Louise Woodcock Pianist

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How Do I Know When A Pupil Is Ready To Take A Music Exam?

Posted on 21 March, 2018 at 7:20 Comments comments (0)

When is a music pupil ready to take an exam?


Starting from scratch the key is to develop confidence on your instrument learning co-ordination, most of the basic range, simple major and minor scales and arpeggios, some songs in simple arrangements. Ideally be ready to perform a song or two to a parent or friend. Music is a performance art and finding a small appreciative audience helps you to develop poise and self confidence. Don't let all your practice run away!


First step is to acquire the frst grade scale book for your instrument or ask your teacher to print out the scale requirments for grade one. Can you play any of these? Don't be put off by the sight reading requirement - let the scales be your initial guide as to the suitable level for you. If the scales are too much as yet then I recommend starting with the Prep Test which is a pre grade one run up to whet your appetite!


The Prep Test is an assessment rather than a paas or fail situation so you gain much needed early confidence in preparing your material and presenting yourself and your performance to a friendly, supportive, and interested examiner who will simply assess your progrss so far. You will gain a prestigious certificate to reward your endeavour!


While preparing for your Prep Test, which may be some months away, you can make a start on your grade one scales and begin to approach the pieces, perhaps learning the main themes one hand at a time. You will have a worthy focus and enjoy learning the varied skills that make up the whole music exam experience.


My pupil is not a beginner: what grade should they enter for?


Again I use the scale requirements for each grade level to give me a strong indication as to the most suitable level. Other important factors are - when did the pupil last take an exam? What grade was it and how long ago? How much practice and playing experience have been gained since then? Did they pass or fail? What is their attitude to their result? What is their long term music goal and how might an immediate exam resond to that goal?


It is not ideal to always be preparing for one exam after another - take time out to develop your own musical personality, build a repetoire, learn to play accompaniments or descants your own way, learn to improvise, play in a group, prepare a small concert performance. Developing into an intelligent confident musician is the key. Exam preparation can help towards this, but may not always be appropriate, especially if there is pressure to accomplish other work such as summer GCSEs.


I don't want to take music exams at all!


Do you lack confidence or suffer excess nerves? Discuss alternative ways to progress with your tutor. Perhaps you thrive in a performance situation or perhaps you simply want to play your favourite songs at home. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy your music making!


But I do find teenage pupils especially can really develop self confidence in working over the exam elements, building up to the big day, and proudly receiving their well earned certificate. The whole process brings about a tremendous sense of self power and worthwhile achievement. You learn anything is possible when taken step by step. You can springboard off your own success!


You can do things you once never dreamed possible! Have a go yourself this year!


Louise Woodcock teaches Piano, Woowinds and Brass in South & Mid Kent. Ring or text 07989 370 624





Top 10 Tips for Piano Performance Practice

Posted on 16 October, 2016 at 6:00 Comments comments (0)

Top 10 Tips for Piano Performance Practice


Tip 1 - Clearly define your Performance event


Where will you be playing? At what date? To whom? What is the audience expectation?


This will be unique to your piano performance. The venue may have much influence as to the instrument available, the time of day, the atmosphere, the audience. The time of day will influence the type of performance you offer. The age range and expectations of your audience will reflect the music you play. Are you the soloist, one of a number of performers, an accompanist, a contestant, or are you providing background music while people chat? What impression do you intend to make? Will this reflect your music choice or the way you play?


And how long do you have to prepare your program? Are you playing familiar pieces or need you learn new material? Have you enough practice time?


Tip 2 - Wear comfortable stylish clothes to make a statement


The clothes you choose will unavoidably make a statement about you as a performer and may set your audience expectations at a different level to your original intention. Comfort and utility within performance is key. Avoid too much colour - plain darker colours work well with perhaps one bright colour in your tie or sash, or even your shoes. I avoid wearing all jewellery, even a watch. I want to feel completely free to focus on each aspect of bringing across the music. Are you happy with your clothes? Is everything clean, pressed and a good fit on the day? It is a good plan to have several choices so you can wear exactly what feels best on the day of your piano performance.


Good choices for pianists include a roll neck jumper, loose trousers, formal shoes, a loose fitting shirt or blouse with medium length sleeves, or a formal dress provided it does not restrict your movement in any way. You must feel relaxed and presentable!


