Avoiding ‘Lap Of Honour’ syndrome during practice sessions

Avoiding 'Lap Of Honour Syndrome' in practice sessions

I was talking to one of my students about our tendency to play ‘safe’ things during practice sessions when I came up with the title of this piece. We’ve all been guilty from time to time of spending our practice time playing through the bits that we’ve already learned and mastered, enjoying the feeling of having conquered the technical aspects of them. This is what I mean by ‘lap of honour syndrome’ - it’s the same tendency as winners of important races running an extra lap around the stadium to receive accolades from the crowd watching.

However, playing through safe or successfully learned passages is not going to challenge us, bring our playing up to the next level or help us to learn a new piece. Practice with the intention of learning new material shouldn’t sound polished and finished. Those of us who don’t fall into the ‘super-genius' category will come across technical challenges or questions about performance that will slow us down and this is to be embraced. Only by tackling hurdles and looking very closely at them can we reach the next level of playing.

When I find difficult passages in a new piece, my first job is to study the notes and make sure they’ve been accurately read. After this I work meticulously on the fingering to plot the easiest and most accurate transitions from one phrase to the next. After this I break the passages down into short sections and start rehearsing them slowly. By slowly, I mean anything from 70 bpm to 40 bpm - I call it the ‘molecular’ level, because it feels like putting the music under a microscope. I may devise separate exercises to highlight a technical problem I’m wrestling with and build these into the practice. Only when I’m flawless at the slow speeds will I start to increase up to the medium speeds, but always keeping an eye on accuracy as I increase speeds incrementally.

Of course, doing this for too long can be very intense if you haven’t built up a tolerance for this kind of practice, so set times (with alarms if you like) for intense practice, but then finish off with the ‘reward’ of playing your favourite piece or doing your lap of honour with a piece that you've mastered previously. Once we get used to this type of practice though, we can practice smarter and not necessarily need the release of playing something easy or familiar at the end of our session. Experiment with it and see what’s best for you!

Happy practising!


Why having a piano teacher is better than learning with an app!

This may be slightly controversial in some quarters, but I constantly see a slew of self-taught ‘experts’ on You Tube, shouting about how good they are, but showing appalling technique and possessing less than pedestrian abilities. So I thought I’d share some insight from REAL experts with you as to why this might be.

Here is a thread from one of my piano forums, comprised of both students and teachers, offering their thoughts on why face-to-face (or online lessons with a human) win every time.

What can we learn from teachers that an app can’t show us?

  • Technique, feel and nuance.
  • I think for me, it would be the personalisation. An app will only deal with generics and will not be monitoring the particular nuances that each student has. As a teacher you respond to the students’ individual needs and adapt your teaching accordingly.
  • The teacher will point out the mistakes immediately and help you overcome a specific problem, while an app only gives you clues and no feedback on your work.
  • The app does not spot where you are going wrong, nor does it teach shortcuts in theory.
  • The teacher can suggest learning certain pieces that will help you improve while the app makes you learn pieces you might not be interested in, but you still need to learn them to complete the level in the app.
  • The good teacher will be able to see your weaknesses and adjust the teaching method etc. No app can do that.
  • Sitting position/posture. Use of hands/wrists. General technique.
  • The good teacher will suggest videos, books and other useful resources, the app might show some extras but can’t fully personalise them.
  • Quite simply, a teacher can give you bespoke advice on technique, posture, interpretation, the best exercises for you and such, based on their observation of you playing. An app, even a richly featured one, could not do that.
  • An app cannot contextualise the music for you or give you an understanding of style and the pianistic techniques used to express style and period etc. It also won’t give you the theoretical understanding of the music that a good teacher can. It’s a one-dimensional experience as opposed to a holistic one.
  • One of my students summed it up really well the other day. He said the apps teach you to follow the app (that might be learning to read the notes) but what it doesn’t teach you is music. It doesn’t teach you all the bits surrounding that particular exercise and when you try to move away you get stuck. He used an example of someone he had been talking to in the ***** ***** Facebook group who had tried to improvise around the song he was learning but realised he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. He said it was a complete disaster. Now I thought that was very illuminating as a teacher would be able to highlight some positives from the ”disaster” and turn the rest into learning points. This chap just gave up.
  • A teacher gives you a personal relationship, interaction & connections, all of which are invaluable.
  • All of the above, plus an app can’t teach you to listen to the sound you are making and connect it to the technique you are using. Plus musical imagination communicates heart to heart, none of which can happen with an app.
  • Enthusiasm and energy are 2 things an app or online won’t give you. The crackle of excitement between teacher and pupil as something is achieved and the response to the shining eyes of joy in music is impossible to replicate without a teacher.
  • Personal encouragement and a friendly atmosphere.
  • All of the above, and I would add musicianship.
  • Developing musicality, sharing ideas, learning good technique, problem solving.
  • You need expert supervision if you plan to do significant practice. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for tendon inflammation.
  • I am a mature piano student. I have a slight physical weakness in one of my fingers which we only discovered after a few months of playing finger-strengthening exercises. My excellent piano teacher recognised it and changed some of the exercises to accommodate and improve the weakness. This could never have been recognised by an app and continuing without the changes my teacher made could have caused permanent injury.
  • I’m an adult learner, I can learn songs on my own in terms of getting my finger on the right keys (with a few exceptions where I miss a sharp or flat!). My teacher often helps me correct rhythm issues and without a teacher, I wouldn’t be playing ornaments/dynamics/peddling properly or even at all. I’ve found that those things that really make a piece sound impressive and ‘finished’ are the things I don’t have the experience just do naturally and I find that feedback really valuable.
  • The app doesn’t provide interaction with other musicians. The app does not teach how to phrase and give colour to the music. The app is just a note playing exercise and teaches nothing about music.
  • The very physical presence of a good, engaging teacher can never be replaced by a computer screen. We need to feel their presence too. It’s when good, creative learning ensues.
  • Looking at the ads for ***** ***** that pop up all the time, the thing that causes me to scream ‘ please get a teacher’ in my head is the total lack of healthy technique and posture at the piano.
  • Praise and encouragement!
  • Personalised feedback and interaction – invaluable.

