Monthly Archives: August 2013

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause


After all my adventures of the summer, they finished up with a lovely trip away to Greenbelt Festival last weekend. Here’s a slightly bumper Friday Favourites to make up for the blog being quiet.


Do we really need to play the entire piano repertoire? (Classical Mel) – How to build up a collection of music you can really play well without getting overwhelmed!

Safely Increasing Practice Times (Musician’s Way) – tips on how to build up practice after a slow summer. Especially important for singers needing to rebuild their voice.

Adult Amateurs (Practicing the Piano – Some lovely advice from Graham Fitch on getting started as an adult musician.

From the Adjudicator’s Chair… (Classical Mel) – A very helpful post on what Mel looks for when she’s examining and adjudicating at competitions.

Chains of Thought About the State of Mind of Some Students (Beyond the Notes) – Unpacking how we learn, and ask whether we can teach and learn music more effectively.

Becoming a Musical Character (Jazz Advice) – Interesting post about our character as musicians and how we can become a personality when we play. Focussed on jazz, but has some good tips for all performers.

5 Benefits of Private Piano Lessons (Pianoanne) – 5 great reasons to take up private music lessons.

The Most Irritating Question (Kids & Keys) – Click the link to find out what you should never ask your music teacher!

How One Note Can Open Up Your Ears and Spark Your Musical Creativity (Jazz Advice) – Using drone tones to create exciting musical sounds.

What’s the Best Musical of All Time? (Guardian Theatre Blog) – The results are in and the answer is one click away (though the top is not surprising, some of the other entries in the top 20 are interesting choices…)

Greenbelt 2013: Life Begins

greenbelt2013This isn’t, strictly speaking, a music-related post or a review, but I wanted to share with you a little bit about the other passion close to my heart – faith. If you’ve looked around on my site, you have probably found that I offer a specialised focus on Church Music. This is because I am a Christian and I regularly attend worship at one of the churches in Edinburgh. I firmly believe that music is a vital and important part of our human lives not just because it is fun, but because it is a way of expressing, sharing and experiencing something beyond our words and our rationality. For me, music is a way to connect with God as well as a way to connect with others.

Why do I say all this? Well, I have been away over the last weekend at a very special place called Greenbelt Festival. It’s a festival focused around the three areas of faith, arts and justice. Broadly, faith means Christian, but many invited speakers are Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic or from another faith tradition. The festival is also passionate about justice, aiming to be a voice speaking up for the poor and oppressed and inspiring people to live in a sustainable and fair way. However, it’s the arts I am always most drawn to. Greenbelt is a place where art is linked to faith, but it’s not just Christian bands and paintings of the cross. It’s a place where art and music is about challenging ideas and inspiring people to think differently about the world. It’s the place where I learned that Christian music doesn’t have to mean singing about God, but, for me, it always means singing to God.

Mainly, however, this post is because I wanted to share a lovely poem written by one of the 20,000 Greenbelters there over the weekend. I hope it shares a little of what I took away from this weekend, and inspires you to see how art (and music in particular) can help you express, share and experience those deepest things inside you.

Life begins

before conception, when a Holy Trinity love each other very much and want to invite you to the party.

Life begins

with the sight of a baby in a sling being sung to by her father.

Life begins

in some fields near Cheltenham where you can find a little patch of home.

Life begins

with music and dancing and celebration.

Life begins

when people put past cares behind them and grasp a clean slate.

Life begins

when for the first time in months when you hear

“you give and take away”

you can at last sing

“my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name”

and mean it.

Life begins

with new connections and old recollections with cups of ale and gales of laughter.

Life begins

when you let go of the day-to-day drudgery,

cry yourself silly in the arms of a friend,

before laughing yourself happy in the arms of Jesus.

Life begins

when you find yourself not doing what you might have expected

and instead tagging along on a whim with fellow travellers for an unscripted adventure

and are extremely glad that you did.

Life begins

when something else has ended or died, often, like a phoenix from its ashes.

