How often do you practise your instrument? How often do you play it? What do these two terms mean to you? How are they different and how do they overlap? Practice is always a hot topic in music teaching - how much should students practise and how should they practise? There's more talk about practice strategies these days than there is about lengths of time, but the "how long should I practise for?" question still pops up repeatedly. Music teachers still vent their frustrations over students who "don't do enough practice".
I find that adult students in particular tend to 'confess' to a lack of practice - many, many lessons begin with "I haven't done as much as I'd like/ I should have". Sometimes that means they haven't had the time/ energy/ motivation and they've hardly picked up their instrument. But sometimes, it turns out that it means "I haven't worked on the pieces we worked on in my last lesson, and I haven't done those exercises that we agreed would be beneficial to improve my high notes, but I have played my instrument at wind band, and met up with some friends to do quartets, and played along at a folk session in the pub". Yet, they feel like a 'bad pupil' because they haven't done the assigned tasks.
The interplay of play and practice isn't always easy to unpick - I like a sports analogy when it comes to learning music, but is it really like football, where you train (practise) then go out and play a game (perform) or is it more like yoga where the doing (playing) is also the practising? Is it somewhere in-between or a mixture of the two? With the student who's doing lots of playing, I always think (and say) that that's brilliant, it's what playing an instrument is about! Playing is both practice in itself, and putting practice into action. You learn so much from playing with other people, you get pushed by having to 'keep up', you pick up or improve skills in context. So why do we do this other thing, this practising which is generally less fun and less 'musical'?
The simple answer to that is that practice builds the skills that make playing more enjoyable. If you join an ensemble but find it difficult to play at the speed that everyone else is galloping along at, you might feel frustrated. Then practising exercises on your own that will help increase your finger speed will hopefully lead to a more comfortable experience in the group, feeling like you're part of making music rather than struggling to keep up. If you feel self-conscious because your high notes are squeaky or out-of-tune, then working on those in isolation boosts your confidence when you next share them with other people. We practice scale patterns because it means that when we're presented with a new piece of music, some magic* thing occurs in our brains which means we see that string of notes and our fingers know exactly what to do to produce them (*not actually magic at all, but it can seem like it if you've never reached that point yourself, and even if you have, sometimes you still step back and think "woah, how DOES that happen?").
I will admit to some, err, debates with students over practice, but it tends to be when they've set themselves a goal, such as an exam, but aren't doing the things they need to do to reach that goal. Even then, often the problem is not so much not practising their scales or whatever, but actually just not playing the instrument very often. And perhaps that is in part because they feel that if they take it out to play then what they should be doing is practising, and practising is hard and not always fun. Whereas the difficult practising bits would actually be made easier by the familiarity with your instrument that comes from playing it regularly.
I've experienced this myself with the piano. I neither play nor practise the piano very often. Sometimes I'll sit down to play something on it, but because I'm nowhere near as familiar with it as I am with the flute, I get frustrated by not being able to do things so easily. I 'need' to play the piano maybe a couple of times a year, to accompany early grade students in exams, and these accompaniments which I think I should be able to play quite easily sometimes take a fair bit of practice. However, I KNOW I actually enjoy playing the piano when I feel more competent at it. I don't love it in the same way as I do playing the flute - it doesn't feel the same to me as a way of expressing things through music - but it is a useful skill in my line of work and, well, I think I'm intrigued as to what playing the piano better would actually feel like! I really enjoy accompanying, but I know that my skill level limits how much of this I can do. So, I've set myself a challenge, to do some regular piano practice and playing. I've chosen three pieces, initially, that I want to work on 'properly'. I've got a list of scales and arpeggios from a particular grade exam to try to master, because it seemed like a good point to aim at, to start with. I've got a big pile of books to pick and choose things to try out, so I'll also be playing as well as focussed practising. I'm going to give it a try over the summer, while other work is quieter, and see what happens when I practise what I preach! I'll let you know how I get on.
