Thursday, 31 October 2013

Darling I have a headache - Drum Kit vs Piano

I had an interesting chat with a friend about her talented 9 year old.
Johnny (not his real name) is about to do his ABRSM grade 5 on the trumpet, which is pretty good going for his age.
Like many people who want to give their child a really comprehensive music education my friend and her son are considering starting a second instrument.
My friend thought he might start on the piano.

Now, as someone who loves playing piano and who tried to become a concert pianist I am the first to extol the many virtues of the piano.
But, and there is always a But – the piano is not for everybody. There will be limited time to practise a second study instrument – and I would say that piano needs regular practise of around 30 minutes most days to get to a level  of proficiency where things are starting to become fun. I would say that other instruments can be more forgiving.

Piano music is also slightly more difficult to read, as there are two staves and multiple notes and chords to be deciphered at the same time – rather different to reading music for a single line melodic instrument. This is something which some children take to better than others and it is of course much dependent on practise.

The conversation started to take a more interesting turn though, when I asked:
“What does Johnny want to play?”
The answer was :
“Drum Kit”

I thought that was pretty clear then. Because:

I would always try to accommodate the child’s wish of instrument. It can save a lot of arguing and when gently prodding to practise – which invariably you will have to with a young child. You can be comfortable in the knowledge that you have the moral high ground. After all, your child chose to play this instrument – you did not make them, and they should be aware that the expense of lessons brings with it some responsiblilty on the child’s part to actually do some work!

Now I can totally understand why many a parent’s heart would start to sink at that point. If you live in a flat or don’t have the luxury of a studio or a garage where you can send you budding drummer to practise!  A drum Kit can be VERY LOUD.

Luckily there now electronic starter drum kits for around £200 – they are much smaller than traditional drumkits and you play them through head phones – so really no noise at all! Do be careful about volume levels when your child is practising though – as you don’t want to expose their ears to very high decibels – something which can precipitate hearing loss in later life. Something which also goes for listening to music on head phones. Of course you can normally also plug the kit into a pa and use it normally – who knows you kid might start up a band in due course. 

By which time you probably really want to have that garage or shed.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Musical Jargon explained - well at least some of it!

I have recently been working with a lovely friend on a musical cartoon program. My friend is VERY musical, but has no formal training and does not really know any technical terms - which can sometimes make her a little insecure. That is silly of course - but for all of you who are a bit intimidated by jargon I thought I would put out a little glossary of some of the most used terms in music, in particular classical music Here goes:


terms for the different types of human voice - with soprano the highest. These terms are also used to describe instruments within an instrument family in terms of pitch, i.e. a soprano saxophone is sounding high, and a bass saxophone is sounding low.

Fundamental Building Blocks of Music:
Pitch - the frequency of a note, i.e. does it sound high or low
Pulse - the underlying regular beat to which a piece of music is placed
Rhythm - groupings of notes of different length and emphasis played over the pulse
Tempo - the speed at which a piece of music is played, e.g. Adagio is an Italian term describing a very slow tempo, Presto is a term describing a very fast tempo
Clef - the sign at the beginning of a stave, which indicates which pitches are to be assigned to the lines and spaces of the stave (e.g. Soprano clef, Bass clef, tenor clef etc)
Stave - the five lines on which music is notated
Scale - There are many types of scale - they vary in the order of 'half-tones' inserted. On the piano you will see a repeating pattern of keys - 5 black keys are inserted among 7 white keys. This accommodates the pattern of the most commonly used scale - the major scale. the pattern is 3 whole tones 1 half tone another 4 whole tones another semi-tone and back to the original note, only one octave higher. In other scales the pattern of whole and half tones is different.
Whole tone and half tone - in western music the smallest pitched interval used is a semi-tone or half-tone. On a piano, that would be if you played a white key followed by a black key (and a white key followed by a white key, if there is no black key between them, e.g. between the notes e and f and b and c)
Timbre - the colour and special quality of an instrument or a voice. An oboe has a different timbre to a flute. A high soprano voice has a different timbre to a low alto voice in female singers.

Things that Players can do differently from another:
Interpretation - musical notation is ambiguous, and there is plenty of opportunity for the musician (interpreter) to find their personal way of performing a piece.
Technique - the 'mechanics' of playing an instrument, e.g. being able to move your fingers accurately on the finger board of a violin to produce a note which is in tune and sounds good. Technique is also more than that - it is what allows you to give your interpretation of a piece of music. For example you would like to play a certain piece very fast, but you cannot bring it up to the desired speed - this would indicate a 'lack' of technique
Phrasing - a way of shaping a group of notes. Just like an actor shapes his sentences (phrases), a musician will not play all notes equally, he will allocate more or less importance, colour, sound etc. to certain important notes in the phrase
Tuning/playing in or out of tune - if the pitch of a note is slightly off frequency. learning to play in tune is a major part of learning many instruments. Most children play out of tune, because their technique is insufficient, and NOT because they cannot hear or identify the right frequency. Studies have shown that even very young children are actually very good at pitch discrimination. Very few people are tone deaf.
Playing with others and alone:
Ensemble - a group of instruments playing together
Solo - when the player either plays alone, or is accompanied by another instrument, whose purpose is secondary to the piece. It can also be the moment, when in the context of a piece a player has a very prominent bit of music to play.

