A Different World

Imagine for a moment that you are starting out on the journey of learning the piano. You find yourself a quality instrument, you find an excellent teacher, you buy your first book or two, and you begin going to your lessons.

You enjoy your lessons and you get on well with your teacher. You both feel that you are progressing well; you feel confident, you have fun practising, you look forward to polishing your current pieces and beginning something new.

After a year or so, you have a growing selection of (mostly) completed books on your bookshelves; you sometimes go through them and play the pieces you never got around to learning in lessons; you sometimes pick them up and play through some music you learnt and finished a few months previous, sometimes you pick up a piece, and with your burgeoning knowledge of the keyboard and your skill with scales, arpeggios, keys, and rhythms, you mess about with the notes and the rhythm a little, changing bits here and there. Sometimes you do this to unwind after a long day at school or at work, and sometimes you do this after practising your set works. Whilst all this is going on, your teacher is asking you to buy music by composers you have heard of (Mozart, Shostakovich, Haydn, Bach) and ones you haven’t (Kabalevsky, Turk, Norton, Köhler). You begin to understand the difference between different playing styles, and you learn to adapt your music to the composer’s period and genre.

A few more years pass. You play in a few concerts, you learn some Chopin, Bernstein, Grieg, and Telemann. You chat to your friends or your colleagues about music; they ask you what pieces you are learning, you ask them what composers they enjoy playing. You discover a love for the romantic era, you buy a book of Chopin Waltzes and play through them by yourself, knowing that some help from your teacher would be useful, but that it’s also enjoyable to sight read music at home. You tell your teacher that you don’t particularly like playing jazz, and through that conversation you discuss styles of music that you have yet to discover. Your teacher suggests that you buy a compilation of compositions by contemporary composers. You begin working on these; you are fascinated by some of the sounds that you never knew you could obtain from the piano (forearm cluster chords?). You play music that is so easy that you learn it in three days flat, and music that is extremely demanding and takes you months to master. You have fun and you enjoy the repertoire. For you, learning the piano is about discovering new music, and about delving into that grey area between what the composer is requiring of you, and how you are interpreting it.

This is a world without exams. Are you as intrigued as I am by the possibilities here? Are you as excited as I am to have learning new music, discovering composers, and enjoying the piano as musical goals?

Graded music exams are not a bad thing; I work with many children and adults who enjoy taking exams, and I enjoy working with students towards exams. But I do believe that they are generally both overused and misused, and that the need to take too many exams too frequently means that too much gets sacrificed in the push to gain more and more certificates; an enjoyment of music itself, the learning of new skills and sound colours, and an excitement for learning new pieces.

Exams are not suitable for everybody, and the scenario above illustrates how a student will progress without the need for graded exams along the way. But if you do wish to take exams, or your child wishes to take them, please take the idea of this blog post away with you, and have a think about the possibilities of finding a middle ground between lots of exams and none. Progression can be measured in many different ways, and graded exams are only one of them.

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For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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  1. #1 by Grace Miles on May 18, 2013 - 3:14 am

    Love it.

    On another level, exams let students and everyone else know how well they can play compared to other pianists.

    For example, if two pianists were applying for a faculty/teaching position, and one pianist has passed a higher exam, then we’d assume that that pianist ‘plays better’. That’s not always the case, but it saves so much time when you can say that ‘only applicants with _____ qualifications are considered’, rather than hearing every applicant play.

    Basically, the dirty work has been done across the board, and society just has to take those results and compare them.

    Exams aren’t all bad but they aren’t all good either, and a world without exams would definitely be nice.

    They do serve a purpose– they’re not right for everyone and I can’t say that they’re ‘fair’ (which performance really is a ‘fair’ evaluation?) but we have to make the best of it.

    Whether a pianist wants to take exams is their choice (or their parent’s choice), but choosing to not take exams would lead them down a different road than if they took exams, and I believe that they should have a say in that.

    • #2 by properpianofingers on May 20, 2013 - 10:14 am

      I agree with you completely. It might be that the UK exam system is a little more ingrained than where you are, and earlier on too. I wasn’t actually talking about professional diplomas, although I did fail to clarify that in my post – my point was more about the insipid rise of the graded music exams, and the all too prevalent overuse/misuse of them in music education today. Many students expect to take an exam a year, with a short break in between grades (sometimes they don’t even have that break), and for many students, teachers, and parents, the idea of taking two years out from ‘doing grades’ is horrifying and synonymous with ‘no progress’.
      I’ll give you a few examples of conversations I have had throughout my 15 odd years’ teaching –
      “If she doesn’t take at least a grade every year, her grade 8 will clash with her A-levels” (from the mother of a five year old beginner)
      “But N hasn’t done an exam in eighteen months!” (A cross parent)
      “Why isn’t N doing his grade 4? His friend at school took his grade 3 at the same time and he’s doing his” (a father of a rapidly advancing child who I was working with on repertoire and skills)
      “If you put her in for her grade 2, she’ll start practising. She just needs a goal” (Maybe she does, but that’s not something that’s going to work in the long term)
      And perhaps the saddest yet;
      “I failed my grade 6 twice before passing it, I now have the grade 7 book, when will I be able to take the exam?” A new student transferring from another teacher who had only ever played exam pieces. She had literally played 18 pieces of music since grade 1. I had to take her back to the absolute beginning.