Life begins

when you recognise you only have a finite length of time at your disposal,

so many opportunities and choices all the time

but this isn’t so that you sit paralysed in indecision

it’s so you relish in the richness of it all and try and squeeze the best out of it

whilst still making time for the ordinary-yet-potentially-hallowed times

of unplanned nothing-muchness.

Life begins

when you acknowledge and accept that pain and doubt and uncertainty and all manner of darkness

may not be ignored or wished away

and that even without it always lessening

you can live through & with it.

Life begins

with a dawning hope that all will be well one day, somehow

and everything until then is just the journey.

Life begins

with glorious, terrifying freedom.

Life begins






Written by the talented poet who goes by the handle of stirringthepensive.

Summer is Over and the Autumn Air is Here

Autumn leavesJust a quick updated to say that the hectic month of August is over, and I am back lurking around the internet as normal now. Here are some of the things you should be looking out for this autumn:

  • The rest of the series on “A History of Music for Singers”
  • A new “Composer of the Month” feature with biographies, musical works and a set of free printables for your History of Music binder which will be available this autumn
  • A range of new printables and spreadsheets which will be available from the shop which should be online by Christmas
  • A new series on preparing for LCM Music Theatre exams and content for AMusTCL candidates
  • Regular weekly posts like Repertoire Corner (which I promise will actually start happening every week…) and Friday Favourites
  • Reviews of shows as diverse as HairsprayA Christmas Carol and Don Giovanni
  • Plenty of other tips, tricks and ideas for teachers and students of singing and music in general

Any other things you’d like to see? Let me know below if you have any questions you’d like me to answer or topics you want me to write about.

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

I’m off camping in a field this week at Greenbelt Festival, so this is a slightly curtailed edition of Friday Favourites. However, I hope you’ve got something exciting planned for this weekend. If you’re in Edinburgh, it’s the last few days of the fringe, so don’t miss out. You can read my fringe and international festival reviews by clicking the links.


Two Things Experts Do Differently Than Non-Experts When Practicing (Bulletproof Musician) – Another fantastic post on the psychology of practice. If you don’t already follow this blog, you should.

The Other End of the Telescope (Practicing the Piano) – A great article detailing the importance of slow practice, with some fantastic tips on how to do it well.

“Muscularizing” Completes the Learning Process (Music Teacher’s Helper) – Even singers use muscle memory as part of learning songs, and here’s a great post on the importance of muscles in learning music.

Listening and focusing… (Classical Mel) – Some thoughts on the importance of concentration and listening in making really good music.

What do I do if I’ve failed?

F gradeI was having a look through the search terms that led people to look at this blog, and I noticed that a couple of them were things like “failed sight reading on singing exam”, “abrsm grade 6 theory fail” and “abrsm grade 8 fail”, so I thought perhaps it was time to address the horrible question of what to do if you fail a music exam, or a section of the exam.

The first thing to say is don’t panic. I know it’s hard when you first see the mark sheet and it doesn’t hit that magic pass mark. Failing an exam doesn’t mean you aren’t good at playing your instrument, or that you don’t understand the theory. It doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals. All exams are there to do is mark points on our journey and give us feedback about where to improve.

Remember, it’s also ok to be sad, frustrated, angry and disappointed. Do what you need to do to process the feelings. If you need to have a cry, that’s ok! Or get someone you love to give you a hug. Make a cuppa and treat yourself to your favourite chocolate bar. Don’t try to figure out your next move until you feel ready.

Once you are ready, the first thing to do is reflect on what you did well:

  • Where did you get good marks? Did you pass your pieces, or do well in your sight-reading?
  • What kinds of positive comments did the examiner make? Even on a marksheet that records a fail mark, examiners still try to say what you did do well.

If you need to, write these out separately and read them to remind you that you did do some things well.

The next stage is to look for the things you didn’t do so well:

  • What sections or questions did you do worst on?
  • What sort of comments are there on the marksheet? Does it say something like “pitch was insecure” or “forgot the words repeatedly”? This will give you an idea of what needs to be better next time.
  • Do you agree with the examiner’s comments/marks? Do you remember making the mistakes?
  • In a theory exam result, do you remember finding the question hard to answer?

