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Top tips for practice

Always work to a plan

Know what needs to be achieved in each practice time
Small sections practised slowly and thoroughly are always more successful than longer
passages given less care
Sometimes begin with the 'difficult bits' rather than starting at the beginning
Vary the work to avoid boredom, having other, perhaps easier, pieces to hand
Make sure the all-important 'finger memory' is in place before moving on
Sometimes practise playing straight through, noticing the trouble spots and returning to
them later
Be aware of the pulse - it's dangerously easy to slow up for awkward corners
Know when to stop. Focused work for a short period is better than playing through for
Perfect practice makes perfect!
What you can't play slowly you can't play fast
The only way to learn to sight read is to sight read
Pedal with your ears! (Generally applies to pianists only for obvious reasons)
Enjoy what you play - a varied diet is essential
When you've finished listening - listen some more!
If you get stuck - stop - come back again later and try again.
Fill every minutes practice with 60 seconds of concentration
Practise in small chunks
Practise the whole performance experience play your exam pieces to friends and
family so you experience a few nerves and learn how to cope with them
Stop practising if you feel any physical discomfort or pain.
Don't practise when you're tired.
A selection of useful and fun musical games elsewhere on the Internet:

Playing on the right side of the brain

A good friend of mine, an artist who provides wonderfully exotic art courses in a most beautiful
part of northern France, asked me recently whether I had read Drawing on the Right Side of the
Brain by Betty Edwards. An excellent book she said, it will revolutionise your drawing.
Given that my best efforts with brush and canvas dont really go beyond stick people and square
houses with a chimney (smoke spiralling out, of course), I thought this would be a good idea. In
fact I found this a marvellous book, and although it hasnt had much effect on my drawing yet, it
has set me thinking about why so many young musicians dont play with the right side of the
brain. Or, to put it more simply, why they have so much trouble playing expressively.
I know that the right brain/left brain concept may not be one hundred per cent scientifically
precise (some people are brain transposed, for example) but it is a useful and convenient way to
express the workings of the brain. I hope those with a particularly detailed anatomical knowledge
will forgive my simplifications. Were all familiar now with how important it is to exploit both
sides of the brain if we are to produce a well-rounded musician.
All good lessons will mix linear and sequential left brain work (technique and notation for
example) with imaginative, perceptual and insightful right brain activities. Those of you who
employ the basic principles of simultaneous learning will find that making those essential
connections has become much easier and more natural. But still its often a real struggle to get
our pupils to play really musically, really expressively. I often hear very well prepared
performances, both at exams and at music festivals, but they frequently miss the degree of
musical involvement and understanding that we might desire.
Lets now think how we could help our pupils to gain access, still more effectively, to the right
side of their brain. Instead of sinking into a long philosophical discussion on what causes music
to be expressive let me simply and emphatically proclaim the tremendous importance of simile
and metaphor in our teaching. In this way we can start to make some meaningful connections and
ultimately cause our pupils to begin to play with more imagination and more musical insight. The
essential factor is to connect with what our pupils already know a well-known teaching concept
that dates back to Mrs Curwins famous (and still relevant) piano tutor of 1886, and indeed
These similes and metaphors can take a great many forms. As you begin to consider those that
follow, many more will begin to appear in your mind. Here are a few to get you started. Physical
motion can offer the young learner any number of metaphors and similes, and is perhaps the most
direct to perceive anything from total inactivity to total activity. This can be coloured by
everything from a virtual comatose state (grazing gently like sheep) to one of maximum energy
(firing on all cylinders). To this we can add a sense of tempo from advancing snail-like to
moving like the clappers. To this movement we can add a mental state: on the one hand calmness
and tranquility; on the other, a wild irrepressible and uncontrollable vitality. We can further
superimpose a state of awareness from a dozy stupor to maximum alertness.
