Archive for category Grade Exams

Music Exams – an Open Letter to Parents

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.

 

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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,

Lynne

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The Repertoire Project

The idea for The Repertoire Project came from thinking about how to engage and inspire students to learn music which does not lead to grade exams.  I write, and talk, a lot about learning repertoire and skills, and developing as a musician, but it can be surprisingly difficult for young pianists to find repertoire that they want to learn without spending hours and hours trawling unsuccessfully through youtube, and often giving up in the process.  Of course, I play music for my students in lessons, but there’s only so much repertoire I can play in a half hour lesson, before the ‘lesson’ becomes a series of ‘concerts’.  A waste of money? No, absolutely not, but I do think there is more effective way for students to listen to more music, and get more inspired, without spending more lesson time listening to only the books that they have, or I can find at the time.

And so The Repertoire Project was born.

I shall leave the rest of this post in the capable hands of the blurb I have posted with every Repertoire Project track and playlist:

Welcome to The Repertoire Project – a large selection of repertoire across a range of genres to inspire students to broaden their depth of musical understanding and their enjoyment of the piano by learning multiple new pieces.

Each piece in the Repertoire Project which I have recorded at my home studio is included in two playlists:

1) With other pieces of a similar playing standard (Introductory, Beginner, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, and Advanced)

2) With other pieces in the same book or volume.

I have also included selected repertoire from other soundcloud accounts into the ‘level’ playlists. I have only included music which have freely available scores (either as paid for downloads or in print). These additional tracks are by contemporary composers, and many of the scores can be purchased individually for very little cost. If you would like details on purchasing, please contact the soundcloud account holder directly, or email me on lynnejphillips@gmail.com and I will find these details for you.

You can find The Repertoire Project and each of the different playlists at my soundcloud account here

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.moonfruit.com

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Freedom to Teach

I’m getting a bit of a reputation for not being terribly keen on my students sitting too many grade exams. And my regular readers (and my students) will already be familiar with the reasons why.  But that’s not what this post is about.

This is about two of my students, neither of whom sit grades, and how (and what) they learn instead.

The first is a young beginner who transferred from another teacher.  Slightly traumatised from starting grade 1 pieces before she was capable, she was adamant that she did not want to sit grades, and that has not changed in the two years since.  What has changed, though, are her skills and her development as a musician. We went back to the beginning together; gently and carefully, looking at notation skills, listening, and learning how to create sound colours at the piano without being ‘literal’ with the dynamics. A quick and clever child, she picked things up rapidly, and has now worked her way through an improvisation based repertoire book, half a duet book, half a Christmas carol book, nearly all of the first Dozen a Day, and has learned four pieces from ‘UpGrade 0-1’. Looking ahead, I have scales and arpeggios planned, Elissa Milne’s ‘Easy Little Peppers’, John Lenehan’s Keynotes series, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Christopher Norton’s ‘Microjazz’, the ABRSM Keyboard Anthology series, and various duets and downloads. This student may never sit a grade exam; her family have had multiple bad experiences and they are communally happy for her to learn for the sake of learning. And if she continues to play for years to come, she will be no different a pianist at grade 8 standard than a pianist who has sat grade 8 itself.

My second student is a more unusual situation; she lives abroad and I teach her via an online client. She is (so far) my only online student, a situation which we began as she was originally a UK resident who moved abroad several years ago and was unable to find a suitable local teacher. This student is very young, and musically gifted. She is 7 years old and has so far worked her way through a list of repertoire that would make a child twice her age take a sharp breath: Piano Time 1-3, Piano Time Pieces 1-2, 2  Microjazz volumes, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Burgmuller Studies op.100, ABRSM Keyboard Anthology 1 and 2, Clementi Sonatinas, Khatchaturian Children’s Pieces, Beatrice Quoniam Etudes (pianissimo, poco forte, and mezzo forte), three Dozen a Day books, and scales in multiple keys. She is currently working her way through the remainder of the Clementi before beginning work on Bach’s 2 part inventions, and is starting the ABRSM Mozart Early Pieces compilation book.  Through this broad repertoire, we are working intensively on sound colour, musical narrative, characterisation, physical technique, freedom and strictures of rubato, faithfulness to the score, and interpretive freedom.   For her future, I have more repertoire planned; Bach Preludes and Fugues, Mozart Variations, Chopin Waltzes, Grovlez, contemporary music including Jenni Pinnock’s ‘Rain’, and pieces from the ABRSM Spectrum series, Schumann, Scarlatti, the list is endless and my only restriction is the small size of her hands.  Grades have not been discussed, and I am not even sure if they are an option in her country (although her state education system is certainly an exam driven one, far more than the UK).

Despite this, these two students are amongst some of the most fulfilled and happy that I have the pleasure of teaching. They have learnt to understand their progress in terms of pieces learnt or skills developed, and they enjoy the process of learning and playing, without necessarily having a certificate at the end of it. And both students enjoy performing; both took part in my annual concert last year, and my foreign student regularly takes part in local concerts on her violin.