Last week I found myself on the way to Leeds, twice. On Saturday I played with Yorkshire Wind Orchestra in the lovely surroundings of 'Arts@Trinity' - a hub of music and other artistic activity right in the busy centre of the city. We had a lively flute day with lots of visiting flute players, followed by an equally lively concert of 'Music from the Americas' inspired by the Rio Olympics. On Sunday, I felt as if I'd taken part in the Olympics (if flute playing was an Olympic sport, which after a session on the bass flute I felt it should be)!
A few days earlier, I headed over to the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama, an amazing community centre for music and drama lessons, headed by principal Tim Knight. I met Tim some time ago through the wonders of the internet, but we first worked together when he wrote the fabulous 'Steel City Shuffle' for Sheffield Flute Choir. We worked on the piece over a few rehearsals, then Tim came to workshop it with us - him telling us about his inspiration for the piece, how he intended it to sound, and us advising him on what is really quite hard to do on a bass flute! The result is this tremendously fun piece for flute choir. The flute choir will be joining one of Tim's (singing) choirs, the Heritage Masterworks Chorale, for a concert in Rotherham Minster this September, and I expect the 'Shuffle' will get an outing there.
This week I visited YCMD in Leeds to play through and record some of Tim's works for flute and piano. The College was a hub of activity, being the local ABRSM exam centre - and such a buzzing, welcoming place. I lost count of how many different music groups and lessons they have going on every week!
Lots of Tim's work seems to be inspired by the British landscape - we played Celtic melodies, his Lakeland Suite and Moorland Suite amongst others. Being a Scottish person who spent many happy holidays in the Lake District, and now enjoys a wander out of Sheffield to the moors, this felt a bit like a musical journey through different stages of my life. The Lakeland Suite in particular makes me think of childhood holidays with my grandparents, sadly no longer with us, and of my grandad's paintings of the scenery of that area (one pictured above).
You can hear some of the results of a really enjoyable morning over on Tim's YouTube channel and copies of the sheet music are available from Spartan Press.
I awoke this morning from a dream where I was running off stage in the middle of a performance. I wasn't fleeing a disastrous moment of playing, or a terrifying audience, but a nightmare about page-turning for a pianist. The huge pile of music for the concert had, in the way that things do in dreams, turned out to be printed on pieces of soft fabric, which was flopping all over the place and falling into the piano. Despite this obvious challenge, the pianist was angry at my inability to turn the pages properly, and I left in shame...
Possibly the weirdest thing about this dream, is that it happened the night after I had page-turned for a concert, rather than the night before, and said concert had gone perfectly well, with, strangely enough no paper that turned into unmanageable floppy stuff, and no anger or shame anywhere to be seen. Still, as I lay awake this morning, wondering what my brain was trying to tell me, I remembered that I'd long been meaning to write a blog post about page-turning.
The 'job' of being the person who turns pages for piano players is the subject of occasional online articles - the most recent that I've read debates whether page-turners are "a charming relic of an amateur age." Technological advances mean you can now have music on an iPad (or other tablet) and turn by means of a wirelessly-connected foot pedal. Adoption of these seems slow, however, so there is still, currently, room for those people who sit to the side of the piano.
I can't actually remember when I first turned pages. My first flute teacher was also a pianist and I think I did it for her when she was accompanying other students for concerts. As a teenager, I was part of a choir which had junior and senior sections, and I remember occasionally page-turning for the accompanist while the adult group were singing. The occasion which most sticks in my head is doing this in a church, when the accompanist was playing the organ - I was fascinated by the instrument, and the extra challenges - both to player, and for the page-turner in trying to keep out of the way! - that it presented. I did some page-turning at Uni, for odd other concerts and shows. And then I didn't, for quite a while.
So, fast-forward to a few years ago, when I was looking for some music-related voluntary work in Sheffield. The website of the wonderful Music in the Round popped up, and I filled in the form to register as a volunteer. I happily ticked the boxes to say I would do admin, ticket selling, help at concerts etc, but I hesitated over the 'page-turning' option. I had done it before, but did I want to do it again? I told myself that I could always say no if I was asked to do it, ticked the box and hurriedly sent the form off before I changed my mind.