So there you have it! I hope this gives you some food for thought. Happy practising!

The Truth About Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’

There a many stories about how Marvin wrote this tune, but the truth is indeed stranger that fiction!

It’s a little know fact that Marvin was sitting at the piano as usual after a really rough night and after some prompting from the engineer was heard to say “what’s going on man?”. It transpires that he was really ‘fuddled up’ after a long session.

Ima Leaiar confirms this in her statement to the WLPT, saying “Yeah, he was pretty out of it at the time, so it was a natural thing for him to ask what was happening. The band were waiting for a song to play, the studio was ready and set up, but Marvin just stared into space in a stupor.

The lyrics of the song we all know and love actually came from the back of a cereal packet Marvin was holding, as he had a really bad case of the munchies at the time.

You heard it here first!

Some French Music at The Turn of The Twentieth Century

Some French Music at The Turn of The Twentieth Century

I wrote 'Some French Music At The Turn Of The Twentieth Century' in the early 1980s in my late teens. There were no consumer-priced computers, nor was there even affordable word processing back then, so my dad typed it up for me on his manual typewriter (bless his cotton socks). There were DEFINITELY no consumer apps for music notation, so all references were written out by hand. Still, the info's good, so if you're interested in this particular part of music history, feel free to download. Caveat: it was written in the twentieth century, so the title omits the word 'twentieth' LOL!

Hugh Masekela

Working With Hugh Masekela

The first time I met Hugh Masekela, we were hanging out in the kitchen of Francis Fuster – Paul Simon’s ‘Gracelands’ percussionist. Francis had just asked me to be his musical director for an up-coming tour of Ghana. Hugh and I found ourselves sitting together eating joloff rice and stew and I naively asked “are you a musician”? He very humbly explained that he was a trumpet player and he spoke about himself as if he were a rank-and-file member of the band, rather than the legend he turned out to be.

It was only later on when we played together that I realised just who it was! We played some warm-up dates in the UK and then Hugh flew out to play some dates with us in Ghana, after which he returned to SA. It was a real privilege to play with the man and we managed to hang out a few times in Accra and Kumasi.

Hugh was generally known as the father of South African jazz. He was briefly married to another South African legend, Miriam Makeba and they remained good friends throughout their lives. He was close friends with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk and also played with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. He was also one of many who passed though Fela Kuti’s large entourage of outstanding musicians.

I’m very happy & honoured to have trodden the red earth with him (and the boards, of course). RIP Hugh, you’re in very good company in that township in the sky!



Starting or re-starting Piano Lessons

Starting Piano Lessons

People who start piano lessons for the first time, or who resume after a break of many years often ask me for advice about what to expect. I usually respond by asking a few straightforward questions:

Do you have TIME for piano lessons?

