Meanwhile outside…

The Fermata Series

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’”

Robin Williams

The month of May seems to me to be one of the most magnificent of the year, at least here in the UK, where the lingering spring blossom gives way to an explosion of early summer abundance.

The temperature strains upwards towards ideal, but the mornings retain their wonderful freshness. It’s really quite magical!

Meanwhile, back indoors…

What cruel irony, then, that this is the very time of year where many young people are cooped up revising, huddled over computer screens, readying to be herded into drab school gymnasiums where rows of identical desks await.

One of my teenage students even tells me she has been explicitly instructed not to revise outside, as there are “too many distractions”!

It’s not that I’m against assessment; I am really not. But here in the UK we endure plenty of overcast, wet and windy days when studying indoors perhaps makes more sense!

In music education the same forces are equally at work, even though we instrumental teachers, perhaps more than anyone, have reason to challenge these assumptions.

Have teachers, pupils and parents become so convinced of an exam-led narrative of education that we are losing our ability to discern the deeper and richer benefits music can bring?

“The Grades” imagine a fixed, artificial destination (or at least, a series of stop-offs) which can too easily distract us from that all-important scenery that actually makes our musical journey truly rewarding.

So many adults returning to the piano tell me that they quit lessons as teenagers because they hated taking exams so much. I would suggest that we need to very seriously reflect on this.

Meanwhile outside…

a picture says more than a thousand words…

For the Daoist philosophers, one of the highest imperatives is for humanity to reawaken to the natural world around us and discover our place within it.

Recognising and following the seasons, both in the natural world and our inner journey, is fundamental to our success.

Throughout history, the Daoists were keen musicians and artists who demonstrated that far from adding to our sense of separation from the natural world, artistic expression can provide an avenue by which we come closer to it.

As one of the ancient sages explained:

“As a general principle, music is the harmony between Heaven and Earth, and the perfect blend of Yin and Yang. Great music brings delight, enjoyment and pleasure to ruler and subject, parent and child, and old and young alike.”

The Annals of Lu Buwei, 3rd century BCE, quoted in Brindley, EF: Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China, State University of New York Press, 2012.

As in all things, it is authenticity and balance that we need, and there are many ways we can promote this. For example:

  • Try to learn pieces and techniques at a natural, unforced pace.
  • Learn to be mindful as you practise, and non-judgmental as you critique your own (and others’) playing.
  • Aim to match the repertoire you tackle to your broader life goals, choosing pieces which inspire and enlarge who you are.
  • Always listen to your playing, immersing yourself and connecting with the source of the sounds.
  • Balance time spent working at the piano with time spent playing it; remember Active Repertoire so that your piano playing has a “success foundation”.
  • Listen to your body when practising/playing. And remember to breathe!

For all the hours spent practising, find balance by spending quality time away from your instrument. Even just a walk in the local park can have a positive impact on our wellbeing.

The outside can only harmonise with the inside if we take the time we need to explore both.

And there’s no better time of year to heed the call, and join the party!


Fermata Series

The Fermata Series offers short reflective blog posts, inviting readers to hit the PAUSE button.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


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Paul Harris: A Piece a Week

Sheet Music Review

Paul Harris’s series of A Piece a Week books have been appearing at regular intervals over the last three years. As Faber Music now bring us the Grade 5 book, it seems appropriate to consolidate my thoughts into a single review.

I’ll start with a reminder that the books appear within the best-selling ‘Improve Your Sight Reading’ series. That said, these are not sight-reading practice books per se. While useful in the practice of sight-reading as a discrete skill, the books aim to assist in the broader development of music literacy.

In the review which follows, I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, before then commenting on the actual material included in the books, including a few observations about their effectiveness based on my extensive use of them within my own studio.

Continue reading Paul Harris: A Piece a Week

ABRSM’s Piano Scales Review

ABRSM’S global standing has long been predicated on wide respect for their role as leaders in music education, setting and maintaining the “gold standards” that have been such a rich source of motivation and affirmation, inspiring generations of musicians worldwide.

But as they launch their latest Piano Scales Review, it increasingly seems they are ceding their authority, trading educational leadership for commercial popularity, led by market research.

In this post I will unpack some of their latest proposals against the backdrop of the bigger question of ABRSM’s historic role in setting and maintaining global standards in music education, noting both improvements and concerns.

Continue reading ABRSM’s Piano Scales Review

More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Sheet Music Review

I Back in 2008, ABRSM published a series of books called Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests. Although deserving an award for having the most utilitarian and uninspiring titles in my whole music collection, they have nonetheless rarely been out of action in the intervening years.

In short, they were an essential purchase for any piano teacher preparing students for ABRSM’s world-leading piano grade examinations, and have seen very active service over many years.

Since 2008, many others have brought out alternative products to help teachers and students prepare for the sight-reading element of ABRSM exams. Paul Harris’s ubiquitous and respected Improve Your Sight-Reading series has been updated more than once, and now includes audio tracks. Useful and innovative alternatives have also appeared from Alan Bullard, Samantha Coates, e-music maestro and several others.

