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Piano Exams For All? – Melanie Spanswick


Today’s post is about piano exams. I’ve written about this particular topic on numerous occasions, but, as ever, teaching the piano is a process, for the teacher as much as the student, and it’s a process where our thoughts are constantly changing and evolving. My views here are based purely on my own experience as a teacher. If you are a teacher, you may have traversed a completely different set of experiences, or you may be a student still making sense of your piano-playing journey. During the last few years of extensive teaching – the most I have ever done in my career – my ideas have changed considerably, primarily due to the evidence provided by my students.

I DO firmly believe in piano exams and the majority of my students take them at some point. I took them as a student and loved the whole process. I found them fun, not particularly traumatic, and I enjoyed learning the varied repertoire, albeit fairly ‘standard’ piano music compared to the diverse syllabus options available today.

The act of preparing for an exam is generally considered a useful adventure, or ‘goal’, for the piano student. Younger students most certainly want to take them and parents are usually in agreement. Adult students often like to enter for a piano exam, because they view this step as ‘progress’; if they can play their piano pieces under pressure, overcoming their nerves, they feel that they have achieved something tangible from their piano-playing journey, and from their piano lessons, if they have them.

I teach just a handful of adult students. One particular student has become a friend, having worked with me for the past seven or eight years, moving from a nervous Grade 3 student to a confident Associate diploma student, an exam which she will take next year. She is preparing to teach the piano (a retirement project!) and therefore, for her, this exam is important because as a teacher, she believes that she must prove her ability via exam results to convince potential students to invest in her lessons.

Over the past five years, I’ve been afforded the luxury and privilege of working with a group of young and able students. Teaching at a specialist pre-college music school that admits students via an audition process and a boarding school with an exceptionally high-level music department, I appreciate that this may be quite a different situation to that of a teacher working from their own piano studio. Recently, four of my students have been of a similar age range (between 8 and 10 years old) and similar ability. Through parental influence, as well as their own preferences, two decided to go down the examination route whilst two others refrained from taking any exams at all.

All four students arrived at around Grade 6 or 7 level when I started working with them. Two chose to immediately work towards the Grade 8 piano exam. Both students learned a lot in some respects, but although their technical grasp improved, as might be expected, we came up against some stumbling blocks. These included scales, as neither had actually ‘practised’ them before, and sight-reading proved another challenge; if students have experienced relatively little of this, Grade 8 can be a daunting prospect, and whilst I spent a good while on quick reading with each student, it’s not something that can be improved over-night and it can take several years of concentrated work to proffer results. Aural practice took some time as well, although this element was mainly taken care of via extra ear test lessons at each institution where I teach. Both students did more or less overcome their issues and passed their exams with good marks, which were achieved after around 9/10 months of solid preparation. This is a considerable amount of a young student’s time, therefore, should one not ask if this valuable time could be better spent elsewhere? And, as most teachers are only too aware, learning just three or four pieces in one year is not the ideal route to achieving technical proficiency at any instrument. As an aside, the new performance-based exams now offered by most music exam boards eliminate all so-called ‘technical work’, which may better suit some students.

My other two students decided to side-step exams altogether, preferring to focus on improving their technique, and, as a result, the difference in their playing was substantial. Free from piano exam syllabus limitations and preparation of the necessary technical work, we spent lesson time focusing totally on technical and musical development, which afforded the time and space to explore movement and flexibility – an aspect of technique which must be routinely honed and cannot be rushed. We didn’t play any scales, and sight-reading was practised at home, in their own time and usually with parental supervision; in my opinion, parent involvement is paramount for this age group. We implemented a sequence of piano repertoire which steadily, and quickly, took them to a far more advanced level than that of the Grade 8 exam. Is this important, you might ask? I feel it is because my duty as a teacher is to enable the student to develop rapidly, and between the ages of 8  – 12 years, students can often make great strides in their playing, if it’s persistently worked at with care. There will, of course, be many schools of thought on this subject, but, where I teach, this is a fairly crucial aspect, as students are often expected to demonstrate their progress over the year via internal exams.

I implemented a programme for my non-exam students; they consistently worked at short pieces including a couple of two-part inventions, a sinfonia, and one prelude and fugue by J S Bach, a small Classical sonata, and an Impressionist style piece. We also worked at a string of studies or exercises, which was the defining factor in their progress. Each piece was studied in detail and was frequently ‘revisited’ over the course of the year, and both students played them in various piano competitions. Admittedly, these were all online due to the pandemic, but still, they were able to benefit from the act of ‘performing’ their pieces, even if on camera.

Were the students daunted? Not really. I gave them a fairly free choice over what they played by offering a large selection of pieces from which to choose, and they were always excited to get going with the next piece. It’s worth noting, too, that students of this age are surprisingly resilient and, if continually reassured, can digest large amounts of notes with ease. I appreciate that this kind of progress only happens with a committed practice routine and plenty of encouragement.

These students are now preparing for various diploma exams. Diplomas are, in my opinion, highly beneficial because it’s always such good practice to prepare the required 30 – 45-minute recital programme.

You might argue that this proves nothing because every student is different. Indeed, they are. Should I even be comparing students, I hear you ask? It wasn’t about comparison. It was an opportunity to determine if piano exams are always worth the precious time and effort needed to secure a good mark.

Whilst Grade 1 is a lovely achievement for the young student playing the instrument as a hobby for fun, we must also consider whether graded exams are a suitable route for those who want to seriously improve their playing, as much time can be wasted taking one exam per year, for example. If a teacher can and does have a ‘plan’ for pupils who want to really develop their technical and musical playing, then that may be an excellent route for those who are up for the challenge, and it just might be a more profitable use of time spent at the instrument.

Read more posts related to piano teaching, here.


Publications

Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


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