Then there are a whole group of emotional metaphors: perceiving music as an expression of
feeling. And here we must try to move away from relying on the basic happy/sad dichotomy. Find
a piece of paper and write down as many words as you can that could be used to describe
different kinds of happiness, and then do the same for sadness. Each will have a slightly different
connotation and we need these if we are to draw out ever more interesting musical responses and
Then we need to consider how each emotional state is reflected in physical movement. Make a
list of the outward physical signs of being miserable, agitated or angry, for example. We can look
at metaphors to do with colour, contrast, brilliance, light and shade. We might describe a piece as
being dark. What does that mean? What aspects of dark do we wish our pupils to assimilate into
their performance? How might they do this? With tone colour, dynamic level, tempo, rhythm
There are extensive connections to be made with metaphors of language: the way we use words,
the way we inflect our voices (our tone of voice) to make what we say understood. When
teaching phrasing, a central aspect of expression, we can draw on the manner with which we use
our voices to clarify the meaning of what we wish to say. By emphasising a particular word in a
phrase we can suffuse that phrase with a specific slant just in the same way as emphasising a
particular note in a musical phrase.
There are endless useful metaphors in real-life situations, like dancing, praying or having an
argument. Or in mental pictures I well remember a lesson with the great German clarinettist
Karl Leister where he described the end of the first movement of Brahms F minor clarinet sonata
as an angel singing, welcoming you into heaven a powerful and unforgettable image. You
could hardly play those bars inexpressively with that idea going through your mind.
Then there are poetic metaphors: play that phrase like the sun rising over a glistening field of
awakening creeping buttercups or perhaps this movement is one continual attempt to swat a
fly. Can anyone think to what Im alluding? Of course the list is inexhaustible and fascinating.
And we havent even mentioned smells, places, textures, tastes and shapes. But we now need to
consider how to take our pupils to these imaginative places how do we access the right brain
where these images live and then apply them to playing Allegretto in C or Dancing Bears, thus
causing our pupils to play with real character?
The secret of success is twofold. First, as in all effective teaching, we must tease the thoughts and
ideas out of our pupils by constantly asking the right questions. And secondly, we must never lose
an opportunity for making and developing connections.
In a lesson, awaken the right brain as soon as you can. Perhaps you begin with a scale (hopefully
the same key as the piece about to be studied). The left brain stuff is not a problem are we using
the best fingering, is the scale in time and rhythmically even? Yes? Fine. But now lets explore it
further. Lets enjoy the sensory side of the scale. Play just the first note, listen to it and enjoy the
sound quality. Do pupils enjoy the feel of playing scales? Can they learn to enjoy putting the
thumb under or crossing the break? Talk about the dynamic level, the sense of motion,
the tempo. Use interesting words: play it more energetically, more dreamily, more solemnly, more
whimsically. We are beginning to access right brain thinking. Encourage your pupils to think up
different ways of playing scales. Draw on as many different metaphors as possible.
We know of the importance of creative work and as we begin to explore even the minutest of
improvisations we are doing incalculable good for our pupils. Lets move on to a short
improvisation based on just the first few notes of the scale. Think of a title and one or two
musical ingredients and off they go. Thats enough to stimulate the imagination.
Now, move on to the piece being learnt. The essential requirement is that once we have
introduced a metaphor, we try to draw out the specific from our pupil. Lets consider for example
how you might work with a young pupil on the popular Creepy Crawly (Piano Grade 1, List C)
marked sinister. First, lets think about the meaning of that word. What other words mean the
same or similar? Your pupils may not be familiar with the word sinister but they will probably
know evil, menacing, threatening or frightening. They will probably have read Harry
Potter books or seen a scary movie. Can they play just those first two notes in the left hand in a
spine-tingling way? Now work on the left hand bars 1 to 4. Enjoy the blood-curdling sounds of
that colourful chromatic phrase! Now get them to make up a chilling little phrase of their own.
Now go back and try to play that left-hand phrase with the intention of leaving their audience
Weve used a lot of verbal and pictorial metaphors here but there are no end of others. Just allow
your own imagination to take flight. Always be asking, Whats that like? What does that make
you feel? In this way you are accessing your pupils right brain. And the result will ultimately be
a much more expressive performance because they understand what they are doing, what they are
trying to say they become more involved.