Now ABRSM return with a new series bearing the slightly-less scary title More Piano Sight-Reading, a suite of eight new books, one to tie in with each of their grades.

A superficial look at the eight books suggests that these aren’t radically different from their predecessors (which, I should add, are still valid, as the syllabus itself remains unchanged). However, a more detailed look reveals several tweaks and changes to the format which, between them, make the new books a step-improvement on the older ones.

For this review, I will focus on five specific improvements which I think make this new series a superior alternative to the previous books.

Continue reading More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Piano Star Theory

Sheet Music Review

ABRSM’s Piano Star series of books for children have been warmly received since their introduction a couple of years ago, their pieces regularly appearing in student concerts, festivals, the Prep Test and Grade 1 exams.

Last year the original series of three progressive books of fresh new repertoire grew to include a book of “Five Finger Tunes at the entry level, and a “Piano Star Grade 1 book at the upper end (reviewed here).


And now there’s another addition: the Piano Star Theory primer is published this week. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading Piano Star Theory

ABRSM: New Directions 2019

Exclusive Interview with Michael ElliottChief Executive, ABRSM


Having attended a few ABRSM conferences in recent years, the teachers’ conference last Saturday was notable in many ways. On a visible front, it was noticeable that having sold out well in advance, the venue was teeming with enthusiastic professionals.

More subtly, it seemed to me that ABRSM as an organisation was invigorated, the spring back in its collective step, its message an overwhelmingly positive one, in spite of the challenges which presently face music education.

Against this backdrop, it was unusual too that in his welcome address, ABRSM’s Chief Executive Michael Elliott refrained from listing a string of achievements and announcements for the future, as has typically been the case.

Happily, I later in the day had the chance to sit down with Michael, together with ABRSM’s new Communications Officer Kerry Sheehan, to follow up on a few announcements from previous years and other rumours doing the rounds.

Michael gave generous and full answers, outlining his vision and a raft of forthcoming developments which will undoubtedly please readers here. And he was happy for me to audio record our interview and publish this full transcript, in which I hope readers will capture something of his enthusiasm and positive message!

Continue reading ABRSM: New Directions 2019

ABRSM Conference 2018: Report

Can it really be a year since I last reported from the annual ABRSM Teacher Conference? Apparently so! But once again this year I was delighted to be invited along to report from the event, share ABRSM’s latest news, and generally reflect on the day.

This year I had the added pleasure of a sit-down interview with ABRSM Chief Executive Michael Elliott on the day, and I’m grateful to him for graciously giving up time to answer my questions. Thanks too to Penny Milsom and Kerry Sheehan for their support.

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I’ve said in previous years, but it bears repeating: ABRSM really know how to put on a fantastic training day for instrumental teachers, building on their experience as world leaders in the music education sector, and with their fine pedigree of in-house and associated presenters.

A pleasure, too, to be back at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, once again proving to be a superb venue to host an event on this scale. As usual, the food was splendid, and every need of both hosts and delegates was anticipated and smoothly met. As for ABRSM themselves, the event was as flawless as in previous years, even though there was a noticeably and considerably larger audience this year (the conference sold out well in advance).

The rear cover of the glossy conference programme included the following important reminder of just how extraordinary ABRSM’s global reach is, summed up in these staggering statistics:

Over 40 million exams since 1889
600,000 exams a year
More than 700 examiners
1,200 books published
1,000 different assessments for 43 instruments
Exams in over 90 countries

I feel ABRSM are quite right to celebrate these achievements, because they don’t simply underline their success as the world’s largest examination board, but equally our success as musicians and teachers.

Not that we can rest on our laurels however; there is always more to learn, to do, and to achieve. As Michael Elliott explains in his introduction to this year’s conference:

“As music teachers, you have a vital role to play in passing on and nurturing a knowledge and love of this wonderful thing we call music. It’s a role that’s very much about giving and sharing. But it’s also about reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, discovering and implementing new ideas, and finding new sources of inspiration. Today we offer you a chance to do just those things in a conference packed with insights and top tips from a range of expert music educators.”

So without further ado, here’s the Pianodao report from the day… Continue reading ABRSM Conference 2018: Report

Finchcocks Reborn

For 45 years, Finchcocks – a beautiful Georgian manor house situated in Kent – was home to Richard and Katrina Burnett’s impressive collection of over 100 historical keyboard instruments (some 40 of which were fully restored), including harpsichords, clavichords, early fortepianos, square pianos, and more.

These instruments could not only be seen by visitors whenever the house was open to the general public – they could also be heard in performances there, and even played. Finchcocks was one of the few collections where visitors could avail themselves of the chance to get a feel for playing earlier repertoire on authentic instruments.

When the Burnetts retired in 2015, and the museum closed, with many of its instruments auctioned off for charity, there was naturally some sadness among aficionados of historical performance practice.

Enter new owners, by Neil and Harriet Nichols

Continue reading Finchcocks Reborn