Exclusive interview with best-selling author Samantha Coates
Sydney-based music teacher and author Samantha Coates dazzled at this year’s Music Education Expo event, with a presentation brimming with energy and enthusiasm.
It was a pleasure to catch up with her afterwards to talk about her publications. In a warm, wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the importance of literacy, music theory and sight-reading, as well as Samantha’s recently developed passion for rote teaching.
But first I wanted to know more about Samantha’s back story …
Andrew: Thanks for agreeing to an interview for Pianodao! I was hoping you could perhaps start by explaining a bit about your background and talk about memorable experiences from your own music education..
Samantha: Okay, so I was born and bred in Sydney in Australia, and I’m first generation Australian in my family. My parents were English, and they were “ten pound poms”, so they came out on the boat. They both emigrated separately when they were teenagers, and they met in Sydney. So they got married, and the rest of my cousins and more distant relatives are in England, but my main family is in Australia.
I started learning the piano when I was about five, and then at five-and-a-half, my mother took my piano lessons away from me because I refused to practice.
Andrew: That’s a bit harsh… [laughs]
Samantha: [laughs] She was the type of parent that I now blog about! Because she just thought that if I truly enjoyed the piano then surely I would practice, and we all know that’s not true. Never mistake a child who doesn’t want to practice for a child who doesn’t want to play a musical instrument!
So anyway, luckily for me I happened to go back to just tinkling at the piano in our house, when I was about six, and then my mum said, “do you want your piano lessons back” and I said, “yes please”!
And then I kept practising, and she didn’t take them away from me again after that, thank goodness. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a job now, if she had!
And then I was fairly diligent, but I was by no means a prodigy, and I don’t recall ever practising that much; but I practised enough. And I had a Russian piano teacher who gave very standard, conservative teaching. I don’t recall ever being a fantastic sight-reader really.
One of the most memorable experiences was when I got into a selective music high school, and then I had to change teachers, and I didn’t know what a lot of music words meant, because I had heard them pronounced differently. I didn’t know the word dynamics! My Russian teacher had used some other word, so that was embarrassing!
It was when I went to this music high school that my sight reading really started develop, because my friends on other instruments asked me to accompany them so they could save money and didn’t have to pay an accompanist. That’s what really got me sight reading really well.
Andrew: Sight reading is obviously a huge passion of yours, which we will come back to…
Samantha: Okay, yes it is!
A Career in Education
Andrew: Once you had completed your training, did you go straight into piano teaching, or did you have a career in anything else first?
Samantha: No, it was pretty much straight to teaching. I did a Bachelor of Music in Performance, but then you realise you don’t have a career in performance, and so you start teaching. And I became very passionate about teaching. I didn’t do a degree in education, I did my degree in performance, but I’ve learnt a lot on the job. And also, the music education degree in Australia was for classroom music, there was no piano pedagogy degree.
Andrew: What have you learnt from your students and from teaching, what were the “Big Lessons” for you?
Samantha: I think that what I’ve learnt is that I like to find out what the student knows. Even if a child has never played before, if they are coming for their first lesson, that child is going to be full of musical experiences of some sort. And you’ve got to find out what they know. They already know so much: they will listen to certain music, they might have been taught to play something by rote, they might have nutted out a few things on the piano, or they may have no musical exposure whatsoever.
What I’ve learnt as a teacher is to not just launch straight in with some pre-conceived lesson plan. You’ve got to find out what you are dealing with, what is their current music experience, and you’ve got to work with that, and not just try to put them into a box where we’re going to start with “this method”.
I’ve got to find out what they know first, and work with that, and send them home with something which is pleasurable to do. Because I’ve done it wrong enough times! I’ve had enough first lessons with students that never came back to know that I really did something wrong there. That’s my fault, not theirs! I scared people off.
And then the other biggest thing I’ve learnt is that if somebody can already play, but they don’t have any music literacy, don’t stop them playing just because they don’t have any music literacy yet. Don’t drag them back to only what they can read.
And this is where my passion about rote teaching has grown, because we’ve got to somehow keep the repertoire that they are capable of playing going, so that they have interest and passion for playing, and alongside that develop their music literacy so that they eventually can merge in some way.
Andrew: So in those cases do you think it’s okay to be teaching pieces by rote at one level, whilst you are working on the theory material and sight reading material that you produce, but on another level?
