Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Dear readers,

Throughout my teaching career, I have been blessed with many different kinds of students: the young, the old, the good, the bad, the amazing, the astonishing, the talented, the hardworking, the lazy, the slow, the ones that practice and the ones that don’t… Each has made me a better teacher and I am the teacher today because of every single student I have ever taught. Today I am writing about a very special student whom I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with for the last two years. His name is Kodi.

Kodi is a 22 year old student. He is blind and autistic. He is a musical savant. Before Kodi came into my studio, I had not even heard of the word “savant.” It means he has exceptional ability and memory. He can hear a piece of music once, and basically play it back to you.

Prior to Kodi, I did not have any experience teaching blind students. I had very limited experience teaching students on the autism spectrum, although none as severe as Kodi. Kodi can not carry a conversation. He understands everything I say, but he can not communicate with words. His speaking vocabulary is very limited. However, he is a great singer, and he is basically a human jukebox, he knows the music and lyrics to just about every song under the sun. 

Not surprisingly, like many autistic students, Kodi has perfect pitch. His piano technique is unique. It is a combination of years of self exploration around the keyboard and limited formal instruction. Because he can not see, he has basically memorized exactly where each key is in relation to one another. The black key groups are his “landmarks.” It still amazes me how he can go from one register to another with extreme accuracy. He can play many of the classics, for example Beethoven’s Fur Elise, because he has heard them from somewhere. His versions may not be perfect, not because he can not play them perfectly, but mostly because the versions he heard were imperfect to begin with.

People who know about Kodi often ask me how he learns the materials to begin with, since he can not see the score. I do not teach Braille music. Everything Kodi learns with me he learns by ear. I play absolutely everything for him at first, and he copies. Because of his extraordinary ears and memory, he can learn very complicated pieces relatively quickly and easily, much quicker than if he had to learn it through Braille. (That’s an entirely different topic, and since I am no expert in Braille, I will not attempt to go into that further.)

I am writing about Kodi, because there must be other teachers like me who teach blind students, autistic students, or students with other differences, that we can share our experiences. I belong to the amazing Facebook page The Art of Piano Pedagogy, and every so often, someone would ask how to go about teaching such students. Every autistic student is different, not all blind students are autistic, and certainly not all autistic students are musical savants. I want to share what I have found from my experience with Kodi, and hopefully this post will find others with similar experiences. 

Last November, Kodi performed at Carnegie Hall. He is going again this November, as a First Prize Winner of The Golden Classical International Music Awards Competition. Last year his winning piece was Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat major, this year he won with Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. These are advanced scores for any student, and for Kodi they were major accomplishments, since he did not come to me with the usual classical training and foundation one would need in order to play these pieces. Because of Kodi’s prodigious ability, memorizing was the easiest part! Here were some of the challenges:

  1. Fingering – Because Kodi had been largely self taught, his fingerings were all over the place. He did not like to use his thumbs! I think it’s because the thumbs are shorter fingers than the rest, so subconsciously he avoids them, especially on black keys! He still does not trust his thumbs, and often will use other fingers first, but whenever I say “I love my thumbs” he will know what I mean. Kodi is also an expert in redistributing. He will sometimes play certain notes with the other hand than what the composer intended, because for him it is easier to find that note with that hand. Sometimes this is ok, but sometimes the resulting sound is different. 
  2. Unnecessary stretching – Because he can not see, he often stretches to find the next note. He has amazing span between every finger. He can play very large intervals between any adjacent fingers. This causes tension to my eyes! I am not sure if it causes physical tension for him, probably not, because he is so used to it. I do remind him not to stretch when there is another solution. 
  3. Arm and Wrist movements – vertical movement involving the wrists going up and down are very difficult for Kodi. He keeps his hands and fingers on the keyboard, he changes registers by moving horizontally and the idea of lifting your hand in the air is hard for him. I guess if I could not see, I would not want to leave the piano keys, either. This is the most challenging aspect. 

Every time I see Kodi, I am in awe. We often record our lessons live, so he can go home and listen to them again. Recently I shared one such clip on the Art of Piano Pedagogy, and the response was phenomenal. If you have a moment, take a look. If you have any experience teaching students like Kodi, please comment below!

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Playing drums looks so easy until you start learning it. Yes, the beats are easy to catch when you listen to a song, but when you actually learn how to hit the other instruments to a song, it turns out to be difficult.


Like other musical instruments, playing with beats is easy to learn when you are a child. If you have a child that wants to learn this, then encourage them to learn it now than later. In that way, they can master the skills needed for playing with beats over time.


Techniques In Learning Drums


When it comes to kids, it’s important that they learn kid-friendly techniques so that they can learn a musical instrument easily. Here are some of the tips and reminders you should remember if you or your child is starting to learn how to play with beats.


  1. Pick a set your size.


Except for pianos, you can find a size that fits you or your child. Since children have shorter arms and a shorter height, buying a set that will accommodate their height is a must. This will help them move better because all the pieces of the set will be within their reach as compared to if they learned from an adult set.


