Tag Archives: teaching

Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

To Enter, Or Not To Enter…?

It’s September. That means for all us music teachers, like the children we teach, it’s back to school and back to work. In the UK, as well as abroad, a new term means we once again face the question: do I enter my pupils for an exam this term?

Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. Maybe it’s a last opportunity before a student moves away, or maybe you put it off the previous term to give yourselves a few more months. Your student might even need to take the exam to get into university. For others, it’s more tricky to decide. Here are a few really important questions to ask before you enter a student for an exam.

Have I covered all the material required for the exam?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

If you’ve not actually taught all the material, this should be a big warning light. There can be as little as five weeks between entries closing and the first possible exam date. Five weeks is not enough time to teach whole songs or concepts. You want to be able to spend the time working on refining and improving what your student can already do.

Would my student pass if they sat the exam tomorrow?

This can be a really good acid test of whether your candidate is ready. If you reckon your student could get the pass mark or a little better if they sat the exam now, then you have plenty of time to ensure that not only will they pass, but they’ll do so comfortably, or even gain a merit or distinction. If your candidate is looking ropey, it might be time to push back a term and give you both a little more time.

Am I considering entering them because their parents/they have asked to even though I don’t think it’s a good idea?

It can be really hard to say no to a parent who is keen for their child to excell, but it’s not kind to a student to enter them too early. If they fail, you may crush thier confidence. If they pass, they (and their parents) might gain unrealistic ideas about their abilities. If you are not happy entering them, bite the bullet and say ‘no’.

Would my student do better by waiting an extra term?

Some students will improve massively with more time, allowing them to slowly and surely build towards success. Others will continue to procrastinate until you put a deadline in front of them. Get the measure of your student – are they likely to work hard in the extra time, or do they need pressure? You can wait forever for a procrastinator to be ready for an exam and many of them may give up entirely if you wait too long.

There’s no right or wrong answer about when to submit for an exam. It’s a careful balance between knowing your students, listening to the parents, and forming your own judgements. Make sure everyone has a say in the choice. It’s often easy to give in to pushy parents, or decide you ‘might as well enter’, so if in doubt, leave it one term and see what happens.

Good luck to everyone who is entering candidates this term. I hope they do really well.

Why I Love Teaching Adults

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about why I like teaching kids, and there are a lot of reasons. Now, it’s time to tell you why I love teaching adults!


Adult voices are settled and ready for intensive training

Once you’re in your mid-twenties, your body has settled into it’s adult state. This means that adult voices are more stable, and can be trained more intensively. That voice is also the one that adults will have for the rest of their lives, so it’s much easier to work into developing that persons’ particular vocal range and colour to develop a repertoire that will last a lifetime. As a wise blogger recently said, a true soprano prodigy is about 24, not 12 – adult singers are in the best vocal form of their lives!

Adults are more regular practisers

Most adults don’t take up music because their mum or dad thought they would be good at it. They take it up because they chose to invest their own hard-earned cash in a new hobby. When you make the choice to spend your own money on something, your work ethic goes up massively. Even students who work in very demanding jobs seem to find far more time for practice than kids who finish school at half-past three and have only a few scraps of homework to do.

Adults ask great questions

I love the conversations I have with my adult students. We can start off on one topic and end up somewhere completely different. I rarely explain the science of harmonic sequences to kids, but adults love to know not only what is right, but why aspects of music theory work.

Adults constantly push themselves

Kids rarely have any idea of where they’re going with music, and although some get frustrated with their progress, most of them are happy to just enjoy the journey. Adults, however, tend to have goals in mind and are constantly measuring themselves against other people, and their own existing achievements. In music, this means the best adult students are always pushing themselves to do better. It’s actually really nice to sit down for a lesson with an adult student and find that they have made startling progress, or to be able to praise them for their hard work (rather than nag them because they’re not getting better!).

Adults are partners in their lessons

The adult students that really are a joy to teach are the ones I have who are partners in the lesson. They invest in their learning by coming up with ideas, asking questions and sharing their insights. Kids see their music teacher as an authority figure, and either obey or play up. Adults are much more likely to view their music teacher as a mentor, guiding them rather than leading them.

Adults are often more rewarding to teach than kids because of their higher personal investment levels, but I love teaching all my students, no matter what their age or stage.

Are you an adult thinking about taking up music? If you’re thinking about it, why not contact me to arrange a consultation lesson? It’s never too late to take up music!

Why I Love Teaching Kids

I love teaching, partly because each and every student is unique. You never know what you’re going to get. Both kids and adults come with their own special joys that make them very different to work with. This is what I love about teaching music to kids.