It was a while before a request came through, and I was definitely nervous about agreeing that first time. I don't think I had any anxious dreams, but I did worry about being able to do a good job of it. It's a funny task - most people will describe it as 'quite a responsibility' or something along those lines. It's important, in a way, because you're helping things to run smoothly, but at the same time you're the least important person on that stage. You're part of a performance, but I always feel that my role to 'perform' is to be as invisible as possible. Despite enjoying performing in the traditional sense, I think I'm also pretty good at being unobtrusive (or "too quiet" as I was often told when I was younger). So, in 2014, Music in the Round got me 'back into' page-turning. I realised I was OK at it, I actually really enjoyed it (a friendly welcome from Ensemble 360's brilliant pianist Tim Horton hugely helped) and have lost count of how many times I've done it since.
It shares aspects with performing as a musician - a high level of concentration on a piece of music, precise physical movements and 'playing your part' at the right time - but at the same time is very different. You're not expressing yourself or communicating with the audience. You're not moving with the music, although the tempo does affect what you do - somehow it feels that a quiet and slow moment requires a different page-turning action to the middle of a 'presto' movement that needs the pages whipped over quickly. You need to be aware of the structure of the music, rather than the details, to know broadly what's coming next, and if there's any repeats - turning back pages instead of forward is always fun (by 'fun' I mean a bit of a challenge and slightly worrying, especially if you've got to grab a handful of pages to get back to the start of a long movement). Like playing music, the challenges are both mental (concentration) and physical (getting stupid pages to stay open when they want to flip back over, and you can't take the stupid book off the piano in the middle of the piece and bend the spine back), but they're embodied in a different way.
Almost every time I page-turn, people ask me questions about it. Do I get nervous? Yes, a little bit, because of the responsibility of not messing up something for someone else. It's similar to the feeling of being nervous when accompanying a flute student's exam - yes, I am, but the occasion is about them not me and I have a responsibility to support them (so, actually, both experiences are very useful about learning how to manage nerves, and, dare I say, ego?!).
Do I rehearse? I have been in rehearsals sometimes - there are page-turning 'conventions' but it's good to get to know how a particular pianist works. Do they indicate when they want you to turn? How close to the end of the page do they generally want it turned? (You get more of a sense of this the more you work with the same person too). But normally it's a quick look through the pieces beforehand to grasp what's going on and pick out any awkward bits. Did I enjoy the pieces? Yes, but not in the same way as you do as part of the audience. I enjoy being 'involved' in the process of the pieces coming to life, but I don't exactly 'hear' them - I'm listening to them, and I'm concentrating on following them on the score, so I'm far more aware of the overall structure than the details. I've been introduced to new pieces by page-turning for them (recent highlights being Ligeti's Musica Ricercata/ Six Bagatelles, and Volker David Kirchner's Lamento e Danza d’Orfeo for French horn and piano), and subsequently gone home and listened to them, and sometimes wanted to be cloned/ time-travel as I've enjoyed the page-turning but would also have liked to hear the live performance by those musicians.
Have I ever had any page-turning disasters? If you believe YouTube, there have been many of those around the world! Music flying off all over the place, page-turners falling off the stage. I've once or twice had a blip in following the music and missed a turn, which the pianist has then had to quickly do themselves (nobody's ever got angry like the one in my dream, though). I once wore a cardigan which fell at just the right angle to clatter its buttons on the piano every time I turned a page, and spent most of a concert holding on to it with my non-turning hand - I'm now quite careful about clothes, to avoid a repeat of that or anything flapping in the way of the pianist.
If you've never page-turned, it probably looks either incredibly easy or like some sort of mysterious magical art. It's neither really. It's a performance which is completely not-about-you, but about someone else's performance. It almost feels odd writing about it in this much detail, because it's so much about being in the background, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible (I decided not to add any pictures to this post - I don't think there are any of me page-turning, and that seems quite appropriate, given that sense of being almost invisible). There are few, if any, professional page-turners as such - they tend to be volunteers, students, or people who work at concert halls who are asked to do it as part of their job. But I think those of us who do it regularly probably do analyse it a bit (especially when we're frequently asked questions about it). Despite the strange considerations of appropriate cardigans and the frustrations of non-compliant sheet music, it's a curiously intense experience and a privilege to be in the midst of excellent musicians making music.
