consistent metronome practice helps to keep the piece in control. Learn it correctly the first time....it's so much easier than having to fix things later. Of course the rhythm and notes are important. However, also pay special attention to all the details such as fingering, articulation, phrases, rests and dynamics. Learn one section at a time. You can add more sections once you have mastered the first one.
Once the piece has been learned correctly, then you can memorize it in small sections, preferably hands separately. Be able to start playing at any section. This gives you safety nets all the way through the piece. You can also compare sections to see which ones are the same and which ones are different.
My students love to play the musical card game. I have a set of file cards with letters which correspond to the sections in their piece. I shuffle the cards and hold them up, one at a time. They love playing the mixed up version of their piece!! For an extra challenge, ask for the left hand only!!
Always have a maintenance speed and work at the slow speed several times before attempting allowing yourself to it up to speed. Four times slow and once fast works well! Exaggerate the arm motions at the slow speed.Be very careful not to over practice at the fast speed.
Remember....Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
Putting a song on a shelf is a good strategy for maintaining a song. I actually draw a little shelf on the student's lesson page in The Student Music Organizer. I put it right underneath the lesson practice chart. Putting a piece on a shelf means that we leave the piece and don't play it for a while. This can also be called plateau learning. Then, when we revisit the piece, we can take it to the next level!
Table practice is a good way to maintain finger strength and articulation. Play the piece away from the piano on a flat surface. It helps to play with a little 'bite' in the ends of the fingers, using correct arm motion.
Another valuable technique is to "mind play" your piece. Find a quiet place away from the piano. Read the score as you would a book, while you 'listen' to the music and imagine yourself playing the notes. Observe and make note of all articulation and dynamics. This can also be done in sections. It is also a great way to reinforce memory.
One of my students is working on a piece called Intrada by Graupner. It is her Baroque piece (List A) and she is doing it for a Grade 5 exam later on this month. Click to see how I divided it into sections and prepared it for her to learn. It is now memorized hands separately in sections. She played it for me at her lesson last week and it was quite good...just about ready to go. But she doesn't play her exam for a few weeks. So we go into maintenance mode and we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses!!
Here are a few of the pieces that my students have maintained or are continuing to maintain for exams, auditions and recitals this year.
Prelude & Fugue in E+ (Bach) Grade 10
Prelude in c#- (Rachmaninoff)
Sonata in C+ K330 1st movement (Mozart) Grade 9
Etude in c- Op.29 #7 (Bertini) Grade 7
Suite #8 in G+ HWV 441 IV: Aria (Handel) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 55 #31st Movement (Kuhlau) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 36 #3 1st Movement (Clementi) Grade 7
Suite #1 in D+ VIII: Gigue (Krebs) Grade 7
Wound Up (Norton) Grade 7
Intrada in C+ (Graupner) Grade 5
March of the Terrible Trolls (Niamath) Grade 1
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
It's May and many music teachers are busy planning for their year-end recital. It can be a very busy and stressful time of the year. Along with the recital planning, there are also student exams plus preparing for next fall. I would like to share some of the effective ideas that I have used for planning, organizing and preparing for "The Perfect Recital".
Start planning early. Finding the best piece for each student takes time. They need time to prepare and hopefully, memorize their song. It's better to have the song up early and put it on a shelf for a few weeks then to be rushing at the last minute.
Once a piece is picked, don't let anyone else play that song. Students love having their own 'special' song. Sometimes they even pick their song for the Christmas recital before the summer break!!
Take care to choose pieces that showcase the student's strengths. Also keep in mind the level of difficulty. Try to encourage them to choose something that is a challenge but that they can reasonably perfect for the recital. It's so important that they feel good about their performance.
Timing is essential for a successful recital. The perfect length for a 'father friendly' recital is about 60-75 minutes. As a rule of thumb, each performance should not exceed five minutes. Of course, this also depends upon how many students are performing. Longer songs can be performed in a master class setting. If students are doing a piece that can be modified (i.e. a popular piece), then help them come up with an arrangement of the piece that is not too long, but will still showcases their playing. This is also a valuable skill for them to work on!
Make sure that the students are well prepared. That way, the program will flow well. I don't require that they play from memory unless they are preparing for an exam or audition. However they will play better and with more confidence if their song is memorized. We work at memorizing the pieces in small sections, preferably hands separately! Then they can chose to use the music or not, depending on their comfort level. Some take the book up with them and never look at it! This helps to take the stress out of performing.
