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Why Working To Exams Is Anti-Piano

By Tim Topham | Exams

Nov 17

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OK, so this might be a bit controversial but hear me out.

I was reading a fabulous article by Kathryn Page in a recent Pianist Magazine (No 67), entitled “Developing and maintaining repertoire”. The article was about how important it is for pianists and students to play lots of music at one level and style before rushing to the next level in order to truly refine and master their skills. Two paragraphs particularly resonated with me:

What happens when you learn more than one piece in a similar style and of similar technical level is interesting – your brain makes connections and links new pieces with patterns and similarities already encountered. This makes the learning process much quicker and ultimately more pleasurable too.

Of course there are those who are impatient and like to jump from one anthology to the more difficult one without pausing for breath. They are very similar to children who are pushed from one grade exam directly into the next by misguided parents and teachers. Ultimately it leaves the player bereft of musical background, understanding and enjoyment

Unfortunately, pushing students from one grade to the next, having learnt only a few pieces at one level, is all too common (in Australia at least).

Here’s your free download:

What does being a “Grade 8 student” actually mean?

Before I go any further, ask yourselves these questions:

1. How long is a reasonable time for a student to learn a new piece of music up to a competent (but not necessarily exam or performance-ready) level?

2. How many of your students are learning more than 10 pieces a year at or close to their “exam” grade level? How many of them are learning 40-pieces or more each year?

3. How many of your students could learn a piece of music at their current exam level in 3-4 weeks?

READ MORE: A student’s perspective on working to piano exams each year

For many students, I believe working to exams is anti-effective music learning and a completely misguided pedagogical approach. 

I consistently encounter students who are learning pieces well above their “real ” level of musicianship in order to fulfil the requirements of an exam. These are students who can’t play an unknown piece at their exam level without months of hard slog.

We are doing them a huge disservice educationally by encouraging this false qualification-ism. Is your Grade 4 student truly able to play a range of repertoire easily at that grade level, or is just getting the exam pieces learnt in one year a big challenge? How confident at Grade 4 level are they really?

I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that most, if not all, students at the upper levels are spending the year learning their 3 – 6 exam pieces.

Is that truly indicative of a student playing at that level? Shouldn’t a student at Grade 8 level be able to play lots of pieces at Grade 8 level in a reasonable space of time? Shouldn’t that be what being a “Grade 8 level student” is all about?

How long should it take to learn a piece?

Back to my first question: what constitutes a reasonable amount of time to learn a piece? I’d say it should be about 3-4 weeks (depending on length) for an average student. How long do many students take to properly learn their exam pieces? 6-8 months+?

The issue is that when you start focusing on an exam at a level that’s beyond your student’s current music reading level, their ability to learn a large number of pieces in a year is severely restricted.

Given how important it is to learn as many pieces as possible in a year in order to develop confidence as a pianist, working to an exam schedule each year is severely counter-productive.

Let me tell you the story of three students to illustrate where my thinking is coming from.

RELATED: The ultimate guide to piano exam syllabuses from across the globe

3 Student Case Studies

I took on a transfer student this year who had previously been pushed through one exam a year and had just done Grade 4 AMEB the year before I took him on. Thankfully, his parents were very supportive of him not doing exams for a year and to just spend the time enjoying his playing.

During the year I realised that the student’s understanding of rhythm and his ability to read music had been severely compromised by his rush to complete exams. He struggled with simple music reading and anything other than the most straightforward rhythms were a huge challenge.

He hadn’t played in many styles, keys or meters and was realistically about a Grade 1/2 level player.

The second student came to me this year after receiving an A for his AMEB Grade 2 Piano for Leisure exam in 2011 but struggled to even read at a preliminary level when we started working. He had no understanding of chords, harmony, patterns, how to read rhythms properly, form, etc. and I found out that he only studied his 3 exam pieces for the whole year in 2011!

How on earth was he expected to become a better piano player on 3 pieces a year?

The third student came to me as a transfer having done AMEB Grade 2 last year. He parents wanted him to do another exam this year so I enrolled him in ANZCA which was more suited to his interests.

I doubt now that I’d put a transfer student into an exam until after I’ve worked with them for at least 6 – 12 months to assess their “real” playing ability: as it turns out, this student was also struggling to read and by pushing him into another exam, I’ve broken my own rule by only having time to work only three pieces this year.

Sure, parents will see this as progress, but is his understanding of music any better? His ability to sight-read? His improvisation?

Exams have a specific purpose

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against exams as they have a place in music education and are an important motivator for some students.

My concern is that students do the right level exam for their ability.

If a student is already playing lots of pieces at Grade 2 level, then by all means, put them in a Grade 2 exam. However, if the student only just got through his Preliminary and Grade 1 exams playing the 3-6 exam pieces, and is taking months to learn pieces at the new level, is he or she really ready for the next level?

More to the point, is putting him through the next exam effective teaching?

What do you think about the place of exams?

I’ll leave you with a final comment from Kathryn’s article:

If you’re constantly learning music that is on the threshold of your technical ability, then you will never feel at ease in your practice time.

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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