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  1. Many students ask about practice; how long should I practice?, how often? what should I practice? It's a very hazy area for many, and sadly many are fooled into the misconception that they must practice for long stretches of time and it must be every day (or almost every day). Inevitably life often gets in the way; leaving a feeling of frustration and failure at having missed the target. Some conscientious students will regardless push through and commit to their planned practice sessions; sometimes after a very stressful day, or emotionally challenging drama happening in the family etc. They grit their teeth and dig in, probably hating every moment of practice, resenting loss of their only bit of 'free' time that day, and consequently going down the dangerous 'lost my motivation/focus' path. In reality the time would have been spent far more wisely chilling out; leaving practice until another day.

    In my humble opinion it's not necessarily the time spent practicing, but how you practice that will reap the most rewards, and you'll notice your skills broadening and progress pleasing. I decided this evening to takes notes on my practice session; I'm learning piano and have (foolishly!) recently bought the grade 8 ABRSM exam pieces book with the idea that I may try to achieve the coveted grade 8 before they change the syllabus at the end of 2016 (I'm not saying yet whether I'll achieve it but I'm going to give it a good try!). As a multi-instrumentalist I find giving ample practice time to all my instruments (soprano, alto saxes, sometimes sopranino, flute, clarinet, and piano) almost impossible so in a 'typical' practice session I'll usually practice two instruments, often with a longer session on one. 

    The notes I've made showed how I approached my practice this evening; my practice session often vary greatly in content and approach as I like to keep things varied and take myself by surprise ;D. Here's what I did tonight;


    Tuesday 31st March 2015. 7.20pm start;



    I decided to focus on scales as I confess I have neglected them since taking my last exam before Christmas (tut tut!). I played all my majors, 4 octaves and on the way noticed my left hand fingers seemed weaker than my right hand, so I did left on their own to concentrate on the weight I was using whilst still trying to keep relaxed.

    I tend to get stuck on a default speed which I know in reality is far too slow for grade 8 level. I picked a scale I am happy with, and played it about 8 times, increasing the speed on each playing; quite surprised myself that I didn't fall over my fingers as much as I thought I would. 

    Observation; I've been holding my breath as I play. Try to breathe; your brain needs oxygen you numpty!

    I stop myself when I get to Bb major as I'm free-styling on the fingering; sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not. I get the scale book out and play it very slowly around 7 times, then 4 times at a faster speed. I realised my error was in my left hand. I need to get to grips with this as my list A piece is in this key signature!

    E minor melodic causes a few issues so again out comes the scale book. I soon sort this but the scale is just sounding as if it has no structure. I spend a couple of minutes stressing the scale in its groups of 4.

    ************************************************cup of tea has gone cold. Quick dash to the microwave************************************************

    back again; having trouble with just the top turnaround on F# melodic minor; I loop this around a few times then play the scale again in its entirety. At this point I'm starting to lose interest in my scales (I've done all the majors, and the minors from C to F#; I'll complete these at another session and do arpeggios, extended scales, diminished, thirds etc another time).

    I play my Chopin list C piece; just because I like it! The first two times I try to get my notes right although I'm still a bit stumbly. I pencil in notes for myself; warning triangles for bits that keep catching me out, and noting inversions of the chords etc. I play the piece one more, this time 'Alla Les Dawson' I actually go for the fluidity and expression this time; choosing to ignore any wrong notes and just let myself enjoy it!


    At 8.16pm I move on to alto sax;

    I play through Tango Etude no 1 by Piazzolla. Not very happy with my low notes (not speaking as easily as I'd like) and Altissimo A is not having it today. I notice that my mouthpiece patch seems to have slipped and worn a bit (I've had it on for months!) I put a new one on and with the mouthpiece 1/2 mm further in my mouth my low notes are speaking, tone is warmer, and altissimo A (after a gentle workout 'splitting' top Eb) starts to re-emerge. 

    I run through 3 extended scales; Eb major, D major, and F minor melodic.

    Lastly I drag out my Hal Leonard Latin Jazz book (all instruments) and play Mas Que Nada, and A day in the life of a Fool. I haven't played these particular arrangements before so I play the tune on first playing. I lose my place on the return to the DS but luckily 'wing' the melody (and it's actually not far off!). I have a go at soloing to the chart given; keeping it simple and basing my improvisation around the known melody and the 3rd notes of the chord (eg, E, in a C chord). 

