‘It is a grounding experience to place yourself in the shoes of your students, even if only for 25 minutes!’

Practising what you preach

I am a firm believer in practising what you preach, and sometimes this can lead me into some potentially stressful situations. Within my work as a teacher this means that I tend to practise at least as regularly as my students, including scales, studies and exercises; I keep myself active as a performing musician, usually through orchestral playing, but also frequently participating in chamber music and also throwing in the occasional solo recital, although these possibly do me more good than my poor audiences; and very occasionally I will take an exam just to remind myself what kind of experience it is that I am actually subjecting my students to!

Take an exam

When I say take an exam, I do not mean taking a nice medium level violin or viola examination, where my years of experience as a player give me all the skills necessary to overcome the nerves and multitude of other obstacles that one can encounter in this situation. Neither do I mean participate in one of those ever-popular sponsored ‘grade oneathons’ on an instrument I have never tried, although as I have never managed to get any sort of sound out of a flute at all that could be a real challenge! No, my choice is this time was a higher level grade on an instrument that I really am uncomfortable performing on, the piano!

Don’t get me wrong, in comparison to many I can actually play the piano! I did have three years of piano lessons at college and have played it continuously since; using it as a work tool, predominately adding some sort of musical padding to my students’ lessons, but also accompanying them to a certain level in their own examinations and performances. I have even played for school Harvest Festivals, Christmas productions and village Church services. Everything the average music teacher should do, I guess. But I seldom play proper pieces, and definitely never solos to a listening audience!

Nerves and the holistic approach

These days I seem to spend more and more of my teaching time with adult students, and despite all the advantages of them over children one area that seems to be far more of an issue with them is nerves! Yes, time and time again they seek advice on overcoming nerves, with bow shake and memory lapses being the two most frequent symptoms.

I like to think that I have a holistic approach to teaching, so along with the more obvious remedies one could offer for these inflictions I talk about breathing and the role oxygen has in making muscles work effectively for us. It is amazing how many people simply forget to breathe when they play! I emphasise the importance of thorough preparation for any performance situation, and how it really does not matter if we go wrong! Musical performance is a transient art form unless it is being recorded, so if a mistake is made just move forwards with the rest of the performance; not as many people will notice as you think!  Yes, as a teacher I have all the usual glib answers and strategies for such situations! And my students trust me and assume that I am speaking the truth!

Preparation is key

So, back to my piano playing. In early September I decided that I simply had to experience the delights of a graded examination once again, so entered myself for grade seven piano, announcing what I had done on Facebook so there could be no backing out.

I already had a good basic knowledge and ability at the scale requirements, and was just about ready to refine my choice of the three pieces. I felt my sight reading should be ok, particularly as I had spent so many hours over the past twenty eight years fumbling my way through a plethora of piano accompaniments in a wide variety of keys; and as for aural, well I had passed it in my degree and taught it for years, so now was the time to see if the online apps really worked as a learning resource.

My goodness, I was the model student. I practised every day, with about thirty minutes of it being devoted to the scale requirements. True, those contrary motion scales in minor keys were a bit like tongue twisters for the fingers, but with grim determination I mastered them – no Bb minor with hands going in the opposite directions was going to get the better of me! All I really needed was a teacher, but despite many offers from local colleagues I made the brave (or possibly foolhardy) decision to ‘go it alone’ and see how much I could achieve without help!

Everything was going so well, and then I got the date! I have often noticed how, with students once a set date arrives their playing often takes a turn for the worse. Why was that, I used to wonder? Well, suddenly I found things I had previously managed with no issue at all seemed to be eluding me. Silly mistakes were creeping in. Was it that I was becoming more self-critical, or could it just be a subconscious reaction to the imminence of the examination? I would be practising one of the pieces and suddenly realise that I was not doing the dynamics quite as marked, using my own musical judgement! But was I doing this too much? Should I be sticking to the printed directions more? And as for fingerings, yes that way may be comfortable for me, but was it technically the tidiest way to do it? Slowly I found my certainties being undermined and my playing becoming more flawed than previously. How many students have I seen this happen to over the years, only to reassure them that it was quite natural, all part of the process and it boded well for the actual exam as overcoming the mistakes now would add to technical security when under pressure. And, like my students I went back to a slow and analytical way of practising the pieces, sound in the knowledge that it was exactly the right thing to do.

