Today’s post heralds the start of a new series on my blog: Teaching Observations. These posts will include random teaching related topics which might be of interest to other teachers, students, or piano lovers.
I hear and work with a wide variety of piano students both in the UK and abroad; younger, older, and those who play fun, as well as university music undergraduates and postgraduates, and talented students hoping to become professional musicians.
Over the past six months, I’ve observed and worked with more students than usual. I have a new job (faculty piano lecturer) at Royal Holloway University of London, have recently tutored students abroad, and have listened to several hundred young competition players at a couple of online competitions. Time for reflection is most important when teaching. One subject that I constantly mull over is that of piano repertoire; how can I find absorbing music for my students, and repertoire which suits them and their current requirements?
At a university (if majoring in music) and at a music conservatoire, students have yearly exams. ‘Performance Platforms’ for those on the Music Course last around ten minutes at Junior Guildhall School of Music; the repertoire is free-choice and performances are quite formal affairs taken in a recital hall. My one undergraduate Guildhall School student’s piano exams have more stringent regulations. For the first-year undergraduate degree course, we prepared two recitals (a 30-minute exam and a 40-minute exam) both with specific criteria, such as a two Classical Sonatas, two preludes and fugues, several concert studies, a Contemporary work etc. At Royal Holloway university, students have differing recital lengths depending on the degree: undergraduates usually perform for 15/20 minutes at the end of the year, whereas the Master’s degree performance programme is, as one might expect, more demanding requiring two examinations: a 30-minute and 50-minute programme. One criterion remains the same for all: students must not repeat repertoire.
Finding suitable repertoire, or piano works that harmoniously complement each other yet are also well within a student’s grasp, is a challenge. And on top of this, I have to ensure students enjoy all the pieces they study, which I believe is a prerequisite. Like many teachers, a fair amount of my time is spent scouring exam syllabuses, online libraries, and, occasionally, online forums, because I like to come up with unusual choices alongside the expected ‘classics’.
This brings me to a particular bête noire; photocopies. Piano students really do love to photocopy their music, and, as you can see from the image above, I’ve done my fair share of photocopying too. Photocopied scores are cheap, they are useful for quickly examining music, and purchasing published music can be costly. I expect we all peruse excellent sites like the Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP) which offer a gargantuan selection of wonderful music and all at our fingertips. However, these online scores, which are ripe for photocopying, can be littered with errors, poor fingering suggestions, and a whole host of other issues.
I want to highlight the misuse of photocopies because several pupils have recently encountered unexpected difficulties whilst playing from their photocopied music. Photocopies aren’t just a nuisance, they used to be illegal in certain circumstances such as use in various examinations, festivals, and competitions. Some establishments are loosening their rules here probably due to the rise and popularity of online performances, but irrespective of this, photocopied music presents problems for those using it. It’s also worth noting that where the composer has not yet been dead for 70 years (and sometimes longer) scores are still in copyright, therefore copying their music, in this case, is illegal.
During a recent book tour, most students turned up for their class with a neat file containing all their scores. Inside the file, each piece was photocopied and every page was generously housed in a clear plastic sleeve. This not only renders the score unusable when trying to write on it – of course you can take the music out, but it’s distracting – however, far worse is when lights shine on these plastic sleeves at a particular angle during a performance, the music suddenly becomes unreadable. This problem also rears its head where I teach too; not long ago, a couple of students suffered such an issue during a concert which caused a momentary break-down, heightening their anxiety and nerves. Perhaps even more upsetting is when students carefully line up five or six pages of photocopied music on the music desk (without fastening them together) only to witness each page unceremoniously falling off during a play-through. Even more irritating can be finding the copied pages are in the wrong order!
Photocopies are fine for limited use but I think that they are not suitable for long-term study. It’s up to teachers to guide students as to which score to obtain – we all have our favourites. A bone fide score will contain helpful fingerings and other musical markings (if the publisher is reputable and prints good-quality scores). Many editions, especially Urtext editions, offer interesting information regarding the piece, its context in the composer’s output, as well as suggested ornament realisations and relevant composer reworkings of the original score.
Some like to use their tablet to read and store music instead of a traditional score. I’ve only done this on a few occasions and found out relatively quickly that I prefer the physical score as it’s easier to read. Generally, tablets are nicely set up for score reading and most are reliable. Although I attended two concerts a few years ago where the use of tablets seriously ‘let down’ both (renowned) pianists; they had to leave the stage mid-concert to retrieve their physical scores and find page-turners.
Here are a few basic suggestions for those unable to purchase music:
- Explore the library. Libraries don’t always offer a good selection but, as a student, I ‘lived’ in my local library. They had a great collection of all types of music providing a never-ending stream of sight-reading for me. It’s not a good idea to annotate library scores, but they can be beneficial.
- If you are a teacher, might you consider allowing a student to borrow scores? This way, they can at least enjoy the benefits of some editions and play from a book as opposed to using photocopies. I tend to loan out my scores quite frequently.
- Second-hand music can be a blessing. Copious online sites are offering second-hand scores which are usually much cheaper than new ones. If this is of interest, check out Preloved.co.uk, handcockandmonksmusic.co.uk, abeBooks.co.uk, and, eBay.
- Instigate a ‘score swap’. If students don’t need their scores anymore and don’t want to keep them, they might consider swapping them with fellow students.
- It’s worth watching out for score ‘sales’ at shops. They occur from time to time and sometimes stores offer up to 25% reductions. Take a look at online sites such as Musicroom and Presto Music – they both feature regular sales.
- If you can locate an antique bookshop, they can contain a treasure trove of unknown music and unknown composers (I have such a shop in Eton, near where I live). They are worth exploring for those who want to discover something different; these scores are invariably inexpensive and you are purchasing a piece of history.
In my opinion, scores are objects of beauty and they become even more attractive when adorned with personal annotations.
Another pressing issue that I have yet to mention, but it’s one I feel passionately about, is the fact that publishers, authors, and composers need our support. If music is obtained for free, many publishers will eventually suffer financially and will find it increasingly difficult to print new/more music, which they must do if they are to continue to build and expand their libraries. Authors and composers will suffer a similar fate as a result of this trend, too.
Music study can be expensive and funding is a problem for many a student. But once the decision to study the piano has been made, I believe that acquiring piano scores should be considered a priority for those who take their playing seriously.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.
4 Comments Add yours
Excellent article on something most of have struggled with as pianists. My solution has been to abandon paper altogether and put all my music on my iPad. Music publishers are (slowly!) adding downloadable scores in addition to the traditional books so they’re not being cut out of the profits.
Thank you so much for your comment., Rhonda. The iPad is a good solution and, as you say, most publishers are offering downloadable options now.
Hi I often print out pages from pieces or ebooks that I have purchased so that I can mark them up. I use an excellent binder called a Rondofile. It is specially designed for music. The plastic pages have no centres but grip the page so no reflections and one can write on it
It’s good that you have found a method that works for you.