BlitzBitz - Samantha's Blog
Author: Created: 9/11/2009 9:07 PM RssIcon
Samantha Coates' musings on teaching, publishing, theory, musianship, music craft, the AMEB and other things that spring to mind.
By Samantha Coates on 20/03/2012 6:37 AM
Vicious Cycle The vicious cycle of theory study goes like this:

Student dislikes theory because all their friends do or because they ‘just want to play’ => student avoids theory => student does not do well at theory => student dislikes theory

How did this happen? I believe the main reason this cycle comes about is because we rush through theory. Very often, as soon as the practical exam is over, the piano books are put away and it’s THEORY TIME! The whole lesson is devoted to that sorely neglected theory workbook, which hasn’t seen the light of day for 4 or 5 months, in a frenzied effort to acquire the bare essentials needed to pass the all-important prerequisite exam. Let’s face it, students usually only do theory because they have to. Apart from the odd mature-age student who takes up theory just for the fun of it, completely divorced from any practical instrument study, it’s usually a race against the clock to get everything done and it’s hardly ever much fun.

How can we break the cycle?...
By Samantha Coates on 2/02/2012 11:54 AM
When you practice a musical instrument by yourself, it’s a pretty solitary experience. There’s no team spirit, no friends at the training session, no coach to tell you what to do. It can be REALLY hard to be disciplined in practice – that is, to tackle the stuff that really needs work first and leave the easy pieces until the end. But even if you manage to do this, sometimes it’s not enough just to have the intrinsic satisfaction that something has been achieved. You need to play the pieces for someone else regularly (not just the teacher), and get feedback from that someone, be it in the format of applause, a report, an award, or maybe just lots of gushy comments about how well you’re doing. It is these things that keep most students practising in the long term.

So what it really comes down to is praise and recognition. Everybody loves positive feedback – whether from a teacher, a parent, a boss or an employee. Receiving praise is a huge motivator for most people.

Take my two children for example,...
By Samantha Coates on 7/12/2011 11:41 AM
In an effort to stimulate more practice and a fairer competition, I decided to refine the House Points system I described in December last year.

No matter how I’ve tried to mix up the students and houses, for the last couple of terms one house has clearly run away with the House Cup. This makes it a little de-motivating for the students in the ‘losing’ houses (there are usually three houses); as the competition draws to a close they can see they would have to practice through the night a fair few times in order for their house to catch up.

So at the end of Term 3 I calculated each student’s average amount of practice per week for the term. Some of them had practised heaps, some not very much at all. I then split them into two houses only: ‘Ravenpuff’ (a cheeky combination of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff) and ‘Slytherdor’ (a cheeky combination of Slytherin and Gryffindor) and made sure that each house had...
By Samantha Coates on 12/10/2011 5:56 AM
My daughter recently came home from her flute lesson with a great little system for correcting mistakes, which she called ‘IRC’.

IRC stands for Isolate, Rhythms, Connect.

Her flute teacher, Emma Sholl (of SSO fame), discussed with her that ‘Isolate’ means to figure out exactly where the mistake is. ‘Rhythms’ means to go over and over that spot in different ways, primarily using different rhythms. ‘Connect’ means to then link that passage back to the rest of the piece. Cool!

I was really pleased to hear about this system, because I do something quite similar with my piano students, although we’ve never come up with a great little acronym for it. But for pianists, it’s usually not quite as simple as the three steps above.

The first problem is that the student sometimes cannot easily isolate the mistake, mainly because they don’t know what the mistake actually is.

They can hear something is wrong, so they go back to the beginning of the section (or worse, the beginning of the whole...
By Samantha Coates on 9/05/2011 12:08 PM
For all those of you who have embraced even the idea of offering the 50-piece challenge to your students, I’m here to tell you that it’s the best thing I have ever done with my students.

Each week they come along to lessons eager to get more ticks on the chart, or at least more dots, showing that pieces have been started.

But what is the reason they are so eager? Yes, they are enjoying playing more repertoire and not getting stuck playing the same three pieces all year. Yes, they are finding out how rewarding it is to experience that sense of achievement of finishing a piece in just one or two weeks. Yes, their sight reading is improving and their parents are delighted. But the most important reason they are so eager is…


The chart on my wall, next to the piano, lists every student and they can see at a glance who has the most ticks. Whilst I have never promoted...
By Samantha Coates on 2/05/2011 10:05 PM
With the May written exam series fast approaching, here is a series of tips that will help students and parents prepare for the big day…

1. Avoid cramming We all know that knowledge quickly gained is knowledge quickly lost. Take these last two weeks to do steady revision each day – don’t leave it all to the night before!