All this time my scales were getting better and better, more secure every day. I had even started to practise them in different orders and pick slips of paper with them written on out of a bowl so that my choices were more random. Yes, I really knew my scales well, I could even go so far as to say I enjoyed them!

Sight reading and aural

About four weeks before the examination, I got the official grade seven sight reading book. I was organised and did one a day; actually they were fairly easy, giving me a very positive feeling.

As far as the aural was concerned, I had not only been playing through aural tests myself and sight singing any scrap of music that came into my sight line, but I had also subscribed to an online package. I was very sensible. I built it up from the beginning. Yes, I started at grade one and went right up to grade eight. I was not perfect at the higher grades; there were the odd slips, usually linked to my concentration levels, but basically I could do it. Actually, I did so many grade seven online aural tests that I ran out of them.

The exam

The day of the exam. Apart from not being familiar with either the venue or the piano, I felt as fully prepared as I could be. It is a strange thing to be a pianist, turning up and playing whatever instrument is presented in front of you; nothing like being a string player at all, where you have the comfort of your familiar instrument to support you through the situation!

After waking way before my alarm, I braved the traffic into the city and exam venue, but quite frankly every commuter must have realised that I needed a clear passage that day, resulting me arriving with an hour to spare. So many exam students do this, arrive too early! But what can you do besides let the inevitable nerves start to set in?

The waiting room was a very relaxing experience, the steward knowing exactly how to put candidates at their ease. There was much cheerful banter, and despite me being about four times the age of any other candidate in the vicinity, I felt absolutely fine.  The warm up piano however was possibly placed there as some sort of booby trap to highlight any faults I may still have had, and trust me when I say that it suited its purpose admirably; but it was only the warm up piano and a good workman never blames his tools.

Then, the examination itself…..

A lovely, understanding and warm examiner greeted me and during a brief chat reassured me that many teachers subject themselves to the experience of taking the occasional exam to find out what their pupils go through. A learning experience, I think we call it?

Then the offer to try out the piano first. ‘No, I think I had best get stuck in’ was my response; foolhardy in retrospect, as was the decision not to start with my scales, but we all live and learn!

The three pieces actually went ok’ish. There were the normal silly mistakes, and incredible hand shaking moments combined with the odd uncontrollable giggle on my part, with the examiner admirably stifling any she may have felt like making! But years of playing for primary school Christmas plays has given me the skill to keep going whatever, so at least I didn’t stop!

In the first piece I started well, but it is actually quite long and looking back on it, I simply didn’t pace my performance of it properly. That initial adrenalin rush only got me so far, to the rather awkward page turn if I am to be exact. Yes, despite all my preparation and the decision that I should turn the page rather than use a number of photocopies to aid me, the piece ground to a rather embarrassing if momentary halt whilst I whipped the page over with less grace than would have been desirable. But I did keep going. The key change happened as planned, and the piece was suddenly over.

As the examiner wrote her notes, I looked at my right hand. Why on earth was it shaking uncontrollably? As far as I could tell I didn’t actually feel nervous but there it was, shaking all over the place. Unfortunately, vibrato has no place on the piano! I thought of all the advice I had given to students about how to overcome bow shake. I even used my own techniques for overcoming it on the rare occasions I need to; usually at the end of a very long, slow, quiet and exposed note as I reach the tip of the bow! None of my internal advice worked, but it was now time for the second musical offering.

Now the second piece was the one I had the least confidence in. At least my hand shakes stopped the moment I began to play; but possibly the added blues note, despite creating an entirely new feeling to the piece from the outset, was not the best way to start and certainly the giggle from me didn’t help matters? Apart from that, it went surprisingly well. There was a moment of uncertainty in one of those highly pianistic arpeggio figures, but it ended on the correct note. Like all of our less confident repertoire, this actually seemed to have the least new mistakes within it and yet again I managed to keep going throughout!