    It's 8.45pm now and I finish my session relaxed and having achieved some good things.

    I microwave the cuppa once more, and now it's bath time! :D.



    I hope you've found this insight useful; as said; I'm not advocating it to be the correct way to practice but just one viewpoint. I'll be back soon with another practice session log.


    Night all.

  2. cross legged laying on floor


    I realise that a blog update is well overdue so here we go;

    I have been busy with a number of projects and collaborations as 2013 kicks into gear. Two CD's reach completion and release dates are imminent. These include me playing as part of the (fabulous, but then again I may be biased! ;) Equinox saxophone enemble (based in Nottingham, UK) and a collaboration with Pastor Brenda Taylor (also fabulous!) who is known for her healing and worship ministry.

    The CD with Equinox features an eclectic mix of exciting, thoughtful, known, and newly written / arranged music for nine piece saxophone ensemble. As a member of the group I have been fortunate enough to hear the tracks in advance, and must say I have been delighted with the results. Release date is anticipated to be around Spring time so keep tabs on the website or by following us on Twitter

    The CD that I have had the pleasure to play on (Alto and soprano saxes, flute and clarinet) is an instrumental collaboration (Pastor Brenda Taylor on Piano) of soaking / prayer / meditation worship music written by Brenda. She has a reputation for her sweet spirit, anointed worship and songwriting skills. We both felt very strongly that although the melodies of the songs would be present to some extent, free (Holy Spirit led) improvisation must be a large part of the project. I must admit that I'm delighted by the audio that was captured and friends and family have commented that the tracks are indeed very soothing and perfect after a long day or if feeling frazzled! Details will be posted soon via the News page regarding details of the availability date (estimated end February 2013). Meanwhile, here's a little (2 in 1) audio sampler of two of the tracks; one with flute, and the other Alto sax (worship goes Baker Street! ;) 




    Whilst recording this CD I realised that I have a genuine love of recording studio work; I thrive on the pressure to create an effective (and hopefully inspiring) result within a very limited time span, the perfectionist nature in me enjoys creating, learning and listening. I'm also really excited by the prospect that you have to be constantly adapting and able to switch style, attack or mood should it be required depending on what genre is required. All together very exciting!

    New writing projects are underway; a graded duet book for Clarinet (grades 1 - 5) ; 40 Graded duets (8 of each, grade 1 - 5). Celtic collage (released last year for flute) is preparing for release in Alto saxophone edition (and later Clarinet / Tenor sax). As Masquerade music continues to spread its wings I look forward to working with other composers and bringing our sheet music to a wider customer base in addition to supporting our hard working woodwind teachers and students with a growing range of free resources on the website.

    There is always so much more to write; I haven't even mentioned the teaching aspect of my work so far but that will wait for the moment. 

    Thank you for stopping by,




  3. casual glasses

    Recently a friend and I were having a conversation about woodwind teaching, and I surprised myself how animated and enthiusiastic I became discussing all things regarding music education. I have always found learning (and teaching) fascinating and regard my whole career as a real priviledge and pleasure and certainly it has never entertained my thoughts that I just do it for the money; even if I won the lottery I don't think I would choose to cease teaching.

    My woodwind teaching began quite in error actually, I had a toddler and a baby at the time when a friend of a friend asked if I might consider teaching their daughter the clarinet. Although everything in me was screaming "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!" for some bizarre reason I found a calm and confident voice emerge from my mouth agreeing to the situation. My little guinea pig and I then began a little journey and I found that I really enjoyed teaching her, found I could communicate to her age well and enjoyed finding exciting repertoire to keep her motivated. An excellent first exam result gave me a boost and I began to take on one or two more students.

    Hopefully some of the observations I've made over the years will help you in your teaching if you've just started (or are considering it as a career); it's certainly not 'easy money' if you are striving to be an inspirational teacher; you will be burning several vats of midnight oil no doubt on countless occasions, but trust me.... it's worth it! Some teachers lack passion for their 'art' and sadly this often shows via students dropping away; often too polite to say they really don't enjoy learning what you are setting them each week. An inspirational teacher needs to read body language quickly, to know when the student is 'switching off' , or although nodding just isn't getting what you're saying. An inspirational teacher is not afraid to switch course and take a different tack at a moments notice.

