This is an expanded version of a letter by Frances Wilson which appeared in The Guardian on 29 May 2017
As a piano teacher and pianist, I was rather troubled to read this article in The Guardian in which the author, Hugh Muir, admits to having been put off continuing his piano studies by the awful, nerve-wracking experience of taking, and failing, his Grade 2 piano exam.
I commend anyone who takes up the piano as an adult learner. As my own teacher regularly states, “If it was easy, everyone would do it!” (and this statement refers to all pianists, professional or amateur, adult or child). Playing the piano is a huge and complex feat of coordination and it doesn’t necessarily get “easier” as one grows more proficient, only that one develops more technical proficiency, knowledge and a personal toolkit of skills to enable one to get around the instrument and organise sound into music. But playing the piano is also enormously rewarding and enjoyable too, bringing hours of personal satisfaction and pleasure as well as known therapeutic benefits.
Sadly it seems that Hugh Muir is “confusing the satisfaction of his examiners with the ability to learn and play the piano” (Mark Polishook). The article places an undue focus on the process of taking grade exams, and we hear little of his pleasure in the instrument or the joy of simply “playing” the piano. Too often, people – teachers, students, parents – conflate learning the piano with grade exams. Many students take graded music exams each year, and many students gain pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Passing a music exam (which, by the way, is harder than passing a school exam, since the pass mark is higher) can bring a great deal of personal satisfaction and can spur one on to greater endeavour. For many, exams are a useful benchmark of progress and can provide a focus for continued study. But for some students, an over-emphasis on taking exams means their piano studies are very narrow: if they are not given the opportunity to explore repertoire beyond the exam syllabus, by the time they reach Grade 8, students who have been on an exam treadmill will have learnt only 24 pieces (3 pieces per exam) which, in my opinion, is hardly a well-rounded musical education. And an overly strong adherence to the graded system for pieces can deter students from exploring new repertoire – a case of “I am only Grade 3 and that is Grade 5 repertoire, so I won’t be able to play it!”
Graded music exams do have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad range of 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. But taking music grade exams and pleasing an examiner is artificial and subjective – after all, 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. Exams are not, and never should be, the be all and end all of musical study, and I would challenge any teacher, or student, who believes exams make musicians.
Many adult learners who had piano lessons as children carry with them the memory of taking grade exams, and for some that memory can be uncomfortable or even painful, recalling embarrassment and humiliation in the curious artificial world of the exam room, and opprobrium from teachers, parents and peers. Entering, or re-entering, the world of music exams as an adult can be very stressful, stress which can destroy one’s enjoyment of the piano (as in Hugh Muir’s case). Most adult pianists whom I come across through my association with the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG – a social club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded in 2013) want to play for pleasure, free of the rigour and stress of exams. And why shouldn’t they? Playing the piano is enormously pleasurable and satisfying!
For those who want to improve their playing, a sensitive, sympathetic teacher will offer guidance on repertoire and technical exercises, which can be studied without the need to submit oneself to a music exam. And for those who do wish to take a grade exam, it is worth considering the different assessment options available today. One need not go down the traditional route of three pieces, scales and arpeggios and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests. It is these supporting tests which often cause the most anxiety for adult students, and personally I don’t see the need for an adult learner to be examined in technical work etc if their main motivation for learning the piano is to play for pleasure and personal fulfilment.
The main exams boards have cottoned on to this and the London College of Music offers several options which contain no technical work:
- Recital Grades for which there are no aural tests: instead candidates perform four pieces and can either choose a fifth piece, or sight-reading or the viva voce assessment. Candidates have free choice of repertoire from a broad syllabus.
- Leisure Play candidates perform a selection of pieces, which may or may not include an own-choice piece, with no other requirements.
- And for those unable or reluctant to be examined in person, LCM offer the option of a Performance Award, where the candidate submits a digital recording for assessment.
Trinity College London also offers the Performance Certificate, which, like the LCM Recital and Leisure Play exams, is purely a performance assessment, with no technical work, sight-reading or aural. Meanwhile, the Associated Board’s Performance Assessment offers candidates the opportunity to have their playing assessed and receive feedback. There are no supporting tests and there is no pass or fail.
Piano groups and clubs offer performance opportunities in a non-threatening, non-competitive and friendly environment – in fact, one of the best things about joining a piano club is discovering other people who are also nervous about performing in front of others. Knowing you’re not alone in your anxieties can go a long way to allaying them, in addition to the opportunity to perform in a “safe zone” amongst friends. And for the more adventurous adult pianist, there are many piano courses available, in the UK and abroad.
In short, learning to play the piano is very much not about taking grade exams. It is about exploring the vast and wonderful literature pianists are lucky enough to choose from. 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 for friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. Above all, it is about enjoyment. I would urge Hugh Muir – and indeed anyone else who has found the exam process stressful – to consider this before abandoning the piano……