The third piece was my favourite. We all have our favourites, don’t we? The piece that will go well whatever! Guess what, it ended up being my worst performance. The inner teacher was telling me all the way through not to get carried away or too comfortable. The thing that did it was dynamics. I suddenly took more notice of them than ever before. A big mistake. If you decide to concentrate too fully on something new in that sort of situation it is bound to go wrong. Hindsight is a great thing, but playing from memory or closing my eyes would probably led to a far more effective performance. With younger students I often actively encourage performing from memory as it takes away the whole element of written notation and music stands from an already stressful situation, often they thrive on it. Next time, I shall follow my own advice!

Then scales. The first thing that occurred to me is that I had possibly reverted to string playing mode with a preference for three, rather than four octaves? Why on earth that happened, I am not sure. Possibly because I simply started with my hands in the wrong place? Then, after innumerable scales in similar motion we went on to the other scale requirements, seemingly ignoring the syllabus request for some to be in contrary motion; I promise I was listening acutely out for them, having practised them more than anything else, but the key word CONTRARY was never uttered, or I never computed it!  The mark sheet will clarify any hearing impediment I may have experienced, I am sure. In the main, apart from the obvious glaring mistake of not enough notes in the first instance, the rest of the scale requirements seemed to go ok.

Sight reading next, a kind choice and my sight reading skills are usually up to the challenge anyway; particularly as on the piano, even after months of practising every piece possibly still feels like I am playing it for the first time, regardless of preparation. I was in my comfort zone and that section of the examination was as it should be.

The aural tests also went smoothly after the initial panic of ‘oh my goodness, I am actually doing an aural test’. When listening for the lower part, it struck me how good a pianist the examiner must be with tests at this level. To get the correct voicing in the hands to bring out the lower part well enough for the examinee to define it is no mean feat! No wonder the requirements as a pianist are so high to be considered to train as an examiner. On the whole the tests went well, with me even anticipating the question about the chords that make up the cadence and answering before the examiner even had the opportunity to ask.

The aftermath

Then as quickly as it started it was over. My initial reaction was the same as any well-meaning, encouraging and misguided parent, I walked over to the music shop and brought the grade eight book! But then, after travelling home, came the opportunity to evaluate the experience properly.

Taking the examination certainly gave me a sense of focus and purpose in my practising. It placed certain technical challenges in front of me that I did not have the option to circumnavigate. I needed to work on them, overcome them and put them in to practice in my playing. It also made me look at my overall development as a musician. It was not just about playing pieces I liked. Along with the technical challenges at the piano, there were musical challenges. There was also the refinement of my listening skills through both my playing and the aural training necessary to pass the tests. In my case the aural was a case of revisiting and redefining skills that I use on a daily basis anyway, but the links to my overall musical learning and progress became highly evident. I have always thought the aural training aspect of learning an instrument is essential; this experience merely reinforced that belief.

Evaluation

For me, the outcome of the examination has little importance. It was the journey of how I reached taking the exam that I gained the most benefit from. Obviously, it would be nice to have a pass or even a good result, but I am not holding my breath! I have improved my piano technique and am enjoying playing it more than I have for years. I also know that I need to develop a ‘safety net’ for moments when even the strongest aspects of my playing could let me down. The most important thing is that, by putting myself through the experience, I can have more empathy with my students as they prepare their own examinations and performances. The main thing seems to be providing them with a full range of coping strategies, should things go unexpectedly. It was those that got me through the situation on the piano, not my years of experience as a string player.  In gaining further insight into the entire process, whatever the outcome in terms of marks on a piece of paper, in my own mind I have achieved what I set out to. In short I can highly recommend we all place ourselves in the shoes of our students, even if only for 25 minutes!

And for those that are interested, I did achieve my grade seven piano. The least successful area of the exam was that in which I had put the most effort, my scales. There must be a lesson to learn there, but I shall leave exploring that conundrum for another time.

The European String Teachers Association offers a community through which likeminded string teachers can explore and discuss all aspects of their profession. Visit www.estastrings.org.uk for more details.