Archive for October, 2010

The Seven Deadly Practice Sins

October 19, 2010

One of my most valued relationships is the one I have with Samantha Coates, of Blitzbooks fame. Samantha & I were at school together at the Conservatorium High School and have worked together at AMS since the early 90’s. Over that time we have discussed, trialled and sometimes perfected all manner of ideas, courses & strategies for improving music education.

We are both passionate about improving our students’ sight reading, aural skills, practice skills and enjoyment of being a musician! Sometimes it’s hard to define who came up with which idea… I guess that’s what happens when you are constantly in discussion about life, the universe, music education and everything!

Samantha recently wrote a fantastic article about PIANO PRACTICE entitled ‘The Seven Deadly Practice Sins’ for her website.

This is a must read for all parents, older students & teachers. Every one of these ‘sins’ is common – and avoiding them will revolutionise the progress of the piano student!

Here’s the link:

AMS Website

October 19, 2010

We are doing a bit of a website overhaul at the moment – adding a link to our facebook page, a link to this blog and a few other bits and pieces. There are already some lovely photos from ‘Sing, Move & Groove’, the AMS Eisteddfod and our wonderful AMS Camp on our ‘results & testimonials’ and ‘information & activities’ pages.

Have a quick look:

Such Beautiful Performances

October 19, 2010

Congratulations to all students who performed in the extension sections of the 2010 AMS eisteddfod.

We enjoyed a weekend of wonderful piano music and everyone was very impressed with the confidence & abilities of our young pianists…. we are very proud!

Our adjudicator Kate Lidbetter gave excellent feedback to all performers. She spoke about the many benefits of learning music and in particular, the benefit of performance opportunities such as the AMS Eisteddfod.

Kate highlighted the importance of performance as a life skill – it teaches dedication, resilience, confidence, co-ordination, public speaking, presentation – just to name a few. These skills are so valuable in all areas of life – they help us at school, in a social setting and eventually in the workplace – regardless of whether we end up as musicians, doctors, hairdressers or plumbers!

Thankyou Kate for encouraging our young performers. Thankyou parents & teachers for your effort and support.

And….Special Congratulations to Liam Strang, winner of the 2010 AMS Performance Award.

The Wonders of Learning to READ music….

October 19, 2010

If you keep reading, you will get to an excerpt from the introduction page of the AMS Sight Reading Society handbook. Better known as SRS, our Sight Reading Society is a program that teaches all the necessary elements to ensure great sight playing skills. Students collect an AMS key-ring and coloured keys as they progress through each level. Its a winner! Our students LOVE to practice sight reading (have you ever heard of that before?!) and monitor their progress on charts and walls of fame. It has improved sight reading proficiency out of sight.

The AMS Sight reading Society  is the program that was the inspiration for ‘How to Blitz Sight Reading’ books which I had the pleasure of co-authoring with Blitzbooks’ Samantha Coates. These books have revolutionised the teaching and practicing of sight reading and we are thrilled that so many teachers & students have responded so passionately about using them.

For lots more musical bits & pieces on theory, musicianship, sight reading and general knowledge – as well as Samantha’s blog, visit

Incidentally, the opening sentence (written by Samantha Coates) is my absolute favourite….

‘We are learning music not just to be clever at something for now, but because we want to have it as a skill for the rest of our lives. Although it’s great to be able to play fast and complicated pieces on our instruments, we also want to be able to accompany our friends on their instruments and to play along at a family sing-a-long!

If you want to be really good at all sorts of music, you need two things: to be able to play by ear and to be able to sight read. All AMS students can play by ear, that’s what we do in class all the time. Now you need to develop your sight reading skills so that you can play just about anything at any time you want to.

Learning to read music fast is just the same as the way we learn to read English fast. Do you remember learning to read in Kindergarten? You had lots of different readers to take home. The reason you got better and better at reading fluently was because you practised by reading all sorts of different books.

Well, it’s the same with music… you won’t get better at reading music by playing the same pieces over and over. You need to read different pieces all the time. Sight reading is a special skill that needs a special sort of practise, one that is different from the type of practice we usually do for an exam or an eisteddfod.’