Try to have a variety of fast and slow songs. Make sure that there are not too many slow songs in a row. It's also good to have a mixture of musical styles including classical and popular pieces.
Spice up the program with a few special numbers. These pieces should be spaced evenly throughout the program. It's a good idea to list the performers and the piece on the program, but I like to surprise the audience by not giving the details of the performance. There is no need to have them announce their pieces at the recital if there is a program. This also saves time. Make sure each student has a copy of the program.
Pool your resources by involving musical parents or siblings. Maybe some of your students sing or play other instruments. A small choir or vocal ensemble is a fun addition. Try adding duets and trios. The special numbers for my upcoming June recital include two trios, two regular duets (one with a CD backtrack), one piano/harp duet and one piano/organ duet. We also have a student playing a harp solo and a parent playing accordion.
It's important to keep parents in the loop when it comes to recital planning. I send reminders via e-mail at regular intervals. I also send an information sheet to each family about a week before the recital. This includes important information such as the student's seat number, the piece they are playing, any special numbers they are involved in and what snack the parent is bringing. There is also a map to the recital venue, what time they should arrive, what time the recital starts and any special instructions on dress code.
My students always look forward to the social time after the recital. At Christmas, I make a special piano cake for the students (see picture at the end of the blog) and the parents help by bringing refreshments. We always take a class picture for the recital history book! The social time gives me an opportunity to visit with the families and friends of the students. (Note...my recital history book contains all the programs and class pictures from previous recitals. It's on display at every recital. Students love to look back and see the progress they have made. They also love to see how they have changed!)
I find it works well to have the students sitting at the front of the hall. It helps to have numbers on the student's seats. That way, the students know where to sit and what order they play in. This facilitates the flow of the program. I used a free musical font called Onpu to print the numbers seen below. I'll include a link to this font. I downloaded the font and printed the numbers directly onto coloured card stock. Then I had the cards lamented. You can set custom margins to print onto 3x4" cards.
I've included a link for my Blueprint for a Perfect Recital planning sheet. I follow this blueprint every time I'm working on a recital. I've uploaded the Word version of my file so you can modify it for your particular circumstances.
I've also included a link for my Recital Planning Charts. This Excel file has 4 different charts (see the buttons across the bottom of the Excel screen). I've left some of my information on the files from my upcoming recital to show how I use the four different charts. This can be easily erased. Here are the charts that I use to organize my recital:
Initial Planning Chart: This chart is used for picking the pieces and planning the program. All the students are listed in the order that I teach them in the week. They are only allowed to play one regular piece each. I update the information on the computer and print a new sheet every week. I can keep track of progress, make necessary changes and work at timing the recital. The special numbers are listed at the end (orange). Seven to ten special numbers per recital works well. These numbers add interest to the program and give keen students a chance to do something else.
Program Planning Chart: This chart is used to place the pieces in order for the program. Special numbers are listed in dark print and are placed throughout the program as surprises! This chart has a place for seat numbers. I can also use this chart to take attendance on the day of the concert and there is a column for final timing of the program.
Final Program Planning Chart: Just before the recital, all the information from the 2nd sheet is copied onto the 3rd sheet. There are no lines on this chart, so you use it to generate the final program. You can then have the program printed on special paper.
Refreshment Sign-up Chart: This is a sign-up sheet for refreshments. It's posted on my board in the waiting room about 2 weeks before the recital.
Remember that the recital should be fun for both students and parents. Many students have told me that both the Christmas recital and the June recital are the highlights of the year. Very few students miss these events and I rarely have a problem with students leaving early. They look forward to sharing their music with their families and with each other in a relaxed and enjoyable environment. And they especially look forward to the treats afterwards!
Intervals are like Ice Cream, they all have different flavours! I have said this many times to my students over the years.
Ear Training is an essential part of a music exam. And intervals (above and below a given note) are usually an important part of the entire ear training mark. But naming those intervals can be a daunting task for some students. I have found that, even if students have a good ear, they can have difficulty with this portion of the exam. The problem is that when a student is nervous or feeling stressed, they can leave their musical ears in the waiting room!
I would like to share with you some of the teaching strategies that I have used successfully in my own studio.
First: Play the notes of the various intervals together on the keyboard for your students. You can discuss the different flavours of each interval. Have them come up with ideas to describe the sounds as well.
2nds: (Steps). The -2nd sounds very close and very harsh (fighting notes). This is a semitone (the smallest distance on the piano). The +2nd sounds very close but not too harsh. It's also helpful to know that it is a whole tone or whole step on the piano.
