Spring Repertoire Challenge

The Spring Repertoire Challenge is ideal for players of all ages, and offers a great starting point for developing and building an Active Repertoire at the piano. Are you up for it?

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Coronavirus and Piano Lessons

With the World Health Organisation’s confirmation of a pandemic, it’s natural that most of us have become preoccupied, concerned and even scared about what the rapid spread of coronavirus might mean for our lives and livelihoods.

Piano teacher forums are awash with teachers seeking advice and support, but clear, practical and proportionate advice isn’t always available.

A common theme in the advice teachers are sharing is that the best option for many will be to use a video link to continue tuition wherever possible.

For several years, my students and I have already been doing just that, using FaceTime and Skype as a fallback option when coming to my studio proves impossible. And we have found that tuition via video link, while having some obvious limitations, can also offer some unique insights and opportunities.

By minimising disruption to lessons, we can help our pupils to stay motivated and maintain momentum, while as teachers we continue to earn our living.

There are of course dangers inherent in closing down our studios prematurely, stoking alarm, and creating a situation where tuition via video link is used for an unnecessarily extended time to the possible detriment of pupil progress.

Some teachers feel overwhelmed by the technological aspects of setting up a video link; they needn’t. The present situation creates an opportunity for us to embrace new technologies and learn alternative approaches that will both enhance our ongoing teaching and benefit our businesses.

An effective video link, where offered as a temporary solution for students who generally come to lessons, depends on using an easy, no-fuss setup that can freely be adopted by all our students straight away, regardless of their age and technical know-how.

In this post, I will share the advice that I am simultaneously sending to my students, outlining studio policy and explaining to them how easy it is to have their lesson via video link. While some have previously used this option, many haven’t, so I’ve included reassuring instructions.

I should preface this by recognising that most teachers will understand straight away that their studio policies differ from mine. And that’s good. There is no “right and wrong” way of organising a teaching studio, and the fact that we all operate a little differently is a huge positive, enabling those looking for a teacher to select one whose approach best fits their needs.

I should also add that the advice given below is predicated on current official advice in the UK; should I be forced to close the studio at a later point in our national response, I will need to revisit some aspects of the policy.

In the meantime, my aim is to be as flexible and supportive as possible, and offer as much choice to students as I can.

I hope that the thoughts below will be of some help to those teachers who are still considering their options, and in that spirit, here is my letter to students and parents…

Continue reading Coronavirus and Piano Lessons

Which Adult Piano Method 2020?

Sheet Music Review

For 2020 I am pleased to present an updated feature on the adult method books I most highly recommend.

I’ll start with in-depth reviews of my TOP 5 CHOICES.

After that I will also include shorter reviews of some other great alternatives.

One of the most exciting developments over the course of my piano career has been the huge increase in adults taking up lessons. I have lost count of the number of adult beginners I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the last three decades; at present I teach more than 30 adults.

I’ve seen adults taking up the piano for many reasons; some wish they had learnt when they were younger, while for others taking up piano as an adult is the next chapter in a growing musical interest.

Whatever the reason for starting lessons, the last thing most adults want is to be presented with  Jimmy Timpson’s First Piano Lessons for Tiny Tots, or a minor variation with the word “adult” cannily stamped on the front cover.

And that’s perhaps one reason why my round-up of the adult beginner method books was by far the most-read article on Pianodao in 2019.

Fully refreshed for 2020, I’m delighted to present this updated and expanded version, including two major methods not mentioned last year.

But we’ll again begin with my top tips (also updated!) about what to look for in an adult method book, and why adults learn the piano differently to younger beginners…

Continue reading Which Adult Piano Method 2020?

How do we stop students quitting?

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

These days when I catch up with teaching colleagues, there is often a common theme:

“I need to recruit some new students as I’ve got X amount leaving (especially in the summer term).”

The numbers vary from just one to as many as twelve.

As most are self employed with bills to pay, adverts are out, websites are being updated, and they are doing their very best to fill those gaps – and fast!

We will always have some students leave as families move out of the area, or a student leaves for work or University. However increasingly (from anecdotal evidence) it appears that students are giving up in greater numbers. With lots of other activities going on, children heavily tested with demanding national examinations along with technology distractions, instrumental learning can suffer.