We must communicate when we play always. Performing a piece is like telling a story. It is a
story without words, perhaps even without a story. But nevertheless we must converse, in musical
terms, to our listeners all the time. We are all excited by a passionate speaker, someone who
delivers their message, their beliefs, their character in a play with intensity, sincerity and
conviction. It is the same in music. And perhaps this is the best metaphor.
No moment is allowed to go by without a profound belief in what we say or, in music, in what we
play. And whether that piece is a Beethoven or Brahms sonata, or Creepy Crawly or Dance of the
Elegant Elephant, the fundamental desire to make contact with our listeners is pre-eminent. If we
successfully move or amuse them, our objective is met. It is through stimulating the right side of
the brain, the imagination, that this desire will eventually become a reality.
Paul Harris is a teacher, composer, writer, clarinettist and examiner. He is the author of
over 250 publications, including The Music Teachers Companion (ABRSM (Publishing)
Ltd) and the Improve Your Sight-reading! series (Faber Music), and many works ranging
from short educational pieces to five concertos and a ballet.

Paul Harris

Practice makes perfect the final connection

The word practice, like scales, is one of the most emotive in the language of a developing young
musician. Some highly motivated children seem to have the discipline to undertake regular and
useful practice; others will need a lot of cajoling and then there are those who, despite our finest
efforts, dont quite seem to see the point of it at all.
If only all pupils could learn to make some decent use of all that time between lessons, what an
effect it might have on their progress. However, it is salutary to reflect that some pupils practice
probably does more harm than good. What is the benefit of a pupil simply playing through a
piece, complete with numerous uncorrected errors, and considering practice done?
Lets indulge in a little research. Enlist a number of pupils and ask them to make a really honest
diary of a weeks work. Ask them to note down the length of each practice session and exactly
what they did not what they would like you to think they did! Ask them to include what they
particularly enjoyed practising and what they avoided practising. If they didnt practise ask them
why not and dont allow throw-away answers such as I didnt have time. Pupils who produce
a frank and candid practice diary could give you much food for thought and discussion. The
diaries might even inspire a group lesson where an open exchange of views could take place.
Now ask yourself how much time you devote to teaching pupils how to practise and remember
theres a big difference between telling pupils what to practise and teaching them how to practise.
A lesson usually lasts between twenty minutes and an hour. If lessons are weekly and held at a
regular time, there are in fact about 167 hours available for practice. Of course most of that time
is taken up with day-to-day living, but what an achievement it would be if pupils had a real desire
to use some of those hours to practise; and if they used that time in an effective, beneficial and
creative way.
So lets re-evaluate practice and try to discover how it should fit into the teaching and learning
process. There have been many chapters and indeed whole books written about practice and
most of them are full of useful tips. The nettle that most of them dont really grasp is how to instil
a real enthusiasm for practice in our pupils. Its very important that both pupil and teacher see
practice as an integral part of progress. It should never be considered an optional extra. A lesson
should lead naturally on to practice and practice on to the next lesson, creating a continuous
process that generates its own internal energy. But how can we begin to achieve this Utopian
To find the answer we need to apply the concept of simultaneous learning to practice. The
fundamental theory underpinning the concept is that all aspects of music are connected and that
our job as teachers, for the most part, is to make these connections for our pupils thus
engendering what I call musical thinking. In a way, the process of learning may be conceived as a
continuous deconstruction of musical elements followed by a reconstruction in a much more
understanding manner. We identify the ingredients of a piece and then teach those ingredients
thoroughly so that pupils can apply them not only to the piece in question but to any music they
might be playing or studying. It is important to involve pupils in the identification process so
between us we make a list of rhythmic shapes, dynamics, articulations, technical problems and
the character of the music. This allows pupils to think carefully about the piece and to understand
the major features. It also gives them a strong sense of responsibility for their own learning.
