Category Archives: External Exams

Instrumental Tuition in Aberdeen in danger

Although this is a grim and worrying situation, it is encouraging to read that pupils are taking action. In addition to the threat to their learning, it is interesting to see social consequences highlighted by one pupil:

“The bands, choirs and orchestras we attend are a big part of our social life and are where we meet our friends from different schools across the city.”

Unsurprisingly, the students are using a social networking site to organise.

A petition – which articulately outlines many the extra-music benefits of instrumental tuition –  can be found here.

Keeping it real

Today’s In Service featured a session on preparing for Associated Board exams – including a mock exam. A very courageous clarinet pupil called Emma – very well taught by Alison Loneski – stepped into the lion’s den and was put through her paces by our visiting speaker Margaret Murray McLeod. This live element enlivened the subsequent discussions, providing us with real rather than abstract considerations. A seasoned examiner both here and overseas, Ms Murray McLeod furnished many tips on preparation and presentation which resonated with the assembled staff.

Gender, listening and hearing

Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for a link to a Times Online article I’d otherwise have missed concerning Leonard Sax‘s book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors* Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young MenThis is a massive field and one upon which I do not feel qualified authoritatively to comment. However, one claim in the article (not indicated as being a direct quote from the book) stopped me in my tracks and that was that boys do not hear as well as girls. My initial reaction was one of disbelief as my my experience of the playing by ear vs. playing from written music divide suggests that boys massively outnumber girls in preferring the former. There are side-effects: their reading suffers, but their memory improves. For a while the feeling of incongruity was ameliorated by the realisation that there is a world of difference between simply having a musical ear and being disposed to listening to instructions in class. However, the more I thought about this, the more omnipresent listening skills appeared to be:

  • part of the selection process for instrumental instruction involves a multiple choice listening test
  • much further down the line, Listening forms 1/3 of SQA Music courses and exams
  • all external exam bodies include some kind of aural testing
  • ensemble skills rely on a mixture of reading and taking cues through listening to the other parts
  • although written parts convey expressive ideas, many decisions are arrived in rehearsal without further writing – the participants simply listen and remember

Instrumental instruction requires such a level of listening that, were that statement in the article to be true, girls would simply outnumber boys when it comes to lasting the course. I looked at the statistics for the five schools in my orbit and compiled the following:

Primary School 1 Boys 8.7%  Girls 91.3%

Primary School 2 Boys 50% Girls 50%

Secondary School 1 Boys 62.5% Girls 37.5%

Secondary School 2 Boys 47.5% Girls 52.5%

Secondary School 3 Boys 50% Girls 50%

N.B. No pupil was sawn into fractions in the compiling of these statistics. If anyone can advise me on how to insert a table into WordPress, I’d be very gratful.

I’d be very interested to see a breakdown of statistics for other instruments taught by either gender. It should be borne in mind that other factors come into play e.g. which instruments have been taught in feeder primaries and how many musicians of either gender are already in the system when they arrive in secondary school, where the full compliment is on offer.

* Dr. Sax lists the The Five Factors Driving the Decline of Boys as:

Video Games. Studies show that some of the most popular video games are disengaging boys from real-world pursuits.

Teaching Methods. Profound changes in the way children are educated have had the unintended consequence of turning many boys off school.

Prescription Drugs. Overuse of medication for ADHD may be causing irreversible damage to the motivational centers in boys’ brains.

Endocrine Disruptors. Environmental estrogens from plastic bottles and food sources may be lowering boys’ testosterone levels, making their bones more brittle and throwing their endocrine systems out of whack.

Devaluation of Masculinity. Shifts in popular culture have transformed the role models of manhood. Forty years ago we had Father Knows Best; today we have The Simpsons.

Pipe Dream?

At a recent in service there were requests from many of my colleagues for instructors to be issued with laptops (pre-loaded with Sibelius score writing software). Our co-ordinator, Peter Antonelli, asked that anyone who already uses their own laptop in lessons email him a description of use. It was agreed that I would post details here and send Peter a link.


  • Calendar (including reminder function) for noting report deadlines, quality assurance, exams, concerts, East Lothian rehearsals
  • Reporting (preparing txt to paste into Filemaker) – we need to save time as access to intranet via school computer (the only route) can be extremely limited
  • Auxiliary record of work – speed of typing and the impossibility of running out of space means that more detail can be included – abbreviations, whose meaning are lost to PTs (and sometimes after the event even to me) can be avoided. Copy/paste as relevant here as it is elsewhere.
  • Compiling SQA programmes including timings, negotiating order of pieces with pupil etc.