2. Arrive at least half an hour early The supervisors start calling the students in well before the allotted starting time. There’s a lot of sitting around to do so it’s best to expect this and have strategies for coping, like some mental revision.

3. Have adequate materials At least 3 pencils and a good eraser are the absolutely essential materials, in a small clear zip lock bag. It’s also very important to bring the exam notice with your candidate number on it!

4. Use the reading time This is a really important one. There is 10 minutes of reading time before the exam starts. In my opinion this is the most important 10 minutes of the whole exam.

Back in...
By Samantha Coates on 16/03/2011 10:14 AM
In Part 1 of How Much Practice is Enough?, I attempted to calculate, in real numerical terms, the amount of practice required to get through a certain AMEB exam. In this follow up article, I will explore some of the other issues surrounding exam preparation.

Preventing boredom Boredom would have to be the no.1 reason for good exam preparation being thwarted. There is nothing worse than having the same four pieces to practise all year round, with only miniscule improvements each week, if any at all.

Exam repertoire is most definitely getting harder. Every teacher I speak to agrees with this; every three years or so the AMEB brings out a new series and – sure enough – the pieces are more difficult than the previous series. So it’s not surprising that the repertoire takes longer to learn, and that students can get bogged down perfecting one piece over a long period of time.

So what’s the solution?...
By Samantha Coates on 16/03/2011 10:10 AM
This term I started the 50-piece challenge with my private students. That’s right, let’s see who can learn fifty pieces in one year!

At first all of their eyes popped out of their heads. Fifty pieces? In a year? Most of them couldn’t fathom learning fifty pieces in a lifetime, let alone 12 months!

So the first real challenge here was to calm everybody down and explain how it could be done. The idea was to churn through lots and lots of repertoire, but it didn’t all have to be difficult repertoire!

I set each student a minimum standard of repertoire they could learn. For example, a student working towards a 5th grade exam would learn at least 5 or 6 pieces over the year at 5th grade level – but the other 44 pieces could be anything from 1st grade onwards, from a variety of different repertoire books. So, a few of their pieces are ‘long term’ projects (i.e. the exam pieces, at their grade level), and the rest are ‘rocket’ pieces, a term coined by my friend and colleague Abe Cytrynowski – pieces...
By Samantha Coates on 28/02/2011 9:52 AM
Sight reading and aural skills are essential components of being a good musician. It is so important to develop these skills, and not to concentrate solely on performance skills. Good sight reading and good aural gives you access to any music, any time, for life.

Good sight reading is a skill that eludes many a good pianist (or any instrumentalist, but I’m going to focus on piano skills here), and frustrates both student and teacher. The first thing a student must understand is that sight reading is a completely separate skill to virtuoso performing. Practising a certain Mozart sonata over and over for 6 or 8 months will not be helpful when trying to sight read a different Mozart sonata.

Ask anyone who is a good sight reader how they came to be so. They will tell you: because they do it ALL THE TIME. There is no-one ‘born’ a good sight reader, just like there is no-one who is born able to read English fluently without having read a lot. The only way to become a good sight reader is to sight read...
By Samantha Coates on 16/02/2011 1:38 PM
Studies show that if you invest 10,000 hours of practice into pretty much any field, you will be a master in that field. This applies to musicians, sportsmen, chess players, computer geeks, anyone.

This comes from a book called ‘Outliers – The Story of Success’ by the economist Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a fascinating book that discusses all sorts of reasons why people become successful at what they do – accident of birth, opportunity, cultural legacy -but a big factor is how much time you put in, and he calls this the ’10,000 hour rule’.

My first reaction upon reading this was to mentally calculate how much piano practice I’d done in my life and figure out if and when I had ever reached the 10,000 hour mark. I kind of lost count somewhere in the memories of 3rd year Uni, but I think that basically yes I have certainly invested 10,000 hours along the way, yet for some reason I am not a world-class concert pianist. Oh.

Is this a flaw in Malcolm Gladwell’s theory? I don’t think so. The point of...
Subscribe to BlitzBitz by Email
Subscribe to BlitzBitz by RSS
Search BlitzBitz