Younger Beginners & Piano Exams (in Australia)

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

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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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P Plate Piano: the composers in Book 1

The P Plate Piano series will be available for sale in Australia on November 4, so I think it’s time for me to talk about the composers whose material I’ve used to create this series. Book 1 starts at roughly the point that a traditional method Book 1 ends – students are expected to know the basic mechanics of playing notes on the keyboard, reading steps and skips (2nds and 3rds), staccato and legato, rests, basic dynamic markings, and to be comfortable playing black notes and reading flats and sharps when placed directly before a note, while all the time playing within a set five-finger position. There are precious few composers who choose to create works within these extremely restricted parameters, but I found that, about 200 years after piano lessons really started taking off in the middle class, there is now at least a body of work from which to select the very best at this early stage of study,

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Does anyone teach transposing anymore?

The title of this blog entry is a little misleading, as in fact I wonder if anyone ever did teach transposing to more or less every student who passed through their door. But be that as it may, I genuinely do wonder if anyone does teach transposing anymore. Once upon a time piano exams would include some kind of exercise that needed to be performed in a variety of keys. In the 70s and 80s (when I was taking piano examinations myself) the English examination board Trinity College required students in the lower grades to perform the first few bars of some of the exam pieces in either the dominant or the subdominant, or a tone higher or lower, or some other pair of transposing options according to the grade of the exam.  During this time both the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College also offered Keyboard Musicianship examinations, which consisted of aural, sightreading, transposing and

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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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The Dominant is Daggy

For readers from the northern hemisphere and non-English speaking backgrounds, “daggy” is a wonderful word used in Australia and New Zealand to denote that which is embarrassingly out of fashion…. It was back in 2005 when I attended a Rolling Stones concert (for the first time in my life) that I realised what made the Rolling Stones so ‘cool’:  the almost complete absence of the dominant chord in their tunes.  More than that, in fact, because this absence of the dominant was accompanied by an abundance of the subdominant. This is all classical-speak for saying that the Rolling Stones use chord I and chord IV (C and F, for instance) and almost no chord V (G). Now, I haven’t sat down and catalogued the occurrences of the various kinds of chords in Rolling Stones numbers to be able to support this assertion, but certainly in the play list the Rolling Stones for that September 2005 Madison Square Gardens appearance the

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How hard is a piece of music?

For piano teachers working in countries with a strong examination culture (this means anywhere that is, or once was, part of the former British Empire/current Commonwealth) there is a general consensus about how hard certain pieces of piano music are.  And this general consensus revolves around an idea of ‘grading’ – that a piece of music ‘is’ Grade One, or Grade Five, or Grade Eight. No one ever talks very much about what makes a piece have Grade One-like qualities rather than the qualities of a Grade Two piece.  But, within a teaching culture where the lesson is almost entirely focussed on the exam, teachers develop an acceptance of the gradings given to pieces by the examination boards they choose to use, and this becomes the basis for intuiting a degree of difficulty for new repertoire.  If the piece ‘feels’ like Grade Four, then Grade Four it must be. The challenge to grading new repertoire is most keenly felt when grading

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