Solo repertoire

  • Having own edition of music with preferred fingering, written technical advice/reminders, personal layout choices for ease of reading – e.g. section numbers for ease of finding place – new phrases beginning at the left of the page
  • highlighting or excluding any passage e.g. a paraphrase of the great Scottish folk song “O you play the blue notes and I’ll play the black ones, And I’ll reach bar sixteen before you….”
  • highlighting top or bass notes
  • moving all notes to single pitch to concentrate solely on rhythm
  • having and altering a metronome (click track) for play-along
  • extracting midi file for pupils (usually several at a variety of speeds)
  • extracting passages to create exercises for specific technical points which arise
  • ties – one version with only played notes visible – another with played and held notes visible (sorry for the jargon – no way round this one)

Ensemble repertoire

  • using a file as virtual ensemble in lessons
  • being able to add to or subtract from pupils individual part with their agreement (resaving under their name before extracting to print)
  • preparation of midi files for pupils to take home and also for posting on Exc-el


  • playing pupils an extract of a professional recording of a piece on which they are working e.g. in iTunes
  • playing interesting while tidying up – things which may have come up in conversation in the lesson
  • preparation of supplementary theory handouts
  • preventing pupils from excluding an unpractised piece from the lesson by “forgetting it”
  • Countdown spelling game for concepts and musical terms i.e. spell out the word letter by letter in the hope that someone will recognise it before you get too far into the word

This final use often leads to short discussion about the component parts of the word where separating them out with the spacebar is a great help. I feel that those with an interest in language are more likely to retain the word thereafter. Were we connected to the internet in our rooms, I should love to access my favourite etymological website so that pupils might see from where some the names of concepts arise. Here are a few examples for your delectation:

syncopation   anacrusis   harmony   melody   rhythm   cadence   counterpoint

(I can see a new idea for an additional page on the blog emerging)

Peo Kindgren

Yesterday I came across a huge catalogue of fine performances on YouTube by Peo Kindgren – a Swedish guitarist, resident in Denmark.

In addition to very nice playing I was struck by the sound quality which is the best I have heard on YouTube. His own sound production on the guitar is excellent and I imagine that the bare wooden room he uses is also a contributory factor. However, I have written to ask him if he uses any post-production equipment to achieve such magnificent results. I am curious for two reasons:

  1. I should very much like to explore the avenue of similar recordings of pupils
  2. I am considering options for making my own recordings of new, external exam material

The latter of these is not intended to replace pupils working from notation but would offer a great supplementary resource for the more visually inclined learner.

I’d recommend any of the Bach three pieces which open the extensive list of links I have posted at the end of the Recommended Youtube Performances Page – on the right. The Air is one most people would recognise instantly.

Connect 7

Minor Endings

Major = Happy, Minor = Sad.

This has served for generations as a first step to aural identification of the two basic chord types.

Major = Reliable, Minor = Slippery Customer. How’s that, then?

The makeup of a major scale, once learned, remains learned. The minor scale, once conquered, simply grows another head and reappears in disguise. Brought about by historical change and (multi)cultural influence,* Continue reading Connect 7

Making The Grade

As a welcome back experiment I have been asking secondary pupils of all ages to read their way through an engaging minimalist piece I rediscovered in the holidays. In theory, this piece should be very easy as it featured, until the year 2000, in a Grade 1 syllabus. However, it looks fiendish. I have also indulged in the customary game of guess the grade with my instrumental and classroom colleagues. Guesses have ranged from Grade 3 – 6 and all are equally astonished to discover that Continue reading Making The Grade

Friday Night Is Music Night

“A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.” Emo Philips (b 1956)

Winding down – that’s what I like about this term. A light morning of teaching (six lessons); skip lunch; straight into serial rehearsing – Guitar Group (sounding good, even if I say so myself); Jazz Band; Gig on the Grass Band; drive home; check emails (continue to be amazed at how gullible some spammers imagine us all to be); play a few moves of online chess (to clear, or possibly finish off, the mind); get ready to go out to Trinity Guildhall Syllabus Seminar (for new graded instrumental exams). The outcome of this evening will determine Continue reading Friday Night Is Music Night