3rds: (Skips) The -3rd sounds sad and not too big. A -3rd contains the first 2 notes of a minor triad. The +3rd sounds happy but not too big. It contains the first 2 notes of a major triad. With either one, if you continue humming to the 5th, you will have a root position triad. It sometimes helps to relate the -3rd below to a doorbell (ding dong!)
4th: The Perfect 4th sounds different - it is not part of the root position triad. However, it is a pleasant sound and it is not too big. It also has kind of an open sound, but not as open as the P5th.
The Tritone (aug 4th or dim 5th) is one of the most tension-filled intervals, but it is not as big as a +7th.
5th: The Perfect 5th sounds open, but not too big. It contains the outer notes of a triad.
6ths: The -6th sounds kind of sad but it is bigger than a -3rd. The +6th sounds happy but it is also bigger than a 3rd.
7ths: The -7th is not so harsh but it is large AND it contains the outer notes of a Dominant 7th chord. The +7th is a very harsh interval AND it is large. I tell my students that this interval should hit you across the face!!! Be careful not to confuse this interval with the tritone.
8th: The Perfect 8th is an octave, meaning that the notes sound similar and very big like a rainbow! It also sounds open and can easily be confused with the P5th.
Here are some other simple and effective ideas to help students with naming intervals:
First and foremost, make sure that they know which intervals they have to know for their grade so they don't guess one they don't even have to know. Have them memorize this list. Review it every time you do intervals in the lesson and have them say it out loud as you play the notes together on the keyboard. One of my students is doing a Grade 5 exam in June. Here is her list: ABOVE +/- 3rds, +/- 6ths, P 4th, 5th and 8th. BELOW: -3 (this is a single....NO +3rd), P5th and P8th (no P4th). When reviewing their list, have them listen carefully as the notes are played together. Have them describe the flavour as you play each one. Review this list every time you do intervals and before you begin testing the student.
Identify the 'singles' so that they don't guess the wrong one. For example, don't guess a +3rd below if you only have a -3rd!
If they can, always have the students hum the notes softly immediately as they are being played. Their voice will help then to identify the sound as smaller or larger. They are hearing the interval inside their head and physically feeling the distance with their voice. Work with them so that they can tone match the notes. This doesn't work for every student, but it is helpful if they can do it.
If a student is a good "hummer", then have them also try to hum the notes in between. But be careful. This is harder than it sounds. Some students can add or take away notes when doing this. Only use this strategy if they can consistently hum the notes in between correctly. I also find that generally, the boys have a harder time humming the notes. They sometimes feel self-conscious, especially if their voice is changing.
Naming an interval below a given note seems to be more difficult than above. This is especially true for the 3rds. If students can't hear an interval below the given note, have them try humming it softly the other way (forwards). Sometimes that is all they need to identify it. Again, this only works if they are a good hummer.
It is very helpful to have students associate songs with the intervals. This is especially useful when the student is under pressure or if they can't hum the notes. It's also a good back-up plan even if they can hum! However, the songs become absolutely essential for students who do not have a strong ear and cannot hum.
I use the Small Interval Cards found on The Student Music Organizer Website. This reference card is so handy. There is a good variety of songs for all of the intervals above and below. They can pick the song that they know the best. Highlight the intervals on the card that they have to know for their exam. The Above intervals are on one side of the card and the Below intervals are on the other side. Turning the card over as they name the intervals is good because they really have to listen to know if the interval is above or below the given note. Having them flip the card is part of the training. If they aren't familiar with any of the songs on the card for a particular interval, then have them learn the first couple of bars of that song. They can also try to come up with a song of their own and write them on the card.
Make sure that they have the songs memorized for their required intervals. Review these songs every time you work on ear training. You don't want them to know the song and then guess the interval incorrectly!
I have told my students many times that lots of people can play the notes but it's much harder to play the music BEHIND the notes. And that's the question that I always ask them.....can you find the MUSIC hiding in the notes?
To explain, I want to tell the story of one of my students....I'll call her Kate. She is 10 years old and in Grade 2 piano. Last month, we were working on a piece called The Keepsake Mill from A Child's Garden of Verses by Chee-Hwa Tan. She was getting the notes, the counting, the fingering....all of the basic elements were there. But the music was missing! So I asked her the same question.....How can you find the music hiding in the notes?
