Peter and the Wolf

The Royal Conservatory of Music recently released new theory books for each of their piano levels. They correlate and support the skills students are learning in sight, ear, repertoire, and technique. And now, each level contains guided listening assignments and music history.

At a recent group performance class I presented Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev (1891-1951) was a Russian composer and pianist. He started piano lessons with his mother at age three, and wrote his first opera at nine. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1918 he left Russia for the U.S.A., and in 1920 settled in Paris, France. In 1933 Prokofiev returned to Russia.

Peter and the Wolf was written 1936 (in just four days!) for narrator and orchestra as a way to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra. Each character in the story is represented by a different instrument of the orchestra – strings, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horns, timpani – and each character is given their own unique melody that reappears throughout the story.

Here is a YouTube version of the story. And our very own National Arts Centre Orchestra is presenting a live version of Peter and the Wolf with Rick Mercer on Saturday, May 20 (two matinee concerts) as part of their kids’ series TD Family Adventures.


20/20 Sight Reading

Sight reading is reading an unknown score while performing the music. The skills for sight reading are different than the ones that we use for performing music that we have spent time practising. For amateur musicians sight-reading is the most significant step towards musical independence. They can keep learning and enjoying music-making even after they stop taking lessons.

Last piano season, my studio-wide goal was to develop and improve everyone’s sight reading ability. I read a lot of research papers. In November I attended an ORMTA Information Sharing Session on the topic of sight reading. [Information Sharing Sessions are a great resource for me. They are informal meetings of teachers from the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Registered Music Teachers' Association. We get together to discuss how to teach a topic and share our insights, successes, and resources.] And coincidentally, RCM released a new edition of the 4 Star Sight & Ear books in 2015.

Some things I learned:

  • Sight reading relies primarily on short-term memory, while performing rehearsed repertoire relies primarily on long-term memory.
  • Research confirms that a reliable predictor of sight-reading ability is sight-reading experience. The single best predictor of sight-reading achievement was the number of accumulated hours of sight-reading practice up to the age of fifteen.
  • Quantity, frequency, and range of experience (solo pieces, accompanying soloists, accompanying ensembles, etc.) were factors for improvement.
  • Eye movements in sight reading are not the same as in reading language. In sight reading music our eyes move left to right, right to left, vertically, and zigzag. It turns out that experts look further ahead than less skilled readers do.
  • Aural imagery [the ability to imagine in your head what the music sounds like] was the strongest predictor of sight reading ability.
  • Good sight readers had well-developed visual and kinesthetic imagery of the keyboard.

While I am an excellent sight reader, I needed to break down the skills for my students who are still acquiring knowledge, fine motor skills, and keyboard geography. Here are some of the things we did that worked:

  1. We gained experience. Nearly every student completed their 4 Star book last season. I had several contests and competitions running during the year to keep our momentum going.
  2. We planned ahead. Before beginning to play a sight reading piece at lessons, the student and I spent a significant amount of time preparing to play. In fact, I guided students in what to look for: patterns of scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythms. We planned and wrote in fingering for some patterns and circled any flats or sharps as indicated by the key signature.
  3. We worked on keeping up with the beat. Many new sight readers stop and backtrack at every mistake. One of the tenets of good sight reading is being able to keep the music flowing forwards. So, after the student had had one attempt to play the sight reading piece at a steady beat and as correctly as possible, I gave them a second turn but with a different focus - I played the piece along with the student. The goal was for the student to finish together with me by the last measure, no matter what happened or what had to be skipped over. I allowed for unlimited errors, but no additional attempts.

Item 3 had the most dramatic improvement. Item 2 was very valuable as well. Students are still acquiring knowledge and abilities. The hierarchy of things I pointed out in the music were not always the same things they focussed on.

This is just the beginning. There is so much more to come this season!