Tip 3 - Choose Your Piano Repetoire Wisely


A flexible repetoire is ideal, even if you provide a published program for your event. On the day you may feel less confident with one piece than another. I like to judge the audience appreciation and choose pieces as I go to suit the mood of my listeners. Whenever possible I opt for a flexible mix of classical piano, contemporary, own arrangements, jazz, pop and folk music. I want my audience to relax. Few will be as highbrow as an expensive symphony hall audience expecting top quality Beethoven and Chopin!


Many audiences will enjoy popular songs and medleys and may even sing along! Certainly everyone enjoys some toetapping dance numbers, from classical waltzes and polkas to 40's bigband era songs. If you can play with an infectious rhythm and flair for keeping good time, you are assured of a hearty response! Be bold. Never be drab. Never be boring. Mix those yawn inducing pieces with some rousing melodies! Keep your audience on edge in a positive manner!


Tip 4 - Ensure You Have Sufficient Encores!!


Many a child will play their three exam pieces but have nothing left for an encore! So as a piano teacher I first encourage students to develop a small repetoire of good fun serviceable encores. Many lasting around 30 seconds. People want to applaud to show appreciation. Never bore your audience. The encore is an opportunity to shine and to entertain. Get the audience on your side and give them a memory to take home. Suit your encore to the mood of the moment. Don't follow up Beethoven with Yankee Doodle! Please..


I recall a piano concert at Symphony Hall Birmingham with Evgeny Kissin - I have no recollection of his repetoire but he played around twelve amusing encores to thunderous applause. Another occasion Alfred Brendel played Beethoven's Hammerklavier wih much mopping of the brow, and encored Fur Elise! Like a delightful sorbet after a heavy meal. Hardly a dry eye in the auditorium - he played on pathos. But I suspect he had a number of encores ready and chose that piece in the moment of audience atmosphere. Few artists could pull such a sweet stunt! Yet these two piano concerts I recall from many I have enjoyed and forgotten - because of the artists' approach to the encore!!


Tip 5 - Entertain not bore!


Your primary task as piano performer is to entertain. You may choose slapstick music or highbrow classical but you are an entertainer! Avoid a repetoire of lengthy tedious dry difficult music. (Conversely, if at all possible, avoid Yankee Doodle!) Schubert daily wrote sweet dances to play amongst his friends in the cafes of Vienna. He loved to provide entertainment of a light cheery kind.


As pianist you could prepare a variety of short dance tunes or popular songs as one program piece. Shorter pieces povide a welcome change for your listeners. Chopin's 24 Preludes make a grand concert number or you could play a number of Schubert dances or Bach's inventions. Just because music isn't on the grade eight piano syllabus does not mean your audience won't listen! You should entertain, not educate!


Which accolade do you desire? "A long and tiring evening" or "A bright vivacious performance enjoyed by all"?


Tip 6 - Give 100% for every Piano Performance


When you play to half a hall give 100% just like the world's great artists do! You don't know how far the influence of any listener. Try to capture a jubilant mood and rouse your audience to great acclaim whether you play to two or two thousand. You want people to talk of your performance for the rest of their lives! Aim to achieve just that! By playing well! Assume people will talk about you and post you all over online!


Tip 7 - How Long Do You Have To Practice?


Keep a good number of serviceable pieces under your fingers at all times, along with a variety of styles of encore, and you won't need too long to polish your performance! Keep up flexible scale and arpeggio practice to hone in your technique, and never avoid sight reading! Aim to compose two or three light pieces which show off your technical style - you never know when you may get a chance to play these.


Constantly work on practicing pieces to provide a variety of programs - a full classical evening, jazz songs, contemporary piano - mix and blend whenever you can. The worst scenario is having a few weeks to learn a difficult all new program, so choose your events a year or more ahead but also be ready to fill in for someone at short notice if the opportunity arises. Your audience will understand if you change some of the program.


Tip 8 - Will You Annouce Your Piano Repetoire?


A formal classical piano performance will provide concert notes and a list of playing pieces - but most concert pianists say a word or two during their performance. Or you can surprise your audience on the day and announce each piece as you play. When playing for weddings I neither provide a playing list nor introduce my pieces - bacground music does not require a speaker, I simply play nonstop! If playing in a pub I rarely introduce the music but aim to play a continual flow of fun contrasting pieces, often alternating classical items with jazz or songs. Both events acclaim my playing - but if I play as soloist to a particular audience then I would speak a few words before each piece to introduce the mood of the piece and entertain. Perhaps you may feel the occasion warrants someone to speak for you.