You can buy sets for kids in department stores or on online websites of the brand of your choice. However, it is highly recommended that you view the set in person so that your child can check if it’s the right fit for them.


  1. Know how to grip the drumsticks properly.


One of the first lessons they will learn is how to hold the drumsticks properly. The right way to hold it is to start placing the stick on your palm when your palm is facing up. The stick should be in a 45-degree angle so a side of it should touch your thumb and the rest of the stick is slanted towards your chest. Then, curl your thumb and your other fingers to the stick and face your hand downward. This way, your child will have a firm grip on the sticks and they won’t be flying around when they start hitting the set.


  1. Take note of your posture.


Before your child even starts spending so much time practicing, make sure that they got their posture right. The right posture in playing percussion instruments is to sit up straight, without your back curling or slouching. Your neck should also follow and your shoulders. Even if you will be reaching out to different pieces of the set, your shoulders should be thrown back and not crouched forward.


Why is posture important? It may not be obvious but bad posture can affect the quality of your practice and your health in the long run. Bad posture can lead to back and neck pains which will make it uncomfortable to practice. At the same time, some joint problems can occur if you continue practicing with bad posture. These things might just discourage your child from practice.


  1. Develop a listening ear.


Some people claim that they don’t have an ear for music, but this does not mean that it remains like that. Yes, there are kids who are born to play with beats or are considered natural in playing this musical instrument. However, this should not be a reason for those who aren’t “a natural” should give up.


If you notice your child having a problem, encourage them to learn how to listen to the beats carefully and to apply it step-by-step. Since they are children, it is only natural that they think they have followed a certain pattern of beats even if in reality, they haven’t. What you or their teacher should teach them is to learn how to listen carefully and to pick up the beat in every song.


  1. Familiarize themselves with musical notes and symbols.


Last but not the least is that they should familiarize (or better yet, memorize!) musical notes and notations when it comes to playing with this musical instrument. This is a must because it will be hard for your kid to keep up if they can’t read notes and musical sheets. This can also be a cause of delay for when your child is learning a song.



About Darren (the author):

Darren Perkins is a drummer, teacher, and the owner of Red Drum Music Studio, a studio in Melbourne that teaches kids – and kids at heart – how to play drums. His fascination of everything related to drums, music, and education has led him to share his own experiences and ideas online through guest blogging.

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Dear readers,

In 2011, I wrote a blog about some of the different music exams available for students – Comparing Different Music Testing Systems. 

At that time, the RCM – Royal Conservatory of Music, was just starting to launch their program in the US. It has now become quite popular in my studio, so in this post, I aim to compare that with the also widely popular exam in California called CM – Certificate of Merit.

What are they?

The RCM – Royal Conservatory of Music is based in Canada. The CM is based in California. The RCM has changed their program name several times – Music Achievement Program, Music Development Program, Certificate Program. The CM is run by the MTAC – Music Teachers Association of California. Both programs are very reputable and have a long history. The best way to find out more is to visit their websites. Basically, they both offer graded music exams to students.


CM goes from Preparatory Level, Levels 1-9, and Advanced Level (Level 10). RCM goes from Preparatory A, Preparatory B, Levels 1-10, and ARCT (a diploma, Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music). The different levels are similar in terms of difficulty, so for example, CM recognizes the equivalent RCM level, and students can use RCM books in CM exams. 


In CM, theory is mandatory from Preparatory Level. Students must pass the theory exam to obtain their certificate. In RCM, theory exams are separate. Students can do their theory exam at a different time, or even in a different year, or not at all. This makes CM more difficult for up to about Level 5, and for very young students for whom taking a written test may be a challenge. In terms of content, CM Theory is manageable by the average student that is willing to study, but RCM Theory is much more difficult, especially in the upper levels, and from Level 9, RCM Theory is split into two separate exams called Harmony and History. My opinion is that, Level 9 and Level 10 RCM Theory is first-year college material, each paper is a subject in its own right, and requires a separate weekly lesson. 


CM is very affordable. Every year there may be a slight increase, but from memory it ranges between $50-$100, depending on level. RCM exams are much more expensive, from $59-$425. Also, in RCM, Theory exams are separate fees, from $125-$195. So, if you are doing level 9, and you intend to do Performance and both of the Theory papers, Harmony and History, then you are looking at $175 for each of the Theory exams, on top of your Performance exam, which is $260. For Level 10 the fees are even higher. CM is able to keep the cost low for students because there is a mandatory teacher work agreement. Also, teachers must be a member of MTAC, have paid (not insignificant) membership fees, and agree to work, without pay, for half day to full day on the day of the exam, depending on how many students they have doing the exam. RCM teachers do not have to pay a teacher membership fee to enter a student, and do not have to work at all on exam day. Also, CM registration is primarily done by the teacher, and there is a lot of work involved in entering student information, repertoire information, carpool, etc, while in RCM, parents do all registrations online by themselves!