Samantha: Yes, I think that would be the ideal way to teach. I mean, when students go to school and they can speak fluently, the teacher doesn’t tell them to stop speaking and that they are only allowed to say words that they can read! In any language it makes sense to be able to speak and express more than you can read and write. Reading and writing comes later.
I’m Yamaha trained, so I teach groups once a week at what used to be a Yamaha School, now Australian Music Schools, and the methodology is the same: Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write. We try not to disrupt the order of that. You hear it, sing it, play it; then you read and write. There shouldn’t be too much time that lapses before the reading and writing, because we do want to make sure that it’s cohesive and holistic teaching, but it’s always in that order.
I think what happens with method books is that we are trying to do the reading and the writing at the same time, so they’re only teaching what we can understand from a reading and writing perspective. And that’s a shame, because the easiest pieces to play at first are on the black keys, but they are a nightmare to read, with six flats, and so you wouldn’t teach pieces like that by notation. So I think there’s one approach where you can go by notation, and then there’s another approach where you can say: let’s start with what’s comfortable and easiest to play, and then develop the literacy.
And there can be a gap between playing ability and reading ability. I think what I’ve learnt is to be a bit more comfortable with that gap. It’s okay to play pieces where you don’t understand every single theoretical element on the page.
Andrew: You were saying when you were introducing your new book earlier that rote teaching is something you’ve come to relatively recently. And yet you do have the Yamaha training background as well. Is there any overlap there?
Samantha: Well yes, but the Yamaha approach is “by ear” training, and that’s very different to rote teaching. Rote is pure imitation – “copy me”. Playing by ear is different.
Andrew: Exactly – rote is visual isn’t it, basically? It’s not an aural approach.
Samantha: Yes, that’s right! And rote teaching in schools is mindless repetition like times tables, which is a maligned educational method, whereas in the piano world it’s all about learning by imitation without a reference to a score. But I think “by ear” teaching is definitely different.
Andrew: Can you talk more about that difference, because I think that’s going to be fascinating for people to hear what you think, a little more on that …
Samantha: My experience with Yamaha and Suzuki is that “by ear” teaching happens as the child listens, becomes immersed in the sound of the piece, and is able to regurgitate that by sound. Certainly, the way I teach in Australian Music Schools is that you teach a child to sing something in solfège, and then they are able to go and play that on the keyboard because they are playing what they have just sung. It’s all by sound, all by ear.
And that’s very different from somebody showing you where to put your fingers.
Andrew: Exactly – yes.
How to Blitz…
Now – let’s move on to talk about your books! I think that here in the UK people will probably know you most from the theory books, so perhaps you would like to tell us a bit about why you wrote those…
Samantha: In Australia there is an incumbent theory text book which is not very exciting, and it’s the textbook that I used when I was a child – it’s been around a very long time! I started using it with my students, and realised that they were really bored, so I thought, why not write a worksheet or two to jazz it up a bit, and throw in a few jokes?
I started writing more and more worksheets. And then I just got this idea, I could write a book, I could write a series!
And so I wrote a series for the Australian Music Examination Board syllabus, and I worked very hard workshopping and promoting those books. What I wanted was an alternative, a theory book that essentially had the same content as this other boring book that I grew up on, because it was written for the same syllabus…
Andrew: And that hadn’t changed either… [laughs]
Samantha: [laughs] That syllabus hasn’t changed! Not in over 50 years! And that book has been around for most of that time, and so I just thought, there’s got to be a more hip and groovy alternative.
I wanted a text that was conversational and user-friendly, and light-hearted, and in language that is not formal. I think the word “somewhat” should never appear in any child’s tutor book! I just wanted it to be much more casual.
Andrew: I think it’s a really fantastic, fun alternative, which makes music theory a more natural part of the child’s learning. And alongside that you’ve also written the sight reading series…
I’ve noted down a quote from your session this morning which struck me. You said that your biggest passion is sight reading! I’m guessing that most of my pupils won’t agree with you about that!
And you went on to say, which I think is incontestable really, that “literacy is the only way to access music when you are older”. How did you develop that passion?
