Grade exams don’t make musicians 

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these simply success as “bragging rights”. Do these achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure…..

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a  piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier. A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent

 

 

 

 

ABRSM launches a new Diploma

Source: ABRSM Media release – 4 August 2016
ABRSM is strengthening its current diploma offering with the addition of a new performance qualification, launched today (4 August). The new assessment, the Associate of the Royal Schools of Music (ARSM), has been launched to provide learners with an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their performance skills after Grade 8.

The new diploma will be available to take in all ABRSM practical exam venues worldwide from January 2017.

What is involved?

The exam can be taken by anyone who has passed ABRSM Practical Grade 8 or a listed alternative. ARSM is available in all instruments currently examined by ABRSM, including voice.

Within the challenge of performing a 30-minute programme, candidates are assessed on their musical communication skills, interpretation and technical delivery. Candidates will have to perform:

• at least 20 minutes of music chosen from the ARSM repertoire list (this is the same list set for DipABRSM);

• up to 10 minutes of music can be own-choice repertoire (of at least Grade 8 standard).

There are no written or spoken elements, and no sight reading, aural tests or scales.

John Holmes, ABRSM Chief Examiner said 

“The diploma, which is supported by the Royal Schools of Music, is suitable for musicians who are looking for a challenge after grades and will provide a meaningful goal to work towards.

ARSM is unique in focussing solely on practical performing skills – nothing more, nothing less. It’s about the art and craft of musical communication through a half-hour programme which you choose and put together according to your own individual musical strengths and enthusiasms.

As well as focussing on the playing or singing of your chosen items of repertoire, ARSM also involves assessment of the performance of your programme as a whole, giving you valuable feedback from two complementary perspectives.”

For more information about ARSM, visit http://www.abrsm.org/newdiploma

Reflections on ten years as a piano teacher

Another term is over, and as my students depart for their summer holidays, I have time to pause and reflect as my piano teaching studio approaches its 10th birthday.

I never intended to be a piano teacher. I worked for ten years in art and academic publishing after leaving university and I continued to freelance in this sector when I stopped full-time work to have my son. But as my son started to grow up and become more independent, I began to consider a change of direction but it had to be one which could accommodate the school day and looking after my son during the school holidays. One day, during the chat that takes places between mums in the playground while they wait to collect their children, a friend asked me if I might teach her daughter to play the piano. “But I’m not a piano teacher!” I said. The friend suggested that I try piano lessons with her daughter “as an experiment, to see if you you both like it. Rosie can be your trial student“. And so in September 2006, I started teaching Rosie, and quickly acquired more students who had heard about me via Rosie’s mum. I have never been taught how to teach and had no clear “method” at the time, only that I was determined to make piano lessons interesting and fun for the children, the absolute opposite of my childhood lessons which had seemed dull and interminable and driven by an exam treadmill. I was pretty sure I could articulate this in a way that would appeal to children:  My teaching studio grew rapidly and by the end of the first year I had nearly 20 students, most of whom had come to me via my son’s primary school. People would come up to me in the playground and say “you’re the piano teacher, aren’t you?“. And indeed by about 18 months into the job, I felt qualified to call myself “the piano teacher”.

I found the first couple of years quite tough. My son was less than happy about other people’s children coming to the house and taking up my time, but I felt it was important for him, as an only child and a boy, to see his mother working. At that time, when I was still a fledgling piano teacher, I took anyone. I didn’t interview prospective students or their parents, because I knew most of them via the primary school anyway. But after a couple of instances where I and the child or parent simply did not get on, I grew more discerning and careful about whom I took on. And after a parent persistently messed me around over dates and times of lessons, cancelling them at short notice and demanding that I reschedule, I introduced a formal contract which put everyone on an equal footing and enabled me to run the studio in a more formal/businesslike way.

And that perhaps was the first most important lesson I learnt about running my own teaching studio – that one needs to formalise arrangements to ensure people treat you with respect. This is not a “hobby job” but rather a professional role which I take very seriously.

A few years ago, by which time my studio had grown to 25 students and I had two performance diplomas successfully under my belt, I decided to make some significant changes to the way I organised my teaching: I “let go” the students who were simply coasting, not practising and not really taking their piano lessons particularly seriously; I rebranded myself as a serious teacher of classical music (no more Adele songs!) who carefully selects students via an interview and trial lesson; and I put my fees up. Within weeks of making these changes, I had more enquiries than ever and I began to enjoy real job satisfaction too.