I played it for her 2 ways. First, I played it with the correct notes and timing, but no feeling. Then I played it musically. "I can hear the difference", she said, "But I don't think I can do that!"
"Yes, you can", I said, "but first I have to share some musical secrets with you". I started asking her a few questions and each time, she would try it again:
Do you know what a phrase is? It's a musical sentence. Can you identify and play the phrases alone in the right hand? Can you think of words for the phrases? Can you sing the words as you play?
Can you breathe after each sentence? Use your arms. Feel as if you are taking a breath with your arms.
The left hand is in broken chords.....can you see that? Play the accompaniment alone. Now can you play the left hand in solid chords? Can you name the chords? Can you hear the different colours or harmonies?
Can you play the melody alone in the right hand, phrase by phrase?
Project the melody. I want beautiful, round, fat notes on top. Send those notes across the room. Ping the notes so that they travel out the window and across the road.
Stroke those notes gently like you would stroke a little cat.
Kate's idea was to gently roll a basketball over the notes....now she was thinking!
Now....what is balance? Basically it means that you play the right hand phrases louder than the left hand accompaniment. The right hand is the star and the left hand is the orchestra.
First try to shadow play....play the right hand projected melody and only pretend to play the accompaniment? Touch the notes in the left hand but don't depress the keys.
Now try playing the accompaniment in the left hand as written along with the projected melody on top.
Can you shape the melody (like a rainbow over the water) while projecting the melody over the accompaniment? (I know, I ask for a lot!)
I would play it for her so she could hear the music. Then she would try again. It took several tries and then she said excitedly....."I hear it!! I can hear the difference! I've found the MUSIC!" "That's after just a few minutes of trying". I said. "Imagine how much better it will be after you practice it that way that all week".
She came back for her next lesson and she was very proud of herself. The piece had improved dramatically!
"Now, let's take it a step farther." I said. "Here are some more ideas for finding the music hiding in the notes":
What is a Keepsake Mill? Can we find a picture of the keepsake mill?
What was the purpose of a mill? What was the purpose of the water wheel? (having a computer or iPad nearby is very handy because you can instantly look up what you need).
What did the composer do in the music to paint a picture of the Keepsake Mill?
Can you see the wheel turning round and round and round? It never stops....it's almost hypnotic. Can you hear it? Can you see the dark water swirling in the pond below? Can you hear it? Can you feel the spray of the water on your face? Can you smell the water and the wood?
Now.....have that picture in your mind when you play this piece....make the music come alive....paint the picture with your notes and send it out to your listener.....send it to me and let me see it too!! Play it with balance and phrasing and shaping and FEELING!
There was such a difference. The song was totally different. "I LOVE this song", she said!
Music to my ears!! Kate was no longer just playing the notes. She had unlocked the magic and had found the music hiding in the notes!
Have you ever fallen into the rut of teaching the same old songs to your students. I know that, on occasion, I have had that problem. Another common problem among teachers is that we tend to buy new music and then put it away in our library and forget about it!
This year, I have tried very hard to introduce new material in my teaching. I went through my library and picked out several collections that I thought might be appropriate for the students that I am teaching at this time. I played through these collections and then tagged pieces that I thought students might like. I kept that small pile of books by the piano in the studio. Then, when a student was ready to try a new piece, I tried to match that student with one of these new pieces. I found that when I showed that I was excited to try something different, then the students were willing to try it! Then, after discussing this with the parents, I went to my local music store and ordered several new books for students. They were so excited to get a new book! Several students have chosen some of these works for upcoming performances and exams.
Here are some points to keep in mind when choosing new repertoire for students:
Try to avoid giving the same pieces to students in the same grade. Instead, make a point of trying something new and different with each student. It's great for the student but it's also wonderful and challenging for the teacher to try teaching something that you have never taught before. As teachers, we should never stop learning! My students love it when I tell them that I have NEVER taught this piece to any other student!
Students feel special that they are playing something that no one else in the studio has played before. They can then share these pieces at upcoming master classes, festivals or recitals. My students love to hear new and different works. Many times I've had other students ask if they could try that song as well!
Try some unusual works with a more modern notation. Students respond well to modern works if you, as a teacher, show enthusiasm for these pieces. Some examples would be Olie the Goalie by Stephen Chatman (Pre-Grade 1 level). The entire score is written on a drawing of a goalie with bits of the score under each hockey puck! Or how about trying Night Sounds by Stephen Chatman. Students actually get to meow like a cat, snort like a pig and hoot like an owl!! They even get to improvise one whole section. This piece was a huge hit at our last master class.