In my own teaching practice, I have tried to become much more conscious about any signs that perhaps I need to adapt a little in order to keep a student coming through the door…

Continue reading How do we stop students quitting?

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 few years. Faber Music have just released the Grade 6 book, so let’s consider the series as a whole…

I’ll start with a quick reminder that while the books appear in the best-selling Improve Your Sight Reading series, they are not sight reading practice books per se. Rather they aim to support the broader development of music literacy.

In this review I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, give an overview of the actual material included in the books, and explain how they develop to offer superb material across the range of playing levels from UK Grade 1 to the new Grade 6 book.

Continue reading Paul Harris: A Piece A Week

Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

“Advice is like the snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon and the deeper it sinks into the mind”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

One of the key roles of a piano teacher is to help their students make direct improvements in their playing. To do this we must identify the priority areas that need attention, hopefully without turning into the scolding teacher in the photo above.

In this article I will share some suggestions on how to offer helpful criticism, encouraging positive progress and enthusiastic learning.

I will cover the following points:

  • Why Accuracy Matters
  • The Piano Teacher as “Critical Friend”
  • Golden Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback

Listening to our students play and offering suggestions for improvement is certainly not the whole of a piano teacher’s work, but in many lessons it will be a central feature…

Continue reading Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

“If only I had known then…”

Tea Room Tips  from the  Pianodao Tea Room

As is often mentioned here on Pianodao, learning to play the piano is the journey of a lifetime! And the further we travel, the more insight we gain, and the deeper our skills develop. 

But… suppose you could turn the clock back to when you were a teenager… What do you really wish you had known and understood about piano playing back then?

This was the latest question I posed in the Pianodao Tea Room community, and as I suspected the answers given were many and varied. Each member contribution is, complete in itself, a heartwarming and insightful story…

Here for your interest are a selection of those contributions…

And please feel free to leave your own answer as a comment below!

Continue reading “If only I had known then…”

Summer Repertoire Challenge

The Summer Repertoire Challenge is ideal for young players (and their teachers!) embarking on the long school holidays, and offers a great starting point for developing an Active Repertoire at the piano!

Continue reading Summer Repertoire Challenge

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

How to motivate the demotivated student

Guest Post  by Amy Wakefield Taylor

Lack of motivation in our students is a problem that all teachers of piano can expect to encounter at some point in their practice, so it seems important to develop strategies for tackling it…

Continue reading How to motivate the demotivated student

Fun Games and Party Pieces

Sheet Music Review

A couple of years ago I reviewed Rosamund Conrad’s Delightfully Easy Duet Books along with several other duet publications (read the review here), concluding,

“I would highly recommend having a look at the two books – I don’t think you will be disappointed!”

At the time I also received a copy of Rosa’s beginner piano book Fun Games and Party Pieces, which I was equally impressed with but didn’t manage to review. Now however, Rosa has brought out a “Second Edition” of Fun Games and Party Pieces, including 50% extra, new material!

And again, it is well worth a look …

Continue reading Fun Games and Party Pieces

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

Do you believe in classical music?

Wonderful news: the latest figures from the BPI reveal that sales and streaming of recorded classical music grew by 10.2% in 2018 compared to the 2017 figures.

This compares to the much lower 5.7% growth in other genres. In fact, classical CD sales grew by 6.9%, while most other genres actually saw a decline in sales.

And online streaming of classical music grew by a whopping 42%, compared to the 33% rise in the overall market. These figures are presented and discussed in this BBC News article.

Some will no doubt quibble over the specific artists and composers featured in the statistics, and we must admit that the categories formulated by salespeople and marketeers rarely tell the whole story. But those of us who really believe in classical music won’t be surprised by its upsurge and enduring popularity. We know that once people encounter good music, it can wield its transformative power.

It is odd, then, that so many piano teaching colleagues seem to largely avoid classical music unless and until it is specifically requested by a student or required for an exam. Why is this?

Continue reading Do you believe in classical music?

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

What Makes a Good Lesson?

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

A Student Perspective

Have you ever asked your student what makes a good instrumental lesson?

