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 contemporary work.  Some examples from recent syllabuses:

Carl Vine’s Spartacus from Red Blues (Faber) is a fantastic, energetic and fun-to-play addition to the piano teaching repertoire in recent times.  Almost upon publication it was included in piano syllabuses around the world, as a Grade Seven piece by the Australian Music Examination Board at one end of the grading spectrum, and, by way of grading contrast, as a piece of roughly Grade Five standard by Trinity College London (as it was then) in their First Concert Certificate list.

Christopher Norton’s Microstyles and Microjazz collections (Boosey & Hawkes) were enthusiastically incorporated into the Australian Music Examination Board syllabus in the early 1990s, and these pieces quickly became favourites with teachers and students – as much as anything because they were by far the easiest options at each grade level.

Part of the problem lies with figuring out what value brand-new contributions to the repertoire bring to student pianists.  And the other part of the problem lies with figuring out which bits of these new pieces are actually technically challenging to perform, and which bits are in fact quite easy once you know how.

In the case of  ‘jazz’ and popular style teaching music, such as Christopher Norton’s, the pendulum has swung in an almost three dimensional fashion.  To start with the pieces seemed to be quite hard – all that syncopation and rhythmic anticipation! Well, you couldn’t possibly expect a Grade Two student to be able to cope with that, now could you? Then on the other hand, the students all seemed to learn the pieces quite easily, maybe because they liked them better than the other repertoire?  But then again, to make the pieces sound authentic the student needed a high level of technical sophistry to create the performance.  What to do?

So, what do you think qualifies a piece to be Grade Two as compared to Grade One or Three?

I’ll be writing oh-so-much more on this topic in weeks to come……

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