29th May 2020 – Vocal Health, Taking care of your instrument
For most musicians it’s easy to take a look at your chosen instrument and see exactly how it functions to create sounds. It’s easy to see if any damage has been caused, but what about us singers? How can we make sense of how our instrument works and when it may be damaged or simply going through voice change? I’m fascinated by the human voice and want to share some insights that can help EVERYONE understand their voice more deeply – yes, even if you’re not learning to sing.
What’s so different about the voice compared to any other instrument? Well, firstly we cannot see our instrument because it is inside us. It’s used for many other tasks throughout the day. If you think about it, a musician practises with their instrument for a certain amount of time each day, but a singer not only uses their voice for practising, but for the whole of the rest of the day in ordinary life. We all use our voices to communicate with one another, to sing along to the radio, to laugh when something is funny, to cry out when we’re upset or frustrated. Not to mention the growth every teenager goes through. Did you know that during puberty the larynx can increase in size up to 40% in girls and 60% in boys? No wonder it’s hard to control the voice with that amount of change happening! So you can see it is vital that we do everything in our power to protect our voices’ integrity and health.
Be kind to your voice. As you now know, you use it more than you may realise! Some days you may wake up and your voice ‘just isn’t feeling it’. That’s ok! It’s bound to happen from time to time, whether it’s a sore throat, voice change or any number of things. The main thing is don’t push it if it’s hurting.
Your diet has a huge part to play in vocal heath, for instance caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks, tea and coffee will dehydrate your vocal folds, making vocal function less efficient.
How you use your voice is extremely important as well. You wouldn’t practise hammering away at the piano until the keys pinged off or shredding your guitar until the strings twanged off, so why treat your voice this way? Be kind to your voice and listen when it tells you you’re tiring it out; Take a rest.
I could go on and on, but here are a few of my top tips for maintaining a healthy voice:
- Stay hydrated – the water you drink takes 2 hours to hydrate your vocal folds.
- Get a good night of sleep – a well-rested voice will be far more efficient.
- Warm up the voice gently – start with gentle humming.
- Avoid eating/ drinking dairy on a day you’re going to sing/ make a speech – a layer of mucus can form and you end up constantly clearing your throat.
- Avoid shouting excessively – it overloads the vocal folds and causes inflammation (a sore throat).
- Avoid coughing, instead sip water/ warm honey and lemon drink – coughing causes more inflammation and increases recovery time.
- Warm down the voice after use – yawning is a great way to release tension.
- Rest – when your voice feels tired have a break from vocalising.
Singing and voice-use is such a joyous and miraculous thing to do, so take care of your voice – it’s the only one you’ve got.
Claire Hutchinson – Singing Tutor
22nd May 2020 – Lock-down Challenges will become Long-term advantages!
To say the last two months have been a steep learning curve both professionally and personally would be slight understatement. As a parent trying to home-school two children whilst working from home and as a piano teacher suddenly separated by many miles and two screens from the pupils I am used to sitting next to each week, it’s fair to say that lock-down has been a challenge.
But as we all know, challenges present opportunities for growth and now that we are a couple of months into the experience and moving towards end of year reporting time, I can look back and assess both my own and my pupils’ progress pretty positively.
Yes, at times I’ve been utterly frustrated that I can’t simply point to a note on the pupil’s page right in front of their eyes and I can’t count along with their playing to remind them to keep to the beat and sadly, the duets we had been practicing simply don’t work over Skype. However, with slight adjustments to my teaching practices we are working through the issues and there are plenty of new things both I and them have learnt through this tough time which will continue to be beneficial in the future.
A prime example is this; because online communication doesn’t work well if one side interrupts the other I haven’t been able to talk during my pupils’ performances, which at first both sides found disconcerting. I hadn’t realised how frequently I was doing it – the odd reminder to pay attention to the dynamic markings, prompting them when they became a little stuck (“That next note is G”), or reassuring them with “well done” at the end of a section they had been finding difficult.” Before lock-down I was peppering my speech into their performances a lot. Whilst there are obvious benefits to this at that moment in time by aiding that particular performance to run more fluently, I think even in the long term when we are back in schools I’ll be trying to curb this because it has had the really positive effect of making my pupils more independent. I now see and hear them working out what comes next for themselves, even if it does take a while longer, and I am finding they are easily correcting their own mistakes when something goes a little wrong. The silence from me allows them to assess and improve their own performances much more successfully which can only be a good thing.
