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Reflections from the Malaysian Youth Music Festival 2015

by Dr. Andrew Filmer

Everyone comes to a competition with questions that they don’t ask aloud. The candidates think, “Will I win?” The parents think, “Will my son/daughter play at 100 percent today?” The judges of course have to think about who should win, but I think the main question that we have is, “How can this competition, win or lose, help these young musicians?” That’s what we have in mind when we write individual comments, when we provide an overview through spoken remarks, when we speak to parents and teachers – and even on the odd occasion when we choose to withhold a prize in order to keep the bar high.
With this objective in mind, and with the remarkable effort and potential we all saw, I am taking up an invitation to put together some suggestions that might help candidates prepare for the next Malaysian Youth Orchestra Festival.
1. A competition, rather than an examination
Competitions and examinations are very different creatures. For exams, we set a target that has technical and musical challenges beyond our current capabilities, then aim, work, learn, and when the time comes, we find out how close we managed to get to the target.
For competitions, we first start with a piece that is already within our capability to play. Then we take time to add new layers: more beautiful phrasing, clearer articulation, more diverse tone colours, and for string players: understanding the piano part.
In essence, the difference between exams and competition is breath (learning new material and skills) versus depth (perfecting something already familiar). Besides, it’s not even called a competition – it’s called a festival!
2. Repertoire selection
The word ‘music’ comes from the Ancient Greek Muses – the mythical goddesses of inspiration and creativity – and when choosing a work, one should make sure that the musical value is clear, and not overtaken by a technical showcase. In other words, we’re not here to see how fast one can play, or to have a showdown of who can play the biggest chords.
We’re here to see if you can convey an image, a message, or an emotion through the notes. While technical ability is important, it by itself will not be sufficient to win. For technique, we consider how well the candidate has the technical requirements comfortably in his or her control – another reason not to automatically play examination pieces for a competition. Additionally, take care to make sure the whole work – and thus, the whole musical story – fits within the time limit, and to find musical stories that the young musician can understand, relate to, and then share with the audience.
3. Watch out for tension
When students try to play difficult pieces, and even when it seems that they can pull it off, it is important to check if the process of challenging themselves technically has caused any tension. Young children are super flexible; it is their best and most risky musical attribute. Best because they have a far greater ability to adjust and learn new things than adults, and risky because there may be tension and they would only realise it much later.
So, when gearing up for any performance, consider checking on the basics of posture, and hand frame. This will help minimize or avoid any “relearning” down the road.
3. Accompanists
String students often have the additional element of a piano part, and in many cases they only have limited sessions with their accompanist close to the performance date (another problem of playing examination pieces for a competition). Accompanists are in most cases very competent, but learning how the piano part sounds and listening to how the composition puts the two parts together is hard when it is too close to when one gets on stage. What more when it’s a sonata, where a piano part is as important as a violin part.

At the very least, one should consider listening to recordings and following along with the score, and not just the part for your instrument. Not only will the soloist connect well to the pianist – the music will be a whole lot more enjoyable! In the best-case scenario, and with proper repertoire selection: space out sessions with an accompanist. Additionally, pianists are advised to err on the side of too quiet. There are occasions when the pianist is too loud, which makes it very difficult to assess the capabilities of the soloist.
Concluding remarks
Most importantly – and perhaps the most difficult as well – is to think of the competition as part of the journey, rather than as a destination. Candidates get the most out of the experience by simply gaining experience, win or lose. With music tending to be too often a solitary experience in studios and private practice, it is also a great opportunity to play for an audience, hear other young musicians, cheer on other musicians, ask questions, experience a shared enthusiasm, and make new friends. Whether or not you walk home with a prize, you don’t lose if you learn.
Even as an adjudicator, I can tell you that alongside the opportunity to educate (rather than simply to judge), a most enriching experience for me is meeting old and new colleagues, sharing ideas, and celebrating the potential, energy, and effort of our young people.

Best wishes,
Dr Andrew Filmer


How to determine what repertoire is best for a student

At a certain point in student’s studies, students should be taught to understand, hear and feel what it means to play really well. This process takes time and it is not obvious or easy. It can start from a simple piece, or even an easy group of notes. Teacher can increase the level of difficulty of the student’s repertoire, always maintaining the quality. This should be done gradually, with great tact, and without the fear of switching back to less demanding works if the desired level cannot be achieved.