One For The Brass:
Embouchure - the way to shape the mouth and lips to make a sound on wind instruments. The embouchure varies from instrument to instrument. There are many preconceptions of what is a desirable mouth and lip shape for the various instruments - but if a teacher tells you that your child has the 'wrong' lip for a certain instrument do get a second opinion, or a teacher who is less prejudiced. There are plenty of studies who are debunking the 'myth' of the 'correct' mouthshape

Thursday, 10 January 2013


The piano is probably the most popular instrument in the world. A conservative estimate of all the people globally who play piano is well over 300 million. Add to this the millions of keyboard players and you will arrive at a truly staggering number of players.

Piano or Keyboard?
This is a really important question to answer before getting started.
Classical piano and electronic keyboard are two very different animals, and you should discuss with your child what their actual preference is.
The main question to answer is the type of music your child is interested in - if they are dreaming of playing in a band and love pop/rock/jazz, they might be better off learning keyboard.

Do I need a piano or can I learn to play on a keyboard?
A fully weighted seven octave keyboard with 88 standard size keys (ie exacty the same size as on a piano) can suffice for the first 3 years or so of learning. If your child is progressing very fast  you will need to invest in a piano though. You can buy very good instruments second hand, but you really need to take someone knowledgeable with you to try the instrument before you buy.
There are electronic pianos, which are pretty good at emulating both touch and feel of a real piano, and they have the advantage, that they can be practiced with headphones - a plus if you live in a modern flat and have difficult neighbours, A good electronic piano will not be cheap.

Begin with your child
Both piano and keyboard are wonderful instruments with fantastic repertoire, but they can also be quite a difficult because your child will have to negotiate playing more than one note at a time. This is quite a mental challenge, both for hand eye coordination and general pattern recognition.

What age can my child get started?
Between 6 and 9 is when most children start, but both Keyboard and Piano would be suitable for younger children.

Many musicians learn piano, before they learn another instrument, as it gives a good grounding in learning to read music and harmonic awareness. (the same applies to the keyboard)

If your child is  opting for the keyboard you need to choose your child’s first keyboard very carefully. Modern keyboards can be quite complicated and have 1000s of feature, which can potentially be confusing. Also, your child needs to be aware of the dangers of electricity.

A very young child, or an impatient beginner might enjoy playing the keyboard more than the piano, as they can achieve impressive results very quickly.
Sample libraries and sounds on the keyboard are becoming ever more realistic, your child will have real opportunities to develop their musical imagination.

Some questions for very young beginners 3+ for Piano and Keyboard
Is your child able to sit still and listen, when you read them a story or a short picture book?

Are they asking questions related to that story or are they going completely off-piste in their questions? If the latter, then it is probably a warning sign that they are not quite ready.

Can they recognise simple patterns, like ‘the odd one out’ in a series of images?

Can you find a piano teacher who is experienced or willing to take on very young beginners. You might look out for teachers using methods which do not require reading skills initially. (for example suzuki, yamaha, or others)


There is plenty of music for  four hands, which your child can play with another student or maybe a sibling. Pianists should be encouraged to play music for 4 hands, accompany other instrumentalists or play chamber music, Your child will need a reasonable level of proficiency for most chamber music repertoire.
Pianists are always welcome in swing and jazz bands, but there is usually only one pianist, so it can be hard to secure a place.

is a very suitable instrument for group teaching, or even for having a keyboard orchestra. Many schools have opted for keyboard groups as part of their implementation of the governments Wider Opportunities Program.
If your child’s school is not offering tuition on the key-board you might like to instigate this at a PTA or governors meeting, or you could moot the proposal with your child’s head of music.

Piano can be a solitary experience of making music, there are some measures, which your piano teacher should take to alleviate this. At the same time the piano is a wonderfully self- sufficient instrument, it means you do not need other players to perform a piece of repertoire!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


The thorny issue of practice - really it's like training for a sport!

How do you assess a situation you know nothing about? If you have never had a music lesson, how do you know what to expect?

Maybe your child thought that they could have a few lessons and be able to play like their favourite musician straight away.

Certainly Television gives this idea that things are easy - of course that's due to editing - if they showed the real effort which goes into mastering a skill it would make for incredibly boring viewing! We only get shown the 10 minute auditions on X-factor or Britain's Got Talent, but we are not shown the history of hard work, which the contestants, well some of them, have put in.

Likewise, the popularity of games like Guitar Hero, is certainly due to the fact that they do away with a lot of the hard work of learning an instrument while giving you a taster of what it might feel like to be able to play – of course just an illusion of real skill, but what a genius idea and fantastic understanding of psychology!

In real life things are not quite as convenient as on Guitar Hero. You should talk to your child before starting lessons, and try to make them aware that learning an instrument is fun, but that it also requires a bit of work - or as musicians call it: 'practice'.

Your child might not understand that learning an instrument is really a relatively long-term endeavor.  It has to be said that some instruments are easier to get started on with than others - more on difficulties and learning curves in the next post. If you have a very impatient child this might influence the choice of instrument. 

If your children are very young and have not come across the concept of homework beyond reading a book at night, they might find practice  difficult to relate to and they will have to rely on you to organise their time for them. In order to make any progress your child will have to  practice between lessons - this is something I think even adults do not always understand.

You should tell your children that they will need to find time every day (or at least five days out of seven) to practice their pieces - little and often is the key! Luckily 10 to 15 minutes are more than enough for beginners.

You can compare learning an instrument to learning a sport –  nobody would expect a footballer or tennis player to have the skills they do without any training. In fact, sport and music have a lot in common with regards to the physical side of learning the instrument:

Muscles need to be developed, tendons and ligaments get gently stretched and there is a serious amount of hand to eye coordination going on. Practice is just like training.

The trick is to gently guide your child through the initial stages, until they become more proficient at the chosen instrument - because let's face it - we all like doing things we are good at!