Issue 93: After the Exams

What do you teach your pupils after their music exam?

Do you plunge straight into the next grade?  I know of many a teacher who does exactly that, and also many a parent who also wants to get on straightaway into the next level. The pupil turns up with the grade book, and the scale book, and the sight reading book, plonks them on the music stand and expects to get stuck in.

That’s not my method.

I like to spend a term consolidating, expanding repertoire, learning a whole slew of short, varied and interesting  pieces at roughly the same standard as the grade that they have just (hopefully!) passed, and also maybe get started on some of the technical work.

I realised a while ago that there were two issues with being a music pupil. (Well, there are many, many more than two, but I’m talking about just these two!)

Firstly, most students don’t have a shelf full of music to leaf through, like they would have a couple of shelves of ordinary books to read. They tend to have just the books they are learning from at the moment, and indeed many students pass their old music on to friends, or charity shops once they have finished with them.

I was lucky enough to have access to my grandmother’s music (dating from 1900, all with the old-fashioned fingering of + for thumb, 1 2 3 4 for fingers!), my mother’s music, my aunt’s music, and who knows what else besides. And we never, or hardly ever, threw away any of my music. To begin with I used the two volumes of Beethoven sonatas to sit on, so that I was the right height for the keyboard, Later on I would try and hack my way through them, and the Greig Lyriche Stucke and Peer Gynt Suite (in incredibly fragile German Krieg Ausgabe editions, as my mother ‘s family comes from Holland). There was Bach, and Mozart, and Clementi, and some old exams books at various grades as well. As a matter of course I would work through all the other pieces in my old grade books, discovering many little gems in the process.

Secondly, students spend their life struggling with the next level of technical difficulty. It is rare for them to be given something easy and quick to learn. So, at the same time as trying to play musically and expressively, they are also wrestling with complex rhythms, terrifying key signatures, or finger-knotting counterpoint.

So I try and give them a term of quick studies – NOT, I hasten to add, the Czerny type of study! I am trying to teach them how to ENJOY learning new music, rather than bracing themselves for yet another demanding brain-bending musical challenge. I’m also sneaking in a load of sight-reading practice without the trauma of the label.

So, for each student, I choose an anthology which will have a couple of pieces, say three or four, that we will skim through over the term (while keeping scales ticking over and maybe adding a few more along the way) before embarking upon the next grade for real.

Then, maybe, when the grade books appear, the pieces might just seem less scary, more approachable, and the step up not quite so large as it would have been if we had just plunged into the next level straightaway.

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