Kids are unpredictable

You can be fairly sure that most adult lessons will more or less be similar every week. The late ones will be late, the hardworking ones will have worked hard, and the forgetful ones will have forgotten something! Part of being an adult is learning and developing consistency of character and behaviour. Kids haven’t got there yet. Some days, they’re bouncing off the ceiling, others they’re tired and unmotivated. Even when they’re fairly average, you never know when they’re going to turn around and say something totally bizarre, or incredibly insightful. Lessons with kids are never the same twice!

Kids are ambitious and take challenge in their stride

Most kids don’t really have much experience of failure, and none of them have learned the life-lesson of adulthood that ambitions have to be tempered with realism. Kids want to be actors, pop stars, astronauts and superheroes – they have no idea about gas bills and council tax. This means kids tend to take all the challenges of music like taking exams in their stride. Everything in their life is about learning, so they just take learning music as normal. It’s delightful to see them go forward with a level of confidence adults rarely exhibit. Give kids a challenge and they’ll almost always rise to it.

Kids are endlessly inventive

Adult life tends to crush creativity. We’re so busy keeping afloat and doing what we have to, that creativity is often squeezed into small portions of time, or applied to very practical problems. Kids don’t have this issue – so they’re always coming up with new ideas and thoughts. I always find I learn new ways of looking at music from the kids I teach because they just think in a more creative way than I do.

Kids are full of potential

With adults, you usually know where their musical journey is headed. Sometimes, one will surprise you, but most of them enjoy music as a hobby, or are already working professionally (or have ambitions to). Kids aren’t even close to a career plan, so you never know where their musical journey could take them. Some will go on to study music at university or conservatoire, and others will take non-academic routes to a music career. Many will find a non-musical career, but hopefully, they’ll take both the primary and secondary skills learned from music lessons into those careers and succeed at them. The delightful thing is, when you start the journey of music lessons with kids, you have no idea where they’re going to end up in the end.

Those are just a few of the reasons I love teaching kids!

If you have a child who is interested in singing lessons and you live in the Edinburgh area, why not arrange a trial lesson for them with me? I offer specialist tuition for primary aged children which develops all-round musicianship and develops vocal technique in a safe way for young voices. High school aged children are able to take formal singing lessons.

Exercises for Beginners: Square Breathing

One of my favourite exercises for beginners, and for warming up with a choir is square breathing. It’s all about developing control of your breath, and extending lung capacity.

From the beginning of any vocal training, it’s really important to work on your breathing. To breathe properly, you need to breath into every part of your lungs, especially the bottom part near your stomach. Your ribcage, back and abdomen will expand when you’re breathing to your fullest extent (this is no time for vanity about having a ‘flat belly’!). You want your shoulders and upper chest to remain as still a possible and not rise up. They’ll likely move a little bit, but it should be hardly noticeable to the eye.

Before you try square breathing, take a few deep breaths, focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs with air. If you’re struggling, place a hand just at the bottom of your ribcage – you should feel it going up and down.

Once you’re comfortable with this, you want to start to inhale and exhale on a rhythm. Count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.

Square breathing

Now, let’s try the exercise itself.

Breathe in for a slow count of 1-2-3-4 and then hold the breathe in for a count of 1-2-3-4, then breathe out to 1-2-3-4 and then wait for 1-2-3-4 before breathing back in again. Look at the handy diagram on the right to get a better idea of how the pattern works.

When I’m conducting a choir, I use hand movements that model this square shape (hence the name square breathing), moving my hand up for in, across for hold, down for out, and across the other way for hold.

As you get used to it, start to increase the count to 8, 12, 16 and more – try not to speed up the counting though! You could also try doing this while walking as that makes it harder because your body is using slightly more oxygen to walk rather than sit or stand. You could also mix and match the numbers so breathe in for 2, hold for 4, out for 8 and wait for 2.

I recommend my students to try to do this exercise every day as part of their practice. It’s something you can do easily in all kinds of situations, so while you might use it as part of a warm-up for singing practice, you could also do it silently in your morning commute, or sat at the back of a dull meeting (one of my students does it during school assemblies). You could even do it in bed as it can encourage physical relaxation.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, or where you might be called on to speak though!