You might find it helpful to make a separate list of the things you need to work on for next time.

The last thing to do is to answer the question of “what do I do now?”. Here are some of my suggestions

  • Talk to your teacher to make a plan to tackle technical problems like pitch, rhythm or memorising.
  • Make a plan to focus especially on developing aural and musicianship skills if you failed the aural tests.
  • For sight-reading, challenge yourself to sight-read as much material as you can. Sight-reading is often a fail point in exams because it takes a lot of time and effort to build up the skills to do well.
  • Join a choir that uses sheet music – this will help your aural, sight-reading and performance skills
  • Get some performing experience – are there local competitions or concerts you could participate in?
  • Do something totally different for a while. Switch genres, try learning some duets, work on a bucket-list piece.
  • Think about how you’d teach the things you do know to someone else
  • Move away from formal theory and try doing some more creative things like composing or arranging

Finally, it’s important to remember that unless  you were taking a theory exam at Grade 5 or a practical exam at Grade 8, you don’t have to retake the exam if you don’t want to. If your teacher is happy, you could skip the failed exam and just move on with a view to taking the next one when you’re ready. You could also consider taking the same level exam again, but with a different board. If you stick with the same board, consider learning a new set of pieces.

If you do decided to retake the exam, you can find links to a range of different posts about taking music exams on my Advice from the Blog page and by checking the “exams” tag.

Whatever you do, don’t let a fail stop you from enjoying music. Exams are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and sometimes a fail is just what we need to remember that we are not exam taking robots – we’re musicians.

“But I’m Not Musically Talented!”

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThis is the cry of many people I encounter, and on the surface it might very well seem true. Perhaps other people seem to be able to hear music better, or pick up how to play an instrument faster. Surely they must be more “musically talented” than others?

Well, actually, that’s not really true. There is no real objective thing called “musical talent”. There’s not a whole lot of research into it, but this post collates a whole lot of the evidence so far to point out some key things (these are quotes from the linked article):

  • Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
  • Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching
  • Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and “deliberate practice”
  • Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains — not from birth but as a direct result of training

Ok, so if what scientific research there is struggles to identify any objective thing we could call musical talent, why do some people find musical skills easier than others? We could ask that about any skill, but here are some reasons that apply particularly to music.

1. People who seem to be “musically talented” developed key skills very young.

When we’re very young we have amazing aural and linguistic capacity. Human babies are born with the ability to form the sounds needed for any language – we can pitch our tone of voice or make strange clicks. As we develop language skills, we lose the ability to make the sounds we don’t need. A child from an African culture which speaks in a click language will keep the ability to make five or six different clicks with their mouth, while we native English speakers only really use one sound. A child who grows up speaking Thai will learn to control the pitch of their voice as they speak to communicate the different words with the same sounds, while native English speakers learn to use pitch to communicate emotion. Many of these skills are also useful for music, so it’s quite likely that children who are exposed to environments that use these skills retain them better and then find learning music much easier.

Even without considering the retention of skills from birth, the younger someone starts learning, the more quickly they learn and the longer they are likely to retain the information and abilities. Ever wondered why Mozart was so amazing? He was sat down at a piano as soon as he could sit up, and taught to play at a younger age than most children in the Western world even go to nursery school. He was also not sent to school, but educated at home, which meant he could dedicate more hours to practice than anyone else. This brings us neatly to point two.

2. People who seem to be “musically talented” dedicate more time to music, and that time is quality time.

ClockYou want to know why that fifteen-year-old from China can play the piano better than you can? He’s probably spent three or more hours practicing for every one you have. Music is a bit of a numbers game. The “ten thousand hours” statistic is dubious in its accuracy, but it certainly reinforces the rule that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon in four to five hours if all you’re doing is taking a leisurely jog around the park for twenty minutes a couple of times a week, but people often think musicians can pick up an instrument and play brilliantly while putting in similar effort. Talented musicians simply put in the hours needed to be masters.