Tip 9 - Are You Happy With Your Pay?


You may or may not be paid to play, but you will be playing for some recompense - perhaps for publicity or to raise funds for the church hall! In future would you like to be paid? Find an agent! Prepare a good selection of contrasting pieces and practice like a demon! No one will hinder your piano performance career if you feel you have something to offer a keen audience! What is your main motive for playing? Where would you like to play? To whom? Obviously, if money has been agreed, be sure you receive your pay - this is easier done before the event!


Tip 10 - What Acclaim Do You Anticipate?


Naturally I hope to be remembered for a lifetime, and if I play at a wedding I'm sure a few people will remember my playing for a long time, but as a favourable memory of the event, rather than for its own sake. Great presentation will spark good memories, and capturing the mood of the occasion without any false notes, either in your playing or your approach! Presentation involves your costume, the appearance and facilities of the venue ("remember that time we all huddled shivering in the village hall.."), program notes or speaking - a blend of the anticipation you built within your audience compared to the impression you gave. It's the impression you leave in the mind that lingers, more than your playing, more than the program. You want to be invited again, and elsewhere! You want acclaim.


Careful detailing will ensure good presentation, and good sleep, rest, exercise and diet in the days before your event will ensure you are fit on the day, but have you considered the media angle? Invite your local press correspondent, with the best free seat and refreshments! Invite music magazine writers if appropriate. Ring music agents and ask them to attend.


Do you have a recording you can hand out? Or something to sell as a momento? Be sure to have a classy business card to hand out!


How will your event appear on social media? Encourage people to video your playing! Work something up for your own YouTube channel. Tweet your event and your feelings afterwards! Write your own blog and post videos of your playing. You want acclaim, you desire recognition!


Don't play in the dark! Set your light before all and you will receive many invitations to play! The play's the thing!


Louise Woodcock Pianist performs and teaches Piano, Brass and Woodwinds in Kent and East Sussex @KentPiano

Start the New School Term with Piano Lessons in Your Own Home

Posted on 1 September, 2015 at 18:15

A new school term begins!

Are you ready to start Piano Lessons?


Kent Piano Teacher Louise Woodcock teaches piano at all levels, styles and age groups. And lessons take place in your own home! This can save considerable hassle transporting children about and filling in the lesson time while you wait to take the pupil home.


Perhaps your child is entering school for the first time? It's time to consider learning piano!


Kent Piano Teacher Louise Woodcock tailor-makes each pupil's music selection to include the music you love, trimming back on the traditional dull stuff!


"I believe each piano pupil begins with a personal momentum consisting of their enthusiasm, and this initial fire must be fueled from the teacher through the enjoyment of easy step approach using music the pupil has a preference for. Momentum builds allowing the pupil to discover their own inner talent and creativity. Playing piano is not a chore but an enjoyable and rewarding hobby."


It is vital to refuel your initial momentum through continued practice and study of easy pieces you love to play. The most important element of good piano playing is creating a sense of flow so the music unfolds from your fingertips and never loses control or rhythmic direction. A waltz must never become a march! Keep the pulse of the piece going! To encourage this style of controlled playing I introduce simple pieces with real appeal. A happy pianist continues to build the momentum of their playing over many years.


Music encourages students to concentrate better on all their studies. Exams taken regularly prepare the child for internal school exam preparation. As a child progresses through ABRSM music exams they gain a real feeling of progress and interaction: everything can be achieved step by step over a realistic amount of time!


Contact Kent Piano Teacher Louise Woodcock today to discuss your child's needs - the beginning of a new school term is the ideal moment to start piano lessons in your own home! No travelling through the rain this winter! Let your tutor visit you! Your child will perform best on the keyboard they regularly play.


How much practice time is required weekly?


For younger pupils I recommend fifteen minute practice sessions whenever possible - twice a day, all week if you can manage this, but no less than four sessions of 15 minutes through the week. Very young pupils will benefit from a parent suprvising their practice time, and ten minutes daily may be the best amount (age 4-6).


"Practice makes perfect" is heard endlessly - piano motor skills are best learned through regular repeated playing, daily if possible, altenate days if not. As with any learning, your reward will equate to the effort invested! It is delightful to the teacher when a pupil really knows the work set the week before! Learn step by step - master last lesson's steps before going further.


