The Great Exam Experiment

I’m a believer in the piano exam system. It’s a motivator, it keeps teachers on track, it ensures students learn a wide range of repertoire style and technical and musical skills (depending on the particular exam system).

Not insignificantly, it’s part of our Canadian culture.

In thirty-some years of teaching I’ve only once, last year, had a student do a grade 1 exam. My thinking has been that it’s unnecessary, it can hold a student back time-wise, it’s a stress that young kids don’t need. Just get them playing and enjoying and start in on the whole thing at grade or 3 or 4.  For the record, most of my students take most exams from grade 5 (Intermediate) and up.

But something has happened this fall that has me re-thinking the grade 1 exam. I’ve been hit with the realization of just how important it is to the students themselves to be in grade 1. It’s like some validation of their achievement and ability. The method books, however good they might be, are seen as the pre-school or kindergarten of piano.

And I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect it’s the question most often asked by other kids or adults when the subject of piano lessons comes up. Being in grade 1, and working toward an exam, gives some bragging rights.

So I’m making the transition to grade 1 a bit earlier. I’m embracing the adage that children will rise to the level of expectation. And I’m planning on a whole lot of exam preparation in the spring.


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Congratulations are due

My daughter was part of the winning choir in their category at Young Prague 2014 last month. The announcement that the winning choir was “all the way from Canada” set off a storm of excited screams.

Congratulations to the William Aberhart High School Concert Choir and their amazing conductor, Erica Phare-Bergh.

A huge thanks to music educators everywhere! I have great admiration for those who can effect this level of musicianship in a public school setting.

The announcement:


One of their performances at the festival:



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Blow up your blog

Blow up the blogOr, in my case:

  • Practice the piano. Regularly. So many reasons to do this.
  • Read more. The Great Pianists. Memoirs of a Geisha. The Lost World of Genesis One.
  • Spend time – lots more time – with family and friends. Over coffee, good food, wine.
  • Write for local newsletters.
  • Join a music côterie. An opportunity to socialize and to perform with and for other musicians.
  • Teach more. Invest time and energy and self. Open up the wonder of the world of music for the young ones.
  • Share with other teachers. Prepare more talks and workshops. Maybe explore adjudicating and examining.
  • Enlarge my own world through a deeper appreciation of all the fine arts.
  • Give more.

This blog is not dead. But it is on the back burner.

Image: Grant Snider

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A very generous policy

I stumbled upon this studio policy by a local teacher from a few decades back. I’m struck by the generosity, which overrides an attempt to keep some sense of studio management.

This is an inspiration. Perhaps some of us have gone too far the other direction. Too strict about the no make-up policy. Too unforgiving of the stuff of life that sometimes gets in the way. A little kindness and generosity feels good all around.

“Registration is made for the school year. The term, which will extend from September to June inclusive, will comprise a minimum of 36 weekly lessons…

Students may, if they wish, stop at the termination of 36 lessons… Students wishing to continue after the 36 lessons until the end of June may do so with no extra charge. Senior students are encouraged to do so as a three month break is too long for a serious student.

There is no charge for extra lessons needed at Exam, Festival or Recital time.

Wherever possible, 24 hours’ notice would be appreciated if the student is to miss a lesson… I will be happy to try and change the occasional lesson with another student, for any reason, at a time convenient to both, but sufficient notice, if possible would be appreciated. 

A student’s musical growth and happiness are my greatest concern. Students should be encouraged to enjoy their accomplishments by playing for family, friends, school and church functions. Accompanying singers, choirs, and instrumentalists is of invaluable help to the student. Please inform and consult me so that I may advise and possibly give extra time.”

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No tortoisian ambling, please

“Slow practice can be a complete waste of time if the mind is not working quickly. Simply to trawl through passages like a contented tortoise is a waste of the felt on your piano’s hammers. Good slow practice is more like a hare pausing to survey the scene – sharp in analysis, watching through the blades of grass, calculating the next sprint. My favourite kind of slow practice is the half and half variety. For example in a semiquaver passage I will play four notes at performance tempo then four notes exactly half the speed – then reverse the groups. It can sometimes be useful to do this with eight-note groups. It stops any tortoisian ambling and it focuses the mind quickly from one reflex to another. It is a hare with alert eyes.”

Stephen Hough in a fabulous (as always) blog post at The Telegraph – The Practice of Practising. Read the whole article here.



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The luckiest person alive

“Every day, life is beautiful… Music is a dream… I felt this is the only thing that helps me have hope. A sort of religion. Music is God.” (Alice Herz-Sommer)

Here’s an inspirational video about the oldest Holocaust survivor still alive. An accomplished pianist at an early age (she could play all of Chopin’s Etudes from memory), she was part of a group of artists used by Nazis for propaganda purposes – to show the world all was well.

Alice’s positive attitude and her music were responsible of her survival in the concentration camp, as well as her son’s.

I hope I can still play this well, and have this same spirit and gratitude, at age 109.


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Was it the piano or the pianist?