Another major issue for me to start with was to do with improvisation. Being far more comfortable composing than performing, I personally love to make improvisation and composition a part of my teaching and feel it can be really beneficial to my pupils. Just as learning to read goes hand in hard with learning to write, and learning to listen with learning to talk, I have always found learning to play your instrument goes hand in hand with learning to create your own music on it, and it can be a really helpful to reinforce whatever technique you are teaching in a lesson. So another thing I found particularly tricky in the early stages of teaching online was not being able to do the vast majority of my improvisation exercises that my pupils regularly enjoy. This is because they were almost always accompanied by myself, particularly as I work mostly with beginners. So what now? What could I use to help pupils practice the learning we had covered about contrasting dynamics? What would I do to break up the lesson when we were bogged down in difficult piece in their book? How would we cope without it? The answer is simple of course – adapt and expand the repertoire of exercises we are using. I’ve thought of a few myself and also looked for help online and even delved back into the archives of my teacher training text books and figured out there are plenty of fun ways even the most novice pupils can improvise without the support of an accompaniment. We can still create melodies using whatever parameters I might have set when doing accompanied improvisation like – “create some phrases using this rhythm in your five-finger hand position,” “now create a melody with some staccato notes thrown in” or “improvise on the black notes for 4 bars with a crescendo at the end.” These sorts of things still work with or without the addition of accompaniment. We can also do ‘question and answer’ or ‘call and response’ type phrases together. The pupil can be taught a simple repetitive phrase which they can then play a few times before varying it in different ways. The teacher can model it first of course. Those who are playing hands together material can be taught a simple left hand pattern or even use a drone to improvise over. Or my personal favourite lately, and only once they know a given piece quite well, we have been having fun with ‘doctoring’ the piece the pupil has learnt by for example playing the first two bars as written then replacing the next two with their own creation. This edges slightly more into composition than improvisation to be honest as it often requires a few shots at it to get something the pupil is satisfied with and works well, and we often jot it down on a piece of paper. The list goes on, but suffice to say I have probably doubled my arsenal of improvisation exercises I can use in lessons going forward. Let’s just hope I can remember how to accompany them too when the time comes!
The resources I use are much changed lately too. Pencil and paper are much less useful than they used to be now that we are communicating digitally and with such varied connections that while some of my pupils look crystal clear, some are more like pixelated Minecraft characters – a series of coloured squares. Therefore, trying to show them a tiny few notes I have drawn on my own manuscript paper is rarely successful. Mini whiteboards and big thick whiteboard pens are quite effective but technology has also come to the rescue – notation software, file sharing and screen sharing during video calls are becoming really useful tools. And whilst I can’t accompany the pupils myself it has pushed me to explore resources such as backing tracks and accompaniments on YouTube that will be useful resources for them whilst practicing even once we do have lessons together again. I’m even beginning to master video editing techniques that are proving useful to record accompaniments which we can’t find online, and even short lessons for some pupils who found the interactive online lessons weren’t for them. I have tended to be bit suspicious of technology in music lessons as an advocate of ‘real’ face-to-face learning and playing together but this experience has taught me there is room for both.
These are just a few of the changes we’ve made recently and I’m sure there are more yet to discover, not least of all when I meet a brand new pupil for the first time online this week. There’s no doubt I’m looking forward to meeting my pupils in person again, sitting at the same piano as them, playing together and teaching in the usual way that has become so natural to me over the years, but this challenge has been perhaps the most rapid period of professional development and self-reflection my career has seen in years. Thanks to all those pupils who have undertaken this voyage of discovery with me!
