I’ve just completed a tour of the four of the major centres in Australia (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) and three of the smaller ones (Coffs Harbour, Launceston and Geelong) with the Australian Music Examination Board launching the P Plate Piano publications and assessments to groups of piano teachers.
More of these launch events will take place in the first few months of 2010, but the eleven events we’ve already done gave a good insight into the issues piano teachers grapple with getting students ready for their first (Preliminary) AMEB exam.
In my seminar I talk about the four pressures Australian piano teachers are feeling in regard to their beginners in 2009:
- The AMEB Preliminary examination has been getting steadily and substantially more difficult (comparing the syllabus repertoire in the mid-90s with that in 2009).
- Piano students are starting lessons younger. Whereas most beginners were 7 or 8 years of age twenty years ago, in 2009 beginners are often 5 and 6 years of age, with four-and-a-half year-olds not being uncommon.
- Children have highly programmed lives, with activities scheduled every day and with little unscheduled time when practice can be done.
- Parents still turn up in the first few lessons asking “how soon will my child be ready to sit an exam?”
These realities mean that whereas once upon a time it may have been possible for a beginner (aged seven and a half) to spend eighteen months acquiring the basics (and practicing twenty to thirty minutes each and every day of the week) to the point of being ready to enter for their Preliminary examination (where five finger positions were rarely ventured beyond), these days it is a rare student who is ready to be entered for this first examination within any less than three years of tuition.
So when the parent asks (in 2009) “when will my child be ready for their first exam?” teachers find that the proverbial piece of string is somewhat longer than it ever used to be.
The impact of the starting age of the beginner on this answer simply cannot be overemphasised, but even then the fundamental factor contributing to a student’s readiness for sitting an exam is the amount of practice they have done. Students who manage 90 minutes practice a week will take twice as long to progress as students who manage 3 hours. And this commitment to daily practice is almost entirely out of the control of the piano teacher.
To an extent, it may also be out of the control of the parent. Younger children’s attention span is not as long as that of older children, and for children under the age of seven it is utterly counterproductive to insist that the child park themselves on the piano stool for the requisite period of time irrespective of their engagement with the instrument. And when both parents are working, even part-time, it can be difficult to find time on a daily basis for both parent and child to spend time together at the keyboard.
P Plate Piano was a project the Australian Music Examination Board brought to me in the first half of 2008, then simply titled Pre Preliminary Piano Project. The idea was to create books and assessments that would ease these pressures on all concerned. By having a systematic program to work through, with matching assessments, teachers could enter students for their ‘first exam’ as early as the first year of lessons, even with younger starting ages for beginners and less practice time.
And by having three levels at which students could be ‘assessed’ before beginning on the traditional Preliminary standard these younger beginners would have ample encouraging assessment experiences before being subjected to a fully graded examination.
Finally, the ever-more-difficult Preliminary standard would no longer be an impediment to students keen to participate in AMEB examinations.
These issues are somewhat Australia-specific, in that the Australian Music Examination Board is the dominant player in providing instrumental assessments in Australia, and the AMEB does not operate outside Australia.
But I suspect that the problem of younger beginners and less practice time is one that piano teachers around the world grapple with every day, whether examinations are part of the music education culture or not.