I was told by Olavo Alen that, in Cuba, “music is in the air.”

This was back in 2005 when I spent a wonderful three weeks there, as part of my Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Music certainly did appear to be everywhere; every bar had a band and every street seemed to have salsa emanating from somewhere!

Curious Piano Teachers

I have been thinking about my trip to Cuba recently as I explored an appealing and flamboyant choice from the ABRSM 2017-18 Grade 6 syllabus. Los tres golpes is one of the 6 Cuban Dances by Cervantes, one of their most respected composers. More on that later – let’s go back to Cuba for a while.


Olavo was Director of the Centre for Research and Development of Cuban music. He was one of the smiling, happy and enthusiastic group of musicians and teachers that I met over there. Amongst these was Claudina, a Cuban piano teacher who fortunately spoke some English. Through her I was able to find out more about the training of pianists in the country.


I found the diary that I kept during my travels recently. Here is an extract from it:
‘Claudina has 9 piano pupils and gets paid 18 Cuban dollars a month. Children start to learn the piano, violin, vioal and cello at aged 8 (not before, not after). In order to be able to start piano lessons they need to pass tests. Piano is not a hobby but taken very seriously and children are expected to work hard. An hour of practice every day right from the start. Claudina likes to give 25 minute lessons every day in the first year!

Before lessons begin at 8 years of age children have already had music at school – music initiation she called it. This includes solfege, singing, rhythms and melodies. When piano lessons begin pupils are already able to read music although to what level I am not sure.

Having started in September there are three exams to sit in the first year as follows:

November: perform 8 pieces and 1 composition
January: 2 studies, 1 polyphonic piece, 3 pieces
June: 2 studies, 2 polyphonic, 1 19th century piece, 1 20th century piece, 1 Cuban piece

These exams are taken in a theatre in front of a jury.

When I asked whether pupils found this intimidating Claudina said that pupils were used to it as even the entrance exam is with a jury. As someone whose PhD was looking at problems with tension and injury she told me that there was ‘too much pressure at such an early age’.

As you can imagine, this was all quite an eye-opener!


They say that exploration and discovery broadens the mind and deepens our understanding. That certainly was the case for me as I returned to the UK with a profound sense of how very privileged we are in our society and yet how we undervalue so much of what we have.

For example, as one-to-one music teachers we have quite a lot of freedom in how and what we teach. We certainly don’t have to follow the demanding path outlined above. This allows us to be very creative and inventive teachers but it can also open the door to rather vague teaching, without any real musical  purpose, except that of following the UK graded exam system closely.

We can, and should, be teaching so much more than ‘just the piano’. As I have discussed previously, messy piano is a two-way process between pupil and teacher. Using repertoire creatively to develop and deepen learning can be of benefit to all concerned. How many piano teachers are just going to ‘find’ the lovely Cuban dance music of Cervantes? Let’s use the piece though to help pupils explore and discover as much as they can about the style and the genre.


As I mentioned at the start Cervantes is a highly respected, Romantic Cuban composer – so much so that a teaching institution, The Ignacio Cervantes Center for Professional Music Upgrading is named after him.

Whilst we can’t whisk our pupils off to Cuba to give them a taste of musical life there we can give them some sense of the vibrancy and energy of the island through the music. Let them watch some salsa or listen to the wonderful pianist Ruben Gonzalez.

Los tres golpes, Danza Cubana, Ignacio Cervantes

This lovely piece (translated as The Three Strikes) currently features on the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus (B4). It can be found in Beyond the Romantic Spirit book 1 published by Alfred or downloaded from IMSLP library.

the first few bars of the piece

the first four bars of Los tres golpes


As you can see from the snippet above it has all sorts of interesting musical features, for example the syncopation and use of habanera rhythms, whilst still being firmly rooted in the romantic period. In order for a teenage or adult pupil to learn this convincingly and stylishly they need to open up their ears to the genre.


One way of doing this is to encourage them to explore and discover as much as they can about the score before they start to learn to play it. We have created a los tres golpes exploration-sheet that will help your pupils to find their way into the Cuban feel.

Are you going to be at the ABRSM conference in London on November 5th? If so, come and say ‘hello’ – we’ll be there!

Curious Piano Teachers

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder The Curious Piano Teachers






  1. Marianne G

    Love this! Never mind about the pupils, I’m going to learn this myself! (only kidding, can think of a few who it will suit perfectly – thank you!!)

  2. Rachel

    First, thank you for giving us an insight into how to teach another wonderful genre of music to our students. There’s always more for us to learn, and isn’t it fun!

    Second, the first link in the Exploration Sheet isn’t working–could it be incomplete? I was able to find my way to the recording on YouTube by cutting and pasting the code, or string of numbers and letters at the end of the address.

    1. Sally

      I do agree – there’s always something new around the corner Rachel!

      Our apologies for the problem with downloading the Exploration Sheet. I have reloaded it and hopefully it won’t cause a problem if you try it again.

      1. Rachel

        The Exploration Sheet downloads with no problem. The issue is on p. 4 of the Exploration Sheet: the 1st listening link doesn’t connect to YouTube. The 2nd one works fine.

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