    Imagine if you will a fictional student; Lily, aged 14; she's been learning the clarinet for 3 years in school, has taken grade 2 but is seemingly progressing rather too slowly towards the grade 3 (which mum and dad are keen to see taken sometime this year). She often says upon entering the lesson that "sorry, things have been really busy this week so I haven't managed much practice" (teacher translation "I really didn't want to play my scales again, they're really boring, I don't like the list A piece I 've been told to learn, I can't 'get' the rhythm in the second piece so don't know why i'm bothering as it won't be right in any case, and I actually spent 4 hours each night on facebook instead....which was much more fun!").


    Now I have 'inherited' students like this and I find it totally exciting to take them down a whole new path and hopefully re-igniting that passion for the instrument that they were so excited about when they started. We'll return to Lily in a moment, but meanwhile I must stress how perceptive you need to be as a teacher; what sort of a week has your student had? Have they had an exciting break through that they are dying to tell you about? (give them chance to talk!) do they need a dose of encouragement this week, or a bit of a friendly "lets take a step back and break this down a little more thoroughly, you're a little free style!" type chat ;D (not quite in those words you understand!). Some students react well to praise and will go to the ends of the earth to please you and hence work hard at home, some can't seem to take praise or won't believe you when you say they are doing well, don't worry, little bits will be sinking in, it just takes time, and some need an occasional fairly stern talking to or that you have a high expectation that they are going to work hard; "brilliant, I think by next week we'll go for a full performance of this piece then with the piano and I'm sure you will get all that detail in my next time" type thing.

    Back to Lily......if she was my newly inherited student I'd ask her to play something, anything for me that she had enjoyed playing in the past, why did she choose that one? Is it easy, a past grade 1 piece? Perhaps she feels the current pieces are too challenging. She tells you that mum asks her practice three times a week for half an hour each. Ask her to give you a break down of a typical practice session; what exactly does she do? chances are she won't think how she practices and will probably have zoned onto a remote planet within 5 minutes (or spent the last 20 minutes cleaning the clarinet).....chances are she just ploughs into her set pieces and after a couple of playings, if she's made it to the end then it's considered practiced.

    As a teacher we need to teach students how to practice!

    Here's the reality;

    • Lily doesn't want to play Bach, she want to play Lady Gaga's new hit, or the theme from a favourite TV show.
    • Although she'd like to get her grade 3 this year, that's  all she's been practicing for and is now really bored (and hence progressing very slowly). Plus her best friend has grade 3 already and she doesn't want to be outdone!
    • She hates practicing scales; they're so boring and what's the point?!
    • Those three thirty minute sessions could be valuably used on facebook!
    • She knows that the dotted rhythm in that piece is more than one beat but can't seem to count it correctly

    What to do with Lily? Set aside maybe one month to put aside all grade work, ask her what music she's listening to (chances are she'll have with her a phone or ipod you can plug into your speakers and have a listen). Do a deal; " Ok, so next week we're going to start learning the Lady Gaga song but your end of the bargain is that by next week I'd like that G major scale and arpeggio to be played evenly, tongued and legato at a speed of (such and such), in the rhythm of 'Happy birthday to you' , then see how many times you can play it in one breath, and tell me what TV show starts with the first five notes. Believe me, I've seen teenage students busting a gasket showing you they can play their scale 3 1/2 times before they go purple :D. You must stick to your end of the bargain then and sit and transcribe the promised song of course!

    Talking of phones, most of them have a 'voice record' feature. If your student is struggling with a piece or a rhythm, why not play it for them as they record it; a great audio reference for when they get home.

    Get Lily to practice her pieces in a different way find bars that have the same rhythm and play them one after another. Play a full phrase and stop, was the breathing good or didn't you make it to the breath mark? Scan through the piece and play only the accidentals, play them again but to a set metronome speed just a bit faster than your 'comfort zone' speed! Play the piece backwards, turn the book upside down! find re-occuring patterns and carry those patterns on further up/down the instrument. Play one phrase of it in 5 different keys.... the possibilities are endless really!

    With my students I offer a reward on completed monthly goals; usually a bag of maltesers or Haribo's etc. Whilst not all teachers will do this, some sort of reward is always good; even if it's the promise of that next piece that you'll locate for them 'Mr Saxobeat' or whatever floats their boat!

