SEYO Day 3: tutti rehearsals

We’ve now been in Milan at the SEYO Summer Camp for three full days (and when I say ‘full’, I really do mean that – they have been three long, intense, full-on, exhausting days!), and it really is a fascinating experience.

A few things have mainly struck me so far…  The standard of the students participating is very high – in the advanced orchestra, where I am working with the percussion section, we have been able to focus on little details, points of technique, performance advice, and other minutiae, almost right from the start.  The students are all excellent players already, and this makes for very interesting, dynamic sectional rehearsals with a lot of ideas being thrown around and a real rehearsal process being very much in evidence!

The incredible passion and enthusiasm of all the teaching staff is also plain to see.  Given the number of different countries participating, and the fact that as a team of tutors, many of us had never met each other before and we have just been thrown together from different Sistema-inspired projects across all of Europe (each with their own, slightly different, customs and ways of doing things!), I think we have gelled pretty well.  From my point-of-view, I feel privileged to be working alongside a fantastic percussion tutor in sectionals, and under conductors in full rehearsals who really know what they want from a piece of music and have a vision for the performance.  I think this mix of nationalities and backgrounds is perfect for an experience like this, and means that we (the tutors) end up learning lots too.

The full Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra playing together for the first time in Teatro degli Arcimboldi
The full Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra playing together for the first time in Teatro degli Arcimboldi

Finally, it is abundantly clear what an amazing opportunity this is for all the students who have come on the course!  The chance to learn from some top professionals from all over Europe, and to play big, exciting orchestral music, is enormous.  As is the chance to be inspired by the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (part of the El Sistema programme, with some children as young as six), performing in the breath-taking setting of La Scala.

Thanks to the hectic schedule here, this is the first time I’ve been able to post any updates – bar uploading a few iPhone pictures ‘on the fly’! – and I don’t know when I’ll be able to write anything properly about it again.  I shall try to post more details when I get an opportunity, though.  So after another very long day of rehearsals, and with another early start tomorrow morning…  Goodnight!

Sistema Europe Summer School in Milan

I am delighted to have been chosen to be one one of the tutors going to this year’s Sistema Europe Summer Camp, which is being held in Milan, Italy; a colleague from Sistema in Norwich and I will be going with a delegation from Sistema England, to work for eight days with students and other tutors from Sistema-inpired projects based across Europe.

This is a very exciting opportunity for me to work with some fantastic music professionals and to learn from them – and to be more involved with the Sistema movement as a whole, to just here in Norwich but throughout Europe.

Keep checking back here after 21st August for more updates on my time working with the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra in Italy, and all the wonderful activities we get up to!

Grade exams and musicianship

I have thought about doing this for a while, now.  I want to write a little bit about music exams, my approach to them as a music tutor, and why I feel they are a valuable part of music education.

There often seems to be something of a divide in the music world about grade exams.  Plenty of people I know have criticised the system, saying that exams are unnecessary; I suppose this is true, insofar as it is possible to be an extremely good player without ever having taken an exam – then again, you could say it’s not strictly ‘necessary’ to insure your musical instruments against damage of theft either, but it’s still pretty useful!

Another major criticism I sometimes come across when talking about exam work is that the system is flawed because music – like all art – is inherently subjective, and so can’t truly be ‘judged’ by anyone else.  Again, there is some truth in this; the various exam boards (I currently use Trinity, ABRSM and Rockschool) do an excellent job of ensuring their examiners adhere to very strict guidelines about judging performances, and ensuring a high level of consistency of marking across the board – but yes, despite this, there will always been an element of subjectivity.

It is not true, however, to say that this results in the exam system rewarding technical ability but not recognising musicianship or performance skills, and thus producing carbon-copy ‘robotic’ musicians who lack feeling in their playing.  Of course, even if this were the case, grade exams would still be worth doing; technical proficiency is an essential part of being a competent musician, and encouraging those skills is a good thing – you can have all the feeling in the world, and if you don’t have the technical facility actually to realise it on your instrument, you’re stuffed!  But there are, in fact, several reasons why I believe that taking grade exams does actually encourage better musicianship.