Establish a list of repertoire that teaches music and technique at various levels. When students reaches a particular level, give them few choices to listen to. The one that most excites them is the right choice. Student will learn most thoroughly and quickly when they are most engaged. It is less effective if teachers dictate what the student should work on all the time. It is more important to develop the ability to think for themselves and to explore the variety of choices available. Another idea used by some teachers is to assign sequences of repertoire that consist of different levels concurrently. The first is a repertoire below the student’s level as a review piece to help keep the confidence level high since it should be easy for student to perform it well. The second is a repertoire at the student’s level where learning the new piece will allow the student to feel good because the challenges are attainable. The third is a repertoire above the student’s level, in order to keep students on their toes and make sure they know that there are always new tasks to be mastered.

In preparation for a competition, a solo performance or recital, repertoire should be chosen to be of maximum interest and effect for the audience but more-importantly, it should play to the student’s strengths. If the aim is to develop specific aspects of student’s playing, the correct choice of repertoire is essential for the technical development of students, and even more so in helping them become an all rounded musician. The music needs to be of good quality, but it is important not to assign difficult masterpieces until a student is ready. Students need to be ready instrumentally, and emotionally to experience the emotional impact of the music.

Looking into an "All-Rounder Music Education"


No matter what musical instruments anyone wishes to start learning, there is a commonly misunderstood notion amongst parents and students that one should master the instrument chosen by taking up individual lessons that focuses on technical and practical bits of playing. No doubt, learning to play an instrument with accurate techniques is vital, but developing musicality is equally important, which is very often neglected by teachers. 

Playing music is not only about playing the notes correctly. It is about feeling the music, being able to express the emotion set by the music. Musicians experience the music through their fingers and throughout their bodies. The big question that follows is how does one teach musicality to students? An all rounder music education should be the focus of educators from the start. Below are some key points that should be taught in any instrument learning apart from the technical skills of playing any instruments.

  • Pitch Recognition - Can be taught by singing in solfege which facilitates the inner ear training. This will also help students sight read or sight sing musical notation.

  • Rhythmic Training - Rhythm is the heart of all music. It is essential that students feel the rhythm in music, both tempo and in rhythm notations. For the very young students, this can be taught via iconic readings, gestures, body percussion movements and used of percussion instruments. For the older students, body percussion movements followed by the used of percussion instruments can be helpful.

  • Ensemble Playing - An essential part of music learning that teaches listening skills and teamwork. This can only be taught via group lessons, thus taking group music lessons is essential for all music students.

  • Music Appreciation - Exposing students to various genres of music, often can be taught with stories and movements to help students "visualize" and express how music makes them feel. Analytical skills can also be taught through active listening of music.

  • Music Performance - It is important for students to experience music performance, in group or solo performance. This will help promote proficiencies and create confidence in students.


How playing music affects your brain


Did you know...

According to neuroscience research done by neuropsychologist Nadine Gaab, learning to play a musical instrument improves speech perception, the ability to understand emotions in voice and ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. The level of precision in processing music in the brain is much higher than the level of precision used in processing speech. Thus, developing our brain’s musical network may enhance our ability to process speech.

Better Executive Functioning Skills

While noting the children's ability to follow the rules, scientists also watched for activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, known to be the seat of executive functioning. Musically trained children and adults have better executive functioning skills like problem-solving, switching between tasks and focus. Complex executive functioning tasks were given to both musically trained and untrained children while scanning their brains in MRI machines. The MRI scans show more brain activation during the testing for musically trained children as compared with the musically untrained children. There are many different brain systems involved in successfully playing even a small musical piece: your auditory system, your motor system, your emotional system, your executive function system; this playing together of these brain regions, almost like in a musical ensemble where musicians have to listen to each other whilst playing in a group setting. This is analogous to what happens in the brain of a musician.

Changing ‘Brain Plasticity'

Emotion, repetition and attention are factors that are known to promote brain plasticity, the changing of the brain's structure as a function of experience. Experiences such as playing music which engage the brain through emotion, are repetitive and requires full attention. This places higher demands on the brain, on some of the same shared networks that we use for other abilities such as day-to-day cognitive functions - language, memory, attention etc., therefore enhance those networks and abilities.