Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

One of my ‘rules’ for a while now has been that students need to do at least 100 hours practice to get from one grade to the next. My assertion is that if you managed a B/merit in your last exam then another 100 hours practice will get you to a B in your next exam. If you want to guarantee a B+ you’ll need to do 120 hours, and if you want to guarantee an A/distinction  you will need 140 hours. Of course, if you only manage 75-80 hours practice you should be only just able to manage a C!! But if you achieved an A/distinction result in your previous exam then 100 hours (or not much more) should deliver you an A result in your next exam too.

I was chatting about this with Samantha Coates (Ms BlitzBooks!) and she was sharing anecdotal evidence she’s been gathering on this idea [that a certain number of hours will get you to the next grade]. Samantha noted that there is no way a Grade 7 student could manage that grade on only 100 hours practice. Bear in mind that 100 hours is equivalent to 20 weeks of 5 hours practice, and I think most piano teachers would agree that that’s not enough, particularly if the student is preparing for the AMEB examination where 4 substantial pieces are prepared with another 2 ‘extra’ pieces, and then many scales and arpeggios as well (besides the sight reading, ear tests and general knowledge requirements).

But what if we were talking about a student who had a much better foundation in the first place? What if our Grade 7 students were able to play through their pieces in the first week? What if lessons didn’t need to be devoted to mastering a myriad of new skills, rehearsing tricky fingerings, writing in reminder accidentals, going over rhythmic stumbling blocks? If students had only a handful of new skills to acquire, and had the experience (and guidance) to grasp what the music was ‘about’ within the first few fortnights, maybe then 6 months of reasonable practice would genuinely be enough?

The way I see it this comes down to two important elements: the kind of foundation the student has in the first place and the kind of teaching/instruction/guidance the student is receiving week by week.

The Foundation

Don’t laugh, but there are teachers who pride themselves on getting their beginner students ready for an exam within the first year of lessons. I think the idea is that being able to help a student rapidly progress to that first exam proves the value of the teacher and the efficacy of the teacher’s approach.

This is usually achieved by means of selecting the easiest pieces in the examination syllabus and spending the best part of the year preparing them (usually via the Lamination Technique discussed in previous posts). So after that first exam students have gained some performance skills and some examination technique skills, but they are unlikely to have mastered terribly many pianistic skills per se. When the next exam rolls around (in the next calendar year) students are already ‘behind’ because they simply haven’t learned all the things expected of a Preliminary (AMEB) or Grade One (ABRSM) student; the new material they are working on poses seemingly endless challenges that are only just mastered in the final three weeks before the examination itself. And then the next year the whole relentless cycle commences again.

If students delay taking this first examination until they genuinely know how to do all the things expected of students at Preliminary (or Grade One) standard then their experience over the next eight or nine years is transformed; instead of spending months puzzling their way through an impenetrable obstacle course of technical, conceptual and notational challenges, students experience music-making from the first to the last lesson of the year, and gain new suites of skills and understandings as the year unfolds.

I’m still not quite sure about this rule, and it is impacted on considerably by the kind of support the student-child receives at home for their pianistic education, but a good rule of thumb for this foundational period of learning prior to taking a graded assessment is that students need about 200 hours of practice from the day of their first lesson through t sitting that first exam. With this amount of solid experience behind them it will be considerably easier to move happily from grade to grade. There’s a bit more to it than this, but this 200-hours-before-the-first-exam is still a good rule.

The Instruction

But not all hours are equal. Mindless practice, or worse – practice with errors of accuracy and technique or absence of vision, is time almost completely without benefit. Appropriate guidance can help students avoid wasting their time, and a really good teacher will save students many hours indeed.

First up is the issue of guiding the student through the repertoire: instead of saying “let’s work on the first two lines this week” a good teacher will introduce the whole piece and isolate areas for that introductory week’s practice – and this introduction will be vastly different from one piece to the next.