      Music exams are fantastic. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; they’re great! I love them, my students love them (mostly, and the ones who don’t, don’t do them), parents love them, other teachers love them. But they are too often abused, too often looked on (at least in the UK, I can’t speak for other countries) as the only route to musical progress, and too often used as a teaching method (which even the exam boards themselves advocate against doing)

    • #3 by properpianofingers on May 20, 2013 - 10:16 am

      And thank you! 🙂

  2. #4 by Anon on May 18, 2013 - 8:32 am

    It is also worth noting that some piano teachers do not ‘push’ the notion of doing exams as fervently as others. I did two AB exams, which I initially wanted to do as I thought they’d be some sort of benchmark to pianistic success. They not only made me a bundle of nerves but made me ‘hate’ being a piano learner and led to me not touching my instrument for nearly a year. Doing things you enjoy doing on the piano should really define your pianistic journey, and not the myth that doing exams will make you a better musician, which I cannot believe I was silly enough to swallow.

    • #5 by properpianofingers on May 20, 2013 - 10:19 am

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there – grade exams do not make people a ‘better musician’, but I think possibly that myth (and the one that progress is only progress if it’s proven) is at least partly responsible for the current abuse of the exam system in the UK. The rest, I can only put down to an increasingly prevalent exam culture.
      Grade exams can be useful – for the right student, at the right time, at a good frequency, they can be fantastic. In the wrong hands, they are at best useless, and at worst destructive and devastating.

  3. #6 by Leonora on June 7, 2013 - 2:54 pm

    I am currently battling against the misuse of the exam system! It gives me sleepless nights. Some days I just want to abandon them altogether, and tell the parents that I will no longer enter their children. (They’d just leave…but I’m almost at the point where I won’t care if they do). I have come to the conclusion that actually some (many?) parents really do not care about their children genuinely learning music. They clearly have some other goal/skill-set in mind when they sign them up for lessons. It’s all too prevalent and seems to be getting worse. The best case scenario is – and this is a direct quote- ‘It’s been a year. You should take an exam’. Another is..if he fails, we’re not paying for lessons anymore. Yet another..Can we skip grade x? Her little cousin is on x & she’s older… so…(Fill in the rest of the reasoning for yourself).’Skipping’ of course means skipping the work/knowledge/joy as well as the exam itself. I’m tearing my hair out.

    • #7 by properpianofingers on June 7, 2013 - 4:00 pm

      I feel for you in that situation, it’s very difficult when teachers feel pressurised into overusing the exam system. I certainly wouldn’t advise giving up on exams though (especially as they seem to popular amongst your students), as they can be incredibly useful when used well. The problem is how do you get around the unenviable position you are in of being under so much pressure? I’m afraid I have no easy answers, I’m not entirely sure there are any. But perseverance does pay off in the end, and you would be quite right to refuse to enter students into exams if you don’t believe they are ready or if you think that entering another so quickly would be detrimental. Sometimes, just adjusting the language we use when discussing exams with parents and students can help. Talk of exams as being an option, a sidestep, being genuinely excited about the prospect of learning new non-exam repertoire, discuss with parents the specific skills that you will be working on ‘instead of doing the next grade’, and coming completely away from ‘exam books’ (sight reading tutors, graded scale books, aural tests) in between exams can all help. Discussions of ‘sight reading’ whilst playing duets and learning scales and arpeggios in an order that suits individual students, rather than using the exam syllabus as a guide, all of these can help remind the learner that exams are not the only thing worth learning the piano for. Of course, you can’t win them all, but you can hopefully turn a majority around.

  4. #8 by Leonora on June 7, 2013 - 4:55 pm

    I’m afraid none of that is new to me. I do all of that anyway. Refusing to enter a child, (which I did this year) simply results in them threatening to end lessons. I’m afraid some of my parents are not interested in ‘repertoire’ of any kind. Just certificates.The ‘music’ itself is of no significance. The children learn in a vacuum. There is no exposure to music of any kind (despite living in a major city with recitals and festivals galore). I regularly send out information, loan out materials and generally work very hard at some personal cost to show them all what music is and can be.To very little avail. It’s very sad.

    • #9 by properpianofingers on June 7, 2013 - 6:16 pm

      You sound in an unenviable position. Sadly, I think sometimes we have to make the extremely difficult decision as to whether we are going to suggest an individual student find a different piano teacher, or persevere with them indefinitely.

  5. #10 by Leonora on June 7, 2013 - 6:53 pm

    Thank you! I do find it all rather sad…for the children.

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