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?

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

Are You a Fanatic?

“If you’re invited for tea by a connoisseur of Pu Er (tea) in Yunnan, be prepared to deal with a fanatic, for Pu Er inspires a zealous devotion among its advocates, who, like missionaries of a mysterious cult, will try their best to coax you away from your own acquired taste in Chinese tea, and persuade you instead that Pu Er is the high and mighty lord in the entire pantheon of Chinese tea.”

Daniel Reid: The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea (Singing Dragon, 2011, p78)


I can think of several parallels in the world of the piano, where advocates of a particular approach or style present themselves as zealots for their cause.

It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with such passion, so long as we each remember to show respect for one another, and present our views and ideas with dignity, generosity and grace towards others.

I have been, and remain, a fanatic for many musical and other causes. If something works for me, there’s a good chance it will equally work for others, and I am happy to share my experiences and insights if they might help.

But what works for one, although it may work for all, need not do so.

We are, each of us, unique. Each must find their path, and few of us like to feel coerced or pressurised into accepting a rigid model stipulated by another.

Experience ultimately always triumphs over dogma. As the saying goes,

“The older I get, the less I know.”

So let’s keep the fires of healthy fanaticism alight, but in our passion we must remember humility, keeping our hearts and minds open. Above all, pursuing kindness.


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The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

Pathways for Teaching

We all have a “teaching philosophy”, whether we realise it or not. Mine strongly advocates holistic, personalised, life-centred education. My model of The Three Treasures of Musical Learning is a key component to complement these values.

Paying attention to all Three Treasures – and at all stages of learning, from the youngest beginner to the most advanced professional – leads to deeper learning, fuelling progress and fostering a lifelong love relationship with music.

In this article I will explain what the Three Treasures are, and offer some tips on how focusing on them can help us develop as effective teachers.

Continue reading The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

Simplifying GDPR for Piano Teachers

When Liz Giannopoulos contacted me about a month ago to offer a guest post about GDPR, my initial response was, “what’s that?”

It is a response that was echoed by many when Liz’s post was published here just a few days later. It quickly became apparent that many instrumental teachers, like me, didn’t know the first thing about GDPR, even though it comes into effect on May 25th 2018. I know that many are hugely grateful to Liz for her very clear introduction to the subject.

In the weeks since then, there has inevitably been a huge debate about GDPR, and no small amount of activity on the part of those of us who are concerned to run our teaching businesses on a professional and legal footing.

This post will consider some of the biggest questions teachers have been asking and – with further help from Liz and from piano teacher Joanne Snowden – will offer some updated and accessible answers to these practical concerns:

  • Do I need to register as a data controller with the ICO?
  • What do I get for the £35 registration fee?
  • Do I need to seek consent from data subjects?
  • How do I write a Privacy Notice, and what should be included?

There has been much confusion about these issues, and often the ensuing debate between teachers has seemed to miss the core value that data privacy is a basic right for us all.

GDPR is ultimately about caring for our students and clients.
It is about respecting their basic rights.
It is an act of kindness.

Alongside putting my students’ and clients’ needs first, taking time to reflect on how I use other peoples’ personal information (and why) has proven to be a genuinely helpful professional development exercise.

As piano teachers we often enjoy considerable autonomy – and don’t always welcome challenges to our independence – but taking time to reflect on our compliance to external professional standards is worthwhile in and of itself.

With that in mind, let’s now turn to some big questions that teachers have been asking…

Continue reading Simplifying GDPR for Piano Teachers

Making Every Lesson a Special Occasion

Pathways for Teaching

When I started teaching full time back in the 1990s, the best known teacher in my neighbourhood was Sidney Pope, a venerable older gentleman who tuned pianos by day and taught the local children once the schools turned out in the afternoon. Sidney continued teaching until his health finally gave out, and was a much loved and very able teacher.

I was a tuning client of Sidney’s, and when he learnt that I was entering the fray as a teacher he couldn’t have been more encouraging, referring pupils he couldn’t personally fit into his busy schedule, and generously sharing a lifetime’s advice.

This perplexingly included his list of rules for student conduct; rules which were certainly very thorough…

Teachers today tend to provide contracts that for the most part relate to parental behaviour – paying on time, not cancelling at the eleventh hour, and so on. Sidney’s rules pertained to the children themselves, outlining his expectations of practice, attitude in lessons, and even the clothing they wore.

In this regard, Sidney’s demands were crystal clear: boys’ shirts must be tucked in, and dresses or skirts were compulsory for the girls – no trousers!

Why, I wondered in my professional naivety, should girls not be allowed to wear trousers to their piano lessons in 1992?

Sidney patiently explained that piano lessons must be regarded as a special occasion, and that students benefitted from making an effort to dress up accordingly…

Continue reading Making Every Lesson a Special Occasion

The Playful Piano Teacher

Pathways for Teaching

Are you a piano teacher? If so, let me ask you a question: Do you enjoy your work? I mean – really enjoy it, all the time?

I’m fairly sure that most of us, if we are honest, will recognise that while we love our work in general, there are times where fatigue, impatience, distraction and even boredom can set in, even very fleetingly. And while we may feel a little guilty or inadequate in those moments, the reality is that in any job – however wildly fulfilling – we all experience “off days” and times when our heart isn’t quite so far into it as usual.

To counter the negative feelings that this can produce, I invite you to consider this wonderful quote from Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim:

“Those who work in a playful, relaxed manner
tend to work efficiently and creatively;
Those who work non-stop, driven only by stress,
work without joy.”

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (2012)

In this post I am going to consider what it might mean to “work in a playful manner”, and how this could make all the difference for our students.

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Your Stories: June Armstrong

Your Stories

June Armstrong is a piano teacher and composer of educational piano music which focusses on the promotion of technical development whilst engaging the imagination and encouraging the exploration of interpretation.  She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Here’s her story…

Continue reading Your Stories: June Armstrong

ABRSM Teacher Conference ‘17

Having been very impressed with last year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference, I attended again this year, and with high hopes – and wasn’t disappointed!

Once again, the event took place at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, a venue which itself lived up to the excellent impression made last year. The surroundings, organisation and – perhaps most importantly – the FOOD were all first rate!

As for the content of the day, once again this year there was something for everyone, although a particular focus was on the new Woodwind and Singing syllabi and resources published earlier in the year.

This inevitably led to a lesser focus on piano teaching than last time (presumably next year the piano will again be centre stage) but I found the day no less rewarding. So here’s my report…

Continue reading ABRSM Teacher Conference ‘17