It's the start of the school summer holidays here, with lots of students and teachers taking a well-deserved break. I'm having a couple of weeks off from teaching but much of that time will be devoted to finishing my MA dissertation which is due in mid-August. I'm currently finishing writing up the section on how adult learners write about exams (well, I have been this morning - I'm currently having a short break, a cup of tea and a packet Hula Hoops, and writing this blog post!).
My research has revealed some striking metaphorical language used about the experience of preparing for and taking exams. Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a lot of negative terms with groups of words which suggest violence - executed, hanging, murdering, killing - and pain - excruciating, suffering. The process of entering, preparing for, and taking exams is compared to a military campaign with terms such as withdraw, forearmed, territory, officer, bullet, target, medal - and there are also hints of a treacherous naval expedition - uncharted, adrift, wreck. But thankfully we also see the horizon and there is talk of surviving. There are also discourses which suggest that exam preparation is like training for a sport - hurdle, treadmill and discussion of tapering, and even what to eat on the day (which explains the initially mystifying appearance of potato in the corpus)! There are lots of terms which relate to movement - exams approach, near and loom. There is pushing and pulling, but also swinging and waltzing, and quite a bit of wobbling like a jelly. Adult learners express concerns about facing 'scary' examiners, but tend to find in reality that they are kind, gentle, courteous, calm, supportive, encouraging. 'Support' is a common theme, surfacing in descriptions of how teachers help learners prepare for exams and boost their confidence - my teacher is an angel, my teacher is lovely and encouraging. They also mention how helpful it is to have a friendly accompanist, if you play an instrument which is supported by a piano part. Online communities also offer support, with adult learners offering sympathy and hugs during the build-up and the wait for results, and many congratulations (for successful results, but also for being brave enough to take the exam in the first place!).
A couple of months ago, I posted about my own plans to sit two Grade 1 exams, learning the clarinet more or less from scratch, and taking my piano playing right back to basics. I took both of these exams a couple of weeks ago. It was an incredibly useful experience as a teacher to be back in uncharted territory - although I've taken many flute exams, I'd never sat one on another instrument, so it did feel rather like being a beginner, not quite knowing what to expect or exactly how well I needed to play at this level. Nerves definitely kicked in, and I had no idea how my playing of each instrument would respond under pressure (whereas with the flute, I have a pretty good idea what happens and how to deal with it). It turns out that the fact my mouth dries up with nerves is even more 'bleurgh' with a reed in my mouth, but it is manageable! My experience of the examiners definitely agrees with those that the learners in my study talk about - both were friendly and welcoming. The one for my clarinet exam had no idea I had any musical background, so I felt I was being treated as she would any adult beginner, and it was a very positive experience, topped off by a lovely comment on my mark form declaring the exam "an excellent start" on my clarinet journey. What a boost that would be to any beginner!
The piano exam was a slightly different experience, as I was sitting another exam (Flute Performance DipLCM) on the same day, with the same examiner! So she was aware that I had experience of music and exams behind me, and indeed joked that the supporting tests at Grade 1 should be fairly easy for me! ;) All the same, I still felt that I was judged on my performance as a Grade 1 piano student, rather than there being any 'extra' expectations of me (and I know that adult learners often feel they are expected to do 'better' to pass exams than children, simply because they are older). This was really helpful for me, as part of the whole point of sitting this one was to help build my confidence on the piano, to learn it properly rather than feel like I 'should' be at a certain standard with it due to the rest of my musical background. Still, I have to admit that getting full marks on the musical knowledge, aural and sightreading certainly did help with my overall score! It also underlined to me as a teacher how much impact these skills can have on how you get on in an exam (as well as being incredibly useful skills when making music, which is why they are tested in exams). For both instruments, I definitely agree with the learners in my study, when they say that having supportive teachers is a huge bonus in the exam process, helping you feel like you are on the right track and you can do this scary thing! I also agree with their thoughts about accompanists - it is incredibly comforting to work with someone you know is 'on your side' (something I found a bit daunting about the piano exam, as you're on your own there!).
And yes, I did sit two exams on the same day. As well as the Grade 1s, I had entered myself for a flute performance diploma. I'm pleased to say I passed that too, and even more pleased to say it was an enjoyable experience. More about that in a future post, soon... but I must get back to the dissertation!