Support local artists.There are many wonderful composers in Canada and in the United States who are continuing to provide us with interesting and varied works. You could have your student write to their special composer and let them know how much they enjoyed playing their piece. I'm sure that the composers would love to hear from them! The student could also do a little research to find out some information about their composer! Students are always amazed to find out that lots of composers are actually alive and still writing!!
Examiners love to hear different pieces as well. Explore whatever syllabus you are using and choose something unusual and unique for their modern piece or for their study. (i.e. the Royal Conservatory of Music allows this as a Teacher's choice for a study). This makes for a much more interesting exam!
Students love to play jazzy songs that have a great beat. My students have especially enjoyed pieces from the Connections for Piano by Christopher Norton. There are 8 books in total from Grades 1 to 8. Each song has a downloadable backtrack which makes it even more fun to play! Some suggestions might me Half a Chance (Grade 3), Nefertiti Blues (Grade 7) or Country Sentimental (Grade 8).
Make the music come alive by having them write a story or draw a picture. Then have them try to tell their story musically. The younger students especially enjoy doing this. This works especially well for pieces like Starfish at night, Cobwebs, Summer Lightning, March of the Terrible Trolls or Icky Spider. There are extra pages in the back of the Student Music Organizer that could be used for this.
Here is a list of some of the varied and fun pieces that my students have tried over the past couple of years:
Master classes are a great way to help students to feel more comfortable performing in a relaxed and informal setting.
My students have been very busy over the last few weeks preparing for our next master class this coming Monday. See below for the chart that I will be using for this master class. There is also a free download of the Excel file that I use for organizing my master classes.
Typically, a master class is a group class where students come together to play for each other and their teacher. It's a wonderful way to foster a sense of community among students in a studio. Students are able to associate with others who share their love of music. Many times I've had a student come for a lesson after a master class asking to play a piece that they have heard some one else play! It also gives younger students a chance to feel comfortable performing in front of others before playing in a larger recital.
A master class is also a great way for a teacher to assess the performance readiness of a piece. It gives students a chance to 'test' their memory. This is especially helpful if they are preparing for exams, festival classes or auditions. I usually have 3 regular master classes a year—one in the fall, one in the winter and one in the spring. This is over and above the two more formal recitals we hold during the year.
Here are some ideas for a successful master class:
Don't make the class too long. My master classes are usually around 90 minutes. This gives about an hour for performances and teacher comments with some time left at the end of the class for the students to socialize. It's a good idea to mix up the longer songs and the shorter songs... don't save all the longs pieces for last!
It's always important to have refreshments at the end. The parents can take turns bringing snacks for the students.
One piece per student is probably enough. Try not to have too many long songs, especially if there are younger students in the class. I try to have the students perform a variety of music, including some popular selections.
Students can work on 'The 12 Points of Performance'. These points are found on the back of our Sight Reading Cards and at the front of The Student Music Organizer. Students can practice what to do from the time they stand up to perform until they sit back down. These points really help students maintain focus throughout a performance.
I don't make memorization mandatory, but I do encourage it. Then they can choose to try it from memory or not. Many times, they do not even look at the score! This way, they don't have to play from memory until they are feeling ready to do so.
Make sure you start and end on time. Parents especially appreciate this!
Parents are generally not invited to attend. A master class should be more informal than a recital. That way the students feel as if this is their special time with the teacher.
Make the class fun by having a theme night. The photo above shows one of my fall master classes. We had Musical Costume Party! Students could dress in black and white to match the piano keys or they could dress in a costume to match their piece!
In the winter, you could have a musical pyjama party. The younger students really like to bring their stuffed animals as an audience!
I like to have a class on 'Music Monday' (held on the first Monday in May). This is an official event in Canada, where it started 10 years ago. There are now similar events in the US, Australia, Britain and Hungary. Students are encouraged to "fill the skies with music". This year, Music Monday is scheduled for May 5th. You can even register your master class as an official event on the Music Monday website. My students love to feel as if they are a part of this amazing event!
Extra Master Classes can be scheduled during the year for students doing exams. That way, they have an opportunity to play their pieces as a concert group. I also have them play some of their technique... we have a Scale-a-thon. I call a student's name and a scale or chord and they have to run up to the piano and play it! The reward for playing well is an M&M. By the end of the game, they have a bag full!
Master classes can be a fun and effective way to help students share the joy of music.