Can You Use the Same Pieces When You Try For An Exam A Second Time?

In response to google searches asking “can you use the same pieces when you try for an exam a second time?”:

So, you (or your offspring) have failed a piano exam and you are wondering if you can just polish up the pieces you’ve already kind of learned and give the exam another go, hopefully with a substantially better result. The answer is usually yes, with the following proviso:

Has the syllabus changed? The ABRSM syllabus (for example) changes every two years, and while there is a cross-over period worked into the system you might find that the pieces in question will lapse before the next opportunity for an examination. The AMEB syllabus changes at infrequent (and irregular) intervals, and at the moment there are two different syllabuses running concurrently for the Piano for Leisure exams. So check the syllabus to see if the pieces are still current.

So long as your pieces are still on the syllabus you are free to present them for examination as many times as you like. The exam boards don’t keep Big Brother-like track of you and your repertoire selections, so the examiner won’t peer at you in your next exam, asking “how dare you bring the same pieces in for examination as you did last time?” The examiner doesn’t even realise you failed last time, when you last sat an exam, or anything at all about you (beyond your age and gender, usually).

There are, however, some educational angles you might want to consider before reworking the pieces that didn’t produce a pass result in your exams.

1. It can be discouraging (and boring) to work on the same piece for a very long time. It seems counter-intuitive, but it can be faster to learn a brand-new piece than to keep struggling on with a piece you didn’t perfect for your exam the first time.

2. Your repertoire selection the first time around may have contributed to your failure. Every piece has its own set of challenges; look at the skills required to perform each piece and select a piece that is already within your ability.

3. Maybe the whole exam was too hard, and rather than simply sitting the exam a second time you should spend a year learning a range of new pieces, and once you’ve done that you won’t want to return to the old pieces anyway.

The only time it’s a good idea to use the same pieces when you re-sit an examination is when you are over 14 years of age and the only reason you failed is because you just didn’t do any real practice. In other words, you didn’t properly learn the pieces in the first place. Treat the first, failed exam as a test-run (pun not-quite-intended), and simply continue preparation for the ‘real’ exam.

Under the age of 14 just get on with exploring the world (and the repertoire of the piano) some more, and don’t get hung up on sitting exams. Sit your next exam when you are truly ready, and don’t get talked into sitting an exam that is too hard for you, or that you don’t want to take. But for goodness sake, don’t keep playing the same old pieces, being reminded of your bad examination experience!

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.

How Hard Is a Piece of Music: June 2010 Installment

Exam boards release new graded material from time to time, unpredictably in the case of the AMEB, every two years like clockwork in the case of the ABRSM, and it’s an exciting moment when piano teachers get to take a look at the new material they can/will use with their students over the next few years.

Particularly exciting when a personal favourite makes the cut, or an appealing piece one hasn’t come across before, but the downside is always possible: discovering inclusions that simply are too hard for students to seriously consider performing them in a graded assessment context.

ABRSM doesn’t often stray in this regard – in fact, I’d say that teachers with more than 20 years experience would say that the selections have been getting easier (not harder) over the years.

But the AMEB, with its 100+ pieces per grade syllabus, seems to lurch all over the place in terms of the grading of pieces, often with the same piece ending up listed for two different grades (producing the odd situation where a Grade 1 student can then present a Grade 2 program using one of the pieces from the year before).

One could argue that with the extensive choice the AMEB syllabus affords it doesn’t really matter – teachers can be savvy with their repertoire choices, and all is well, no harm no foul.

But that doesn’t deal with the issue of what being a Grade 2 (say) student means as compared to being a Grade 3 student. If the degree of difficulty fluctuates significantly from one piece to the next then it could be argued that one student achieving an A with a very easy program and another student achieving a B with a wildly ambitious one have in fact sat for completely different examinations.

Some examples:

In Series 15 many old favourites were included, and I think many teachers were excited to see the engaging repertoire that had been selected – with one proviso – about half the material seemed to be graded one grade lowerthan it previously would have been.  The most immediately noticeable example was the Kuhlau “Allegro Burlesco” which had been on the manual list for Grade 6 throughout the 90s then appearing in the Grade 5 Series 15 publication. My own composition, “Mister Bumble” (now published in More Little Peppers) was included as a study at Grade 2 standard; I wrote it as an introduction for Grade 4 students learning to play the F sharp major scale!

Now the fact is that students will learn the fun/cool/engaging pieces even if they are quite hard, but that’s not really the point, is it?  Shouldn’t a Grade 5 exam require students to present music that is of a Grade 5 (not 4 or 6) standard, and to be assessed according to Grade 5 standards?

Series 16 has been even more surprising, with the Khatchaturian “Skipping Rope” which I’ve always considered to be Grade 2 standard (based on the stretches, the key signature, the placement of the hand and movements in hand position, the fast tempo of the piece, the staccato touch while the hand leaps large intervals, and so forth) now appearing as a Preliminary piece. A former Grade 1 manual list piece, Reinagle’s “Minuet” made its appearance in the Series 16 Preliminary publication also, and all in all at least half the material in that first volume is far too hard for “Preliminary”.