Victoria Worthington – piano and keyboard tutor
15th May 2020 – The ‘New Norm’
Music tuition using Skype has recently become a new norm, and what a success it has been! I have been teaching piano and keyboard using this platform for quite a few weeks now, and am so pleased with the positive responses I have received from both pupils and parents alike. From the moment we greet each other on screen each week, a wave of great enthusiasm and concentration kicks in. I am so proud of the achievements of my pupils and how quickly they have adapted to learning online. Furthermore, it’s been a bonus to meet the parents and especially helpful for updating them on their child’s progress. This has certainly been a learning curve for me, but one that I can highly recommend to you all.
Hazel Douce – piano and keyboard tutor
7th May 2020 – Reflecting on Online Lessons
Since lock-down, I’m definitely trying to empathise more with how the student may feel with all the world changes going on and the speed at which things have changed for everyone.
As life slows down it can be easy to naturally think on restrictions or any personal challenges/barriers to your current teaching and how this has changed for each of us. I’m finding that keeping a child’s perspective is helping me remain more cheerful and optimistic, and to use this time as a way of evaluating how any changes can benefit both me as a teacher, and most importantly my students. Here are a few observations from the past few weeks.
Now I work for Music for Life, in schools, I usually have minimal contact with parents. The changes to online teaching have, in some cases, completely changed the learning of the child. As relationships are built with parents, most of my younger students have a parent present for the whole lesson. This has been so valuable! If parents are musical then they understand more fully my reasons for explaining or teaching a certain way. If they aren’t musical, I’ve found them taking much more interest which in turn helps the child, as parents can now aid in practice where previous support at home wasn’t given.
Preparation is always key to a successful piano lesson where student and teacher are engaged in learning relevant to what the child needs. I’m finding it’s more important than ever! My online lessons just fly so if I’m not thoroughly prepared then lessons aren’t engaging enough as effectively we have two screens between the teacher and student! In addition, don’t be afraid of silence. Initially, I found it’s not the same as teaching face-to-face so there is a tendency (in my case!) to become more animated and overly enthusiastic! Now I’ve relaxed, knowing the technology is working and the set-up is secure for my iPad, meeting the parents is established and the children have settled from all the initial worries and changes. I’ve realised those quiet moments are a good time to check the learning of the student has in fact been absorbed and they are confident in what has been asked or in some cases they have something in their mind they are desperate to tell you! Once expressed, the student soon settles back to focusing on their piano lesson. If we constantly talk over, or in-fill these moments we can miss either opportunities to get to know the student or ways we can help them be more confident in their musical learning.
Online lessons provide a way to correct posture and hand position, which are both a basic of playing the piano and it’s provided conversations with parents about this too, which again only supports the child more fully. There are benefits to both teacher and student having a keyboard as we don’t have to keep swapping over to show them or give directions, so lessons flow much smoother.
Children all learn differently so I find my lesson plans are much more focused on firstly, really understanding how the child best learns, and their preferred way. Are they kinaesthetic, aural, visual, spatial, verbal, logical or social? Do they have more than one preferred way to learn? For most children, all clubs have been cancelled, particularly sport so this is an opportunity in the week to engage them and hopefully inspire them. Giving clear directions, not being afraid of any silence, (some of which has naturally gone as the children get used to this new lesson format) but using it as a way to understand how the child is absorbing any learning alongside adapting any games to suit the child’s preferred style. For example: it was easier to get a kinaesthetic learner to move around during a lesson so I’m creating and adapting old games to use. For a visual learner I chose the student’s favourite film, Harry Potter, raided my daughters dressing up box and greeted her dressed as Harry Potter! With a spell game linked to the piece she was learning!
There are many resources being published weekly for online lesson support and ideas. I’m a member of The Curious Piano Teachers who are a fantastic support and provide plenty of ideas for lessons.
Overall, children are more relaxed at home so providing a stimulating lesson can help them avoid distractions in the room their lesson is in. In some cases, I’ve been able to use them as part of the lesson, like the student who loves Lego! ‘Can your Iron Man find G in the bass clef?’
Keeping the child’s perspective has really helped me to be happy and bubbly for the student, and realise I’m contributing at a challenging time and might be the only teacher the child AND the parent has spoken to in the week!