I have plans for both students; plans which involve gradually more challenging repertoire. And I keep my eye out for which pieces motivate and excited then so that I can hear their rep choices more towards their personal preference.

 

And if either of them change their mind and want to sit an exam, they can do that too.  I’m sure they’ll get an excellent mark if they do, due of their background in general musicianship skills and the broad range of repertoire they have behind them.

 

 

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.moonfruit.com

 

 

 

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The Oxford Reading Tree and 1984

Like many professional instrumental teachers, I have a large proportion of students (a significant majority, to be slightly more specific)  who transfer from other local teachers at various stages in their musical education.  Many of these (again, a sizeable majority) have one glaring omission in their background; a lack of repertoire.

But why is repertoire so important? And what is being taught instead? And crucially, what does a student miss out on when repertoire is neglected?

But perhaps the first question should be, what is repertoire?

The easiest answer is ‘pieces learned’.  Repertoire is the musical equivalent of a bookcase of read novels, a half-completed kindle, a stack of non-fiction magazines and newspaper articles. Repertoire is the Oxford Reading Tree and it is 1984, it is a dictionary and a thesaurus, a children’s encyclopaedia, the collected works of Roald Dahl, and A Brief History of Time.  If we learn to read by reading, then so we learn to play music through playing more music.  Each time our students learn a new piece, they learn something new, whether that’s a technical skill, an interpretation, an understanding of genre, or a practice or collaborative technique.  Without large volumes of new pieces, the number of new skills generated slowly erodes until student progression starts to stagnate.

And so to the second question: what is being taught instead?

The answer to this is usually ‘grade exams’.  Don’t get me wrong, grade exams can be fantastic tools if handled well and used sparingly, but in our exam-oriented culture, they are often used as a teaching syllabus rather than as occasional goals to aim towards.  And dare I say it, but in the hands of unprofessional teachers, they have been known to be used as a sole teaching method, right through from grade 1 to grade 8.  Imagine the equivalent in literary circles… a child working through the Oxford Reading Tree, then only being allowed to read 24 books in total before A-levels. That’s not 24 novels in English classes, but 24 books in total.  That’s less books than are currently sitting on a single shelf of my bookcase.

And yet it happens.  I continually work with students who have simply not played enough music to be able to cope with the level they are currently trying to play at, and it shows; they are missing general musicianship skills, technical fluency, and understanding of musical context.

But all is not lost…

Time and patience are required, but this missing information can be learned.  And the solution is surprisingly simple; to play more repertoire.  A student in this position (or, to be honest, any student) should not concern him or herself with whether a piece is difficult enough, or whether it is the ‘correct’ grade, only whether it is new, interesting, enjoyable, approachable, and achievable.  I have grade 8 students who play grade 5 pieces, and grade 4 students who play grade 1 pieces.  After all, when you are choosing a book, do you put it back if the language is not difficult enough?

So next time you’re thinking of learning three pieces for a grade exam, or hedging about buying a new score because it seems like an unnecessary expense, perhaps you might reconsider, and make a start on building a well-read, if somewhat metaphorical, bookcase.

 

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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Open Access Days 2015

Open Access 2015 coloured

Open Access Days in Piano, General Musicianship, & Music Theory. 

If you are looking for a little extra tuition without worrying about committing to a secondary teacher, Open Access Days are the ideal option for you.  For one week in July and one in August, I am opening my home studio in the Fairwater area of Cardiff to all local young pianists and other instrumentalists, and with no obligation to book more than one lesson (and at my standard hourly rate) you can have additional coaching, support, and tuition in any of the following areas:

For Pianists:

General Musicianship at the piano (fluency & musical flow, stylistic awareness, control, colour, and musical narrative) 

Technique (including scales & arpeggios) 

Sight Reading

Upcoming Performances (including ABRSM exams) 

Practice Techniques

Problem Solving (spend a dedicated lesson addressing any specific problems you have, and discover useful strategies to resolving them) 

For All Instrumentalists:

Aural Tests (ABRSM Grades 1-8)

Beginner’s Theory 

ABRSM Theory (Grades 1-5, including exam technique)

Rhythm (support with how to navigate awkward rhythms, or for students who sometimes find rhythm challenging) 

You can book 30 or 60 minute lessons for you or your child, with absolutely no obligation to continue with lessons once the Summer break is over.

Please see here for further details, and contact me on lynnejphillips@gmail.com or 07903 500901 to discuss further or book lessons.

 

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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New! ABRSM Theory Past Paper Marking Service

To add another branch to my utter passion for quality music theory tuition, I am now offering an ABRSM past paper marking service.

To keep prices as flexible as possible, I have designed two marking options: Marking Only, or Marking With Feedback.

I have specific training in distance support, and choosing the ‘Marking with Feedback’ option will include helpful details of not just what went wrong, but also possibly why or how.  Potential pitfalls could be missing steps in working an exercise through, poor exam technique (misreading questions), a misunderstanding of technical terminology, or gaps in knowledge.  

All you need is a smart phone, digital camera, or a scanner to email me your past paper, alternatively you can post it (address given on request).

Your papers will be marked and returned to you within 3 working days after papers are received and payment has been made.

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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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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