    Make sure that they hear you play sometimes and keep your own practice regime healthy so as not to dissapoint / uninspire your students. Admit sometimes that you are not sure on that certain matter but that you will find out. Make a 'to do' list and get things done. Slow down tracks for students feeling demoralised because they can't keep up; with free software like audacity you can change tempi and key even.

    anyway... I hope that has proved useful in some way and wish you all the best in your teaching and learning.



  4. Hi all,

    Wow, where does the time go? Apologies for lack of blogging, things have been increasingly busy; I did think it was just a momentary blip but it seems not! ;D

    Those that know me well will be aware that most years I set myself goals in preparation for the year ahead, and often along with a motto / saying to adhere to (yes, very sad I know!). Well, this years motto was very blunt but I felt it was what was needed! "Just shut up and get on with it!" is the simple advice I am choosing to give myself when I begin to talk myself out of a potentially scary or uncomfortable situation. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not going to start sky diving or bungee jumping or something ludicrous like that (I can't see what I would gain from such an experience apart from losing my lunch!) but it is a quick and effective way of getting the job done.

    Already this year there have been many occasions that I have already stepped far out of my comfort zone but felt I had grown / learned as a result afterwards. These include; Playing in front of 2000 people at 'The lion roars' Israel conference in Westminster, London, in February. Church firends will know that I entirely improvise in church worship sessions which I find enjoyable but also stretches me at times; indeed even this morning we played a worship song (usually in the key of F, making me in G on sop sax) and I can only surmise that our leaders transpose button had been accidentaly pressed (or inadvertantly left on from the previous song) kicking us off in a healthy E major (F# for me!) which was ok (I do practice my extended scales you know, in all keys!) but then I got the nod for an instrumental solo. Now I recalled that this particular solo was meant to be the melody and not one of my Keri noodlings so a moment of quick thought and rapid interval guessing saved my bacon! Only one wrong note and I quickly slid it up to sound like a grace note so no one noticed. Great fun! :D

    A similar thing happened at the conference; I had done my set with my regular worship team but then was asked to stay on stage and play with a guest team. Now I didn't actually know any of the songs they were to play, and a couple were prophetic and created on the spot! It's a case of quietly play a note or two (away from the mic!) find your key and then GO FOR IT! At one point, again, the (unknown!) leader gave me a nod and (by the grace of God!) out came one of the most tuneful and powerful solo's that had ever emerged. Thank goodness it's by his strength and not ours!

    I've become an official member of a twitter formed symphony; @twtrsymphony, you can read more about this in my recent news post but again it is stretching me and making me think / look at music on a different level.

    I'm thoroughly loving improving my accompanying skills on piano, and any spare moment (or after a stressful day!) I usually find it's my sanctuary. Things seem to be steadily improving and I enjoy it enormously. continues to grow and keeps me busy. With a growing number of free resources for woodwind players the site stats are improvong month by month. I'm writing a celtic collection that I'm excited about as it's a genre that I feel a natural affinity towards. I even got a tweet from the marvelous Bill Whelan (composer of the Riverdance music) which entirely made my day!

    After faffing about for many many months, I have decided to dig in again to recording my first CD, though I must complete current projects first. My teaching schedule is very healthy, if not overflowing, and a new venture for Spring has been my introduction of monthly ensemble workshops for my students. We meet once a month for 1 1/2 hours and play ensemble music; pretty basic stuff initially as most have not played in a group before. The idea is to build confidence, give students a focus for their practice, and hear the wonderful sounds that an ensemble can make. The first one last month was a huge success and students appreciated the light hearted nature and fun warm ups I had devised (who knew that I could command my students to be my handbells and clang on demand!). I'll be setting up a second ensemble soon for more confident players and to give beginner players something to aspire to.

    On Friday I had a photography session with the talented Paul Tombs; I think we challenged each other (in the best possible way!) I had to get myself mentally 'there' to achieve good results, whilst poor Paul had to learn to try and understand the complexities of how a female's mind works; good luck with that! Anyway, I can't praise him enough and hopefully some new pictures will be appearing in the gallery soon.....

    Oh....and I've been "shutting up and getting on with it!" via a series of singing workshops (only done one so far!) the idea is; if I can look a complete fool doing vocal warm ups, grinning like a cheshire cat, write my name with my tongue (I kid you not! ;) and various likewise be fair, I can do anything!

    Anyway, better pop off for now but thank you so much for stopping by :)