Rebecca Marshall – Piano and Keyboard tutor
1st May 2020 – Moving Online
The first point when I realised something serious was going on was when I had to make the decision to cancel band practice for the foreseeable future. Any band players will hear the inward gasp and understand the gravity of that decision! At that point I was still able to go into schools to teach but social gatherings were being cancelled. I am a brass teacher and avid encourager of band playing. I run 5 band practices a week, four at schools and a community band.
My diary was filling up with Spring and Summer concerts that we have been working towards since January. Unfortunately, these have now all been cancelled and some of my school pupils will have moved on before we get to perform these pieces.
I find this is something that non-musicians don’t understand, that we are working towards the performance. We rehearse weekly, where we have a lot of fun and that rehearsal in itself is invaluable as a social gathering and as a reason to practice and learn; but the end goal is to create a performance. A performance where you all play to the best of your ability; for me as a teacher to say, look how fantastic your child, spouse etc is; and to inspire others to think ‘I want to do that!’
However, there has evolved a new genre of performance. The ‘Pandemic Performance’. Where we can record ourselves playing, do a little technological magic and share amongst social media. This is allowing musicians to fulfill their need to perform and the sheer volume of videos shows how we crave to do it. Technology has allowed us to keep some normality going. I am very grateful to Music for Life for setting up the Skype lessons so quickly and encouraging me to join this new era of remote music making. It’s lovely to still be able to see my pupils each week and really important for them to be able to keep regular lessons. This week I had a school music concert scheduled so we are going to hold that remotely by parents sharing videos. In my community band we have produced a video where each member recorded themselves and it was lovely for us all to see each other, even just on video. We are also engaging in new technology, like WhatsApp groups, previously unheard off for some members, so we can keep the social aspect of the band night, which has now become quiz night.
We will return to normal at some point, but with lots of new skills and a greater appreciation of band practices and concerts.
Jacky Keating – Brass and Piano Tutor
24th April 2020 – My Week as an Online Music Tutor
To add a tiny bit of normality to the school calendar I gave all my pupils last week off as their Easter Holiday and I used the totally free time to finally get to grips with all the piano accompaniments for the new ABRSM violin syllabus. Why do my students all pick the really tricky jazzy ones? See, even teachers have to practice but it’s good to actually sit at the piano and play new music. With lock-down I find I am actually having the time to play for my own enjoyment which is normally the last thing on my agenda after a full day of teaching into the evening.
This week saw me back with my new teaching timetable. It was really amazing how it just felt perfectly normal now to sit at the piano with the laptop positioned to take the Skype calls. It’s lovely to answer the call and see the happy smiling faces join me in my music room. It somehow feels a lot more informal and relaxed allowing me into their homes in this way. It’s also lovely to get to know all the mums and dads too. Some are old friends from years of teaching their child but others are brand new to me who I possibly would never have had the chance to meet so regularly.
All the work and new pieces set for the week’s holiday have been done well. A definite upside to lock down is far more practice is being done! One of my year 2 violinists actually gave a concert on her front lawn for the neighbours!
One downside to this week is that some hard decisions have got to be taken now regarding the ABRSM exams that were cancelled in March. I had several students who had their exams cancelled with just a week to go to the exam so naturally they were gutted. All that work and with just days to the exam they were right at the top of their game. Some have decided to hold out and see if a July exam session opens up and for those students a change to one of their pieces will keep it fresh. Sadly if no July session becomes available I have suggested we move onto the next grade regardless. For one pupil she has requested that I become the examiner and she does a mock exam with me. (Apparently I have to look like a real examiner though. Still thinking about that one!!) It does lead me to wonder if the board couldn’t have operated a similar system to the GCSE and A level exams and for those pupils entered but cancelled with just days to go, award a pass certificate with the option of sitting it later if they wish to try for a merit or distinction. After all, teachers would not enter a pupil who was likely to fail so they must have been pretty certain of at least a pass! For those students scheduled for later in the summer but will definitely now be in the Autumn, I am suggesting a change of piece anyway here and there to keep it all fresh and alive.