Adults may find two daily sessions of 15-20 minutes works best for them. Of course you can play for hours (I hope you do!) but I suggest a strecth or walk away from the piano every 20 minutes or so, firstly to eliminate physical strain, secondly to refresh your focus. Don't sit for a long time at one piece - a few minutes on a piece, then a scale or two, then another piece - your focus must be constantly stimulated.


The trick is - ENJOY! Have fun :) 


Louise Woodcock teaches piano in Kent villages from Cranbrook to Ashford to Rye - ask to see if I can visit you!

Playing Simplified Piano Pieces & Classical Themes

Posted on 29 June, 2015 at 10:00 Comments comments (0)

Once you have mastered enough piano technique to enjoy a wide variety of styles you will want to discover enough music to keep you challenged. When I was learning in the intermediate stage there was very little simple enjoyable music available! I persevered at exam grade pieces from earlier syllabus years, I played hymns, I picked out folk songs by ear and composed simplistic boogie pieces, and I jumped into the deep end of playing shorter sonata movements. Gradually album series including the famous Album Fur Die Jugend by Tchaikovsky and Schumann, along with selections by Burgmuller came to my notice, but much of my practice time was devoted to endless scales & arpeggios and struggling with Chopin pieces, sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, a few bagatelles, and any piece I could find by Bach (any Bach)!


So as books began to be published containing not only modern short simple works (around grade 2-6 level) but also classical orchestral themes arranged simply (for better or for worse) for piano solo, I tended to disregard this music for its urbanity. I was a musical snob! Over time the classical grade exam syllabus was enlivened with modern jazzy pieces and finally, in 1998, the ABRSM developed their superb Jazz Piano subject for grades 1-5. I bought all the books, listened to the CDs, and pieced the whole new syllabus together. It went down a storm with my younger pupils, especially teens.


Looking back on my early years as a beginner pianist I now realise that my whole focus during practice had been upon note learning and struggling to develop my hand positioning to cope with big chords - almost no time was devoted to playing rhythmically: the timing of the piece had to follow my ability to shape my hands around awkward notes and chords. I began to enjoy playing any piece with sweeping left hand arpeggios which allowed my right hand the freedom to work independently: I kept good time by memorizing the left hand and willing my right hand to keep in time!


When I read the musings of Chopin, Mozart, CPE Bach and other composers who also taught piano pupils, I find they advocate fully the concept of keeping strict time with the left hand (which provides, in classical music, the harmonic and rhythmic structure heard nowadays in the drums and bass guitar of a small band) whilst obtaining a freely flowng rubato with the right hand - artistic licence is freely encouraged, the only limitation being to play in "good taste". This concept of "taste" figures predominantly in these composers' opinion and clearly changes according to the fashion of the musical era. With the advent of the "Jazz Age" popular music became ever freer in its style whilst classical music seemed to pull back in protest: the easy improvisation of cadenzas and ornaments employed by classical pianists lost favour and was monopolized by the new jazz musicians. Why and how this happened is unclear; I believe it will be a great advance to adopt a freer approach to playing classical pieces, always provided that everything is played with "good taste", of course!


But to return to the concept of easier piano pieces. I longed to play in a flowing manner, as a beginner, but my technical struggles often sent my timekeeping wayward! I needed easier pieces to play! Now it is easy to walk into a sheet music shop and purchase a huge variety of books for intermediate players, classical, jazz, and contemporary piano music.


There is a difference between simple pieces and simplified pieces. A simple piece has been written specifically as a short easy piano solo. A simplified piece is an arrangement of a more difficult piano solo, or a classical or modern tune never intended for piano. The world of simplified arrangements opens a wide range of accessible material to developing pianists and makes practice time enjoyable and rewarding! I encourage you to consider playing all kinds of piano solos: perhaps you might group the pieces you play so you are aware of the different contexts the music covers. Pop songs have been favourite playing since publishers created the one piece sheet, certainly since the early 1900's, but whether you learn the accompaniment or attempt to embody the vocal melody into your playing denotes the difference between a piano accompaniment and an arrangement.


Some of my pupils long to explore classical pieces, Debussey being favourite, but struggle with the key signatures and big chord groups - try a simplified arrangement! The best give you the depth of the piece whilst being easier to read by exchanging five flats for none (D flat major written down to C major) and introducing much lighter chords, perhaps omitting doubled octave notes to make the piece possible for small hands. There are plenty of poor arrangements but keep hunting! Later on you will have the confidence to attempt the original piece, but how super to be able to express your love for music through approachable arrangements at any level! Within a few months my beginners are playing recognisable "Summertime"  and "Greensleeves" in my own arrangements!! You will grow into the required technique through your love of music!


