Another post on exams! (I know, I know, but the number of times the subject of ‘but, but, EXAMS!’ crops up with new or transferring students is, sadly, increasing.) This post originally comes from a private email I wrote to a parent, but has been edited to transform it into an ‘open letter’ to all parents and students.
Exams really are quite useful things, and many (if not most) of my students enjoy preparing for and sitting them, but they are far from the learning method that they are often used as. To give you some idea, at the time of writing, I have nearly 50 students on my books, and only three of them are currently working towards a practical exam (with a further one working towards sitting his Grade 4 Theory in March). The other students are learning repertoire, and developing their skills in this way.
I should mention at this point, that it is not necessary to take every grade exam. Again, with my long term students, you would find that the vast majority of them skip grades (in order to spend additional time learning different styles, genres, and technical skills). It is also worth bearing in mind that, should a student rarely work at music away from an exam syllabus, once they have passed grade 8, most of them haven’t a clue how to work towards anything from that point forward, as their only method of progression has now gone. You may be interested to know that I work with a great many post-grade 8 students who have only rarely learnt non-exam pieces, and they are, without exception, wholly unprepared for how to cope at this point. I appreciate this is not a way of learning that you are used to, but learning repertoire and understanding music is the key to not only progressing, but realising full potential, and perhaps most importantly, really enjoying the piano.
With this in mind, we are really looking at a minimum of 1 year after sitting a grade exam before even beginning work on the next one. It is possible that once this time has passed, a student may be past the level of the next grade up, in which case, we would either begin the one following that, or spend a little more time developing skills to get him or her to that point. A typical progression ‘through the grades’ for my students is often – grades 1,3,4,6 then 8, with the remaining grades skipped.
As a good guide for you to refer to, a student should be completing an absolute bare minimum of one entire book of repertoire ‘between exams’. Bear in mind that for students who skip exams, this doubles. However, this volume of repertoire is rarely taken from one single book, as this, also, is too restrictive. This means that most students have 1 or 2 books on the go at once, and they roughly complete half of each book before moving on. This guide also includes duet books (duets are particularly important for piano students as it is often the only time they learn any collaborative playing skills). For example, I would anticipate that a student who has just taken grade 4 would need to learn roughly half of a compilation book (ABRSM compilations or Lenehan KeyNotes are good for this), and roughly half of something else (possibly a Microjazz volume, or the Walton Children’s Pieces for Duet, which are excellent and great fun to play) before looking at the possibility of grade 5, and more so if we decided to skip this. I appreciate this is very new to you, but once they are over the initial shock of learning non-exam pieces, my students all massively enjoy playing ‘normal’ repertoire, and they learn far more in terms of musical understanding and technical skills than if they were to work towards exams with only brief moments of respite.
I appreciate that parents often wish for their children to sit another exam as soon as possible after their previous one, but if I can draw your attention to other methods of measuring attainment, which you may not be aware of, this might ease your mind. I hold a yearly concert for my students (in the Summer Term), which all students are invited (but not pressured) to perform at, with many students who are not confident about performing choosing to perform a duet with me instead of a solo piece. Last year, this concert was held at Cardiff University concert hall, and was a great success, with nearly 250 students / parents attending. There is also the opportunity to perform at the South Glamorgan Festival for Young Musicians which is held every May bank holiday. Here, there are both competitive and non-competitive classes available. At the risk of repeating myself, attainment can also (indeed it should be) measured by completion of a new piece, by a technical difficulty surmounted, or a new understanding of a musical problem. [Edit… colleague and friend, Phil May, made the additional (and rather brilliant) suggestion that with so many people owning iPads, laptops, and smartphones, parents could record their children performing each finished piece, not just for posterity, but perhaps to send to relatives. This would help in creating a tangible way of seeing progress without the need for exam certificates.]
Unfortunately, the world we live in now has become very much an exam-oriented one for children, with graded music exams being a not-insignificant part of this. But focussing too much on exams in music is hugely detrimental to students, and leaves a great many young musicians, even gifted ones, without necessary technical skills and musical understanding, and often leads to a loss of enjoyment in learning music (which is heartbreaking to watch).
I am happy to answer any questions you may have on this topic – it is one which I discuss frequently so I genuinely do understand parental (and students’) concerns! You might also be interested to know that having students staying away from exams does not mean they perform badly when they do sit them. I have a 100% pass rate for grade exams (theory and practical), and my students have won awards from the ABRSM in the past for achieving exceptionally high marks (my most recent being a young boy of 12 years’ old who achieved the highest Grade 8 mark in Wales for the year, and also won a 4 figure scholarship award from the ABRSM to pay for his studies).
Lastly, I’d like to direct you to my soundcloud account. I have uploaded various repertoire for students. The eventual idea is that this database covers the ‘core’ repertoire books which my students use, but it is very much a work in progress as recording and uploading takes a huge amount of time. https://properpianofingers.com/2015/05/19/the-repertoire-project/ and https://soundcloud.com/lynnephillips/sets/the-repertoire-project_main
Very best wishes,