One technical issue for me at home is I have gone from a wireless connection to the internet to a hard wired one which is so much better. I just have to watch I don’t trip over it in the hall and break my neck!
Stay safe everyone and continue to enjoy making music. This won’t last forever, but we will be talking about it for years to come.
Bev Greenwood – Piano and Violin Tutor
17th April 2020 – You Never Finish Learning!
One of the best feelings I’ve ever known is becoming a professional musician, by which I mean that moment where suddenly I could play to the level I reached for and longed for. That moment when you can pick up your chosen instrument and play more or less anything that you want, that goal of mastering your craft, completed. But ironically it can also lead to you becoming a worse player. Setting and completing goal after goal when you are younger is almost an addiction. Once you stop setting goals however, you start to rely more and more on tricks you know and clever snippets that, although sound impressive, you know deep down are covering over the fact that you have stopped practicing. You stopped playing scales for three hours a day, you stopped travelling down rabbit holes of music where you end up spending six days learning an obscure 1940’s blues piano piece, just because it had such a strange chord sequence and melody. In essence, you gave up climbing a mountain that isn’t possible to reach the top of. And so what? You can’t become the all mighty, all knowing, all round top of the universe musician so why does it matter if I stopped at a certain point on that mountain? Well, it doesn’t matter and whatever level you reached should be celebrated.
But doesn’t it gnaw away at you? Just a little bit that you got to that perch and started to look down instead of up?
So during lockdown, I began looking into a blues guitarist called Joe Bonamassa. I had always loved one particular pentatonic run up/run down he frequently plays during solos. After finding a video online of a guitar teacher showing a variety of his common phrases, I was able to look at what was happening…and it was soul destroying. Joe Bonamassa naturally plays pentatonic style licks and solos with a rhythm different to my own natural rhythm, whilst his right hand technique is also different which allows for more fluid playing, accuracy and speed.
But that wasn’t what was soul destroying. The soul destroying part was that somewhere between ten to fifteen years ago, I had been shown the right hand technique that would have allowed me to play this way. I decided against practicing because in my mind I was at that point an old dog and didn’t need a new trick. I had reached my cliff on the mountain, got shown the next path, and looked down instead.
Well, it’s not like I can go anywhere or hide from this now is it?!
The five minutes in between the Skype calls on week one, I practiced this exercise. One small, fast, unnatural and incredibly intricate exercise. I was terrible. For three days straight, I was terrible. But I kept going. Not because I was desperate to get it right and not because I wanted to show off, but because that’s what musicians do. Somewhere, in the back of all our weird musician brains, is this voice that says “…just do it again…” And then suddenly by the end of the second week of teaching, I could play it. It wasn’t perfect, the right hand was still sloppy and the notes weren’t entirely smooth and accurate. But the speed and sound of the note flow I wanted was there. It was a start.
Over time, we have become far too comfortably good ignoring it. We drown it out because of university, because of family, because of gigs, because of life, because “I’ve just been teaching all day and I don’t have the energy OK?!” And that brings me to the main reason – Teaching can inspire, teaching SHOULD inspire. But teaching drains the teacher and drains our mental energy.
But maybe that energy can become far less drained if we show these kids that we still struggle. Instead of showing off the ease in which we can play the pieces that they are learning and we are teaching, maybe we let them into our world and show them that we are actually still in their shoes. We haven’t reached the top, we are just further ahead climbing a steeper curve.
If nothing else, it will bring you back to those days sat at a desk, playing your pieces again and again and again…and you will suddenly remember what these kids are going through and it may just remind you why you started playing in the first place, because it certainly has done for me.
…also the pubs are closed so why not eh?!
Music for Life Guitar Tutor
9th April 2020 – Virtual Piano Concert
After trying out Zoom in school for the first time three weeks ago, online tuition feels quite natural now. You soon adjust to the slight time delay and any difficulties that might occur from not actually being in the same room as your pupil. Remote teaching opens up many possibilities for a piano teacher, especially where group tuition is concerned. I will be hosting my first virtual piano concert on Saturday afternoon and look forward to seeing eight of my Year 4-6 pupils perform from their homes to an audience consisting of some of my other students and their families. I know that one or two grandparents have been invited along too.
