As a young musician, I was hot-housed through the exam system, almost breathing a sigh of relief when I passed Grade 8 in my mid-teens.
“YES! … I am free!”
Looking back now as a teacher, and pianist working in the profession, I can see the usefulness of music exams. However, teaching students of my own, and performing music to an audience, has not changed by feelings. Music is for sharing and connecting with human beings, not the gradual increment of a representative number.
Ironic as it is, given the evidence of exams taken by my students on this very site, these exams are nonetheless a means to an ends, not the ends itself. They should facilitate and test learning, not be the sole reason for the exercise.
My then teacher would constantly scold me for not practising. The thing is, I was practising, but just … not what I was set. My homework would consist of three exam pieces that would be rehearsed ad nauseum. Within a very short space of time, I could perform them from memory and was, quite frankly, bored. This did not stop working on them for sometimes a full year -- or two -- because an exam was on the agenda to be taken at some point.
I have a good ear and can play most things without seeing the music, within reason; this developed by simply looking for something else to do. To this day, I can recall the many theme tunes from television programmes I watched while I was young, or the hymns we sang in full-school assembly and church. I would play them on the piano, entertaining my school friends and family, but these were all activities that were sternly frowned on by my teacher at the time.
So you might understand my confusion, now, when I have “the conversation” with a student or parent who literally just started lessons, and in the second session asks, “So, when do we start Grade 1?” There is always an implied rush, as if, unless one has a Graded certificate, there is no point to the interaction.
With exception to holiday breaks, I touch the piano every day. Even then, during those holiday breaks, I can’t resist, taking a book from my “Fun” shelf – usually, music from musicals, computer-game music, film music. In a silly moment, I might even open YouTube, to see what the kids are listening to these days, and play along, or better yet improvise what is heard in the style of a famous classical composer; such fun.
Why would anyone willingly limit themselves only to exam material, and furthermore, why would any parent willingly encourage it? To get the top marks in a music exam, you have to be a good musician, which means less time working on exam material, and more time actually playing music.
Simply put, in my experiences as a teacher, and a student, to get the top marks in an exam, you practise everything but the exam pieces all year. A person or student who is actually at the level of expertise of the exam they are taking, can pick up and play through the piece of music they need for any exam. This performer spends very little time decoding the piece and more time polishing and tweaking the performance.
You pass the exam when you are ready, but, you are not ready because you passed an exam!
Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball. A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.
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