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…

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Simple fixes for easing piano pain

Lesson Notes

Please note: “Bernice” is not the student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.


Bernice is a 76-year-old learner who took up the piano about 5 years ago. She has made steady progress, is now early intermediate level, and particularly enjoys playing traditional classical favourites.

Bernice’s Wrist Problem

Bernice has recently developed some physical problems in her wrist area. On the right wrist, she has a large ganglion close to the base of her thumb, which cases mild discomfort. The surgeon she has consulted is going to remove this soon.

On the left wrist she has a more chronic problem. Here there is a ganglion just below the fifth finger, not noticeable to the eye, and a scan has revealed that it is pressing against a nerve. There is possibly also minor swelling in the tendon. The medical specialist cannot operate, but has suggested that with care and anti-inflammatories the problem may dissipate.

The mention of tendons might be enough to convince some that piano playing should be avoided altogether. It is natural that we teachers don’t want our students to experience pain, and most of us will be aware of the real danger that tendonitis presents to pianists.

However, the medical advice here is that it is fine for Bernice to continue playing the piano, provided she is careful and exercises moderation. The hospital specialist has pointed out that such problems, as well as arthritis, might become an ongoing issue, but that these need not stop her from pursing her love for music (which is real and important to her).

Happily then, we can assume that Bernice’s medical problems are essential “minor” at present. But this doesn’t diminish the discomfort she reported when coming to her lesson, nor her fear that she might not be able to continue playing.

Continue reading Simple fixes for easing piano pain

The Piano Student’s Humiliation

The other morning, while enjoying my first cup of tea for the day, our puppy Bella Bardóg decided to keep nudging me for attention, distracting me from reading the book in my hands. I rather thoughtlessly responded with,

“If you want the book, how about you read it to me?”

Bella looked somewhat forlorn, and my wife Louise chipped in with,

“Don’t humiliate her! You know she can’t read!”

This slightly daft domestic anecdote illustrates a hugely important truth: when we ask somebody, anybody, to do something we know they are incapable of, we humiliate them.

How often, perhaps inadvertently, do we do this to our students?

As well as an aspiring dog-whisperer, Louise is a clinical specialist in child and adolescent mental health, and it is only fitting to credit her for many of the thoughts which follow, emerging as they did from our discussion that morning…

Continue reading The Piano Student’s Humiliation

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

‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

Pathways in Teaching

“Very young beginners, of five years or under, sometimes appear to make remarkable progress at first, and can be taught up to a point by imitation or ‘rote’. A large part of their lesson is taken up with rhythmic training and singing.
In actual piano-playing they progress a certain way and then they appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest.”

Joan Last
The Young Pianist (Oxford University Press, 1954, 1972)

Rote learning seems to be very much back in vogue, and the remarkable progress which Joan Last writes of is something many teachers will be familiar with. Indeed, it is perhaps because of this ‘quick win’ progress that a number of prominent writers and trainers recommend teaching “by imitation or rote”.

The benefits would seem to include:

  • Building pupil confidence and ongoing enthusiasm;
  • Playing more advanced, expressive, interesting and impressive music than the pupil can presently read;
  • Exploring keyboard geography and developing physical freedom;
  • Developing musical memorisation ability;
  • Providing an inclusive option for students who struggle with reading;
  • Focussing more on technique and ear training;
  • Delivering quick results that impress parents and encourage students.

With such wonderful benefits, shouldn’t we all embrace rote learning as a core element of our teaching practice?

Certainly there are many who would answer that question with a resounding “yes”, but Joan Last points to a significant fly in the ointment: after progressing a certain way, players “appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest”.

Martha Beth Lewis, a US pedagogue with more than 50 years experience teaching children, puts it far more bluntly on her advice page for teachers:

“Position playing and rote learning are mostly wastes of time. I think such methods are used by teachers to convince the parents that the teacher is doing a good job because the child can “play a tune” very soon. Such systems do NOT serve the student.”

So let’s take a deeper look at the subject, and consider why such esteemed writers and experienced teachers have spoken out against this approach…

Continue reading ‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

Musical Focus is Paramount

The Fermata Series

Musical focus is paramount.
So many pupils are concerned with technical problems divorced from their musical raison d’être. Their focus is solely on the hurdle and it’s insurmountability.
But the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Norma Fisher
International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

So often as a teacher I come across players who “learn the notes” first, only later considering the expressive intentions of the music they are studying.

“For next week, why not try to add the dynamics…”

It’s certainly an easy trap to fall into – reading the notation, working out finger patterns, discovering the music with a systematic, segregated scheme in mind, rather than trying to “run before you can walk”.

And yet I always recommend that players try to pay attention to the dynamics, articulation and other expressive details as early as possible in the learning process. Adding these as an after-thought has always seemed to me a slightly odd way to do things.

More important still, surely we benefit from seeing the “big picture” when starting any musical endeavour or project. Best, where possible, to first discover any piece of music sound before symbol – it is in the hearing of a piece that its content is most powerfully and memorably communicated, and unless we have some aural concept, it can prove difficulty to muster sufficient motivation to commit to learning, absorbing and mastering the detail.

Learning becomes uninspiring.

Looking at the photo at the top of this post, we so could easily, finding ourselves in this scene, study the detail of the plant and insect life, without noticing the golden sun which illuminates it all.

In the same way, I believe that the expressive intention of a piece of music is the very thing which brings light to it, giving it meaning.

As Norma Fisher so eloquently puts it,

“…the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Fermata Series

Your Story: William Minter

Your Stories

William Minter is a teacher and composer living in Connecticut. He is the author of Journeys, a piano series for intermediate learners.

Here, William reflects on his piano journey, and sets out the many motivations which have kept him engaged in playing …

Continue reading Your Story: William Minter

Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Pathways for Teaching

In the minds of many students (and in the case of children, their parents), two questions are constantly lurking –

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

I believe teachers should routinely answer these questions, but how best to frame those answers? As a general principle I would suggest that pupils will gain confidence if they have a clear, honest perception of their progress, and goals which are detailed and encouraging.

Graded exams can offer one way – and an important framework – for pupils to gain the meaningful, quantative answers that help foster confidence.

While exams are certainly not without their issues, most of the concerns I see raised relate more to their misuse than to their appropriate use. 

In this article I will consider both, and offer a personal perspective on some of the most common concerns. And in conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the question: Graded Exams – Friend or Foe?

Continue reading Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Why Bother with Scales?

Pathways for Teaching

“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”

Anthony WilliamsThe Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber, 2017, p.31)

Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …

In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:

  • What are the benefit of learning scales?
  • Is it important to use consistent fingering?
  • What are the benefits of cumulative learning vs. exam preparation?
  • How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?

Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…

Continue reading Why Bother with Scales?