Sometimes a piece is graded at a quite difficult level because it has the appearance of being difficult, but when taught a particular way is, in fact, easily mastered.

An example is Larry Sitsky’s “Didgeridoo” which in 2009 was listed as a Grade 2 piece in the AMEB syllabus. While one AMEB committee was approving this inclusion I was busily working away with a different committee producing the P Plate Piano series; we placed this same piece in P Plate Piano Book 2, some 4 levels of difficulty below its placement in the Manual List in the 2009 Syllabus.

How could two different groups of people working within the AMEB have such a different response to the same piece?

The fact is, “Didgeridoo” is really easy – the left hand only plays one note (the C two octaves below middle C) and the right hand only plays two notes (the D flat a semitone above the left hand C for all the right hand notes bar one, which is the E below middle C and occurs in bar 10). So now you all know all the notes! EASY!

What makes the piece look tricky is that nearly every bar changes time signature, and traditionally exam boards have considered changes of metre to be an advanced skill. In fact, the ABRSM is so restrained in terms of metre that in its Prep Test (their Pre-Grade 1 assessment) the student is asked to play a piece in each of simple triple and simple quadruple time – so any piece in say, 5 time, would immediately be disqualified from inclusion in the test. But of course, there is no reason why a piece in 5 time, or a piece that changed time signature for that matter, would of necessity be too hard for the Prep Test! It’s simply an assumption about learning and about educational piano music (that doesn’t reflect 21st century realities).

But “Didgeridoo” looks hard for an additional reason: those notes two octaves below middle C are written on ledger lines. This kind of thinking is the outcome of teaching based on starting the student’s literacy at middle C and gradually adding new notes above and below. By this method a student will not be ‘able’ to read the C two octaves below middle C until well into a Preliminary (or ABRSM Grade 1) standard. Of course, there is absolutely nothing more difficult about playing any one note to any other: the difficulty is only ever about the reading.

If a teacher is looking at any piece of music in terms of what is required to play that piece (not what is required toread it) they will agree that there is nothing overly difficult about changing metre from one bar to the next: the proof of this lies in our students who easily play three-four bars instead of four-four when they fail to read crotchet rests (!) or four-four bars instead of three-four when they play both the minim and the crotchet as two beat notes! Changing metres is no real drama at all – it just looks complicated.

Moral of the story: how hard a piece of music actually is comes down to what you need to do in order to perform it brilliantly, and matching that skill set with the skills your students have acquired prior to learning that piece is the key to ‘accurately’ grading a piece of music.

Post-script: “Didgeridoo” was removed from the Grade 2 AMEB Manual List in the 2010 Syllabus.

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.

Mozzie

This piece might be my most performed piano piece to date.  It has been on the Australian Music Examination Board piano syllabus since 2000, and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music have included it in their Grade 2 Piano exam publication for 2009-10.  As a result, there are YouTube performances a-plenty.  Meantime quite a few people have discovered this blog while searching for information about Mozzie.

So, for the curious, or those seeking some background on the piece, here is the tale of Mozzie.

Back at the end of 1995 I had finally (yet suddenly) made the decision to write educational piano music in earnest, and set myself the challenge of writing just one really good piece of educational piano music before the end of the night (midnight, November 27).  I’d been out to dinner with my family as it was my parents’ wedding anniversary, so I set myself this challenge at about quarter to eleven at night.  So, maybe I was being a bit ambitious.

Well, by midnight I had three pieces I thought might qualify – but midnight is hardly the time to be making sound judgements so I scribbled my ideas down and went to bed.

November 28 dawned, and all three pieces seemed to have met the criteria, and I still had more ideas to try out. I spent the best part of the next week or so writing as many compact piano pieces as I could.  And Mozzie was part of this initial burst of pianistic creativity.  It wasn’t one of the pieces from November 27, I’m almost certain, but definitely from the days that followed.

It was originally published in Pepperbox Jazz Book 1 in 1997, but it was by far the easiest piece in the book, so when I signed up with Faber Music I decided to move it into second book of the five-volume Little Peppers series (Easy Little Peppers), keeping the Pepperbox Jazz title for the more difficult pieces from my educational output.

I’ve had some teachers ask if it would be appropriate to swing the rhythm in this piece, and musically I suppose there is no reason not to.  But the piece is about a mosquito and the mosquito is behaving in a persistent fashion!! Now, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about a persistent mosquito being on the hunt for blood that makes a swing groove seem very wrong!

So please, don’t swing it!  This piece should sound like a hardworking little mosquito who is determined to get you no matter how much you try to shoo it away.

If you are an Australian piano student you might be practicing Mozzie for your Grade 1 AMEB exam, or a student from New Zealand might be learning Mozzie for their NZMEB Grade 1 assessment.

