Balanced Programs for Exams

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.

7 thoughts on “Balanced Programs for Exams

  1. Maybe I will be the only person to disagree.

    A balanced program can be achieved through alternate arenas to the examination room.

    Examination, as far as I understood it, examines technicality, understanding of genre and its interpretation, and accordingly, mechanistic artistry – preferably to indicate equality in capability.

    Student self-selection, or showing their personal interest area, doesn’t challenge an all-rounded technician.

    For this reason, I don’t believe this pursuit will encourage excellence in all areas of pianistic skill.

    A talented and visionary teacher will help their student develop personal skills through other performance avenues (concerts, eisteddfods, competitions, weddings, parties, anything!) and introduce those opportunities to their students.

    If a technical, target standard is to be maintained across all music educational boards, then versatility and agility in ALL genres must be mastered. One does not need to pursue all areas to develop their pianistic persona as a performer, per se.

    However, examination of students’ capabilities in the sophisticated eschelons of pianistic virtuosity, should they wish to study to this capacity, surely would require fastidious attention, to embrace the magnanimity of pianistic excellence. To perform under pressure is another skill that is only tested under examination conditions. If a student wishes to become a professional player, they must master this also.

    To downplay the flair of Liszt, JSBach, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Prokofiev, Scriabin (esp. works for left hand), among others, in earlier grades on the AMEB Grade 5-7 list, would be neglectful in preparing Grade 8+ students for the pressure and complexity of other works expected in their upper grade list examinations, and displaying their musical maturity in its interpretation.

    I think that teachers need to be aware of their individual student needs. If their students are not keen to pursue a professional career, then by all means, show them an alternative avenue to performance outside of the musical board examination scenario.

    If the student possesses skills and desires to become a professional player or composer, then I believe they need to face the challenge of skilled examinations. It teaches them to test their own judgement about performance, clarity and technicality as a pianist. And it develops their understanding of composition.

    • I don’t think we disagree, Heather, although I do think that your understanding of what an exam actually assesses might be optimistic! And since the average suburban piano teacher will be involved in the career of approximately zero concert pianists a lot of the great points you make are not applicable.

      I like the bigger point you make: an examination is not in itself a balanced musical experience…..

    • But your comments do raise the excellent question: what is the point of examinations for all those students who have no professional recitalist ambitions? I think there are great reasons for students to sit exams even when they have absolutely no intention of working as professional pianists, but these great reasons do not mean that doing nothing other than working toward an exam is a balanced kind of pianistic education.

  2. I have to admit I have never done an AMEB exam – I have only sat Guild and ABRSM exams. Pretty much all of my pianist friends have all sat AMEB exams, and I have always wondered about the differences I noticed between AMEB and say ABRSM over the years… Didn’t ABRSM start AMEB all those years ago?

    I think you have made some really interesting points Elissa (and Heather!) and I have to digest it all for a bit. I have to say I have always had the same view-point as Heather about all of this, but what you have said, Elissa, about the AMEB exams and the ‘point’ of them, is very interesting and a complete paradigm shift for me!!!

    How then, on an international scale, do grades 1-5 AMEB compare in standard to grades 1-5 of ABRSM, (for example) if they obviously have such different ideas/philosophies about what they are looking for in students sitting one of their exams? Perhaps if you could shed a bit more light on this for me, I will be able to better choose the right exam board for each student more appropriately, depending on their needs and their desires/talent/achievement/interests etc…..


  3. Sorry – one other thing.

    I have had over the years students perform jazzy pieces from the more modern selection of pieces in an exam repertoire.

    Not only do my students love these pieces, but I am also fond of them, being a jazz pianist by trade.

    My approach to teaching these pieces to my students is not that dissimilar to your approach, Elissa, in that we look at ways to explore the pieces in fun and stylistic ways.

    This includes looking at the modes/scales the piece is based on (and improvising on these), looking at the melodic material and how it’s developed (and improvising on this), and looking at rhythmic material (and improvising on this as well). We look at the overall style of the piece and listen to CDs of pieces that are similar (I am lucky to have a big CD collection!) and then we take ideas from these recordings which we could apply to the exam piece.

    My students end up with a great way of playing their piece, bringing it to life in a new and personalised way, and a deeper understanding of what is involved in the playing of this style of music (the nuts and bolts – just as if you were playing a Bach fugue, for example).

    However, I have to say that ABRSM hasn’t been too keen on this approach, from what comments I have received back on my student’s mark sheets with those pieces. They say that if students want to play the pieces with that sort of creativity (where they have changed a rhythm slightly or added grace notes to ‘blues’ it up a bit), they should sit their Jazz Exam syllabus instead… which has been quite disappointing for me to say the least. It makes me feel like I have failed my student or done something wrong, when I truly believe that I approach teaching these pieces in a very well-rounded way.

    My interpretation of the comments has been that they prefer the student to play a jazz piece as it is written exactly on the page – no grace notes, no added rhythmic kicks to drive it on, etc. – which I find completely frustrating.

    Now to my question! Could you please tell me Elissa, what AMEB would do in this situation, where a student sits one of the exams and plays a jazzy piece as part of their exam repertoire, which has been creatively and stylistically interpreted?

    The reason I bring this up, is that you have talked about some interesting things about AMEB and their approach to marking students in their exams (and the well-roundedness of a program) – and I think this question is a good follow-on from this…

    Many thanks!

  4. Hello!
    re: Jazz styled pieces in AMEB exams.

    In my experience as an accompanist in AMEB exams and a piano teacher, creative flair and some improvisation has been warmly received when playing jazz pieces. I think it relaxes the examiner and lets them enjoy the exam, rather than being with a nervous stiff student. After all ‘examiners’ are people too.

    re: balanced programs.
    Thank you Elissa for helping interpret the AMEB syllabus, and the philosophy behind young students taking exams. The syllabus is a complicated document which requires much flipping back and forth to understand their requirements.

  5. I encourage rather than force my students to play a wide variety of music, whether it be for exams or for leisure. If they haven’t tried it, they won’t know if they like it. And there is such a wide range of pieces within one style. I’m sure that within each of the styles of music (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, etc), the student will find something that is enjoyable to them. Students can become good at playing repertoire that they may not be attracted to at first. Over time, they may appreciate and love a range of styles.

    However, for an exam, it is not necessarily beneficial to the student to present music from different musical periods if it’s not required. It may not even be neccessary to present pieces of very contrasting moods. I have a student who does not like playing fast, happy sounding pieces – but that still leaves a lot of choice, especially with the AMEB syllabus.

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