An ideal first lesson on a new piece will leave the actual notes out of sight perhaps for the
entire lesson. We will have a good idea of the main ingredients and allow the lesson to unfold
around those ingredients. We might begin with some improvisatory work in the key I love the
idea of thinking of a lesson as being in G major, for instance. As the lesson progresses we add
some of the rhythmic patterns and later, some of the dynamics and articulation. We may,
unknown to our pupil, teach them a bar or two of the new piece as a starting point for an
improvisation or technical exercise in turn developing aural and memory skills. We might bring
the various elements into scale playing if its a joyful piece lets play the scale with the
appropriate character (or indeed the opposite character learning opposites is a powerful
teaching tool). We use the elements of the piece to develop musicianship through creative work.
Having set up this imaginative approach to learning a piece, lets see how we can build the
connection with practice. We often teach pupils to make practice a re-creation of the lesson.
There is much to be said for this as it gives structure. If we are conscientious, we tell pupils to
begin with some warms-ups, play some scales and then work carefully on the pieces, correcting
mistakes as they go along. However, this is not always as successful as we might think. The
energy, effort and self-discipline required for this approach is often too much for many pupils. It
all seems too daunting and so the end result is either no practice at all or something that
represents no more than a token gesture.
The difficulty for most pupils is in getting started. They have to stop what they are doing
playing computer games, sending text messages, watching the television, chatting on their mobile
phones, eating (or even doing their homework!) and find the physical and psychological energy
to get their instrument out (or open the piano) and begin. Pupils may come to practice with more
enthusiasm if it becomes more creative and if we can find a way to remove that initial
psychological barrier of how to get started.
First we explain that practice will begin without the music. Something along the lines of: Think
about what we did in the last lesson. What key were we exploring? What were the patterns
(rhythmic and otherwise) we used for our improvisations? What dynamic levels and articulations
did we work on? What musical moods did we examine? Now begin your practice by developing
those activities. Make up a tune based in the key. Think about the ingredients we used and how
we mixed them together. Try out new ideas. Make up some exercises to help with particular
problems as we did in the lesson.
In this way practice becomes a creative activity and pupils are thinking about the ingredients that
make up their new piece, rather than just doing them in a half-hearted and thought-less way.
They are undertaking real musical activity and the practice has become much more pupil centred.
They are taking ownership of their own progress and practice suddenly becomes more
stimulating and easier to begin, because there is nothing to get wrong!
Rather than me writing instructions I much prefer my pupils to use their practice notebooks as a
record of what they did in their practice, what they had fun in creating and indeed what they
created (which can be notated either using conventional notation or graphically). This then
becomes the way into the next lesson. When a pupil begins to realise that you are interested in
what they did and are prepared to take something they created as the starting point for your next
lesson, the energy begins to flow. The continuous process of lesson-practice-lesson-practice
begins to transpire.
Hold on, you may say, this is all very well for my right-brained pupils who, with some
encouragement, really enjoy using their imaginations, but what about those left-brained pupils
who can only do exactly what I write in their practice notebooks? For that very reason I would
suggest that these pupils would benefit equally, if not more, from this approach. The good teacher
knows that the most successful work comes from adopting a variety of approaches and strategies,
and that we must always be sensitive to the needs and abilities of each individual. If you like the
idea dont try to impose it indiscriminately and sweepingly introduce it gently alongside present
practice regimes. It will take some time to get used to, but may well reap great rewards.
With this approach, practice becomes an integral part of the learning process. It connects practice
with the lesson and begins to remove the fear and overwhelming sense of difficulty in getting
started; it causes the imagination to play a major role and allows pupils to use precious time in a
truly musical way.

Paul Harris
Baroque strings: before chin rest, before
How do teachers address the issue of style in their teaching? How can they convey to their pupils
the sense of what the music might have sounded like at its first performance? How might
understanding of the background and context of the music affect the way they approach their
To help teachers and students tackle these issues, ABRSM (Publishing) Ltd has produced three
Performers Guides on music of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. Each book provides
historical background, notes on sources and editions and articles focusing on keyboard, string and
wind instruments and singing, written by musicians with scholarly expertise and practical
experience at the highest level.
In the following extract from the Baroque book, Andrew Manze reminds us how playing stringed
instruments without chin rests or spikes influenced composition and performance style.