No matter which exam you are taking do make sure that you play the acciaccature (crushed notes) smashing into the note that follows, so it’s almost like this:

And nothing like this:

The examiner will be looking to see if you can use your left hand to create an exciting melody for the first 8 bars and then switch the melody into the right hand for 4 bars before the melody goes back to the left hand louder than ever to finish off the piece.  This means you have to really listen to how loudly you are playing the accompanying part and make a good balance so the story of the Mozzie can be heard.

Good luck to everyone playing this piece in an exam – I hope you all get fantastic marks for this one!

Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

Rather than alter the original post (which would make the comments below somewhat hard to follow) I will leave it as is, but point out that “The Simpsons Scale” certainly does have a name within the jazz tradition, the Lydian-Dominant (just as last week’s scale has a name within the tradition of South Indian classical music, “Mayamalavagowla”), so in reality when I call this scale “The Simpsons Scale” I am boldly naming what hundreds of thousands in the world of jazz have named before. (And note that this scale has a name in the South Indian tradition  [Mouli's comments below]).

Now this scale isn’t actually called “The Simpsons Scale”, but since it isn’t actually called anything [in western theory] I have decided to boldly name what no one has named before.

In reality the Simpsons scale is the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree, but it happens to be the pitch pattern used for the tonic harmonies in the theme music to The Simpsons, so I decree that the scale henceforth be known as…..

Here’s the pattern, in F (because the pattern of white/black notes is identical to that of G Major):And here in C (so it is easy to see at a glance which notes have been altered, and by how much, from a ‘neutral’ major pattern):

And here is how the theme from the Simpsons goes (in seriously truncated form, so that all the notes of the pattern as evident):

This sounds like the Lydian mode, to a casual listener, because the raised 4th is the predominant note in the melodic sequence, while the Mixolydian marker, the flattened 7th, only makes an appearance as the theme wraps up at the every end .  But a careful listener will notice that this is the only kind of 7th note that occurs in the harmony also.

Yes, this pattern has the Lydian and the Mixolydian marker notes, so it’s a kind of Hyperlydian, succeeding in doing both the fundamentally major modes at once.  It’s a sensationally modern take on major, sounding quirky but smart, and full of a very contemporary energy.

I used this “Simpsons Scale” as the basis for my trumpet composition, Go-Goanna, published by Faber Music in their Fingerprints series, and now an ABRSM exam piece (Grade 4). But while Danny Elfman creates the feeling that we are flickering between C Major and D Major, in Go-Goanna the melody is shaped so that it feels like an alternation between C Major and G minor (in transposition), with the G minor leading note (F sharp) as part of the equation.  It’s interesting to me that this same scale produces two equally successful harmonic partnerships from its triads.

It takes a while to become accustomed to playing this scale, obviously to the ear, which is expecting neither the raised 4th or flattened 7th, but more especially to the fingers, who simply refuse to believe that a major-sounding pattern has its two semitones positioned so close to one another.  This is why I included the scale pattern in F – one’s fingers can be tricked into playing this correctly quite swiftly if one focuses on playing that G Major pattern that we know so well, but hearing this brand new pattern! As it turns out, starting on G is a similar proposition: play the white/black note pattern of F Major and you’ll get it first try.  Starting on F sharp can be quite rewarding also, as one can concentrate on playing the C (really B sharp) and the E around the two black note group.

Have a play, and then have your say.  How do you like it, and what does it make you feel?  And is this name, The Simpsons Scale, really the right one??!

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 improvising tests.

The demise of this kind of examination alternative, and of any keyboard musicianship-type component in standard piano examinations suggests to me that teachers stopped teaching these skills somewhere along the way between the end of World War Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  And the fall of the Berlin Wall, for those too young to have watched the news that week, was in 1989, some six years after the release of the Yamaha DX7, which (for the sake of this argument) I’m going to declare as the moment the transpose button started impacting on the performance habits of keyboardists.

Once you can change key at the flick of a switch (or the push of a button) the value of being able to play in any key is somewhat undermined.  And by the later decades of the 20th century it was only pianists who worked with singers performing ‘popular’ music who were regularly needing to be able to transpose at sight or by ear instantaneously.

Add in the rise of the backing track, and the necessity for anyone to be able to transpose fluently on the spot has just about completely disappeared.

So, is my argument that transposing skills are a pianistic ability best relegated to the past?  Well, no.

My argument is that all the practical pressures that lead pianists to develop the skill of transposing might be gone, but the benefits that transposing skills can bring to 21ct century piano students are vast.  So who is teaching their students to transpose? Who is creating pedagogical materials that don’t just tack transposing on as an ‘extra for experts’ suggestion at the bottom of the page? And who is devising curricula that actively seek to provide joyous experiences to students mastering the tonal patterns of the keyboard?

These are not rhetorical questions!  I’d love to know what your experiences are with teaching or learning the skill of transposition.  Why do you do it? What makes it worthwhile? Or, possibly, why did you stop?  And most importantly, does anyone teach transposing anymore?