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Melanie Spanswick

Photo credit: Erica Worth

Fifteen Top Tips to Improve Sight-Reading Skills

2020-04-23

  1. Start by observing the key signature. Decide which major or minor key is associated with that written in the piece (it’s always good to decipher the relative majors and minors as well), and mentally imagine the sharps or flats needed to play the extract. Memorise the key and keep it firmly in mind at all times.
  2. Quick recognition of certain note patterns, shapes, and repetitions can be a deciding factor in the success of any test. Noticing features such as chords, arpeggio figures, scale passages, and ledger line passage work, will prove extremely important. Remembering Chordal patterns and shapes is vital because there simply isn’t time to read every note. Examining the bass clef thoroughly can be beneficial, as often the left hand drives a work.
  3. Pay special attention to any suggested fingering, as it’s best to have this element visualised before you start particularly when negotiating scales, arpeggios or any contrapuntal sections. Then play through the left hand followed by the right hand (separately) working out all the fingerings and hand position changes, but do not adhere to the rhythm.
  4. The tempo or speed of a test must be noted; however, I always suggest playing well under tempo to begin with. For those with reading difficulties, employing extremely slow speeds is the key to eventually unlocking reading skills and becoming fluent.
  5. In order to keep time, it’s imperative to assimilate all aspects of tempo. With this in mind, it can be a good idea to separate the rhythm from the notes completely. Firstly, tap the intended pulse. Then tap the rhythm of the sight-reading test on the piano lid with both hands; the right hand tapping the notes in the treble clef and the left hand, tapping those in the bass clef.
  6. Keep a steady pulse by counting aloud, making sure the beat is subdivided. Playing along to a metronome may be an even better, more reliable option; learning to ‘sit’ on the beat and not rush ahead or linger behind is also crucial. The determining factor in success here is to make sure the pulse is extremely slow.
  7. There is so much information to process at once when reading; the key to perpetual motion is a very slow pulse (probably a third of the intended speed). It may be necessary to start the reading process using separate hands, only combining them when each clef has been thoroughly assimilated.
  8. Slow speeds encourage reading ahead because there is ample time to find all the notes and detail in the score. It can be helpful to count a complete bar before starting to play in order to establish the pulse (I often clap a bars rest!). Once this has been fully understood, speed can be gradually built up over time, as reading becomes more proficient (this process can take a few months).
  9. Never, ever stop. If hesitations are still occurring then an even slower tempo is probably required. Learning to cope with mistakes is all part of the reading experience. Eventually, errors will be ignored and will not distract from the overriding rhythmic and structural outline of a performance.
  10. Musical examples or sight-reading tests must feel easy to start with, so begin with straightforward diatonic exercises. It may be necessary to start at Grade 1 or 2 even if Grade 7 is being studied. If sight-reading is all fairly simple, it’s a pleasurable, painless experience.
  11. Over time, larger chunks of music can be negotiated and there will be a familarisation with the typical patterns which occur time and again, eventually including more and more detail (pedaling, phrasing, dynamics etc.).
  12. For those of a slightly more advanced level, reading hymns can be extremely useful. Slow moving chord progressions act as the perfect foil because they assist with reading four parts (or notes) at once, as well as fostering knowledge and understanding of four-part harmony, and they also afford the chance to get to grips with a plethora of key signatures. As all church organists know, accompanying hymns is one of the best ways to learn to read because stopping isn’t an option!
  13. Reading at sight is fundamentally giving an impression of a work, so it’s perfectly acceptable to leave out notes and other details. Bear this in mind at the beginning of each practice session.
  14. Team up with a pianist friend (or another instrumentalist) of similar standard and play through a variety of music, all well within your capability. This is an effective way of reading music because, again, stopping isn’t an option. Always choose a steady tempo.

Enjoy! Once accustomed to reading ahead, have fun with a myriad of musical styles.

www.melaniespanswick.com



10 Tips for Diploma Preparation

2019-09-16

Diploma examinations provide a useful benchmark for students as well as a qualification.  And performing diplomas such as the DipABRSM serve as ideal preparation for those wishing to attend music college or study music at university.

A diploma programme can take anything from a few weeks to a couple of years to prepare, and therefore one important criterion is to choose works which you not only love, but ones which you are happy to live with for a long time.  