Holding the instrument
Before 1610, and before the need for position shifting, the violin and viola were rested against the
ribs, and held in place by the left hand and the downward pressure of the bow. As players shifted
higher, so the violin was gradually elevated, until by the mid-seventeenth century it rested on or
just below the collar bone. So far the players chin had never made contact with the instrument,
so there was no need for any pads or rests to be attached to it. (Pads and rests were nineteenth-
century, post-Baroque inventions.) Players worked out how to keep the violin safely in position
while the left hand shifted up and down. For a long time this was done by choosing clever
fingerings with strategically placed open strings, while the left-hand thumb and fingers walked
up and down the fingerboard. Provided that the thumb and fingers never moved simultaneously,
the violin was always safe from a perilous drop.
Cellists were free of this worry, although spikes were not regularly used until the twentieth
century. Players would either rest the instrument on the floor or a stool, or support it on the calves
of their legs, with feet slightly splayed if necessary, like a viola da gamba player. It is well worth
the modern cellist experimenting without a spike. Once over the initial strangeness, you may
experience a not unpleasant freedom and control of the instrument, as it is cradled by your body
like an extra limb, rather than anchored to the floor.
On chinlessness
Among da braccia players, a debate has long raged about the use of the chin. Purists rightly point
out that certain repertoire, notably early French, English and Italian music, was played senza
chin. More pragmatic players argue that, since vaster tracts of repertoire were played with the
chin, it is unrealistic in this day and age to specialise in such a restrictive technique as chin-off.
Many historically informed violinists nowadays cover such a wide repertoire that any one,
exclusive technique becomes rather a luxury. The debate is not new: one of Bibers colleagues, J.
J. Prinner, was moved to write in 1677:
If you want to play the violin properly you must hold the instrument firmly with your chin,
otherwise it would be impossible to play quick passages which go high then low [i.e. shift
quickly]. Nevertheless, I have known virtuosi of repute who put the violin against the chest,
thinking it looks nice and decorative, because they have taken it from a painting where an angel
is playing to St Francis and found it more picturesque: but they should have known that the
painter was more artful with his paint-brush than he would have been with a violin bow.
It is certainly a worthwhile exercise to try playing without the chin, to experience something of
the feeling of these pioneering Baroque violinists. One very positive result is that your head is
freer to move, to look around, and perhaps even to think. Players interested in a wider repertoire
than the early Baroque might be well advised not to bother beyond the experimental stage.
The chin debate, whichever outcome we favour, has important implications for fingering. Playing
for a few minutes without the chin will quickly reveal that 1st position is not difficult. So use 1st
position as often as possible without embarrassment. Baroque composers were expecting it, and
did not try to make life unnecessarily hard for the players. It was not in their interests: published
music had to look, as well as be, within the customers capabilities, or else it would not sell, and
professional performances had to sound well, often with little rehearsal. Turnover of repertoire
was fast, since the music-buying public and the local employers wanted a constant supply of
new works, and musical fashions changed as quickly as in todays pop music. So there was no
point in a composer frightening his customers or his colleagues with unplayable difficulties.
There are of course exceptions. Some publications were in effect a technical manifesto or a
treatise in music, such as Bibers and Walthers solo works, and Locatellis Larte del violino with
its fiendish Capricci that so inspired Paganini. Other works were composed specifically for a
few, select players, such as Vivaldis concertos in manuscript and Bachs unaccompanied sonatas
and partitas.
There are other implications of chinlessness. Vibrato is still possible, especially a wrist or finger
vibrato, though a full arm vibrato tends to move the whole instrument, to the detriment of bow
string contact. Vibrato was seen as a powerful way to imitate the emotional range of the human
voice, and was widely used in the Baroque era, though more by players in a solo role than when
playing in orchestras. In their treatises, Tartini, Geminiani and Leopold Mozart all refer to the
different effects of changing the speed and width of vibrato, and disagree only about how much it
should be used. Geminianis opinion is that it may be made on any Note whatsoever, while
Mozart chides players who constantly wobble as if they had the palsy. What all writers agree on
is that vibrato is most useful on long notes, equal in rank to an ornament such as a trill or grace
note. As with all ornaments, it should be used with care. Think of it as a cooking spice, and
decide for yourself how spicy you like your music.