RCM Releases New Theory Syllabus

The Royal Conservatory of Music has released a new theory syllabus and textbooks. My books just arrived and I have had a first read-through. I am excited about the direction things are going! There are now theory books that correspond to every piano level – from Preparatory to ARCT – organized into these categories:

  • Elementary theory - Preparatory, Levels 1-4
  • Intermediate theory – Levels 5-8
  • Advanced theory – Levels 9-ARCT

Some highlights:

  • While the theory books have been expanded to the Elementary levels, no exams are required at Preparatory and up to Level 4 to earn a practical certificate.
  • Elementary and Intermediate levels now include guided listening in music history/appreciation.
  • Elementary and Intermediate levels include melody writing to inspire creativity.
  • Advanced harmony levels have the important concept of counterpoint woven throughout.
  • Level 9 Harmony [formerly Basic Harmony] is now a required exam, in order to build a strong foundation.

I’ve seen a package of sample exams in the new format, and in December 2016 the new textbooks for Levels 9-ARCT harmony and history will be released. RCM allows a crossover period this year while we get up to speed on the new requirements. As before, co-requisite theory exams must be completed before or within five years after the original practical examination date.


RCM Teacher Certification

I am pleased to announce that I have received teacher certification from the Royal Conservatory of Music in these categories:

  • Piano – Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced
  • Theory – Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced

These designations are based on my education, experience, and my students’ results in the RCM examination system. As part of the RCM Teacher Certification program I have access to continuing education and teacher resources, and access to their Ask An Examiner feature for any of my exam-related questions.

Photo by Alfred Music

Ever hear of a one-armed piano player?

In every piano season, I receive at least one phone call from a parent telling me that one of my students has broken their arm. (Last season three students were wearing casts at various times!) Naturally, everyone is wondering what to do about piano. I can reassure everyone that the student should continue to attend lessons.

While we do need to make some adjustments to lesson plans, there is a lot we can cover while we wait for the cast to come off. I shift the focus to theory and ear training. We have the time to study music history and listen to recordings and sight read scores of important works.

Photo by Alfred Music

Photo by Alfred Music

And did you know there is a large repertoire of piano music written especially for one hand? Many pianists have been injured due to war or illness. Janina Fialkowska is a Canadian pianist known for her interpretation of Chopin. Her career was in jeopardy when she had a cancerous tumour removed from her arm. She has made an amazing comeback.

I recently added to my music library: several volumes of Grand One-Hand Piano Solos written by Melody Bober, published by Alfred Music. Half of each volume is written for left hand, and the other half is written for right hand. We’re ready for anything!

RCM Releases New Piano Syllabus

The Royal Conservatory of Music has released a new piano syllabus and edition of their Celebration Series books. My students and I have been previewing the new material all week as we look ahead to next season. There are exciting changes coming.

The Repertoire contains more compositions by modern composers. An excellent selection of pieces from the masters in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras is presented with only a few carryovers from the last edition. There are also many new selections in the Etudes books.

The number of technical items required for an exam have been reduced in order to allow for an increase in the Musicianship skills.

The 4 Star Sight & Ear books have been completely revised to contain the new requirements. For ear training, all homework questions are now available online at The access code is included in each 4 Star book. Some highlights:

  • Intervals for each grade may be asked in either direction.
  • Chord identification has been updated to include augmented chords.
  • Instead of identifying just cadences at the end of a short melody, students will identify the full chord progression.
  • Rhythm clapback and melody playback questions have been revamped so they are both combined in the same melody, and the student will hear the melody three times. Questions are in a new selection of major and minor keys.

Sight reading has also been revamped with an emphasis on the ability to tap a steady beat while speaking, tapping, or clapping the rhythm.

As I look over the new requirements, I am pleased with how well positioned my students are to make the changeover. We already use solfege, takadimi, and many keyboard harmony principles in our lessons that go beyond the syllabus requirements  My only regret is that the technical lists had to be trimmed to make room for the new musicianship skills. But, we’ll likely go beyond the syllabus requirements in that area as well in order to grow well-rounded musicians.



Double Dutch Blues

Do you remember skipping double Dutch jump rope during elementary school recess? Ah, timing your entrance just right, chanting a skipping song, and staying in as long as possible before you tripped up and had to jump out…

My piano students had a performance class yesterday. After the performances, I introduced the skill of improvising – as something akin to jumping double Dutch.

