Category Archives: General

Gender Equality

heforsheI have been inspired this week to write about gender equality. A number of wonderful people have written blogs or given speeches in support of gender equality. I have decided to “man up”, stop “crying like a girl” and join the cause. After all, as Emma Watson said in her inspiring speech to the UN

“If not me, who? If not now, when?”

So why me? And why now?

I see boys singing and loving it. I see 4 year old girls laughing at them because boys shouldn’t sing.

I see girls playing football on the school team. I see schools telling those girls they can’t play for the team this week because a tournament is boys only.

I see sexist books that try to tell us how to raise boys or raise girls, that contain opinions debunked by modern neuroscience and psychology (Read Cordelia Fine instead!)

I see toy shops and book publishers colour coding toys. Putting arts and crafts in the pink section and science and construction in the blue section. Sorry girls, no science for you. And who’s ever heard of a male artist? Ermm…

Even books about inspiring women annoy me. Why can’t we show that strong women are normal and widespread, not special and super-strong.

I could go on and on and on!

So what’s this got to do with my teaching? What’s it got to do with music?

Every day, every member of our society has a responsibility to educate our boys and girls. We all must try and eliminate gender inequality. It’s all about the small stuff.

It’s the assumption that a girl will prefer a beautiful romantic expressive song or piece over a loud and driven boogie woogie. It’s the assumption that a boy who may be losing interest in their music lessons needs a fun, fast student saver that’s “good for boys” and won’t respond to something soft and expressive.

It’s realising that when you illustrate a music book, or any book, with pictures of girls having picnics or boys playing football that will have an impact on your students. They will notice, they will care and it will affect which music they think they are supposed to like. It will also affect their view of those activities.

Diane Hidy has written a brilliant blog about cover art, titles and lyrics in piano books.

Inspired by the passionately written blog by Carly McDonald about “music for boys”

Toys are for everyone. Books are for everyone. Colours are for everyone. Feelings and emotions are for everyone. Strengths and weaknesses are for everyone. Jobs are for everyone. Love is for everyone. Courage is for everyone. Fear is for everyone.

Music is for everyone.

So this is me, standing up right now in support of Emma, Diane and Carly. In support of any man or woman who also feels they want to improve gender equality. Let’s do this!

How much practice should I do?

Here’s a great video from Pamela Frank who talks about how much practice she thinks you should do.

Clearly she’s not talking about Primary School beginners – but the advice is still relevant. Be smart and efficient when practising! Don’t just play your best bits over and over!

Fun Piano Game for Beginners

Well it’s half-term holiday in the Russell house and the weather is rubbish. What better time to trawl the internet for fab music games to play with my boys.

My younger son Matthew is 5. He’s been playing around with the black key songs in My First Piano Adventures and he knows where C, D and E are on the keyboard. My elder son Adam is 7. He’s been playing for a few years now and is a confident reader. I’m going to need a game that will work well for both of them. Not too hard for Matthew nor too easy for Adam.

First stop – as always – is Susan Paradis’ amazing site. Always loads of fun games, composition activities and pieces. Especially for pre-readers! Straight away I found an adorable game she calls Save the Turkey. It’s been designed for the US holiday Thanksgiving, but since we don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK then we have no problem playing it in February!!

Save The TurkeyYou can take a look at her site to see the “proper” rules for the game. However, I thought I’d share my adaptation.

The set comes with a Turkey card, two “Skip a Turn” cards and seven keyboards, each with a different key highlighted. You can download, print and cut out the cards here.

Firstly, we got rid of the skip a turn cards, they didn’t go down well at all with Matthew!! Secondly we put the Turkey at the bottom of the pile (actually Matthew “looked after” the Turkey – he has been a bit poorly this week!!). We made a pile with the rest of the cards and left them face down.

My Rules: Each player took it in turns to take a card from the top of the pile. Each player had different tasks to do with their cards. Matthew just had to find the key on the piano and play it. Adam had to name the pitch, draw it on the stave on my whiteboard (you could use manuscript paper), then find the key on the piano.

As the game progressed I was able to stretch each of the boys. For Matthew he started naming the pitch if it was C, D or E. Then we talked about “counting” up the alphabet to get F and G. A and B were a stretch but at least the concept has been introduced to him. Matthew also “helped” me when it was my turn! For Adam he was tasked to draw the note on the whiteboard, but in more than one octave. When he played it on the piano he had to match the octave to the ones he had drawn. If your child or student isn’t very confident with writing yet, you could find a piece they’ve been playing and ask them to find the note on the page.

I did think one set would be a very short game so I printed two copies – however, in retrospect I think a couple of short games with a number of winners would have been better. We managed to play for 30 minutes though, which I was really pleased with.