A number of years ago I did just that in a secondary school. There was a whole class full of students of different ages, learning different instruments with a variety of teachers.

Their feedback was enlightening. Here are the main themes, the messages I believe are still valuable.

Whilst revising this, from a personal perspective, it was a useful reminder to ask and listen more to the needs of my students and to think more creatively – especially when teaching sight reading and scales.

So, what did they say …

Continue reading What Makes a Good Lesson?

Parents, Partners & Supporters

When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, the bulk of my students were children. They and I depended on their parents for payment and support, which sometimes also meant direction.

And the crucial (if at times complex) triangle relationship between teacher, pupil and parent was a fundamental in almost every private lesson context.

Today the world has changed considerably, and one of the many differences for teachers is that the network of relationships around the private lesson context has become a far more complex and diverse one.

Continue reading Parents, Partners & Supporters

A Halloween Treat

Guest Post by Alison Mathews

including Free Sheet Music and Lesson Activity downloads


With Halloween approaching, it is an excellent time to engage pupils in some creative work and explore the evocative and haunting sounds the piano can make. I’d like to share a short story and resources that may inspire you and your pupils to be creative!

Continue reading A Halloween Treat

Learn to Sight Read

Sheet Music Review by Karen Marshall

In my own selection of educational music, I must have over 20 Sight Reading Schemes. I see which is a best fit for my student and then get them to order a copy.

However, I still loan out many to help the student get a very varied experience. Just like reading, I think its important that students get a varied amount of material.

With quite a lot available out there, in order to impress me, a sight reading resource needs to be something special.

Well congratulations Sandy Holland and Peter Noke, I am impressed! Heres why………….

Continue reading Learn to Sight Read

‘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?

Get Set! Advent Calendar

Guest Post by Karen Marshall & David Blackwell

We are thrilled to be able to offer this Practice Advent Calendar to Pianodao readers.

The idea of a Practice Advent Calendar went down really well with Karen’s students last Christmas. That little bit of extra reward and recognition can be very helpful to motivate music practice.

1The simple logo-like Christmas symbol illustrations (for each day in December up to the 24th) are line drawings for children to colour in.

We are excited to see finished advent calendars in the future so please do take pictures and show us them on social media. We’d love to see them!

We really hope it will inspire your students to do a little more practice this festive period but most of all, to have some fun!

pdf-logo   Practice Advent Calendar  [PDF Download]

Very best wishes, Karen Marshall and David Blackwell

3

All images and downloads included in this post are copyright Collins Music, shared with the kind permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Behind the Scenes: Christmas Crackers

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

Behind the scenes of Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers and its five aims.

The book was written between October and December last year, with all the materials tested with pupils in Karen Marshall’s teaching practice.

Karen and David spoke extensively to teachers to find out exactly what they were looking for in a Christmas book and ‘Get Set! Christmas Crackers’ was the result.

Here you get a ‘behind the scenes’ account of the ideas behind the pages and a quick summary of the main ‘Five Aims’.

Continue reading Behind the Scenes: Christmas Crackers

The Foundation Pianist

Sheet Music Review

Around this time last year, Faber Music unleashed The Intermediate Pianist series, co-authored by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond. It was a solid success, warmly received by teachers and students alike, and in my Pianodao review I wrote:

“The Intermediate Pianist books get right to the heart of what learning music is really all about. This truly could prove a milestone publication – don’t miss it!”

As many readers will know, The Intermediate Pianist deservedly went on to win Best Print Resource at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence 2018.

This Autumn, it’s a joy to welcome the arrival of The Foundation Pianist, two companion books in Faber’s growing Piano Trainer seriesThis time, Karen is joined by new co-author David Blackwell.

Let’s see what’s included, and consider how these books might fit into a rounded curriculum for young pianists…

Continue reading The Foundation Pianist

Piano: the future of music?

Guest Post by Simon Reich

Looking at the crystal ball into the future would have had me shaking my head and not believing what I was seeing…

The ubiquitous guitar is falling out of favour with the new generation of musicians.

Yes, you are reading correctly! Both electric and acoustic sales are dropping through the floor. The big guns of the guitar world, Fender and Gibson are facing hardships. In fact, Gibson, have already begun bankruptcy proceedings.