Second lesson: as a freelancer, don’t be afraid of making changes to your working life to suit you and which gives you job satisfaction. A happy teacher is more likely to be a successful teacher.

In terms of the actual teaching, I based much of it on my own very positive experiences with my music teacher at secondary school, rather than on my childhood and teenage private piano lessons. My music teacher was endlessly inventive and enthusiastic and it was his enthusiasm that, more than anything else, I tried to incorporate into my teaching. I felt – rightly – that children and young people, adults too, would be enthused and excited by music if I was enthused by it, and I made sure everyone learnt and played music which they enjoyed, rather than which might be “good for them”. When, in 2008, I started having lessons myself again after a break of nearly 25 years, I was able to distill what I was learning into easily understandable nuggets for my students (something my piano teacher actively encouraged), and I quickly saw the benefit of my own lessons in my students’ playing as well as my own. In addition, I started attending courses and workshops to enhance my professional development, and began to connect with more piano teachers too.

Third lesson: good teachers never stop learning themselves

Now, as my studio approaches its tenth anniversary, my teaching style and approach has settled into one which is relaxed and flexible. There is no “one size fits all” in teaching because all children – and adults too – are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. I know each student’s strengths and weaknesses, what music they particularly enjoy, and how much or little they like to be pushed by teacher. Some want to take exams, others are content to learn music which they enjoying playing. I’ve always been a natural communicator and it’s not in my nature to be overly didactic: I want to empower students by giving them the tools, and the confidence, which encourages self-discovery and independent learning. I have a couple of very musical and talented students, and supporting them with issues such as perfectionism, performance anxiety and the psychology of performance present their own interesting challenges and force me to think outside the box as their teacher and confront my own issues in these areas. All my students are hardworking and enthusiastic about the piano, who are taking lessons because they want to, not because a parent has insisted on it.

I no longer teach very young children or beginners. My students are aged between 11 and nearly 17 and are all early intermediate (Grade 3) to advanced level (Grade 8) players. They are bright and engaged, unafraid to question or challenge me or work things out on their own, which is great because I never want to be the teacher who simply “tells”. For me, teaching is an exchange of ideas, a process of showing, demonstrating, explaining, confirming, questioning….. An inquisitive student is likely to learn more, and more quickly. I encourage my students to find their own individual voice in their music making and to use their developing musical knowledge to help them make judgements about aspects such as interpretation and presentation.I don’t use a set “method” or particular range of tutor books. My teaching is instinctive, responding to each student’s needs and wishes rather than imposing my own opinion and way of doing things on them, and I encourage excellence rather than perfection. My own regular studies with two master teachers, in addition to encounters with other renowned teachers and pianists via courses and masterclasses, has undoubtedly informed my teaching, and will continue to do so.

Teaching has taught me far more than I ever would have imagined about being a musician as I constantly refocus and re-examine what I do and how I approach my own music making. And I think my students are intrigued by the fact that their teacher continues to study and have lessons. Perhaps the most significant thing I have learnt over the past ten years is that learning is a continuous, ever-changing process. It is satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and deeply fulfilling to watch students develop, find their musical voice and tastes and, above all, to gain pleasure and enjoyment from their music making.

For further information about my teaching studio please visit www.franceswilson.co.uk

Further reading

The Performing Teacher

ABRSM 2017/18 Piano Syllabus

2017-20182bgrade2b1The release of the new ABRSM piano syllabus is a much-anticipated event amongst most piano teachers, many of whom may have by this time grown tired of teaching the same repertoire for the past couple of years. The 2017/18 piano syllabus includes 158 new pieces, alongside which the ABRSM is releasing  a new version of the Piano Practice Partner app to accompany the change in syllabus, plus Aural Trainer and Scales Trainer apps, and other supplementary material to support students and teachers.