One good argument for taking exams is that they push you to work harder, progress faster, and be better.  This is absolutely true, and something I have observed many times in my own teaching work – with the pressure of a performance on the horizon, an exam deadline to work for, students tend to practise harder, work better, and improve quicker.  But the exams push you and challenge you in other ways, too…

Without the structure of grade exams, there is a tendency to stay in your nice, cosy ‘comfort zone’ – playing music that you know, music that you like, music that you’re familiar with.  There’s nothing wrong with playing the music that you like, of course, but when you’re working from an exam syllabus you don’t necessarily get that choice – you end up being exposed to more different styles of music, to composers you might not have heard of before, to different ways of playing and different approaches to your instrument…  How anyone can say that this doesn’t contribute to developing musicianship, sensitivity, and an all-round better understanding of music as a whole is baffling!

As well as learning and playing the set pieces – often in styles of music you might not otherwise have considered playing, and in doing so broadening your musical horizons considerably – the grade exams system helps you to develop as a musician in other ways.  Learning scales may seem like a strictly technical exercise, designed to help fluency and technical ability on your instrument – but scales are so much more than that!  A good knowledge of scales and arpeggios begets an understanding of key structures and harmonies – things which are the very building blocks of how music is put together – and enables a musician to play with more feeling.  Musicianship, after all, is about understanding, rather than simply playing ‘by rote’.

The supporting tests, too, are designed to help develop all-round musical skill and understanding.  Sight-reading, an essential skill for any serious musician, encourages quick-thinking appraisal of a piece of music; aural tests develop the musical ear; improvisation exercises stretch creativity and also knowledge and understanding of different styles and genres.

Not only that, but preparing for an exam isn’t just about learning your pieces to a high level.  When I am entering students for their grade exams, I am always keen to stress that this is ‘a performance’ – playing in your exam is not about simply about how well you play, but how well you, as a musician, come across to the examiner.

A performance situation is very different from practising on your own at home – or just playing to your teacher in your lesson, or to your family, or your friends at school.  It makes you think differently, and it makes you play differently.  As well as simply being able to play, you have the responsibility to communicate this music, and what you’re trying to say with it, effectively to your audience.  How many other opportunities are there for someone who’s only been learning their instrument for a year (or even less!) to experience this kind of performance scenario, and the challenges which go with it?

Finally, as I’ve mentioned, the examiners are highly trained professionals who rarely make mistakes – but in the end, yes, their comments are still subjective.  Is that really such a bad thing, though?

If you believe, as I do, that the overall aim of music education is to prepare your students to survive in the real world of music (just as any education is designed to equip those being educated with the skills they will need out in ‘the real world’ – whatever and wherever that is!), it is important to get used to subjective comments about your playing.  If exams have relatively little worth because of the inherently subjective nature of ‘judging’ an artistic performance, then so too do critics’ reviews of performances and new recorded releases in newspapers and on music blogs and websites.  But such things are a reality for all musicians today, and there is no harm in students experiencing this also.

It is my belief – and something which I feel has been conclusively demonstrated in my eight years as a professional musician and music educator – that music exams are not just a great way to motivate students to work harder, practise more, progress quicker and feel a great sense of accomplishment which spurs them on to take on the next challenge, but also a fantastic tool to help develop all the aspects of being a musician; exposure to different styles, composers and techniques, experience of performing in front of a critical audience, overcoming nerves, gaining an understanding of the ‘building blocks’ of music, and honing essential musical skills.

Term dates: Spring Term 2015

  • This term starts on Monday 5th January, and finishes on Friday 27th March.
  • Half-term is the week of Monday 16th February.
  • There are no lessons on Monday 2nd March after half-past-seven.
  • There are no lessons on Friday 27th February or Friday 27th March.

As ever, check back on this page regularly for any new information regarding your lessons.  Any lessons cancelled or postponed by me will be rearranged on a different date, and I will discuss this with you in your lesson.

Sistema In Norwich at Sandringham

Sistema In Norwich at Sandringham

On Wednesday 30th July, the Sistema In Norwich Martineau Chamber Orchestra will be performing at the Royal Sandringham Estate in front of HRH The Prince Of Wales, Prince Charles, as part of the 133rd Sandringham Flower Show.  The Martineau Chamber Orchestra will perform a specially-written new piece of music for the Prince Of Wales as part of a brand new tropically-designed garden, as well as various other favourite pieces of repertoire.

Musical Theatre Showcase

Musical Theatre Showcase

I shall be MDing two nights of musical theatre performances for the BTEC Performing Arts students at Wayland Academy, as a showcase of the work have been doing this term.

Featuring monologues, dance pieces, solo vocal performances and group numbers, the showcase will run on 13th and 14th March 2014, at Wayland Academy in Watton, Norfolk.  Entry is free, and tickets are available from the school.