Talented musicians also know how to use their time effectively. If your music practice involves you flipping through a few books and idly playing anything you fancy, then you’re going to progress more slowly than someone who focuses in on one thing at a time, and works on the difficult bits rather than avoiding them. Music practice can be quite boring! I once heard someone say that “if your family aren’t sick of you playing that bar again then you’ve not played it enough”. For help and advice on developing quality practice habits, click here.

3. People who seem to be “musically talented” may have other abilities or disabilities which affect their musicality.

Music isn’t actually a thing in itself that one can be talented at. It’s actually more of a combination of different abilities. Musicians require aural skills – the ability to hear and understand music clearly, but they also require physical skills and intellectual abilities. People who appear to be talented musicians may have great ears that can hear intervals precisely, and predict what makes sense. Or, someone who makes rapid progress might have particularly flexible hands, good fine motor control, or great co-ordination.  Other people might bring their intellectual abilities – an ability to understand what the music is about.

There will be some people who find music difficult because they have disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, can affect music reading. Other people have physical problems – anything from paralysis or amputated hands, to severe allergies or a lactose intolerance – that might affect their ability to play or sing. None of these things make it impossible to learn to play as many disabled musicians demonstrate. Musicians can learn to play the piano with only one hand, or learn to read braille music because they are blind, or rely on vibration to play because they’re deaf. It really puts the complaints of those of us who are able-bodied into perspective doesn’t it?

4. People who seem to be “musically talented” are in love with music.

I-love-musicBeing a musician is a lot like being married (or in a long-term relationship). Some days you are the happiest person in the world, and feel the glow of love. Other days, you wonder why you ever picked this life and seriously consider giving it all up. Ultimately, though, you know once upon a time you said “yes”. You fell in love, and you decided that love was worth fighting for.

So here’s the truth of the matter: ‘Musical Talent’ isn’t real. To become that person with musical talent, you just have to suck it up and put in the hours of quality time. It’s that simple. Not everyone will want to do it, and not everyone will be willing to overcome the physical and mental challenges you will face along the way. But if you want to, it is possible. Even for you.

(And if you do want to start the journey – check out my posts on choosing a teacher to help you on your way)

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

First and only Sondheim of the season.


FRINGE RUN: 12/8-24/8 (not 18th) @ 10:10; Greenside [£5]

Who, Where and When: Red Oak Theatre; Greenside; Saturday 17th August 2013; 10.10am

The Show

One should be under no illusions about Sondheim. His work is genius, but it’s not easy to get right. Merrily We Roll Along follows the life of composer Franklin Shepard, starting at the end of the story as his success crumbles away around him when he realises that on the way to fame and wealth, he has lost the people he cares about the most. The story then travels back in time, reversing the decisions Franklin makes, and ending at the start, where he and his closest friends have nothing but optimism.

As is always the case, Sondheim’s musical score is exquisite, with multi-layered harmonies and a huge range of songs incorporating both lyrical numbers, and more dialogue-based elements. Tying the whole score together, the title song “Merrily We Roll Along” is used to designate the movement back in time.

The story as a whole is typical of the “American dream” genre of American art. In this particular case, some of the American dream rhetoric is challenged (that about wealth and fame being the highest form of success) while others (doing what your heart desires no matter what) are underscored as morally good. Certainly, if this is Sondheim commenting on his experience of success, he implies that his fame as a composer is not as important to him as the musical works he has produced. However, I doubt Mr Sondheim is strapped for cash yet he censures Franklin for making decisions which bring financial gain at the cost of his art.