The format of the syllabus is unchanged, with pieces divided into Lists A, B and C. As usual, List A pieces tend to be Baroque or early Classical in style, or pieces inspired by these eras (for example, Prelude and Fugue in A minor by Shchredin, Grade 8, List A).  List B pieces tend to be more romantic in style, while List C contains modern or contemporary pieces, or music which is more jazz-infused, atonal or inspired by popular songs or film scores. There are also simple transcriptions of well-known works such as the Prince of Denmark’s March (also known at the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’) by Jeremiah Clark, La donna è mobile from Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’, and Jupiter from Holst’s ‘The Planets’. Composers such as Gurlitt, Gedike, Telemann and Gillock, which for me are forever associated with exam music, make their usual appearance, but it is refreshing to find works by living composers too: in addition to Shchredin mentioned above, there are pieces by Tan Dun, Ben Crosland, Bryan Kelly, Christopher Norton (whose jazz and rock inspired pieces are always popular with students), Miguel Astor, and Nikki Iles. It is also refreshing to find music by composers from South America, Finland and Japan. The Grade 8 list is longer than the other grades, with 16 pieces to choose from across the main list and alternative pieces.

When choosing exam repertoire with my students, I encourage them to select, as far as possible within the confines of the syllabus, pieces which when played together create an enjoyable and contrasting “programme”, a mini concert if you will. This means that students get to play a variety of music and can demonstrate to an examiner or audience that they can handle music of different styles, moods and characters. The new syllabus offers plenty of scope in this respect, though the earlier grades contain fewer pieces that will appeal to adult students or teenagers. As my colleague Andrew Eales has already remarked in his very comprehensive review of the new syllabus, the omission of music by Philip Glass, Ludovico Einaudi and similar minimalist composers seems rather unfortunate given the popularity of these composers, particularly amongst teenagers. But overall the selection is varied and imaginative with broad appeal.

In addition to the new piano syllabus, the ABRSM has announced the introduction of a new performance-only Diploma, the ARSM (presumably, “Associate of the Royal Schools of Music”), to bridge the gap between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM, to offer a challenge after Grade 8, for those who want to get back into playing after a break or for those looking to enhance their performance skills before entering higher education or applying to study at university. Like the existing Diplomas, the ARSM will offer candidates the opportunity to create and perform their own programme from a published syllabus and own-choice repertoire. Further information about the ARSM will be available in August.

ABRSM Piano exams official page (with links to purchase music, download soundclips and other supporting information).

 

Mindfulness – the piano collection

mindfulness-piano-collection-coverI showed this new book from Faber Music to one of my teenage students and she exclaimed “Wow! That’s so cool!”. She told me she liked the design, the selection of pieces and above all the illustrations which one can choose to colour in between practise sessions.

Mindfulness, a simple practice of meditation which encourages one to be “in the present moment”, to banish negative thoughts and alleviate stress and anxiety, is now very popular. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation. It has significant a role in music making and performance, and its benefits have been recognised by practitioners, teachers and musicians – so much so that the Guildhall School of Music and Drama now runs courses on mindfulness for performers.

Adopting a “mindful” approach while engaged in music practise can lead to an increased awareness and help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication.

The pieces in Mindfulness – the Piano Collection have been specially selected to reflect the meditative aspects of mindfulness and to encourage one to play in the moment. There are popular classics such as the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and a transcription of Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’, simplified to suit cGrade 3-4 level players. There are also works by living composers/musicians including Nils Frahm, Howard Goodall, Evelyn Glennie and Ludovico Einaudi (his ‘I Giorni’ perhaps being the most meditative piece in the collection). The general level of the collection is cGrade 4-7. Each piece is preceded by a short introductory paragraph suggesting a simple mindfulness technique to be used while playing, for example:

The simplicity of this piece allows you to give all your attention to the sounds you’re creating. Focus on the hypnotic patterns, harmony and chord changes and if you notice your mind wandering bring your attention back to the music.

[introductory note to ‘Earnestly Yours’ by Keaton Henson]

Of course, students and pianists of all levels should ideally engage in mindful piano playing at all times, but the mind does have a tendency to wander, and the text at the beginning of each piece provides a useful focus. Teachers can work together with students on aspects such as technique, dynamics, articulation and expression.

The book is attractively-designed with an eye-catching treble-clef design on the front cover. A CD of the music might be a useful addition in a subsequent edition, but overall there is much to enjoy in this new collection, and I think it will have a particular appeal for teenage students.