As we saw earlier, chinlessness means that shifting up is not much of a problem but shifting back
down is. This fact alone can often suggest a fingering of convenience which turns out not only to
be authentic but also to have positive musical implications. Bachs Ciaccona provides a good
example (Fig.1).
If the upper fingering might be termed modern (it appears in several twentieth century editions
of Bach), the lower fingering is perhaps more authentic, meaning that it is arguably the one the
majority of eighteenth century players would have chosen. Shifting up to the high E in bar 56 is a
simple affair both with a chin rest and without using the chin at all. Shifting back down for the
following G, however, is far more complicated without the chin, involving a deft left hand.
Staying up in 4th position and walking down one position at a time during the next four bars is
not only a more practical solution, but it also has an important, musical implication: it creates the
illusion that the violin is polyphonic, literally having many voices. Violinists will see straight
away that the lower fingering makes a regular string pattern for the sequence starting in bar 57.
The impression given is that there are four voices, each with its own string, which all appear in
bars 60 and 61.
In the Baroque era, as well as there being a far richer cornucopia of string instruments in regular
use than is the case today, there was a wide diversity in the pitches used, from country to country,
from town to town, and sometimes within one ensemble. Bach often had to score his cantatas for
instruments in two or three different pitches playing simultaneously. One players A was maybe
anothers C or F sharp. The string maker simply produced gut of a certain length and thickness
for every type of instrument, from a contrabasso to a mandolino. He cared not a jot what you
actually called its pitch. To avoid confusion, the four strings of a violin, viola and cello were
called (in ascending order) basso, tenore, canto (literally the singer) and cantino (the little
singer), or variants on these names: the French term la chanterelle is a straight translation of
cantino, while the German Chorsaite is a more general choral string. Knowing this can open up
a whole new way of looking at your instrument when playing Baroque music: it no longer has
just one voice but is potentially a miniature string quartet.
Unfortunately, its rare for composers to use these string names to tell us what fingering they have
in mind. Vivaldi wrote one concerto (RV 243) to be played entirely senza cantino, and
occasionally gave fingerings elsewhere. A good example is to be found in Le Quattro Stagioni
(The Four Seasons). Although this is one of the most famous works in the Baroque repertoire,
Vivaldis own fingering is rarely heard as the Summer cuckoo rises (Fig.2).
On the cello, because fingerboard distances are so much greater, the range of notes which can be
covered by the left hand is smaller. This rules out some polyphonic fingerings, however attractive
the idea. Cellists must think polyphonically and create a multi-voice illusion even when the
fingering blurs the edges between those voices. Take Bachs solo suites: we do not know how
well the composer played the cello, if he did at all, but can be fairly certain that he played the
violin and viola far better. Its therefore not surprising that, when the cello suites are played on
the viola an octave higher, or the violin a twelfth higher, many polyphonic fingerings become
Once you have started to think polyphonically, there is no end to the delights and discoveries in
store. Baroque music is full of two- and three-voice conversations and arguments, even when the
relationship between strings and fingering is not as tidy as described above. Here are three voices
at the start of a Telemann fantasia, first in its original form and then showing its implied
polyphony (Fig.3).
Andrew Manze is a leading Baroque and Classical violinist. His article on string playing appears
in A Performers Guide to Music of the Baroque Period.
For more information on the Performers Guides visit www.abrsmpublishing.co.uk

Fig.1: J. S. Bach, Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, 1720, Ciaccona, bb. 5661
Fig.2: A. Vivaldi, L'estate, Op. 8 No. 2 (1725), first movement, bb. 3140. Vivaldis implied
fingering is shown in square brackets below the stave. In practical terms, tutto sopra il Canto
indicates that the upper notes should be played on the A and not the E string; the E string is to be
used from bar 39.