This may sound really obvious, but believe me, people don't ask themselves this question enough. Here are a few pointers to think about:

  • To see any noticeable results, piano lessons are a medium to long-term commitment, requiring more than just a 40 minute weekly session with your piano teacher. To achieve the goals agreed in your trial piano lesson, you'll need to set up a practice schedule to do the piano practice assigned by your piano tutor. To progress in any significant way and justify the money you're paying in piano tuition fees, you'll need to dedicate a minimum number of practice sessions in between, to make sure you're prepared for the next lesson.
  • I personally recommend no less than 3 half-hour practice sessions per week. Increase that exponentially if you have more than one piece, are practising scales & exercises, or are working towards an exam, showcase, or recital. With all this factored in, an average of 30 minutes per day is not unreasonable. If you'd like to find out more about the nuts and bolts of practising, read this article on effective piano practice.
  • Is your environment able to sustain you taking piano lessons? Will your family or work colleagues enable you to set this time aside weekly? To make an progress you should think of this time as sacrosanct. All appointments, social commitments etc ideally need to fit around your piano practice rather than the other way around. It's also a good idea if the people closest to you have this time set aside in their diaries as well as you in yours, so that nothing encroaches on it.
  • If you can schedule a programme based on the points above, you'll be able to see noticeable results in a short space of time and before you know it, you'll be building up a repertoire of piano music to enjoy, as well as entertaining your family, friends, colleagues and many concert halls around the world! It's a great feeling of achievement to finish a piece and deliver it to a high standard in front of an appreciative audience.

Are you READY for piano lessons?

Before deciding to book piano lessons, it's a good idea to check if you have several things in place.

  • Do you own an acoustic piano, digital piano, or have the budget to buy or rent one?
  • Do you have a space away from distractions and noise where you can spend quality time practising the piano?
  • It's essential that the people closest to you support you in your new venture - if you haven't got them on board, then it will be an uphill battle. The people who know us best can often resist the changes we want to make in ourselves - it's a well-known physchological phenomenon, but one worth pointing out at this stage.
  • Are you in a mentally and/or physically demanding job or study programme? It's worth asking yourself if you have enough energy left at the end of a long day for lessons AND practice sessions. Based on the times given, including your lesson, that's a minimum of 2.5 hours extra that you need to find per week. This time is non-negotiable with yourself if you want to see any results, so make sure that you're absolutely honest about it.
  • Consistency is the key to progress as with many things and to achieve noticeable results, you should be sure you can keep a regular practice schedule in addition to your other regular commitments.
  • Following on from this, are you in an unpredictable job that will have you cancelling your piano lesson on a regular basis? Some of my keenest students have included a medical doctor, a head of marketing, a cabinet office employee, a record label boss and a travelling photographer who were all very committed to learning, but whose work was very demanding and continually required them to stay late at work or change their schedules at the last minute. Unfortunately something had to give and it was their piano lessons. So it's essential to be honest and realistic with yourself about this side of learning the piano.


Hopefully these questions have made you sit up and think. With any luck I've pointed out some stuff you hadn't thought of, in which case, you're welcome! If you're waaaaaaay ahead of me, then good for you!

Playing the piano is one of life's most satisfying achievements. There's nothing in the universe that compares to expressing yourself in music and communicating one of the deepest parts of the human experience in a non-verbal way to others. If you improvise using what you've learned and practised, IMHO this is the purest, and most soul-fulfilling aspect of being a musician and I firmly believe it is this unfettered freedom of expression that most attracts people to music and musicians.

Now, if you're ready to go for it, please follow this link to book your piano lessons

The Taubman technique for pianists

piano-lessons-postureI recently experienced difficulties with my thumbs during a concentrated spell of practise. As a result, I started to do some research on playing technique, to find out if perhaps I’d developed any bad habits. Dorothy Taubman, the creator of this discipline, developed the therapeutic approach during her lifetime, dedicated to helping people with bad injuries and conditions caused by bad technique or other incorrect habits.

I came across a collection of helpful instructional videos for pianists on You Tube by Edna Golansky, in which she goes into some detail on the approach and focuses in on some very specific examples. I recommend watching at least some of these, whether you’re experiencing problems or not, as there’s a wealth of information here.

Luckily, or perhaps not so much, my thumb issue seems to be the onset of arthritis more than a bad playing technique, however I’m currently looking at ways to improve my hand and arm work based on the ideas put forward by Taubman practitioners and plan to book myself a Skype session or two in the future (there are currently no UK practitioners).

I’d be very interested to hear from any students who have attended classes or seminars on the Taubman technique, to hear your experiences and opinions, so please contact me if you’d like to get into a discussion – or hit the comment box below.

Happy and comfortable playing!

Piano Tuition West London

“Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there” Bruce Lee

I firmly believe in combining the contemporary side of piano playing with the more traditional style of music teaching. I personally feel that lack of attention to either side leads to incomplete development as a musician. My piano tuition practice in Notting Hill, West London is dedicated to introducing students to material and techniques that’ll give them the best grounding possible for becoming accomplished musicians.

Book My Piano Lesson Now!

Studying for the ABRSM (Associated Board Of The Royal Schools of Music) exams is a helpful background for musicians who want to have a gauge for the standard they are at. Working towards these is one of the ways we can ‘up our game’ too in our technical playing.  But it’s also my opinion that the ability to improvise and reproduce a piece of music aurally (for the purposes of learning) is crucial for every performer if they wish to express their own musical character. Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and many others were famous for their abilities at improvisation – a point often forgotten in traditional classical methods.

