This week I was delighted to receive the news that one of my 11-year old students had passed her Grade 1 piano exam with a very good distinction. The student started with me as a complete beginner 2.5 years’ ago at the age of 8.
Although she doesn’t come from a musical family, she has always been really enthusiastic about learning the piano and has great support at home. She has always shown a real interest in music and loves writing her own compositions as well as learning a variety of pieces. After nearly two years’ of learning the piano we talked about whether she wanted to prepare for her Grade 1 and she was very keen to do so. Over the course of about six months’ she worked really hard preparing her pieces, scales and practicing for the sight-reading and aural tests. It has to be said that during this time we did less work on other aspects of her musical education – such as improvising and composing – as the exam preparation took priority. However, the exam did provide the opportunity to prepare three pieces to a really high standard as well as developing the other skills necessary to succeed in the exam.
Because she had worked so hard for the exam, she actually really enjoyed the experience on the day itself. It was lovely to receive a text from her immediately after the exam saying she thought she had done well and was ‘very happy’. Two weeks’ later when I received her results I was over the moon as all her dedication and hard work had really paid off.
I have another student, a ten year old boy who started learning the piano at the age of six with his school. The approach of his school to piano education was one of getting students through their exams as quickly as possible – an approach I describe as the “exam treadmill”. He took his Grade 1 after only about 18 months’ of study. His mother is a good pianist herself and worked very closely with him and he achieved a merit. He was very quickly entered for his Grade 2 and again, with very good hands-on support he achieved another merit. When I started teaching him he had just completed his Grade 3 – having started down this road soon after completing Grade 2. By this time, he was very disillusioned with the piano and his mother was having a difficult time getting him to practice regularly. He passed his Grade 3 with a good grade but by this time he wanted to give up the piano completely. After nearly four years’ of study he had achieved his Grade 3 but had spent nearly all of this time preparing for exams with limited opportunity to explore other repertoire or to learn about other aspects of the piano such as improvising and composting.
After his Grade 3, I agreed with his mother that we would spend time trying to re-engage him with the piano without the pressure of any exams to prepare for. I’ve spent a lot of time with him exploring chords and chord progressions and how these are used in so many different forms of music – from his exam pieces to current pop-songs. Whenever we improvise together at the piano he always amazes me with his ability to come up with some really creative ideas on the spur of the moment. He has also shown a real ability to develop these ideas into his own compositions and has composed some really inventive and wonderful pieces. Most importantly, he no longer wants to give up the piano!
Reflecting on the experiences of these two students I am mindful of both how beneficial exams can be, but also how damaging they can be if used as an end in themselves and if students are rushed into them too soon. (In fact, many of my students choose not to sit exams because the time taken to prepare and formality of approach does not tie in with their own areas of interest – but that is the subject for another blog!) I could have entered my 11-year old student for a Grade 1 earlier – but she may not have achieved such a good distinction and she would have had far less opportunity to explore other aspects of the piano – and it would probably not have been the really positive experience that it turned out to be. Further, had my 10-year old student not been rushed into his exams in the early years of his study, he may not have experienced the same disillusionment that he felt when I first met him.
Looking ahead, I fully expect both students to do further exams. They represent a good benchmark of achievement and the process of preparing for them is a great motivator and provides the opportunity to really hone skills to a high standard. And, of course, it is a wonderful sense of achievement when the hard work is rewarded with exam success! My 11-year old, having just finished Grade 1, is in no rush to start on Grade 2 – rather she is now excited by the prospect of spending the next few months working on other pieces and returning to composing and other activities. We’ll start working towards Grade 2 when the time is right. And my 10-year old, having had some ‘time-out’ from the exam treadmill, will, I hope, approach his next exam positively, knowing that this is just one part of learning the piano. But most importantly of all I hope that both students will continue to play the piano throughout their lives and I feel hugely privileged to be part of their journeys.
For more on exams please see :