The six-stringed instrument has been the virtual logo for rock and pop since its inception. No-one ever suggested substituting a piano or keyboard as a sexy alternative to the guitar, but it appears that could now be the case.

And while you’re at it, you may need to add a laptop computer as well. Yes folks, these are the items that are causing a huge drop in guitar sales, MIDI keyboards and music software.

Continue reading Piano: the future of music?

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?

‘My Piano Friend’

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

One teacher’s answer to preventing ‘negative self talk’ within music learning…

Continue reading ‘My Piano Friend’

Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets

Sheet Music Review

In a recent review I praised Gayle Kowlachyk and E.L. Lancaster’s Piano Studies for Technical Development books, and I’m pleased to say that the duo are back with another set of interesting and highly useful books, Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets.

This new series collects 59 original compositions, mostly from the pedagogy literature of the mid-late Romantic Era, in three progressive books. As such, it offers an invaluable source-book for teachers everywhere.

Let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets

Solo Xtreme Books 1-3

Sheet Music Review

The name Melody Bober may be a new one to many readers here in the UK, but in North America she is well known for her popular Grand Solos and Grand Duets for piano series, among others, published by Alfred Music.

And based on her latest series of collections, Solo Xreme, perhaps it’s time for her to gain wider recognition here too!

Let’s take a look…

Continue reading Solo Xtreme Books 1-3

Emil Hradecký: Two-Part Piano Miniatures

The Czech composer and teacher Emil Hradecký (b. 1953) has devoted much of his creative output to children and the piano. His pieces are frequently inspired by dance music and jazz, and are distinguished by their fresh melodies and distinctive rhythms.

Several of his collections are published here in the UK by Bärenreiter, including his Little Jazz Album for PianoJazz Etudes for Young Pianists and the duet collection Jazzy Pieces for 20 Fingers.

His latest collection is called Two-Part Piano Miniatures on One Page…

Continue reading Emil Hradecký: Two-Part Piano Miniatures

Developing Fluency

“I begin every lesson by having the pupil play the whole movement through without any interruption (no going back if you make mistake, as in practising). So we start with the experience of performance – and then turn to the details.”

Fanny Waterman: International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

I vividly recall how, as a student at the Royal College of Music, my harpsichord teacher would ask me to play a piece, only appearing to listen to the first few bars. Indeed, he often seemed quite distracted, checking the room humidity, rifling through the paperwork on his desk, pacing up and down, and generally appearing to have other things on his mind.

Once I reached the end of the piece, however, he would invariably have the most perceptive comments to make about my performance – before turning back to the first page and looking at the piece in more detail.

My own approach as a teacher is not dissimilar (including my tendency to fidget!). I’ve always felt that if a student has practised a piece, I rather owe it to them to listen to what they’ve achieved and develop an overview of their progress before interrupting and interjecting with comments, criticisms, and suggestions for improvement.

I am perhaps unusual in this though – most often when I have observed other teachers they have seemed ill-at-ease simply enjoying their student’s playing.

I once heard OFSTED’s Chief HMI for Music (at the time) say that one of the biggest problems observed by inspectors visiting music lessons in schools was that pupils rarely played a piece in its entirety, so neither working on structural awareness and pacing of the composition in their lessons, nor fluency in performing.

It is too easy to get so bogged down in the detail that we fail to observe the big picture, and no longer see the wood through the trees. And I’m sure there are still more clichés to describe this common problem!

Whether practising or teaching, let’s be more careful to develop fluency – without sacrificing accuracy in the process.

In doing so we are more likely also to develop fluency in our appreciation of great art – and that’s a tremendous goal!

How often when you are practising do you play pieces all the way through, simply observing the music without criticism? Teachers – do you make it your habit to listen to pieces in full before commenting?


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Your Story: Christopher Norton

Your Stories

New Zealand-born, now Canadian-based composer and pianist Christopher Norton is known the world over for his best-selling educational music, including the MicrojazzConnections and Preludes series.

Here he reveals how he discovered music in his youth …

Continue reading Your Story: Christopher Norton