Fig.3: G. P. Telemann, Fantasia XII, 1735, first movement,bb.14, (a) original notation;
(b) possible reconstruction of polyphony

Simultaneous learning: teaching pupils to

think musically
As an examiner I always find it disappointing when candidates play their pieces tolerably or even
very well and then fall down, sometimes dismally, on the other stuff. I hear the cry of but how
can you possibly devote quality time to technique, scales, sight-reading, aural, memory,
improvisation, theory, composition (the list seems endless) in a normal lesson span? There are
simply not enough minutes. Perhaps those precious minutes that go to make up a lesson or
practice session are not being used as effectively as they could be.
Lets deviate for a moment, and ponder the question, Why are some people more musical than
others? The answer, to a degree, lies in their genetic inheritance and therefore, literally, in the
way their brains are connected. However, nature must be supported by nurture. Those who, by
virtue of sensitive, caring and imaginative parents, have had an early upbringing rich in creative
activities (anything, for example, from singing and dancing, drawing and painting to playing with
building bricks or jigsaw puzzles) will be in a very much more advantaged position than those
subjected to an early life empty or starved of such activities. Through such activities, strong
connections are formed in the brain, and with the aid of sensitive and aware teaching which will
further strengthen them, the type of connections that lead to musical thinking are developed.
So, what is musical thinking? The answer is to be found in the way musicians make intuitive and
instinctive connections between all the various elements that go to make up music. When
musicians read music they hear it in their musical ear, they understand key and rhythm, they
perceive balance and sonority, structure and meaning. When they hear music, they instantly know
about it.
This knowing is similar, if somewhat more complex and multi-layered, to the way we might
know, say, a grape or a plum it is a kind of holistic knowing. In an instant we know what a
grape is (whether we have one in our hand or not) we know what it looks like, feels like, and
tastes like, and what its constituent parts are. Anecdotal evidence tells of Mozarts excitement
when a composition became fully formed in his mind he was able to see the entire work in an
instant the ultimate in holistic thinking. This kind of musical thinking can only operate to its
fullest when the whole brain is being accessed.
For a very small number, who are genetically set up with an unusually generous number of neural
connections, this will happen more naturally; for others the majority effective teaching can
help to cause the pupil to make the necessary mental connections and relationships to help bring
about development of true musical thinking.
So how can the teacher help? What is the teachers job? It is not simply to teach pieces. It
certainly ought not to be a process of correcting pupils mistakes a form of passive (or reactive)
teaching that is boring and demotivating for both teacher and pupil alike. It should be to teach
pupils to become better musicians and this can come from a process I call simultaneous
learning. Many lessons are taught in a rather compartmentalised way. Lots of work on pieces,
and then, if time permits, a scale or two, possibly some sight-reading, and, if the next pupil is
late, there may be just a few moments to sneak in a quick aural test. But this is far from ideal, and
pupils are not being taught to become independent musical thinkers.

To get into the spirit of simultaneous learning, write down all the activities you feel ought to be
part of a lesson and begin to make two or three connections between them. For example, sight-
reading and scales (many patterns in sight-reading are simply different scale patterns); then find
connections between scales and aural, aural and pieces, pieces and memory, memory and
improvisationthe more you think, the more connections you will begin to make. In fact, the
number and kinds of connections between the various activities are virtually infinite it just takes
a bit of effort to kick-start the mental process.
Once you are thinking along these lines lessons begin to take on a new lease of life. Teachers are
no longer reacting to (often) poorly prepared work, but are setting the agenda. One idea leads to
another in a much more musical way. The process of teaching becomes much more imaginative
a lesson becomes a voyage of discovery and both pupil and teacher become positively
motivated, fired up with a real excitement for learning. Most pupils find learning and playing
pieces the most obviously enjoyable part of their work. So pieces must remain the central focus
of the lesson. But it is how the pieces are taught that really counts.
All good teaching will have had at least some preparation. In preparing to teach a particular piece
it is important to identify the musical ingredients: scale, arpeggio and other melodic and rhythmic
patterns for example, markings and other instructions. And it is important to know the piece. We
then begin to teach not the piece, but the ingredients. We are continually making connections onto
aural, technical work (including development of key sense through scales), memory, sight-
reading, improvisation, composition and theory. In this way the skills, related knowledge and
subsequent musical understanding become linked and a much more powerful and effective form
of education has taken place. We are teaching the language, we are teaching our pupils to see and
understand; to hear and understand. We are teaching them music.