And the results speak for themselves….

Using Our Ears – the key to learning music

October 19, 2010

‘Of all the skills required to master a musical instrument, perhaps none is more important than a well-trained ear. Good technique is essential for learning an instrument, but unlikely to yield positive results in themselves, unless guided by the ear. Every single activity associated with making music depends on hearing. Just as an artist needs to visualize what a painting is going to look like before setting the brush to canvas, a musician needs a clear mental image of a musical passage prior to playing.’ Robert Rawlins, Music department chair and coordinator of music theory at Rowan University

It’s a fantastic concept – being able to hear something in your head before you actually hear it with your ears. Its something we aspire to teach and value in our own musical processing.

At AMS we consistently focus on the development of aural awareness and ear training. We know that our students will learn each piece more quickly and easily and go on to play it more beautifully if they first have a clear ‘picture’ of the piece in their head. This means being familiar with the sound before they play. The more familiar the ears are, the faster the brain & fingers will be at reproducing the sound and perfecting the piece.

So how do we do this? To begin, we need to listen before we play. In class we do it all the time – through listening & singing the piece with the accompaniment before we play. But how best to approach this once you leave the classroom? Use the AMS CD. The pieces in the book are all on the CD – it’s the same as the music we use in class. Each piece is recorded at a performance tempo so students can hear the ‘finished product’ and become familiar with the musical picture before they even go to the piano. 

Time is short and life is busy – and the CD may seem like just another thing to organise – but missing out on the ‘listening’ stage of learning a new piece makes the actual playing process longer and harder. It’s worth making the effort to ‘hear’ the pieces as often as possible. Listening regularly takes the ‘but I can’t remember how it goes’ woe out of practicing at home.

The ‘listening’ stage can take place away from the piano – in fact, one of the best ways of using the CD is in the car. Familiarity is the key – getting used to the sound of the piece and knowing ‘how it goes’. Students find it far easier to play something when the sound is in their head. It might drive you crazy but listening to the same pieces over and over really does speed up the learning process.

What about reading? Of course, music-reading skills are vital in a well-rounded music education. As we progress, the AMS Sight Reading Society, theory programs and reading activities in class develop and perfect our reading skills. But in the early stages, it’s the ears that are the key to learning and playing successfully.

Another Amazing AMS Camp….

October 10, 2010

We’ve only been home a couple of hours, so I am still tripping over music stands, black lights, percussion instruments, amps & clothing… no energy for any more unpacking! But – energy enough to say how wonderful it is to spend a weekend with fellow musicians, young and old.

70 children (ages 7-15) and 9 AMS teachers were joined by the amazing Mr Guy and our ever-helping Bill. The weather was kind, the food was brilliant and there’s nothing like our Saturday night dress up night… 

AMS kids are such great musicians! Every year this blows me away – young people who are so musically adept and adaptable. Fast on the uptake & with impressive musical memory skills, we get a lot done in our 46 hours!  Our older students who have been at AMS for years are intuitive musicians who can do so much more than play the piano.

A highlight for me this year was our live band to accompnay the choir. We had Mr Jake on bass, Caleb on drums and Oscar on guitar. All 3 have seen many years of AMS camps as students. Jake is finally officially on staff (yey!) and Caleb & Oscar are developing their skills in ‘helper’ roles.

These guys are incredible – I am yet to find something they can’t play.  Often I give them music , change it at the first rehearsal, warp it again at the next rehearsal and at the last minute decide on a key change – and they dont even flinch. In fact, they tried to catch us out in our Sunday choir session by putting one of our songs up a semitone into A flat major (yes, A flat – on guitar & bass) without saying anything, just to see if we noticed. I’m proud to say that quite  a few of the kids did notice! Impressive. Our ‘Song of the Toreador’ was going to be performed with an orchestral CD recording – but during the first rehearsal, the boys started playing along. We ditched the CD backing from that moment onwards – gotta love that!

As a staff it’s fun getting to know our kids better. We see them every week in class but there is nothing like a weekend away together for a bit of bonding! Last night I overheard one of the girls in my cabin saying how wierd it is to see your music teacher in their Pyjamas….