Wiltshire Life, April 2003

CHILDREN ARE generally keen to learn. This is not a new comment, but when the mode of learning is a fresh one, it warrants full attention. Wiltshire music teacher Maxwell Steer is reworking the traditional approach of music education.

Maxwell explains his methods: "The piano player's biggest problem is often relating the notes on the keyboard to the dots on the printed page. Even the business of the printed symbols going up and down is confusing when the hands move sideways.

"I have a piano teaching practice in Tisbury, and have evolved a lot of techniques for minimising the difficulties regularly encountered by young pianists. But a recent technological development has transformed what I can offer pupils. For a number of years I have used the computer music programme Logic to store the music I use for teaching. This enables me to revise, record and update music as often as I want. The programme's latest upgrade has allowed me to colour the note-heads.

"No longer do children (or adults) have to puzzle over the difference between notes written on lines and spaces. Instead the colour coding tells them at once. I had a hunch this could be useful for teaching but I had no idea how revolutionary.

"In a short space of time I can see the effect of a consistent colour code is electrifying. Even my most dyslexic child can now respond to the note G as immediately they see a red note-head. I have thus designed and printed a colour strip to fit the piano keyboard to accentuate the programme. It is my belief that colour accelerates music reading skills by one third.

"All the music I use for early teaching is original and a lot has been composed by past and present pupils themselves. You must encourage pianists of any age to compose or improvise if the inclination is there. This aids learning, as ideal teaching material should match the technical ability and expectations of others at the same stage of development, and offer encouragement to personal experimentation in composition."

Another useful technique is the replacing of examinations with concerts. "Music is a social art which flourishes at a gathering where family and friends attend and applaud - far better than the stale, stoic environment of an examination room. Each concert a pupil takes part in is video recorded and edited into a montage of that individual's personal performances. This record is one that remains a perpetual delight to students and parents far more than a stuffy framed certificate," he said.

"The approach to teenage piano tutorage always used to be being pushed through minor classical pieces that retain no redl affinity with that pupil's life. Music is a vital life-skill and I want my teenagers to acquire a technique for 'negotiation' with their peers - learning blues, jazz, pop and contemporary art music. An understanding of music in youth, I feel, is a valuable technique for decoding the adult world. Being in 'sync' with contemporary culture is invaluable. However, the contemporary culture of any age sees nothing beyond its own reflection; it is only the grouped cultures of the past that shine a light into the future."

Wiltshire's youngsters are bearing the fruits of Maxwell's and their own labours. Johnny Murphy, a 10-year-old from Tisbury is one such shining light. Maxwell explains: "I've grown him from seed in two and a quarter years to the point where he can play a Mozart Sonata. I am entering him for the European Piano Teachers Association Nationwide Young Pianist competition in 2003. One of the secrets of Johnny's progress is that he has learnt to use the practice techniques I have shown him extremely effectively and is able to problem-solve a lot of issues on his own.

This new learning system is very effective in teaching those with certain learning difficulties, such as Oliver Downham, an eight-year-old from Childe Okeforde who has dyslexia. "When I introduced him to the colour note system last September he could at last relate easily to printed music and since then his music reading ability and playing have developed accordingly," Maxwell said.

The concerts at Pyt House give children renewed initiative and vigour in their approach to music learning. Imogen, Eliza and Zoe Hamer from Marnhull are a family of excellent students: "Eliza is incredibly bright, her oldest sister Zoe had been learning music at school but was intending to give up because she didn't like the music she was given - however after attending one of the Pyt House concerts and seeing how much people enjoyed playing contemporary tunes she realised that was what she wanted to do and she came to learn with me. Imogen, the youngest of the bunch, has been playing for two terms."

Contemporary music is a genre encouraged by Maxwell, Tim French and his brother Peter thrive on this. "Tim's doing GCSE music and performed a Coldplay song with a 12-year-old drummer and roped in his aunt as vocalist!"

Maxwell is all in favour of ringing the changes with new technology but admits that nothing beats a quality piano. "I have no prejudice against electronic keyboards as such, and regularly use a synthesiser with my computer, but I do observe the fact that a synthesiser responds with more or less the same sound regardless of how you play it. This does very little to develop in the fingers either the strength or sensitivity required by a pianist. The piano-weighted keys of a digital piano are a considerable improvement on a synthesiser but neither seems to stimulate that kind of responsiveness that a 'steam piano' does."

Maxwell's maxim of mixing the old with the new is a fresh recipe for success. The talent of the young Wiltshire musicians he has schooled is testimony to this.

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