I recently went to a recital given by last year’s Honens winner Pavel Kolesnikov. It was on the new C. Bechstein piano recently acquired by the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts. This was the piano’s debut.

My interest was piqued. Since reading The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (Thad Carhardt) a few years ago, I’ve been curious about hearing performances on pianos other than Steinway and Bösendorfer. 

I found it a bit disappointing and was frustrated that I couldn’t tell whether my dissatisfaction was with the pianist or the instrument. Am I so used to the “perfect” even sound of the Steinway that all else pales? The Steinways, I must add, heard more these days via Youtube than live. 

Have I not been to enough live concerts?

Memories of recitals from my youth came flooding back. My teacher insisted we all attend every piano recital in town. I remember overhearing conversations in the lobby about how fabulous or dreadful the piano was at the time. And feeling clueless about the whole thing.

Can I trust my ears now?

To me the works by Debussy sounded the best on this piano. There was some Rameau that I loved as compositions, but sounded too resonant for how I imagine French Baroque should sound. And the Chopin sounded too brittle.

Was it the pianist or the piano? I don’t know. I’m interested in any feedback.

Russian pianist (and Honens Laureate) Pavel Kolesnikov playing Debussy’s La cathdrale engloutie on – what else? – a Steinway.


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Practice and listen and practice and listen

Brahms… and win a Nobel prize along the way.

Especially if bassoon is your instrument.

In an interview with Thomas Südhof, Nobel prize winner for medicine and physiology, his bassoon teacher gets the credit for teaching him how to do something right. Practice and listen and practice and listen. Hours, and hours, and hours.

Be passionate. “I always try to understand everything I encounter—not only in science, but also historical and political events and music and movies—get to grips with the content, meaning, and process. This is immense fun, as strange as that may sound.”

To relax, drink wine and talk to the people you love. If possible, dine with Mozart to try to figure out the source of his creativity.

And good things then happen …


Read the entire interview in the Lancet, or an abridged, music-bits-only synopsis at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc.

Illustration: Johannes Brahms by Richard C. Thompson via Composers Illustrated

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Don’t leave it to chance

I’m big on intervallic note-reading. Once the students get started, they’re away.

But they need to get started. And sometimes restart mid-stream.

At some point they need the ability to identify cold any given note on the grand staff. And I admit I need to do much better here.

Week in, week out, as we go through new pieces, I stress the relationship between the note they’ve just played and the one following.

Up or down. Step or skip. Two skips equals a triad. Line-space-line-space equals a scale. Bring in the Alphabet Drill that we’ve been reciting for the last month.

But. The gap needs filling. Then it all needs to be synthesized. Brought together into a whole that will allow for more ease in reading.

So – the flashcards and Note-finder are coming out again this week. And the One-Minute Club chart will be up by next week.

Note names will not be absorbed by some magical process. This can’t just be left to chance.


Image: via Blog of a Pianist


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Go away. I’m practising.

i'm practising


Painting by Berthe Morisot (France, 1841-1895).

Image via Amanda Clyne.


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Joie de vivre

Joie de vivre (noun): a feeling of happiness or excitement about life

Major=happy; minor=sad.

It’s how we usually introduce the concepts to the students. But this is too simplistic. The harmonies are only part of the picture.

It’s the rhythm – always the rhythm – that drives music. Or maybe doesn’t drive it – settling at times for complete repose.

On this sunny autumn day (no, the photo is not mine) the piece that jumps to mind as being the embodiment of the joy of life is in a minor key.

Bach’s Keyboard in D Minor – the first movement – played by Murray Perahia. His tempo and interpretation and the rhythmic vitality go a long way for me.


Definition: Merriam-Webster.

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How To Pedal Chopin’s Waltzes

Another great session at the recent APTA Conference was Allen Reiser’s Chopin in 3/4 Time. The Waltzes and Mazurkas. How they’re the same – and different – and a few tips on how to teach and play them.

One topic was pedaling. I was all ears. In my youth my teacher was so hung up on getting the correct pedaling, I was left thoroughly confused – and afraid to teach anything authoritatively for fear I’d get it wrong.

Turns out there are three main pedal techniques for the waltzes (and mazurkas) which, it should be remembered, are each a medley of different waltzes. This is significant.

All three techniques can – and should – be used in every waltz. Use different techniques to express the characters of each of the smaller waltzes that make up the larger one.

  1. Direct pedaling – down on beat 1 and up on 2 or 3 (again, more choice!)

2.   Syncopated or legato pedaling.

3.   No pedal at all.

The last technique is, according to Reiser, not used nearly enough. He demonstrated bits of waltzes using no pedal at all. And what a delightful difference it suddenly made.

In the mazurkas, a typical pedaling that would bring out the unique character of the dance is direct pedaling from beat 3 to beat 1.

Regarding Chopin’s own pedal markings – ignore them.

So go crazy. Experiment. Use a combination of techniques. Change it up on the repeats. Waltz forth with the confidence that it’s all good!

Wilhelm Fischer in a, recording of Opus 69 No. 1 that is in turn, tender, joyous, restful …


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