An example: A piece of mine, Chase, from Very Easy Little Peppers, is included in the AMEB Preliminary syllabus, and Tess Hill, a wonderful teacher from Western Australia, shared with me her fabulous method of teaching the whole work in two weeks: the first week students are asked to practice the odd-numbered bars, the second week the even-numbered bars, and at the third lesson, some 15 days after the piece was first introduced, the students reintegrate the bars into a complete performance. It works for Chase (brilliantly) because of the way the piece is structured – not every piece will work with this approach by any means! But having an understanding of the structure and demands of a piece allow a teacher to fast-track the learning process and move into the ‘performance’ aspect of the learning much more quickly.

In a Fugue (at the other end of the difficulty spectrum!) you might ask a student to practice the subject wherever it came up in that first week: instead of painstakingly working through 5 or 6 bars of complicated interplay between the hands, with no sense of the structure of the work or which elements of those 5 or 6 bars were most important, the student who has practiced only the various incarnations of the subject will return with a feeling for the way the subject structures the whole fugue, how the hands share the subject, how the subject modulates and modifies while still being ‘the subject’. And how much more interesting to then learn the ‘decorative’ elements, to discover the counter-subjects, to recognise the episodes where no subject is present in any voice, than to muddle through 2-4 bars per week until the three page fugue is (more-or-less) under the fingers (even though it may not yet have penetrated the mind).

Which leads us to the important second point – which is really an offshoot of the first: teachers need to know the repertoire they teach – know it in their heads and know it in their fingers. If you have played through the piece yourself you already know where you’ve been tripped up, where passages didn’t flow naturally, where a modulation took you by surprise, where your expectations were confounded, disappointed or completely blown out of the water. This makes you a much better guide than when you have barely played through the work yourself before assigning it. Students working with teachers who genuinely know the repertoire will find they save at least 5 hours practice, and maybe more like 15 hours, on that work because their teacher has shown them the short-cuts, short-cuts the teacher simply could not have known without knowing the specific repertoire being learned.

So if you are a Grade 7 student needing to learn 6 works for your AMEB exam this could be the difference between 100 hours and 130 hours practice….

Again, there is more to it than simply this (how we run the 30/45/60 minute lesson itself, for instance), but what a difference it does make for our students when we act as experienced guides covering familiar terrain rather than as wide-eyed ingenues enjoying the challenges of the new repertoire as if we are peers of our students rather than their mentors.

6 thoughts on “Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

  1. *LIKE!* Can I also add that teachers shouldn’t feel pressured by the expectations of parents to zoom through that first year. I stress to the parents of my students that it is SO important that we take that time to learn the basics thoroughly as it will affect the students’ musical development forever. I liken it to teaching a child to read. Would you skip learning the ‘sounds’ ie “tr”, “sh”, “nt” or skip learning the alphabet and jump straight to reading from a book? Of course you wouldn’t.

    Great post Elissa!

  2. THANK YOU Elissa. I love this article. It has made me see that spending more time on the basics is so worthwhile… worth the possible dent in the pride as your students don’t initially progress perhaps as fast as some other teachers’, but come out better off in the long run.

  3. Reblogged this on Helen Russell Music and commented:
    A great article from Elissa Milne demonstrating the amount of practice needed for healthy progression through the grades. Notice that she recommends 200 hours practice between the first lesson and Grade 1. So when you ask if your child is ready for Grade 1 yet, just bear this in mind. And remember that the time investment pre-Grade 1 will pay dividends later.

  4. So… as a matter of interest…sorry to raise an old post… does the rule still work when you get past the “grades”? What about CPM, AMusA and LMusA?
    BTW – my daughter is learning Chase at the moment. She’ll have it down in 2 or 3 weeks, not by learning odd and even bars, but because she really enjoys it. 🙂 And of course she arrived at it via “Getting To P” and “Very Easy Little Peppers” and a whole bunch of other pieces her “repertoire rich” fanatic mother encouraged her to tackle. 🙂
    On the subject of fugue … sort of… there’s a nice little podcast on the first invention, which analyses the piece around the first subject. https://soundcloud.com/classicalclassroom/classical-classroom-episode-23

    • Once you get past grades you shouldn’t really be in a headspace where you need these kinds of rules on any level! Hopefully by that stage there’s limited chance of delusion!

      Meantime – I love hearing that your daughter really enjoys Chase! Thank you so much for sharing this with me! 🙂

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