I introduced 12-bar blues form to the class, and together we built a lead sheet (which I projected on the wall). Then we discussed a blues scale compared to a major scale. Next I showed several short melody patterns that could become the inspiration for an improvised solo. Ideas ranged from a single note varied by rhythm to some more elaborate ideas using several blues scale notes.

I slid the duet bench in front of the piano, and started vamping a blues progression with a walking left hand bass line on the low end of the piano. Students formed a line and “jumped in” to the seat beside me and improvised a solo. They were free to jump out whenever they wanted, and the next person jumped in. They quickly caught on to the fact that one pattern repeated at different places on the piano could be used to build a good improvised solo.

We concluded by watching the amazing Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson (1925–2007) play a concert with his trio in Berlin. Some great soloing there – wow!


Playing Around Town

At the beginning of this week I was accompanying several flute and clarinet performances at the Ottawa Kiwanis Music Festival. Kiwanis is a large music competition that runs six days a week for the entire month of April, hosted at various churches in Ottawa. Hundreds of young performers enter in many different categories: piano, woodwinds, brass, strings, band, orchestra, and vocal.

Performing at festival is one way to gain performing experience. Musicians perform in a recital setting in front of an adjudicator and audience. When everyone has performed, the performers receive written and verbal feedback (and since it is a competition format, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places are awarded).

While we were just a bit nervous, we had a good experience performing (and earned some good scores too). Our adjudicator, David Gerry from McMaster University, was friendly and gave us helpful comments that we can use for our next performances. The festival runs until May 2.

Is that how it goes?

My students just performed at a students-only performance class, and are now preparing for our upcoming recital. At recent lessons we have been discussing practice and memorization strategies. I keep threatening to make a video for my students of me practising. And I suspect that we are taxing the ears and patience of our fans at home because practising and performing sound quite different from each other.

Here’s the ugly truth: good practising sounds bad. What I mean by that, is that the work at home in the days leading up to a performance should not sound like polished performances repeated day after day. So what does good practising sound like?

Good practising sounds incomplete while we work on a specific section of a piece – one measure, one phrase, one section, or one page – often out of order, and jumping backwards and forwards through a piece.

Good practising sounds repetitious while we are trying to master a new skill. Often the goal is to play a small section correctly three times in a row. If you make a mistake on the second attempt, it’s back to zero and you begin the cycle again. Gaining control of dynamics may take five, six, seven attempts until we can consistently deliver the desired volume.

Good practising sounds too slow. Deliberate slow practise is one of the most effective tools we have. We can concentrate and play with 100% accuracy. To repeatedly play a section of piece with a stumble or hesitation is learning to play it that way forever.

Good practising sounds like one hand at a time. This is a useful strategy when a piece is new and we are figuring out notes, rhythm, and fingerings. Later, when the piece is further along, we will return to hands separate work to review rhythm and articulation. And ahead of a performance we will return to hands separate work to review our memory.

Good practising sounds silent. When we are comparing sections or memorizing away from the piano the room gets quiet. And sometimes we listen to recordings of other performers to get some artistic ideas.

Good practising sounds like someone talking to his/herself. When I have one of those “eureka” moments, it is often accompanied by “ooooh” or “aha!”. And there’s a fair bit of muttering when things aren’t going as well as I’d hoped.

Please come to the recital. We’ll have it all put together and give you a great show.


Let us count the ways

Oh, that sounds impressive

This year’s teaching theme is technical development. A significant portion of a pianist’s practice time is spent working on scales, triads, chords, and arpeggios so that we have that facility at our fingertips [pun intended!] when we encounter those elements in our repertoire. At our recent group class, my piano students and I were discussing technique. My dictionary defines it as ”a method or way of performing the technical details of an art; technical skill: The pianist’s technique was brilliant…

Great example. My students and I tried to define brilliant technique. Then we watched some excerpts of Lang Lang and Vladimir Horowitz in performance.

In the week following group class, I collected students’ ideas for different ways to practice our technique. To become better players, and to save us from boredom, here’s a peek at our list so far:

Let us count the ways