The Cast

Unfortunately, I feel Stephen Sondheim is in the same category as Jason Robert Brown – best not attempted by amateurs. Although this cast did well to perform the music, I felt there was significant depth missing in their acting performances. I didn’t really believe the depth of the friendship between Franklin (Henry Adams) and Charley (Andrew Horton) – I mostly wondered what they could possibly have seen in each other. Franklin was too business minded, and Charley too geeky, and so they seemed to fundamentally have nothing in common. Equally, though Mary Flynn (Rosie Archer) is supposed to be in love with Franklin, she mostly came off as lonely and desperate, rather than devoted. I felt the direction left this whole show a cast of caricatures, which trivialised the deep and powerful emotions running through the musical score.

There were also significant problems with audibility at times as not all of the cast had mics. Although the central cast were afforded amplification, there was no such grace given to the supporting chorus or peripheral characters and as a consequence there were a lot of lines which were not clear over the volume of the live band. It would have been a better decision to either mic everyone, or no one, rather than having a mixture.

The band, I must say, were brilliant, and I really enjoyed being able to see the musicians on set. I have seen shows of this difficulty suffer from lack of a conductor, but that was not the case here.


This is not one of Sondheim’s most innovative or exciting musicals, although it is not without merits. However, I was underwhelmed by the performances of this cast. A less difficult show might have seen them produce very good theatre. As it is, this is little more than mediocre. The band, should, however, be congratulated for being the highlight of the show for me – I actually think I spent as much time watching the musicians as the actors!

Notable Songs

  • Franklin Shepard Inc – Charley (Hard)
  • Not a Day Goes By – Beth (Medium)
  • Good Thing Going – Charley (Hard)

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥

The five most important questions to ask

singing-teacherWhen choosing a new teacher, we all ask lots of questions like “how much do you charge?” and “what hours do you teach?”, but there’s more to finding a good teacher than just cost and time. Here are five really important questions to ask a prospective teacher to help you find out not just if you can afford the lessons, but whether you’re getting good value for money.

1. What qualifications do you have?

Qualifications, as we all know, are not the be all and end all of ability. They are, however, an important baseline to help you weed out unsuitable teachers. I would recommend choosing a teacher who has at least grade 8 performance in the instrument you want to study. Ideally, you should look for someone who also has either a higher level of performing qualification and significant experience or a teaching qualification in the instrument you wish to study, or a closely related one (e.g. a viola teacher may have grade 8 viola and a teaching diploma for violin). By selecting a teacher who has qualifications, you are choosing someone who has been assessed independently for their ability to teach and has met a baseline standard. Teaching qualifications and music degrees also require a good knowledge of theory, which is important too.

If you don’t ask this question, you could end up with a teacher who has no idea what they are doing with the instrument. Not only will you probably be undermining quality teachers who probably charge more, but you will be putting yourself at serious risk of both a bad musical education and physical damage from bad technique.

2. What level/kind of experience do you have in teaching and performing?

What kind of experience level you would be happy with is a matter of personal taste, but I would recommend you find a teacher who has a good level of performing experience, and who continues to do some performing (even if not at a professional level). Teaching experience is also important. A music degree or performing qualification does not necessarily include any teaching skills, so ask about how long they’ve been teaching, and what kind of training they’ve had.

There is nothing inherently bad about choosing a brand new teacher – after all, we have to start somewhere, but you should be sure that you are satisfied with the level of supervision and support a brand new teacher has (do they have a mentor or teacher themselves?), and you should definitely ask them question 4.

3. Are you a member of any unions or professional bodies?

While this is not essential, the advantage of choosing a teacher who is a member of a body such as the Musician’s Union, Instituted Society of Musicians or the European Piano Teachers Association is that you know your teacher has suitable public liability insurance and legal support. Some of them also provide assurance the teacher has been through a criminal record check. A teacher who is a member of a union or professional body will also have to uphold certain standards, and I think it shows a good attitude to be a member of a professional body. It’s a good idea to check out the organisation after you’ve asked too.

4. What do you do to improve your teaching skills?

This is known as “continuing professional development” and is vital for any teacher. If they don’t have a teaching qualification, do they plan to get one? Do they attend courses or conferences? Are they continuing to take lessons in their instruments themselves? A teacher who invests time in learning is going to be constantly getting better as a teacher. Plus, a good CPD programme means teachers will be keeping up to date with changes to exam systems and requirements and new pedagogical ideas. No matter how experienced a teacher is, if they’re still teaching in exactly the same way they did 20 years ago, you’re not going to get the best teaching out there.