Thanks Susan!!

Saying Goodbye

I recently said goodbye to a much-loved long-term student. The separation was my own suggestion and I feel terrible about it.

This morning I read this blog-post by the amazing piano teacher, performer and composer Diane Hidy. It has made me cry a little. I wanted to share it, and persuade you to look through some other of Diane’s wonderfully written posts.

Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

A great article from Elissa Milne demonstrating the amount of practice needed for healthy progression through the grades. Notice that she recommends 200 hours practice between the first lesson and Grade 1. So when you ask if your child is ready for Grade 1 yet, just bear this in mind. And remember that the time investment pre-Grade 1 will pay dividends later.

Elissa Milne

One of my ‘rules’ for a while now has been that students need to do at least 100 hours practice to get from one grade to the next. My assertion is that if you managed a B/merit in your last exam then another 100 hours practice will get you to a B in your next exam. If you want to guarantee a B+ you’ll need to do 120 hours, and if you want to guarantee an A/distinction  you will need 140 hours. Of course, if you only manage 75-80 hours practice you should be only just able to manage a C!! But if you achieved an A/distinction result in your previous exam then 100 hours (or not much more) should deliver you an A result in your next exam too.

I was chatting about this with Samantha Coates (Ms BlitzBooks!) and she was sharing anecdotal evidence she’s been gathering…

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Winter Show Success

Here’s a review of the Express Yourself Choirs’ toe tapping show stopping Winter Show! See what Pop Choir, Show Tunes Choir and Glee Club have been getting up to in Worcester this winter!

Express Yourself Choir in Worcester

What a great show!

Last Saturday all three Express Yourself singing groups gathered in front of family and friends to put on a fabulous winter show. I know I always say our concerts are the best yet, but this time I really mean it. All three choirs were word perfect, pitch perfect and even dance move perfect!! I know!

Show Tunes Choir opened the show with “Comedy Tonight” from Something Happened on the Way to the Forum. An ideal song to open with! This was followed by a classic Burt Bacharach number from Promises, Promises called “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. We sang two songs from the amazing Tim Minchin musical Matilda; “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up”. Quite a challenging couple of songs for the timing but totally worth the effort. I think these were my favourites of the Show Tunes set. Without puppets we sang a heart…

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It Takes Two Generations…

A wonderfully helpful article for non-musical parents of piano students from the composer and piano teacher Elissa Milne

Elissa Milne

This year I have had a handful of gorgeous beginners taking lessons with me. I’m trialling new material for beginners and I need a cohort of children of different ages, genders, interests and learning styles so I can really test a range of approaches I believe will be more effective than the approaches I’ve used in the past. I haven’t auditioned these new students prior to accepting them into my studio –  inviting a diverse group of children to explore the piano and learn musicianship and performance skills with me gives me my best chance of testing my material (as well as keeping me on my toes!).

Of all the diversities amongst these beginners the greatest is probably this: some children come from families of professional musicians while some come from families where no one has ever learned an instrument.

What does this mean? On the surface it means that…

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Pop Choir

Helen’s successful Express Yourself Pop Choir is performing in their Winter Show in Worcester this Saturday along with Express Yourself Show Tunes Choir and Glee Club.

Why not pop along and see if you want to join us!!

Express Yourself Choir in Worcester


Come and sing popular songs with simple harmonies. There are no auditions and everyone is welcome regardless of ability.  It’s an excellent way to meet new people in a relaxed, friendly environment.

We rehearse on Mondays every week in term time at Lyppard Grange Community Centre, Warndon Villages, Worcester WR4 0DZ on Mondays from 7:30pm until 9:00pm.


All sessions are £4.50 if you pay per week but we have discounts for paying termly or monthly

How to Join
Just call Helen Russell on 01905 747827


What sort of songs do you sing?

All sorts of things. We all make suggestions and then vote for our favourites. We choose new songs at the start of every term so we don’t get bored of singing the same things all the time! In Pop Choir this year we have sung The Foundations, Amy Winehouse, The Righteous…

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Reducing Unwanted Noise When Recording

What Is Noise?

In recording terms, noise is an unwanted sound that is captured by our recording equipment. The two main sources of noise in the recording studio are acoustic noise and electrical noise.

The acoustic noise is the noise in the room that isn’t being deliberately produced by the musicians. If you stand silently in a room you will start to notice it. Right now I can hear a humming from my laptop and the TV on standby. I can hear the washing machine from the kitchen and cars on the road outside. These noises are all acoustic noises. They are part of the room I am recording in.

The electrical noise is the noise generated by the recording equipment I am using. Each piece of gear has self noise which is the noise produced just by the gear being switched on. Microphone tech specs often quote the self noise of the microphone. However all the elements of your system will be generating some noise, even the cables.