Whilst it would normally be the Easter holidays at the moment, it seems pertinent to continue teaching throughout the next 8 weeks to maintain focus.
Other group possibilities arise too, such as bringing together a group of students who are all working on the same piece for a ‘masterclass’, something I plan to trial next week. One of my alumni students (currently at university) has been in touch about concerts on Zoom too. I plan to invite selected alumni students into future concerts to show the progression from beginner students to advanced students who have ‘graduated’ from my tuition.
The current cloud is so full of silver linings and positive connections!
Will Hay – Piano and Keyboard Tutor
4th April 2020 – First week of online lessons!
After what has been a rather worrying and difficult end to the Spring term of lessons due to what is currently going on in the world, it is also a great opportunity to reflect on what has happened. This week has seen the first week of online music lessons through the medium of Skype, which has provided music education to continue, despite schools being shut! over 1,400 students have start this week and without the help from parents, tutors and all of the team at Music for Life, this would not have been possible. The reviews and feedback that has come from parents and tutors has been fantastic to read and I will include a couple here. With so much uncertainty and heartache in the world, it is fantastic to see the positivity that is coming from these lessons is not only helping students continue their musical journey, but provide a friendly face in way of their tutor continue their lessons at this time.
“I am just sending a message to say thank you for arranging the Skype lessons with Iain. My son was a little nervous about it to start with but has finished with a big smile on his face and thoroughly enjoyed the session and is already looking forward to doing it again. Just what is needed!! “
“My daughter has just had her first keyboard lesson via Skype and I wanted to say how well it all went. I think it is great that you have been able to provide this service so quickly and I know she really enjoyed it. Thank you to you, your staff and teachers for adapting to this way of working so readily.”
And here are some comments from instrument teachers, many of whom were unsure about how online lessons may work.
“I was really not sure about starting online lessons but after today and seeing all my pupils little smiling faces and how they were SO pleased to see me I feel totally differently! Most sounded much better than I expected on varying kinds of devices.”
“Just to let you know, lessons went great today! Thanks so much for setting these up. Pupils looked very happy to be doing it and one parent said it was the highlight of their day!”
“Just done my first day of Skype lessons. To be fair it was 99% flawless with just 1 no-show – less than in school!! Other than that, very very positive feedback from me!”
Dan Gooch-Peters – Head of MfL Operations
Praise for Music for Life
Mr and Mrs Hughes, Macclesfield
Dr Sims, Upton, Wirral
In 2 short years, my daughter has progressed to now starting work on grade 4 flute. We are absolutely delighted with this and so very grateful to Mrs Oade who has inspired and encouraged Rebekah so much. The standard of her teaching has been second to none and Rebekah has consistently undertaken her practice with no prompting. We are now re-locating and can only hope that Rebekah’s new teacher is anywhere near as excellent as Mrs Oade.
Thank you to ‘Music for Life’. Rebekah was schooled in the private sector for prep and had music lessons arranged with individual instrument teachers. The system was nowhere near as efficient and required significantly more monitoring and intervention on my part. Please do keep doing what you’re doing, I’m sure it is changing so many young persons lives for the better!
Mrs Batchelor, Chester
I just wanted to say thank you to his tutors and MfL for inspiring my son and being brilliant, encouraging teachers. It has been a great experience for him. He is autistic and we have been amazed how he has progressed. It has given him confidence and been a calming influence for him.
Mrs Lavelle, Altrincham
Your emphasis on inclusion and excellence in seemingly equal measure is really remarkable. The performances were much more joyful and committed than anything we have seen before from people of that age and experience. Your choice of music, the type of arranging and the personalities of the people you employ clearly works very well and is something of a special formula.
Mrs Sadler, Crewe
As someone who has always taken a sympathetic and supportive interest in our daughter (whom you know to be severely /profoundly deaf ) we thought you would want to know that she has won a National competition for deaf musicians! Her prize includes a 2 day Masterclass, taught by specialists of national repute and then she is playing at the Birmingham Rep Theatre. Well done Mrs Turner and Music For Life!