I’m getting a bit of a reputation for not being terribly keen on my students sitting too many grade exams. And my regular readers (and my students) will already be familiar with the reasons why. But that’s not what this post is about.
This is about two of my students, neither of whom sit grades, and how (and what) they learn instead.
The first is a young beginner who transferred from another teacher. Slightly traumatised from starting grade 1 pieces before she was capable, she was adamant that she did not want to sit grades, and that has not changed in the two years since. What has changed, though, are her skills and her development as a musician. We went back to the beginning together; gently and carefully, looking at notation skills, listening, and learning how to create sound colours at the piano without being ‘literal’ with the dynamics. A quick and clever child, she picked things up rapidly, and has now worked her way through an improvisation based repertoire book, half a duet book, half a Christmas carol book, nearly all of the first Dozen a Day, and has learned four pieces from ‘UpGrade 0-1’. Looking ahead, I have scales and arpeggios planned, Elissa Milne’s ‘Easy Little Peppers’, John Lenehan’s Keynotes series, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Christopher Norton’s ‘Microjazz’, the ABRSM Keyboard Anthology series, and various duets and downloads. This student may never sit a grade exam; her family have had multiple bad experiences and they are communally happy for her to learn for the sake of learning. And if she continues to play for years to come, she will be no different a pianist at grade 8 standard than a pianist who has sat grade 8 itself.
My second student is a more unusual situation; she lives abroad and I teach her via an online client. She is (so far) my only online student, a situation which we began as she was originally a UK resident who moved abroad several years ago and was unable to find a suitable local teacher. This student is very young, and musically gifted. She is 7 years old and has so far worked her way through a list of repertoire that would make a child twice her age take a sharp breath: Piano Time 1-3, Piano Time Pieces 1-2, 2 Microjazz volumes, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Burgmuller Studies op.100, ABRSM Keyboard Anthology 1 and 2, Clementi Sonatinas, Khatchaturian Children’s Pieces, Beatrice Quoniam Etudes (pianissimo, poco forte, and mezzo forte), three Dozen a Day books, and scales in multiple keys. She is currently working her way through the remainder of the Clementi before beginning work on Bach’s 2 part inventions, and is starting the ABRSM Mozart Early Pieces compilation book. Through this broad repertoire, we are working intensively on sound colour, musical narrative, characterisation, physical technique, freedom and strictures of rubato, faithfulness to the score, and interpretive freedom. For her future, I have more repertoire planned; Bach Preludes and Fugues, Mozart Variations, Chopin Waltzes, Grovlez, contemporary music including Jenni Pinnock’s ‘Rain’, and pieces from the ABRSM Spectrum series, Schumann, Scarlatti, the list is endless and my only restriction is the small size of her hands. Grades have not been discussed, and I am not even sure if they are an option in her country (although her state education system is certainly an exam driven one, far more than the UK).
Despite this, these two students are amongst some of the most fulfilled and happy that I have the pleasure of teaching. They have learnt to understand their progress in terms of pieces learnt or skills developed, and they enjoy the process of learning and playing, without necessarily having a certificate at the end of it. And both students enjoy performing; both took part in my student concert last year, and my international student regularly takes part in local concerts.
I have plans for both students; plans which involve gradually more challenging repertoire. And I keep my eye out for which pieces motivated and excited then so that I can gear their repertoire choices more towards their personal preference.
And if either of them change their mind and want to sit an exam, they can do that too. I’m sure they’ll get an excellent mark if they do, due to their background in general musicianship skills and the broad range of repertoire they have behind them.