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Why 100% pass-rates matter very little!
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Why 100% pass-rates matter very little!

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Posted by Dylan Christopher, 3 years ago
Tags: thoughts, teaching, learning

Why 100% pass-rates matter very little!

In the interest of transparency, we post the exam results of all of our students.  We do this for two main reasons: 1) it is important to accept our failures, 2) it is important to show our successes; both of these are how we learn.  Nothing is perfect; accepting this fundamental fact gives us permission to grow as human beings.

I feel extremely sorry for the youth of today; I say this with the utmost sincerity and my most heartfelt sympathy. I routinely explain to parents of my adolescent teenagers that young people are under an incredible amount of pressure, from all angles; educational, occupational, financial, all of which can seem relentless.

In an age where competition is high, people strive to ‘be the best’, so everyone needs ‘an edge’. For some, this comes in the form of music exams, used to pad CVs and personal statements with extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, this disingenuous act can have devastating consequences.

A few years ago, I received a panicked enquiry from an adult-learner who wanted piano lessons.  They required my help in learning a piece of music for an engagement the following week; eager to help this person, I obliged.  When the first lesson arrived, the person explained more; I had presumed that this individual had been playing the piano for some time and needed coaching for a recital or concert; I was wrong.

They explained that they needed to ‘learn’ how to play the piano because they had taken a few lessons, years ago when they were a child, however, more recently they had written on their CV that they were at Grade 8 standard before applying for their current job, in an unrelated field; they had not taken an exam, but had either been told, or reached the conclusion, that they were at this level of playing. The person’s manager, seeing, and understanding that they were a Grade 8 pianist --- without seeing a certificate or mark sheet --- had asked them to perform at the company’s gala dinner. I could not help this person; what an unfortunate situation to be in.

The music asked of this individual was in fact quite rudimentary and well within the capability of even a weak Grade 8 candidate; however, this person was not anywhere near this standard. The moral here is do not pad your CV.  Anyone can state that they are at a particular music grade standard; in the past I have had students cite that they are “Grade X standard” or that “I passed Grade Y with distinction”, but fail to carry out tasks expected of Pre-Grade 1 (prep-test) candidates (namely playing in time, or acknowledging a given key signature).

One of the greatest minds who ever lived, Albert Einstein once said:

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

I understand this as embrace your errors, evaluate and learn from the experience, then evolve your execution.  If a student is never entered for the exam, then they cannot embrace their errors, learn from the experience, or evolve as a musician.  Spending two years learning three exam pieces so a student is guaranteed to pass an exam, more so with a distinction, is not what playing an instrument is about.

Ask any accompanist actively working in the profession; the phone rings with a client and potential job. More often than not the stock phrases are: “When is it?”, “What instrument?”, “What is the programme?”, and, “When is the first rehearsal?”.  If it is for a graded exam, the accompanist might have around two months to prepare; in some cases, it might be a last minute job where there are mere days before the event.  Ask any orchestral player, who sometimes have to sight-read parts during the one and only rehearsal before a concert. Ask a chamber musician performing at a wedding who is given music by request of the client to perform at the ceremony in under four weeks.  Do you (as a musician) always have two years to prepare? 

Spending years preparing three pieces, so a student can pass an exam with a ‘good’ mark, makes the entire exercise redundant, in so much as, despite a favourable outcome regarding the mark, the actual skills required to succeed are not being learned; namely the ability to review, understand and perform repertoire in adequate time.  A good musician is not characterised by how fast they can play, or how many notes they are playing; they are characterised by their understanding of the sourced material.  There are no differences in the skills used by a strong Grade 1 musician, and a strong Grade 8 musician.   The true difference is that, potentially, the Grade 8 musician has a more thorough understanding of the fundamentals of what music is, with increased control, all because they have simply been doing it longer.

I sit in a prime position overlooking the lives of many people, from all walks of life, with a variety of ambitions.  Two of the most common ambitions for piano lessons are: I want to get to Grade 8; and, I want a Distinction.  The problem here is, everybody can, but not everybody will; unfortunately, many lack the proper learning toolkit to achieve the highest marks, and that is okay.  Many people grossly under-estimate the level of commitment and dedication required to successfully perform at Distinction level.  Even for Grade 1, achieving a distinction is not easy, and takes patience, dedication and, most importantly a thorough understanding of oneself, and the music being performed.

Actions speak louder than words; what a statement or mark represents, and what is actually delivered are two separate things. Despite the merits of high marks and 100% pass-rates, it is always more useful to receive criticism on the negatives; after all, that’s how we improve.


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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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