Diplomas demand a completely different approach to that of Grade 8. For the final graded exam, selecting three pieces is fairly straight-forward, and programme choices are limited and already ‘well-balanced’ in the sense that works have been carefully categorised. Whereas pupils taking diplomas are confronted with a large repertoire list. You don’t always have to stick to the suggested repertoire list; it’s possible to make personal additions which are usually agreed in writing by the exam board before the exam. However, prior knowledge of styles, genres and composers is essential, and this is where a helpful teacher will be able to direct students and assist in making such decisions. Important decisions: choosing the wrong pieces or programme could be the difference between success and failure.

Most associate diplomas (such as the DipABRSM) require recitals lasting just over 30 minutes, and this is really the only guideline regarding programming, everything else is left to the candidate. So how do you start to make sense of vast lists of piano pieces?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Listen widely. Not just to the selected piano works, but to a whole range of music, in order to assimilate styles and genres; the more you know about styles and historical periods, the easier it is to decide which you would prefer to tackle. YouTube is your friend, and it’s useful to be able to just ‘log on’ and listen, although aim to select professional performances wherever possible.
  2. Programmes must be ‘well-balanced’, which means works should not ideally hail from the same period, although you might consider selecting several pieces from similar historical eras, as long as stylistically they are quite different. It’s not essential to represent every genre or style.
  3. Would you rather select a group of shorter pieces, or one longer work with a few smaller additions? Either works well, and it all depends on whether you enjoy the concentration demanded in some longer pieces, or you would prefer the constant character change required when playing shorter ones.
  4. Once you have elected a few composers who really appeal, listen to all the offered options on the list written by those composers; for well-known composers such as Mozart or Beethoven, there will be many pieces from which to choose.
  5. When selecting, imagine playing the piece and ask yourself the following questions: Can I really manage those intricate passages under pressure? Will I be able to play it up to speed? Is it a style I am familiar with, or will I need to become acquainted with it? Does it move or affect me emotionally? The last question is undoubtedly the most important. It can be a good plan to immediately delete works which are too challenging, gradually reducing the size of the list.
  6. How will your works be programmed? You don’t have to play them in chronological order. You should endeavour to present them in an order with which you feel comfortable. It can be interesting to start with a Contemporary work, for example. Students often do well by opening their programme with a slow, atmospheric piece, and one which proffers the chance to become accustomed to the piano and acoustics.
  7. Before learning begins, do your research and find out as much as you can about your chosen composers; you will probably need this information for the Viva Voce or question and answer session which takes place after your recital for some exams. Dates of birth, style, genre, amount and type of piano repertoire, and for which instrument(s) the works were originally written (if applicable), should all be very familiar to you.
  8. Know why you have selected your pieces. This will help clarify the selection process.
  9. Speak to your teacher (if you have one) at length and maybe seek other opinions and ideas from music professionals. It can be enlightening to hear what others say, in order to devise a well-rounded recital.
  10. And the last tip is the most important.  Never select works which reveal your shortcomings. A diploma is not the place to learn technique; this must be done in private on suitable studies or other repertoire.

Enjoy the learning process, make sure you are really prepared, and create opportunities to practice playing through your programme on a few occasions before the exam. Good luck!

www.melaniespanswick.com



10 Tips for Piano Exam Success

2019-04-23

In my first guest post for the Tom Lee Music Academy website, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a more mature student taking Grade 8, here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. Implement a piano exam practice schedule. If you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will improve immeasurably. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every day; it might be 30 minutes per day, or 30 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Six days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include each exam element at every practice session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales and arpeggios, or technical exercises, sight-reading and aural tests (there are other options too, depending on the exam board). Aim to include at least three of these elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. Set a practice routine. During the practice session try to establish a ‘Rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading. This requires a student’s full attention. Whilst it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavour feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal, but ensure you have plenty of material.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work. Take a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practice scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical work is practiced thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces. Pieces may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practice slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp, that is, you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved, and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Do this regularly. Set the metronome to a very steady speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the ‘tick’. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard (that is, how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece). As a teacher, for me this is a really crucial aspect of piano playing.
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano; test yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play and sing the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences or any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing them. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.
  10. And finally, The Notebook. Not for your teacher, but for you! My students all have their own notepads (some use their phones), and they find it helpful to write notes as the lesson progresses. Detailed notes students write themselves will always be more instructive than those written by the teacher. I ask students to reflect on their notes during their journey home. This way they can start planning their practice productively for the week ahead.

Piano exams can be daunting, but if carefully prepared and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve piano playing

www.melaniespanswick.com

Melanie Spanswick is our new Master Teacher at the Tom Lee Music Academy. She is a renowned piano writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer, and you can check out her piano course, Play it again: PIANO, published by Schott Music, here:  https://en.schott-music.com/play-it-again-piano/