On Saturday 4th July I was delighted to host my Summer concert at St Mary with St Alban Church in Teddington.
Me with all the performers
Twenty of my young pupils, aged between 4 and 11, performed in the concert to an audience of about fifty family members and friends. Four of them performed pieces that they had composed themselves. All of them introduced themselves and their pieces clearly.
I am a big believer in providing opportunities for my students to perform. It has so many benefits; the experience of preparing music to a high standard, sharing their music with a wider audience and the confidence and sense of achievement that comes with overcoming nerves and showing what they are capable of. Watching other children perform enables them to discover a range of music that they may like to play too – and, for the very youngest – allows them to see what they will be able to achieve in the future!
The mother of one of the performers wrote to me the following day, saying:
Oliver, 10, playing his own composition “Space Launch”
“I wanted to say that I was really struck by what a lovely recital it was – the atmosphere was relaxed but very focused. There was no tension and all of the performers were playing within their ability – so, as a listener, I never felt nervous wondering if they would get through a piece!!”
I was so proud of all my students after the concert – they had all worked so hard in preparing their pieces, and they all performed with enthusiasm and confidence on the day itself. I am already looking forward to the next concert – at Christmas!
Edward, 5, playing “Love Somebody”
Thea, 8, playing “Grand Old Duke of York”
Me with my youngest performing student, Sebastian, 4.
Keiva, 5, playing “Wishing Well”
An excellent article by a colleague of mine on the limitations of a solely-exam focused approach to piano teaching. “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”
“I am constantly surprised by how hard Grade 1 is”
As part of my continuing professional development I belong to an online community of piano teachers. Each month we research a specific topic, attend an online seminar (‘webinar’) and discuss the topic in our online forum. This month the topic was the ‘piano framework’ and – in particular – what skills and concepts need to be in place before entering a Grade 1 examination.
I have blogged before about the pros and cons of piano students taking graded music exams (click here). However, what really struck me by researching this topic further is quite how hard Grade 1 actually is!
Reviewing the set pieces of the main examination boards’ current syllabuses, we can see that a Grade 1 student needs to show a grasp of the following skills and concepts:
- Keys of C, G, D and F major and A and D minor
- Simple and compound time – 2/4, ¾, 4/4, 3/8, 6/8 time signatures
- Single quavers, dotted rhythms , semiquavers, triplets
- Syncopated rhythms
- Triads and all inversions
- Seventh chords
- Articulations including 2 and 3 note slurs, legato, staccato, tenuto
- Full range of dynamics
- Passing of thumb, stretches up to an octave
- Direct pedalling
Comparing this to the levels which are common in the US, we can see that many of these are classified as intermediate level skills.
Looking at this extensive list it is hardly surprising that it can take a student 3 years or more before reaching a Grade 1 standard. I believe that many students are entered for Grade 1 too early before secure musical foundations are in place. It is quite possible to teach a child simply to pass a music exam – by drilling and teaching by rote. But if a student is entered for an exam after only 12-18 months of study, it is unlikely that they have a solid grasp of all the musical concepts which are being examined (although of course there are exceptions to this). Entering a pupil this early probably also means that they have not had the chance to fully explore the piano through improvisation, composition and other non-exam related activities.
So to answer the question “What is Grade 1?” It is a demanding assessment of a wide ranging set of skills and concepts which, for most students, require a number of years to learn, develop and secure. It is not something to be rushed into under the mistaken belief that it is easy – as it is anything but. For the right student, at the right time, it can be an excellent motivator and lead to a real sense of achievement. But introduced too early it can lead to unnecessary pressure, rushing through new concepts, and a ‘box ticking’ approach to passing the exam at the expense of encouraging wider enjoyment and creativity at the piano. And that is why I will never insist that my students take exams but will always support them if they wish to do so – when they are ready.