In CM, every student plays the same technique routine that is required for their level. At the exam, they are timed and they must complete the requirement within the time limit. In RCM, each level has a list of requirements, students must learn the whole list, but at the exam the judge randomly picks this and that and the student must perform according to what they are asked. This requires more understanding of the various elements and the response time is taken into consideration. 


Both CM and RCM have their own syllabi. CM syllabus is more flexible. Usually one piece per level is required from the syllabus and the rest can be at the same or more advanced levels. RCM syllabus is also quite extensive, compared to say ABRSM exams, but there is not as much flexibility as CM, usually only one piece may be substituted that does not come from the syllabus. RCM also publishes their own repertoire and étude books for each level. For CM, students play 2 pieces up to Level 2, 3 pieces from Levels 3-5, 4 pieces from Levels 6-10, and at Level 10 an additional piece called Étude. RCM exams involve 3-5 repertoire pieces, depending on level, plus 1-2 etudes. Both CM and RCM update their syllabi and requirements every so often, so please check with your teacher for the latest version. 


CM has some memory requirement, but usually not all repertoire pieces need to be memorized. RCM penalizes each piece that is not memorized (2 marks per piece).

Ear training

CM ear training is very basic, and the answers are in multiple choice format, so it is possible for students to just “guess” and pick something. RCM ear training is much more difficult. Another difference is that in CM, ear training score is totaled together with the theory score, while in RCM, it forms part of the performance exam.

Sight reading

This is quite similar in both exams. RCM also has a rhythm clapping part that CM does not have.


Right now, CM is still more popular in California, because it has been around much longer. RCM is gaining more popularity. In other parts of the country, people may not have even heard of CM, as they probably have their own state version, so in that sense RCM has more national recognition. Some teachers have a strong preference over one or the other. Certainly, it is a lot of work for a teacher to stay up to date with both syllabi and exam requirements. 


Any student can register for any level that they want in both exams, so it is not necessary to start from Preparatory Level and move up one level per year. CM is held once a year, so once a student has passed a level, they can skip levels the following year if they so choose. RCM has multiple exam sessions so some students may do two or even three levels a year, in the beginning stages, while others may only do one level every two years, especially for the higher levels. However, CM keeps a database so that if a student did not pass a particular level, they are not allowed to move on to the next level the following year. RCM does not have that restriction. 


In general, CM judging is more liberal and “encouraging” in nature. Students are given “Excellent,” “Good,” “Average,” “Weak,” or “Incomplete” raring, and if selected for Branch Honors, they get a score of 5+, 5, 5-, 4+, 4, 4-, etc. RCM judging is much more rigorous, students get a score out of 100, and they need 60 for Pass, 70 for Honors, 80 for First Class Honors, and 90 or above for First Class Honors with Distinction. CM judges are sourced fairly locally, usually they are teachers from nearby MTAC branches. RCM judges are usually flown in from out of state, if not from Canada. RCM judge training is very extensive, and they have a pretty uniform national standard. CM judging is sort of random, some judges are very liberal, others very strict. CM does offer Advanced Panel for the exceptional students, and Young Artist Guild, which are artist level, and only the most promising students that will have a career in music gain that recognition.


So which one is better? This question is a bit like asking if International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program is better than Advanced Placement (AP) courses, or if private school is better than public school. There is no black and white answer. Just because a school does not offer one or the other does not mean they can not produce good students. Similarly, a student can be extremely good without going through either program, as there are still plenty other recitals, festivals, or competitions that they can participate in, such as those outlined in my old post. These exams all offer motivation for students, and recognition for their achievement and hard work. However, studying piano is not about a race to Level 10. In fact, Level 10 is not a realistic goal for the average student. The CM program awards Senior Medal to seniors who have completed Level 7, a realistic goal for the average student that puts in decent amount of practice. Beyond that, a student has to be truly dedicated and works extremely hard. At the same time, a student who has completed Level 10 in either or both programs is not guaranteed anything, it does not mean they will automatically be accepted into whatever college or university they want to go to. However, their applications will stand out, at least on paper, and they will have learned so many skills that they can apply later on. This post is not about the benefit of studying music, which of course there are numerous, so I won’t even elaborate on that. Some teachers do not believe in any exams at all, just as some teachers do not believe in competitions. However, students can learn many valuable lessons from taking part in these exams, as long as both students and parents have a realistic goal. 

My philosophy, as a teacher, is that I will offer as many opportunities as there are out there for students in my studio. Every student is different, some are better suited to certain opportunities. It bothers me when a transfer student comes and tells me their previous teacher or whoever they met said this program is more superior than that program, or that a particular program is “too easy,” etc. Every program has its merits, and every program is difficult, if you intend to go all the way to the top. I have entered students in both exams for many years, and have had students complete level 10 under both programs, so I honestly feel both programs are great, and hopefully one day my own daughter (she is turning 3 soon) will benefit from doing both programs.

So what is the short answer? Have a student try both exams. If they do well in both, and enjoy the process, why not? If they struggle in either or both, then listen to the teacher recommendation. May be exams is just not for them. But it most certainly  does not mean they should not continue to study music!

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