I’ve been running around Australia saying to piano teachers not to bother trying to create balanced programs with their students pre-Grade 8, and of course teachers have been responding with “but students are required to present balanced programs”.
Some exam boards, like Trinity College London and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, allow a very narrow choice of repertoire (just 6 pieces per list for ABRSM) in comparison to the AMEB, and students are completely free to choose any of these six pieces to make up a program of three works. The assumption from the examination board is that your program will be balanced because they have grouped pieces in such a way that you will always end up with a range of styles, speeds and moods.
But teachers believe that the AMEB syllabus requires them to select a ‘balanced’ program, in addition to selecting pieces from each of the three or four lists, and so students end up presenting works that do not necessarily showcase their strengths or reflect their interests.
And yet the AMEB syllabus is quite clear that beyond selecting one work from each of lists A, B and C (and also from List D from Grade Five onward) students are under no further obligation to create ‘balance’.
It is only once students are preparing a program post-Grade 8 (the Certificate of Performance or the Associate and Licentiate Diplomas) that the notion of ‘balance’ enters the equation, and that is because it is only at this level that students are preparing to present recital programs, and it is only at this level that students may select from groups that are so widely drawn that there is no guarantee of historical and/or stylistic balance without the syllabus specifying that candidates must have this consideration (of balance) in their selection of works.
Has the syllabus changed?
In 2010 Grade 1 students must make a selection of four works from a total of 121 pieces. I am reasonably confident that this amount of diversity and choice was not available 50 years ago! When you do the maths on the range of choices you realise that there are nearly 700 different combinations of Canon and List A (Study or Baroque) piece, and there are exactly 547,008 possible programs a student can present for their Grade 1 AMEB Piano exam. (I think even those working for the AMEB would be surprised at this statistic.)
So, should a student be seeking to present a balanced program, even though the syllabus doesn’t require it? No! A student should be seeking to demonstrate their mastery of keyboard skills, and doing so to their own best advantage. Balance is already achieved in part through selecting from the pre-determined stylistic groupings, as you are required to do.
If you want to take the notion of balance a step further first follow this checklist:
• Choose pieces students can learn easily and well
• Choose pieces students will enjoy performing
• Choose pieces that match the personality of the student
• Choose pieces the student likes
Then look to see if you have chosen pieces that are all by the same composer, all major, all in triple time, all at an adagio page, or all using acciaccaturas (and so forth). If it turns out you have, then maybe yes, you should consider changing one selection to create a contrast of mode, metre or mood, but once there is the slightest contrast in half these areas, your job is done!
Now focus on helping your student tell the story of each piece: even pieces which have striking similarities end up telling vastly different stories if the performer is nuanced enough to notice and express the difference.
And maybe this discovering ways to tell many kinds of stories is where students start to develop the breadth of musical narration that will help them perform recitals with stylistic balance once they reach a post-Grade 8 performance assessment.