You might have heard of a Grade-One-athon before, or maybe not! Normally it involves an - often sponsored for charity - attempt to pick up an instrument you've never played before, enter and pass a Grade One exam within a term. I've known quite a few music teachers and other people who already play an instrument give it a go - sometimes it's been a quick challenge, and sometimes it's led to a love of an additional instrument that they've kept on playing long past Grade One. I'm not exactly doing that, as my challenges don't involve instruments that are 'brand new' to me. But this term I'm sitting two Grade Ones, and here's why...
Piano - I don't remember exactly when and how I learned which notes were which on the piano. As a child interested in music I picked it up here and there I think, learned a bit from friends who had lessons. I had a keyboard from a really early age - at first one of those tiny Casio ones which the endlessly annoying 'demo' tune! When I started to take music more 'seriously' I had piano lessons, eventually auditioning on it as a second instrument for University. Although I did play a bit at Uni, for some reason that I can't remember either, we didn't get second instrument lessons in the end, so it fell by the wayside. That is, until my flute teaching started to increase, and I realised that I could play some of the simpler accompaniments to my student's pieces. And more than that, I actually really enjoyed playing them. I like being able to introduce students to playing with another instrument, and for those who do exams, it's lovely to be able to go along and accompany them for those first few early grades, to be a familiar face in an unfamiliar situation. The more I played the piano, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I wanted to improve, which led me to the idea of getting some lessons and maybe doing some exams. I had no real idea of what standard my piano playing was, but I really wanted to go back to basics, and gain more confidence with it. So this July, I'll be sitting Grade One piano. It's been fantastic to concentrate on some relatively simple pieces and get to grips with the detail of them, to start understanding different piano techniques and gradually start to feel like I can play music on it, rather than just learning notes. And to have help from a piano-teaching friend to guide me through all this, to point out the things I don't notice when I'm busy concentrating on everything else!
Clarinet - I played a clarinet once at school, when a good friend let me try hers. It was difficult to blow and I didn't like it anything like as much as playing the flute! I hadn't tried to play one again until a couple of years ago, when I picked one up cheap and tried to have a go at it. I made some sounds, but they weren't particularly pretty and I found it hard to remember which fingers to use (clarinet fingering is similar to the flute in places, and different in others). I felt like my face was filled up with air and my head was going to explode. So it sat in its case for a while. This year though, I decided to try again. I really thought about and analysed what was happening with my breathing, and how it was different from the flute which uses a lot more air. I had been doing a bit of recorder-playing and that helped with the fingering (eventually I moved from thinking "bottom octave = treble recorder" to it almost coming automatically). Again, I had some informal lessons with a friend who teaches clarinet, which was invaluable for details of technique that I wouldn't have picked up or known about myself, and spotting things like my stray little finger sticking out - something I never do on the flute, but put my fingers at a different angle and funny things happen! And I thought, why not, do an exam, see if you can properly learn some pieces and perform them in front of someone? So, yes, Grade One clarinet will also be happening this July.
As well as expanding my playing skills onto different instruments, these little musical journeys have given me really valuable insights into being a beginner again. As a teacher, how I teach is influenced by how I was taught, by my experience as I teach different people, and by the reading I do and the training courses I go on. I also do a lot of thinking! But the experiences of picking up a (practically) new instrument and of re-starting an old one have helped me to remember what it's like to do something that feels really alien. To try to remember four different new physical skills at once. To try to translate the marks on the page to what your fingers etc are supposed to be doing - how that goes from being a process of 'working out' to one that's more 'automatic'. It's made me understand better what my adult students are feeling when they already have skills in other areas, even in other instruments, but they're trying to learn something new from scratch. But also to remember how good it feels to make progress with something that felt almost impossible to begin with. To confirm to myself, that indeed, you aren't too old to learn. And how exciting it is to be at the beginning of a journey, not knowing exactly where it will lead!
(I also want to say thank you to the two people who've helped me out with lessons and advice, patiently listened to my squeaks and my randomly loud left-hand piano notes, answered my silly questions and entered me for the exams - thank you!)
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