I feel that pianism can best be learned and enjoyed through playing pieces that really appeal to you, in an arrangement that does not stretch your technical skill too far. After a carol, the first pieces I learnt were two previous grade one pieces ("miniatures") and then three pieces for my grade 3 exam which I took after just 8 months of beginning! My tutor had no knowledge of teaching at the earliest level and no music to suggest, so she felt it best that I overlook the early stage and quickly move on to sonata movements for my grade 5 piano exam, which I took a year later! My only light relief was Schumann's Album for The Young, which I found in my local library, and a book of songs from Les Miserables!


Fortunately, I was determined! But for years I was left with an attitude which said "if it's not written for the instrument you can't play it" although on finding a complete lack of suitable trombone music to play I mastered all the Les Miserables songs as trombone solos!


And this led to much arrangingand adapting music as solos for my own use and enjoyment, and later, my pupils'.


To increase the amount of early music for my first piano pupils I wrote very simple piano accompaniments and played a melody instrument along with my piano pupil playing the accompaniment! And this quickly taught me how vital it is to learn to play in time (even allowing for some right hand rubato!) and to establish a strong sense of pulse when playing. A waltz quickly expands to four beats in the bar without this keen elementary sense of basic pulse! It is a common error to allow an extra crotchet for the barline in three four time! Three time is an even flow, a lilting feel of continuity that four never gives us.


My early lessons had completely overlooked constant aural training so I was keen for my own pupils to become expert in this area: most lessons include some simple aural tests or listening games. However, perhaps the trickiest task for any teacher is to enable the pupil to develop good sightreading skills and this is a subject I will be paying special attention to in the forthcoming months, beginning with note pattern and key signature recognition and including well known tunes to facilitate the ability to rely on the ear and hand positioning to think ahead.


I am always really keen on pieces with a very clear development of rhythmic pattern such as JSBach's Prelude 1 (from the Forty Eight) because this teaches a thorough hand positioning, confidence in playing through realizing that the pattern played at the start of the bar is repeated and does not need to be read, allowing the player to look ahead effectively, at any tempo the piece unfolds pleasingly, but only if kept even with no hesitations, and therefore this piece encourages musicianship and beautiful playing in the most delightful way! Build the piece bar by bar, regularly going back to bar 1, stopping as your familiarity breaks down: it is no use ploughing through bar after bar searching for notes - a keen even sense of flow is vital here.


Scales should be played every lesson, and daily, to confirm the importance of developing a fluent hand shape and flow of even notes: one octave in each hand then together, and sooner rather than later, two octaves. Play the scale with a good crescendo, and on descending, diminuendo, to really build a sense of control at the keyboard. Consistent sensible fingering is absolutely essential! Try one hand legato with the other staccato. Arpeggios must be played with no jerky movement - allow the fingers to spread in readiness at every tuck, with the momentum of the flow of notes to continue through the hand over the entire length of octaves. I encourage pupils to perfect two octaves before attempting to maintain the vitality of momentum over further octaves. Speed is subordinate to even touch. Play scales as if they are a work of art, not to be rushed through as a pointless chore! If you find piano scales awkward, try learning scales on any other instrument! At least the keyboard is clearly arranged, each octave the same pattern! I love scales! Most of my technique and a good deal of my fortitude has been developed through endless practice!


But I realise most pupils will not share my passion for scale playing so the key is to include a few as a warmup in your practice and then to vary the material you play as widely as possible. Try something new, a little out of your depth but not far. Buy some easy books below your level for daily sightreading practice.


After the completion of a grade exam I encourage my pupil to expand their repetoire sideways, finding a range of different styles within the technical demands of the grade just taken, only slowly approaching more difficult material. No rushing on to the next grade - learning to play is not a race: just as my teachers neglected my early development I prefer to round out each pupil's musicianship.


So yes, play simplified arrangements but don't neglect your classics! Some scales, some pop, some classics, some jazz, some boogie, some daily sightreading and playing tunes by ear. Enjoy your music at every level. Ask your teacher to recommend you a good selection of classical miniatures: waltzes, marches, dances, bagatelles. Play to gain fluency, then add depth of expression. Listen to as much piano music as possible, everywhere!

Louise Woodcock is a Kent based pianist and home piano tutor. Ring for an assessment: 07989 370 624