5. Do you have a set of terms and conditions or a tuition agreement?


It is really important that everyone knows where they stand. A contract, set of terms and conditions or tuition agreement should set out how much you should pay and when, what happens about missed lessons and how to stop taking lessons. It might seem easy at the start to be informal, but if anything goes wrong it can get really messy. For example, your agreement should set out how much lessons cost so if your teacher bills you for more than you’re expecting, you have the agreement to prove that they’ve made a mistake. Make sure you look carefully through the document – the teacher should take you through it – and keep a copy in a safe place for when you need to stop taking lessons.

If you ask these five questions, you should be well on your way to finding a good quality music teacher.

Do you have any suggestions for other questions to ask?

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause


Welcome to the mid-Fringe Friday Favourites! You can catch up on the best blogs on music this week, and if you want to read the reviews of the shows I’ve seen this week, you can click here.


The Perfect Wrong Note (The Cross-Eyed Pianist) – Why we, as musicians, need to ditch out our ideas of perfection, and start thinking differently.

Do Extroverts Make Better Performers? (Bulletproof Musician) – Well, actually this post is about shyness and performance.

Why Write on the Score? (Classical Mel) – We can get precious about books, but this is a post on why we should be happy to attack our music with a pencil.

Memorizing Your Pieces and More Memorizing Tips (Classical Mel) – Aimed at pianists, here are some tips to help with memorising music some of which are also useful for singers.

Reducing Unwanted Noise When Recording (Helen Russell) – If you read my post on essential practice kit for singers and want to try to record yourself, here are some great tips on how to get a good clear result.

Preparing for Fall: Sight-Reading Challenge for Special Needs Adoption (ComposeCreate) – Wendy at ComposeCreate has come up with this lovely sight-reading practice incentive idea that doesn’t feel like bribery and still gets kids working. I love this idea and I’m definitely keeping it in mind for my own studio in future.

Edinburgh festival: are we in a Fringe recession? (Guardian Theatre Blog) – This is the most challenging piece of the week from Lyn Gardner. She asks if, despite the rise in ticket sales, the Fringe is actually seeing a recession in terms of smaller companies struggling to find audiences and companies bringing less challenging theatre. Big questions…

And, finally, for anyone studying advanced theory, here’s a useful picture so you’ll never forget a Neapolitan Sixth again!


AMusTCL – Topics for Section C

Trinity LogoTaken from the past papers (2009 sample, 2010 and 2011 so far), here are a list of the topics which have been covered by previous essay questions in Section C: Stylistic Development – Musical Responses.

Toccata: Jacques Loussier Plays Bach

  • Spontaneity and improvisation
  • Inspiration from Baroque features
  • Creative limitations of arranging
  • Commonality between Baroque and Jazz
  • Compositions in their own rights?

Popular Music

  • Worldwide appeal
  • Variety of cultural backgrounds
  • Innovation
  • Distinct musical sound
  • Musical qualities that lead to success
  • Non-musical qualities that lead to success (video/fashion/publicity etc)

Film Music

  • Hallmarks of film music as a specific genre
  • Importance of music in film as an art form
  • Integration of music within the film
  • Music and emotional response
  • Relationship to Programme Music
  • Role of music in enhancing drama


  • Conflict between speech and music v. unified artistic whole
  • Treatment of ‘the outsider’
  • Social and contemporary issues
  • Role as ‘Protest music’
  • Ingredients of a successful musical
  • Popularity of the music v. other reasons for success

For details of the full questions, the past papers can be purchased from Trinity. I have no insider knowledge, so this is by no means a guarantee that these topics will come up again. However, it should give an idea of what kind of areas to focus on in preparing.

I hope this is helpful if you are preparing for this exam. I’m hoping to get a resources post up soon with links to websites I’ve found useful.