My lessons look at both sides of the coin, using popular contemporary pieces to achieve the kind of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic dexterity not always available from the classical repertoire. Significant time can also be given to study of the jazz repertoire and work with chart-reading (‘real book’) and improvising.

For a student to attain ‘master’ levels of dexterity such as Oscar Peterson, Cory Henry, Hiromi Uehara and other performers at their level, the serious piano student can be pointed to studies such as Hanon, Beringer, Czerny and Oscar P himself. Composers like Chopin, Liszt, Schubert and Bach also provide some challenging finger work, exercising the hand in unique ways that are of invaluable help to those aiming at becoming master pianists. We also look at transcriptions of solos by master jazz players such as Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Kirkland, Chick Corea etc, studying their harmonic and rhythmic language and formulating ways of using their styles to inform our own playing.

If this hybrid approach is one that appeals to you, why not arrange a no-obligation informal chat to discuss your aims, experience, likes and dislikes?

Book My Piano Lesson Now!

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Improvisation On The Piano

Teaching improvisation – is it a dying art?

I had an enquiry recently from a potential student who wants to learn improvisation on the piano, asking me to help her ‘prepare an improvised piece’! I chuckled as I explained how these two terms contradict each other, though I added that I could prepare HER for improvising the piece.

It’s now the 21st century, yet too many music teachers are missing out this hugely important part of students’ musical development. Improvisation on the piano has somehow been lost in the modern ‘classical’ curriculum. It wasn’t always like this – notable composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Liszt etc were known for their great skill at improvisation at the piano.

So how have some classical teachers stopped developing this art? As a session musician working in recording studios and on stages around the world, I know that one of the most important skills to have is improvising. Many notable performances on contemporary jazz and pop albums are entirely improvised and it is this skill that often marks out musicians as ‘first call’ players. Of course technical dexterity is important, but practically anyone can acquire this.

Improvised music could be said to be the pure musical spirit of the individual – it is this side of musicality IMHO that takes the most significant effort and deepest understanding to achieve and it is this that truly makes someone a musician of great worth.

If you would like to talk to me about improvisation on the piano and how it’s built into my lessons, please feel free to contact me.

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Top Tips for a Career In Music.

An old school friend recently asked me for my thoughts about her son studying for a career in music in 2013. This is a series of blogs based on what I wrote to her….

How do I stand out in the crowd?

EVERY young person I know wants to be in a band. We know this because now every other TV advert is aimed at budding ‘musicians’. Empires are being built on the hopes of these young people, who have been promised a short cut to stardom. As a result, everyone now wants to be noticed, whether they merit it or not – resulting in a massive amount of content now on sites like You Tube, Facebook etc.

Yet some genuine talent is still out there if we care to look hard enough. The key to being noticed in a world overflowing with content is having something unique and of great quality to offer, so that you’ll get noticed when that rare opportunity arises. How is it possible to achieve this?

I believe this: only by giving ourselves every opportunity to learn all we can about our chosen field/instrument, will we be able to compete with the hoards of others who are all striving for the same thing. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon once said. For this reason I’m an advocate of higher education, because it gives us more CHOICES.

Qualifications vs Experience

Now it’s true that many of my successful colleagues in the business don’t have a degree or performance diploma. What I would add is that they are now very limited for choices, because now we’re all older and the business has changed, there’s very little work of the kind they prepared themselves for and a great many players are all vying for it. More every year, as each music college and ‘tech’ in the country empties out a fresh batch of talented, young, enthusiastic and ambitious players.

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to fall back on the education I had at music college, renewing my acquaintance with orchestration, composition etc, as well as using the essential skills I’ve picked up running a commercial recording studio for 20 years, all adding up to an extra string to my bow in TV and production music. This has been a life-saver during the down-turn in sessions and has substantially supplemented my income, to the extent that I now wish to explore this avenue further. Educating myself continually throughout my career (learning from friends & colleagues at work, reading trade mags, visiting forums etc, it doesn’t always mean obtaining written qualifications) has given me choices and an edge over my competitors. And it’s fun and keeps me excited about my work!

Whatever your passion and talent (trying to be realistic about whether you passion IS in fact, your talent), immerse yourself in it to become the absolute best you can be, whether that means a degree, masters or just pure hard work and experience (many successful producers started as tea boys in major recording studios – although those positions are very rare now).Taking advice from professionals in the business can often help, but ultimately you are the one who has to make the decision and live with it.

Remember, there is NO short route to the top. Having the ‘X Factor’ is actually all about having the staying power, the focus, the consistency and the willingness to work as hard and as long as it takes to reach our goals.