How to reduce the acoustic noise
Firstly you need to stay very quiet and listen carefully. You will notice all the sources of acoustic noise in your room, as I demonstrated above. For each one you should consider how it can be reduced. Here are some ideas.

  • Move PCs as far away from the microphone as possible
  • Switch off TVs and other electrical equipment at the wall
  • Switch off washing machines or wait until they’ve finished
  • Close the door in the room you are recording in and also the doors to rooms creating noise
  • Place blankets and pillows over the windows to reduce outside noise
  • Use a directional microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. These are most sensitive in one direction so you point them at the source and they will pick up less of the acoustic noise in the room

How to reduce the electrical noise

  • Buy high quality gear that has a lower self noise. Metal is better than plastic
  • Reduce the number of items to the minimum level. Each item adds to the total noise
  • Use short cables as longer cables create more noise
  • Use balanced cables like XLR or TRS which contain an additional wire to cancel noise
  • Place the microphone closer to the sound source to get a louder signal. Each time you increase the gain you introduce more noise so this will reduce the required gain increases

You can reduce noise post production in your DAW but it’s better to get a cleaner signal in the first place by reducing the noise up front.

Understanding Microphones

There are so many different microphones on the market. If you’re setting up a home studio or want something to gig with then you’re going to need some knowledge before you make what could be a costly mistake.

As a vocalist, the two types of microphone that I use regularly are
– a dynamic microphone (Shure SM58)
– a condenser microphone (Samson C01)

All microphones are designed to take sound and convert it into an electrical signal. Devices that change energy from one form to another are called transducers. The different types of microphone convert the sound energy different ways. We don’t need to know the physics behind each type but we do need to know their strengths and weaknesses to be able to make the right decision.


Frequency Response
The human ear can hear sounds with frequencies between 20Hz (20 oscillations per second) and 20,000Hz. High frequency sounds are experienced as high notes and low frequencies are low notes. Each microphone has a chart showing its sensitivity at each frequency across the audible range, this is the frequency response. If you want your microphone to reproduce the audio input as closely as possible then you will want a flat frequency response microphone. If you want to use your microphone primarily for vocals then a tailored frequency response would be beneficial. Those designed for vocals will be more sensitive across the frequencies of the voice.

Polar Pattern
Microphones are more sensitive in certain directions. The polar pattern of a microphone shows you these preferred directions.

Phantom Power
Some microphones require additional external power in order to function. We call this phantom power (48V) and it needs to be provided by your mixer or audio interface. Those that do will have a switch where you can turn this power on or off as needed.

My Microphones

Shure SM58 (cardioid dynamic microphone)
This has a cardioid or directional polar pattern. This means that it is most sensitive to sounds directly in front of the microphone, and least sensitive at the back. For this reason it is useful on stage for vocalists as it won’t pick up the monitors or crowd noise in front of the singer and is less likely to cause feedback with the monitors. It also has a frequency response tailored to vocalists. It’s sensitivity is greater across the frequencies created by the voice. I mostly use this microphone on stage for vocals. It’s also pretty durable. You can drop it and it doesn’t seem to mind! Dynamic microphones don’t require phantom power.

Samson C01 (large diaphragm condenser microphone)
This has a hyper-cardioid polar pattern. This is similar to the cardioid pattern for the dynamic microphone. The difference is it doesn’t totally block the sound at the back. It picks it up, although not as strongly as at the front. It’s frequency response is designed to pick up multiple instruments and more accurately reproduces what it hears. It can still be used for vocals, but not on stage as it will pick up the monitors and other room noises and can create a feedback loop. If you do use them on stage to amplify drums then you will need to be careful not to feed the signal through the monitors. I use this microphone in the studio to record vocals and piano. Condenser microphones require phantom power.

Samson C01U (USB condenser microphone)
I have one more microphone that I use regularly which is a condenser microphone that doesn’t require separate phantom power. That is a USB condenser microphone. The model I use is the Samson C01U. It works in the same way as my C01 except instead of plugging into an audio interface or mixer, it plugs straight into your USB port. Levels have to be set on your computer but otherwise it works the same. The advantages of this are there is less noise in your signal because there are less connections and shorter wires. However watch out! Make sure you plug it into a high voltage USB port. I had no idea that the different ports on my laptop provided different powers and was upset my microphone seemed to be so quiet. After experimenting with the different ports I found that one of them works much better and gives me a stronger signal.


Cardioid Dynamic Microphones
Good for – vocals, stage work, durability, less feedback, no external power needed
Bad for – atmosphere, distant sounds, accuracy

Condenser Microphones
Good for – multiple instruments, studio work, accuracy
Bad for – needing external power, stage work, feedback, fragility

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