The muscles in your lungs, just like those everywhere else in your body need to be used to get stronger. Doing this exercise every day will help you to focus on good breathing technique, so it becomes automatic, and it will strengthen your muscles so you can control the outflow of breath when you are singing.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your breath control for singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

The Mythical Grade 8

ABRSM Exam Certificates

Grade 8 is the highest available graded instrumental exam. For parents and students alike, it can seem like a glowing light in the distance – a magical target that once achieved will bestow the mythical status of ‘musician’ on anyone who can reach it.

Here are 8 myths about reaching Grade 8:

Myth #1 – Grade 8 means I’m good enough to be a professional

Nothing in music qualifies or says you’re good enough to be a professional. The people who decide if you’re good enough to be a professional are the people who pay you! Grade 8 is definitely a good target if you want to have a career in music. It should set you up with a solid technical foundation, and give you extra skills like sight-reading and aural awareness. By the time you reach Grade 8, you’ll also probably have a good idea of whether you want to make a living from music. However, Grade 8 alone isn’t going to get you paid work – you need more skills than what is included in Grade 8. Diplomas, higher education study and participation in plenty of amateur performing opportunities are the things that will help you get started as a professional.

Myth #2 – By the time I get to Grade 8, I’ll be able to sing/play anything right away

There’s some truth in this one. By Grade 8, if you’ve really achieved the all-round standard, you should be able to tackle most music. There’ll be very little that’s off-limits. However, there’ll still be things which take work and could take months or even years to perfect. There’ll be lots of things you’ll be able to sight-read (more or less), but not everything will be!

Myth #3 – Passing Grade 8 means I don’t need any more lessons

At Grade 8, you need lessons more than ever! As you get better, there’s lots you’ll be able to do in your own practice times to improve, but when you’re working at a post-grade 8 level you need a teacher who has experience working with advanced level pupils who can refine and improve your voice. The right teacher will also help you to work out what steps to take next in your music “career” – whether it’s full-time study, diplomas or a summer school.

Myth #4 – By the time I get to Grade 8, I’ll be able to write my own music

Grade 8 is a performance exam, so you never have to learn to compose as part of it. Some boards do have an improvisation option, but there’s no real composition element. If you get to Grade 8 with ABRSM you’ll probably have a good idea of what sounds good and bad, and some of the basic theory you need to back it up. However, composing is a different skill to playing.

Myth #5 – If I get Grade 8 in one style of singing, I’ll never be able to sing any other music

Not at all! Grade 8 is a sign that you’ve hit a good level of proficiency in one style of singing, but very few people who sing professionally (other than perhaps those at the top of their game) only sing in one style or genre. If you’ve reached the giddy heights of classical Grade 8, you can probably start in at a higher level for rock & pop exams or musical theatre exams, though you’ll still have new skills to learn. I’d actually recommend getting experience in two or more vocal styles to give you greater vocal flexibility and a wider range of options.

Myth #6: Once I’ve passed Grade 8, I can teach my instrument

This, for me, is one of the worst myths out there. Graded exams do not qualify anyone with teaching skills. This is, however, a point a which one could consider the possibility of teaching, and look for a mentor to guide you through the early stages of learning to teach. Grade 8 is one of the requirements for taking teaching diplomas, as are more advanced theory qualifications, and I would always recommend getting a teaching qualification so that you and your future students know you know what you’re doing. Please, whatever you do, don’t set up teaching the day after you get your Grade 8 certificate. You’re not doing anyone any favours. If you’re interested in qualifying as a teacher, please contact me. I’m not yet qualified to teach teachers, but I can recommend a number of other teachers across the UK who will be happy to mentor you.

Myth #7: Grade 8 makes me a musician

If you need a certificate to prove you’re a musician, you probably aren’t one. Being a musician is a gut feeling, just like becoming an adult. Whether it’s the moment sight-reading clicks, or the day you perform perfectly in a competition, you will, one day, find that thing which makes you feel like you can hold that title.

Myth #8: Grade 8 is the end

Grade 8 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. Go out and explore where you can go next!


Learning a New Language

Since I started teaching singing, I’ve been struck over and over again how much learning music is like learning a language. Music speaks in its own way – by learning to play our instruments we are learning the words and sentences that allow us to convey meaning. When we start to unpack notation, we’re learning to read (and write) all over again. We develop our ability to understand through listening to music, so we can appreciate and enjoy not just one, but many levels of music, just as in conventional language we learn to appreciate poetry of language as well as the message it’s conveying.

Just like a language, we use and move in all four linguistic realms:

The Realms in Music

These realms are often quite disconnected, like in the image. We do things which cover all of them, but we don’t think of them as all together. Schools take a lot of the burden of listening, but don’t do much with speaking or reading and writing. Private music lessons focus lots on speaking and some reading (playing from notation), but not much on writing. Well, until the dreaded Grade 5 theory approaches, and then it’s a crash course through the minimum to pass.