Samantha: Good question! I think that because I was doing a lot of accompanying I became a good sight reader. And I very much enjoyed being able to sight read, because [A] it cuts down practice time, [B] you can get more work, people can employ you at the last minute, it’s not scary, and [C] it means I can just sit down and pleasure-play through lots of repertoire collections and just see what takes my fancy. So I’ve always valued the ability to sight read.
And there’s only one way to get good at it and that is by doing it all the time! It’s not a gift, you’re not born like that, you just do it. Ask anyone who is a good sight reader “why are you a good sight reader”, and they will always give you the same answer: “well I just do it, I do it all the time.”
My passion has been not only to get students to do it all the time, but also to try and figure out,what is it that we are seeing on the page? When you are a good sight reader, you don’t just see the whole page and play it out magically; what you are doing is becoming very good at quickly analysing and scanning ahead what’s on the page and recognising the elements.
Students are unnecessarily scared of sight reading; they need to be taught how to do it, and sometimes it’s not just a matter of having lots of pieces to sight read through – they need to break down the individual skills that make up good sight reading. So that’s what I’m trying to do through the sight reading series, breaking down the elements of sight reading so that you get good at reading rhythm, pitch, patterns and chords, and can put those skills together so that when you look at a page you can understand what you are looking at, and have a far better chance of being able to play it accurately.
… Rote Repertoire
Andrew: Finally your new book, How to Blitz Rote Repertoire, which you presented here today, and which I thought looked very exciting.
For the benefit of those who’ve not seen it, it includes short, what we might think of as sight reading clips or exercises, and for each one you have done three different levels. You explained that the first Level should be taught completely by rote, only afterwards showing them the dots on the page. And then they can compare Level 2, which is just slightly changed, more complex, and spot what those differences are, and then play it from reading. And then doing the same with the third Level.
What excites me here is that you use the rote but go straight to reading. You are using the rote directly to introduce the reading, without that gap that you were talking about earlier. Could you tell us more about how that concept has been working for you?
Samantha: It might help if I explain my compositional process for the series. I started by essentially composing those Level 3 pieces, making sure that they sounded good, and felt good. I wanted them to be contemporary, appealing especially to older students and adult beginners too.
And I wanted to address technique, ensuring the pieces are comfortable to play and well-aligned for young pianists. That usually means being in a key that has black notes, but then it becomes difficult to read, and that’s why we’re bringing rote into it.
If you are going from a notation perspective you’ve got to put everything in C major but that’s not a very comfortable key to play in. And it’s nice to be displaced from the midline, to be in a range which is quite a way away from Middle C, which then gives you ledger lines, which again can be prohibitive if you are trying to only go from a notation point of view.
So when I wrote the pieces, I wasn’t worried about what they looked like on the page. I just wrote pieces that sounded good and felt good and that were highly patterned, because I knew that I really wanted to teach sight reading through these pieces. Once I had a piece that I was happy with, then I looked at the notation and I would pare it down to Level 2, taking elements out of it. And then again, back to Level 1.
So Level 1 is like the skeleton that sets up the coordination, and it establishes the key and the hand positions. And then you are able to spot the difference in the score as we go to Level 2 and Level 3, and if it’s in a complicated key that doesn’t matter, because you’re teaching that part by rote. Once you are spotting variations in the score, the hand position is established, and we’re just responding to differences in rhythm and patterns.
But it’s not a drama, and I’ve never had any student who was in a B major hand position suddenly default to playing a C natural and a D natural when the rhythmic pattern changed.
Andrew: Because with that approach, the Level 1 that they’ve learnt by rote, they know the geography of the piece …
Samantha: That’s right! Yes!
Andrew: So the one thing, I suppose, which they are not getting so much here is instant pitch recognition for the first note, but what they are developing very strongly is the pattern recognition side of the reading, correct?
Samantha: That’s exactly right; they have been set up with the geography, the topography that they need, so they are already in the right spot, and so then they can just be responding to the various patterns. Basically, three variations, or a theme and two variations if you like.
Andrew: And a fourth one which they make up themselves later, which is also fantastic! And it’s really good to see that you regard this new book as a complement or supplement alongside your new “Beginner Sight Reading” book, which deals with those other elements of note recognition and that kind of thing. It’s certainly an exciting programme!
Samantha: Thank you!
Andrew: And thank you for talking to me and my readers! Good luck with this, and thanks for coming!
Samantha: Ah, thank you!