Published by Faber Music RRP £9.99

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

New resources for pianists, piano teachers and parents

A couple of useful new resources for pianists, teachers and the parents of piano students which have come my way recently.

818099The first, Piano Exercises, is a DVD by Mikael Pettersson, a Swedish concert pianist based in the UK. The exercises were created by Mikael to help pianists develop their technique to play without tension and with accuracy and fluency. Mikael’s approach is straightforward: the exercises are demonstrated clearly  by Mikael himself with useful close-up shots of the hands and fingers, but while the format may look simple, the exercises encourage the development of sophisticated technique including wrist and forearm rotation, lateral arm movement, speed and accuracy when coping with leaps, rapid scale patterns, and glissandi. The DVD can be used by more advanced pianists independently of a teacher, or by students with the assistance of teacher, and can then be incorporated into a regular practise regime. More information/download the exercises

51rtft-uaul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Encouraging students to practise is of course a crucial part of the piano teacher’s role, and if the students are children teachers rely on the parents to ensure practising is done between lessons. Understanding how to practise productively is important for both students and their parents who supervise the practising and a new book by Peter Walsh, an Australian pianist and piano teacher, offers practical advice for parents of piano students. In The Non-Musician’s Guide to Parenting a Piano Player, Peter covers aspects such as encouraging an interest in the piano, choosing the right instrument, choosing the right teacher and creating the right learning environment at home. In addition, the chapters on practising are particularly helpful. Many parents (and also quite a few students!) think practising is simply playing through the pieces or scales. Peter explains the purpose of practising and how parents can assist their children in practising efficiently, productively and enjoyably. This includes advice on how much time to allocate to practising, posture at the piano for children and teenagers, encouraging concentration, how practising can be subdivided into sections covering technique, revision and rehearsal and exam/performance preparation, using a simplified version of Josef Hoffman’s “practice pie-chart” to explain these aspects. This section of the book is particularly useful as it demonstrates that parents do not need to have specialist musical knowledge in order to support their children in their practising. There is also a section on preparing for exams and performance. The back of the book contains a list of FAQs and a simple glossary of musical and technical terms. The overall approach is non-specialist and accessible. Recommended.

The Adventures of Ivan – piano pieces to delight young and old

The Adventures of Ivan is a suite of eight characterful piano miniatures by Aram Khatchaturian (1903-78), the titles of which suggest a narrative or snapshots in the life of a young boy called Ivan. Perhaps best known for his concertos and scores for the ballets Spartacus and Gayaneh (which includes the brilliant ‘Sabre Dance’), he also composed symphonies and other orchestral works, film and theatre music, chamber and band music, and a large number of patriotic and popular songs. His music is rich in the idioms of his Armenian heritage, marked by a strong rhythmic drive beautiful cantabile melodies and colourful textures. He was one of the most popular and successful composers of the Soviet period, alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The Adventures of Ivan offers a fascinating glimpse into Khatchaturian’s distinctive style. Each piece in the suite has an evocative title which assist the pianist in shaping character, mood, and expression in the music, and each offers interesting technical and musical challenges, making the pieces very satisfying to play and to teach. ‘Ivan Sings’, for example, (the first work in the suite, written in 1926, and the best known) is marked Andantino and cantabile and has a singing melody in the right hand over tenuto chords in the left hand, which turn into a gentle syncopated rhythm in the second half of the piece. There is much scope for shaping of the melody, understanding how to balance the melody with the accompaniment, and syncopated pedal. The descending melody and piquant harmonies lend a wistfulness to this piece which is hard to resist.

In contrast, ‘Ivan Can’t Go Out Today’, scored in 3/8, has the dancing, swirling rhythms of a tarantella and is an exercise in coordination between the hands. It’s lively and dramatic, with crunchy harmonies, emphasised by accents to suggest Ivan’s frustration at being kept indoors, perhaps because it is raining or maybe because he has been naughty. But the final C major chord suggests the sun has come out again and Ivan is allowed out to play.

‘Ivan Goes to a Party’ is a humorous light-hearted waltz with hints of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Op 18 (particularly in its grandiose opening), while ‘Ivan is Very Busy’ is a sparkling little number, all staccato chattering. The works are intermediate level (the first two are cGrade 3) and there is much to delight pianists young and old in this charming suite.