As a teacher, I’ve come to realise that really, learning music looks a lot more like this:

Bringing the Realms Together

It’s important to develop the relationship between all the different aspects of learning, otherwise vital skills, like writing down what you hear (or, dictation) get missed out!

We want to cover all these areas in lessons like this:

Integrated Learning

We want students to be able to do the skills in the in between brackets long before they go to conservatoire. Dictation isn’t hard, it just needs practice, as does sight-reading. Being able to identify differences between music as written v. as played might seem like a party trick, but it’s actually key to the kind of self-awareness that means students can fix their own mistakes both in playing and composing.

I’m currently working on building a curriculum of musicianship for singers that takes into account all these different areas to make sure my students go out into the world not just able to sing, but as singers and musicians.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas on activities which can tie different “linguistic” areas of music together? Add your comments below:

Why Choose a Qualified Music Teacher?

ABRSM Exam Certificates

I often come across students who ask the question “Can I start teaching once I’ve got my grade 8?”. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, to which the legal answer is “yes”. In the UK, we do not have a licensing system for private music teachers. There are no official qualifications, or routes into the profession. There is no single professional body one has to join. Legally speaking, anyone (literally anyone) can teach any instrument they fancy to anyone willing to let them.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s why I’ve titled the post the way I have. If you’re a student wanting to teach, this post should give you some idea of the benefits to you and your students to getting a qualification. For those of you looking to find a music teacher, this is why you shouldn’t just ask about performance qualifications, even degrees.

Qualified music teachers are qualified as teachers not just performers

Graded exams don’t have any requirements which test teaching – they’re designed to test learning, and these are different skills. A candidate with a distinction at Grade 8 might be a wonderful performer, but they might also find it hard to explain to a student how and why they do what they do to achieve that performance. There are some wonderful performers who may be so comfortable with their abilities that they find teaching a beginner frustrating! Music degrees, whether from universities or conservatories, also don’t generally include any training on how to teach music to others. If your prospective music teacher has only taken performance qualifications, how did they learn to teach?

Qualified teachers have invested in their own development

It’s not cheap to sit a teaching qualification. For qualifications in private music teaching, a candidate will be required to spend upwards of £200 (rising to £600-£1000 for top level qualifications) just to sit the exam, never mind the hours of reading, study and preparation that have gone into the qualification. Anyone who is committed enough to put that kind of investment in is going to be someone who is invested in teaching for the long term, and is far more likely to be taking an interest in Continuing Professional Development. If your teacher isn’t a qualified teacher, are they taking steps to improve their teaching through books, courses and networking?

Qualified teachers know they way they learned isn’t the best way for everyone

Of course, this can be true of non-qualified teachers too, but part of getting teaching qualifications involves reading about pedagogy, and developing new ways to teach old skills. At higher levels, many exams require understanding of child development, psychology, sociology and even anatomy. I would never have learned so much about the physical nature of the voice if I had not studied for a teaching qualification, for example. By taking the time to study teaching as a skill in itself, qualified teachers are more likely to have a wide vocabulary of activities to teach each skill covered.

Qualified teachers have respect for their profession

Again, I realise many non-qualified teachers do have respect for the profession as a whole, but I feel that taking a qualification in teaching has two key benefits with regard to the whole profession. Taking a qualification, as has already been said, is an investment and one which directly reflects a commitment to teaching. Teachers who invest in training are likely to be teachers for the long haul – they’re not going to disappear once their music degree ends, never to be seen again! The other benefit of qualifications is that many of them help teachers develop a network of other teachers for support, help and ideas. Is your teacher undercutting their colleagues? Or do they have respect for their fellow teachers?


Yes, there are many good and experienced teachers who are not yet qualified. If you are one of them, I would urge you to invest the time and money in getting your skills and talents attested to by an independent body. To you I say, help us raise the bar with teaching and make it the norm for music teachers to be qualified as teachers not just performers.

Perhaps you are someone who wants to be a teacher? Please take the time to study teaching, to learn about how to help others learn, and get rewarded for that effort. It marks you out as someone worth learning with.

To prospective pupils, a qualified music teacher may charge you more, but they will be worth it in the long term. They are far more likely to be a teacher you can stick with right the way up the grades and on to greatness. Qualified teachers are a good investment.

If you’re looking for singing lessons in Edinburgh, click here to contact me – I am, after all, a qualified teacher.