Judge Not: the question of assessment (beginners)

The really big question when talking about assessing piano/instrumental students is: are external assessments of piano students a motivational tool, encouraging serious effort which certainly would not be made if an external assessment (and the possibility of failure) were not looming OR are piano exams something that strips time from the lesson that could have been spent developing a wider knowledge of the repertoire, a more varied technical expertise and a broader set of musicianship skills? A firmly believed, but often not-expressed, view amongst piano teachers is that the use of graded assessments often ends up being a way for students (and their parents) to compare themselves with their peers, and this competitive perspective can undermine the motivational benefits that an assessment deadline can deliver. I’ve recently been spending a great deal of time considering the benefits of assessments for beginner pianists, many of whom may be as young as five years of age.  It can be exciting for beginner

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What do you look for in a method (book one)?

The P Plate Piano launches began on Sunday with an event at Coffs Harbour (for those unfamiliar with Australian geography, a seaside town roughly halfway up the coast between Sydney and Brisbane) with a small number of piano teachers in attendance.  Notice had been short and, in any case, there are not a large number of piano teachers in smaller centres like Coffs Harbour (population, an estimated 66,000). Having a small group meant that we could run the launch event a little more like a conversation, or a discussion group, and I took the chance to ask the teachers attending about the choice of method book they make for their current students. P Plate Piano Book 1 starts at about the place most method’s book one finishes off, so the discussion was highly relevant to the music we were about to look at. Astonishingly, no two teachers used the same method. Maybe less surprising was the consensus that none of

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Song of Middle C

Ever since I started my piano teaching career at the age of 14, I’ve  attempted to provide appropriate ‘waiting room’ materials for my piano students, things that are engaging enough to promote quiet waiting behaviour for the the 2 or 3 minutes (hopefully no more than that) that might pass between the student’s arrival and the start of their lesson proper. Good and well, but finding books or activities that fit the bill is actually quite a bit more difficult than it seems.  One solution, Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-sections series, seemed ideal – lots to look at, an educational element, all the kinds of things that one looks for in this circumstance. But one day the students started giggling as they looked through, and giggled loudly enough that it was distracting to the student whose lesson was just concluding. Turns out Mr Biesty has incredibly included somewhere tucked away on every page of his cross-sections one poor soul caught in

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P Plate Piano: What is it and why?

On November 1, 2009, throughout Australia, a new series of books from the AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) will be available in all good music shops: P Plate Piano Books 1, 2 & 3. Australian piano teachers will be quite curious about these new books.  The AMEB only publishes materials that are for use in conjunction with their examinations, and the title P Plate Piano doesn’t sound like anything like an examination! And it’s not an examination.  But it is an assessment.  And there’s a difference… But we’ll come back to that later. Firstly, P Plate Piano is a series you can use alongside any of the method books you use now, and the first book corresponds roughly to the skill level a student would have achieved at the end of the first book of any of the well-known method books. The idea of this series is to map out the various keyboard skills and techniques that students need to master

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What are we teaching for?

The purpose of having piano lessons is quite straightforward (one would think): one wishes to learn to play the piano, and by taking lessons one assumes that one will learn to do so. The thing is that ‘playing the piano’ can mean so very many different things. I have often made the joke that when an adult student starts with me they tell that they want to learn to play the piano, but what they really mean is that they want to learn to play “Piano Man”. And in this there is a big clue.  What each person intends when they say that they want to learn to play the piano is highly dependent on the music they know and the music they have seen being made. So, by ‘playing the piano’ do we mean being able to play a Chopin Nocturne? Do we mean being able to play keyboard in a pop/rock group? Do we mean accompanying other instrumentalists

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How hard is a piece of music: exhibit A

The trouble with grading a piece of piano music is that one has to agree that certain things that one can do on the piano should be learned in a particular order.  The traditional view is that the easiest music is where the thumbs share middle C and only white notes are played. Oh yes, and the rhythm should be a simple sequence of crotchets. Meantime, school kids from all ends of the globe gather around classroom pianos to teach each other a sequence of tonic chords (moving around the keyboard, in a swing groove) to be played in duet with a friend playing a melody that requires shifts in hand position (or, I suppose, turning over the thumb) and an extension beyond the five-finger position. And nearly every school child with access to a piano seems to be able to learn this feat of keyboard skill. Should we be taking a new look at what makes a piece of

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