As a teacher, I used to become frustrated at having seemingly taught a pupil something and then
finding that they could not then apply that same knowledge in a different context. For some
reason, effective learning had not taken place. In a good simultaneous learning lesson there must
be a good deal of dialogue the asking of searching questions designed to encourage pupils to
develop connections and think for themselves. Pupils must be encouraged to solve their own
problems. Teachers guide and direct. This is how progress is really made and it will allow pupils
to transfer knowledge and understanding much more readily.
So how might a simultaneous lesson unfold? There is an infinite variety of possibilities. You may
base the lesson on an unseen piece of sight-reading; you may base it on improvisation or
composition related to the piece being learnt. For now, let us assume we are dealing with a lowish
grade pianist who has prepared a C major scale and the be singing in lessons) then performing the
scale. The pupil is questioned: was it rhythmical? Was the tone even? Were there any technical
faults? Any remedial work to be suggested by the pupil. Getting pupils to take ownership of their
playing is essential if we are to produce independent musical thinkers.
Next, some very simple improvisation in C major free if you like, or perhaps based on a
melodic phrase from their piece (but keep the music out of sight!). Recalling the improvisation
discuss the range of dynamics used. Now try a second improvisation but making use of a
different or perhaps greater dynamic range. Discuss other interesting aspects of the improvisation.
Could it be improved? How? Perhaps a technical point may have emerged which can now be
explored through either more improvisation or some favourite exercise.
Next, move on to the piece but still keep the music book shut. Can the rhythm of the first few
bars be clapped? How much can actually be played from memory? Work at however much (or
little) is memorised. Any particular feature (be it melodic, rhythmic, a particular marking or
stylistic idea) can now be explored by talking about it and putting it into different contexts (still
the music is out of sight). Perhaps play a melodic fragment in different keys, exaggerate or alter a
marking, the variety of possibilities are only limited by the imagination.
Now finally open the music. Read the music through silently, in the head first, before playing it.
Try singing the right-hand line and playing the left. Then (assuming there is nothing the pupil
may really find difficult and again after silent reading) sight-read a further few bars. It doesnt
matter if the silent reading was not a hundred per cent accurate at this stage. The very fact of
trying will develop all sorts of musical skills. Again, talk about and work at the ingredients of the
new section. Never simply teach the piece. Now decide on what is to be the focus of the weeks
practice and talk about how practice is to be undertaken simultaneous learning should be
assimilated into practice just as it is in lessons. More work on C major perhaps it is to be played
at different dynamics or using particular rhythms found in the piece; beginning to think about
composing their own Allegretto in C (perhaps they might improvise different ideas or work on
the first few bars) and more work on their piece with as much memory work as possible.
Pupils should keep a practice notebook, noting down the various different ideas they had during
their sessions. Practice thus becomes a creative and imaginative experience not a half-hearted,
mindless twenty minutes that pupils would rather be spending doing something else! So, in such
a lesson (and its related practice sessions, which must be clearly connected in both spirit and
content) we have included technical work, aural, improvisation, rhythm, composition, scales,
memory work, sight-reading and the development of other aspects of musicianship. Music has
been at the heart of the activity throughout with the piece acting as the point of departure.
Once a teacher/pupil team embark on this kind of learning the horizons become increasingly
wider. The imagination of both parties is being accessed and that is where music really lives. A
music lesson should have very little to do with correcting mistakes, with showing pupils how
pieces go. Simultaneous learning is about making connections. Through teaching pupils to
make these connections, we are really developing their musical ability. It is certainly more of a
long-term approach and it will take a bit of courage, but the rewards will be considerable. We are
developing pupils musical independence, the likelihood of them giving up is diminished and we
are endowing them with a unique gift for life.
Paul Harris is a teacher, composer, writer, clarinettist, educationalist and examiner. The author
of over 250 publications including The Music Teachers Companion (ABRSM (Publishing)
Limited) and the Improve Your Sight-reading! series (Faber Music) and many works ranging from
short educational pieces to five concertos and a ballet.

Paul Harris