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:

  1. The AMEB Preliminary examination has been getting steadily and substantially more difficult (comparing the syllabus repertoire in the mid-90s with that in 2009).
  2. 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 and 6 years of age, with four-and-a-half year-olds not being uncommon.
  3. Children have highly programmed lives, with activities scheduled every day and with little unscheduled time when practice can be done.
  4. Parents still turn up in the first few lessons asking “how soon will my child be ready to sit an exam?”

These realities mean that whereas once upon a time it may have been possible for a beginner (aged seven and a half) to spend eighteen months acquiring the basics (and practicing twenty to thirty minutes each and every day of the week) to the point of being ready to enter for their Preliminary examination (where five finger positions were rarely ventured beyond), these days it is a rare student who is ready to be entered for this first examination within any less than three years of tuition.

So when the parent asks (in 2009) “when will my child be ready for their first exam?” teachers find that the proverbial piece of string is somewhat longer than it ever used to be.

The impact of the starting age of the beginner on this answer simply cannot be overemphasised, but even then the fundamental factor contributing to a student’s readiness for sitting an exam is the amount of practice they have done.  Students who manage 90 minutes practice a week will take twice as long to progress as students who manage 3 hours.  And this commitment to daily practice is almost entirely out of the control of the piano teacher.

To an extent, it may also be out of the control of the parent. Younger children’s attention span is not as long as that of older children, and for children under the age of seven it is utterly counterproductive to insist that the child park themselves on the piano stool for the requisite period of time irrespective of their engagement with the instrument.  And when both parents are working, even part-time, it can be difficult to find time on a daily basis for both parent and child to spend time together at the keyboard.

P Plate Piano was a project the Australian Music Examination Board brought to me in the first half of 2008, then simply titled Pre Preliminary Piano Project.  The idea was to create books and assessments that would ease these pressures on all concerned.  By having a systematic program to work through, with matching assessments, teachers could enter students for their ‘first exam’ as early as the first year of lessons, even with younger starting ages for beginners and less practice time.

And by having three levels at which students could be ‘assessed’ before beginning on the traditional Preliminary standard these younger beginners would have ample encouraging assessment experiences before being subjected to a fully graded examination.

Finally, the ever-more-difficult Preliminary standard would no longer be an impediment to students keen to participate in AMEB examinations.

These issues are somewhat Australia-specific, in that the Australian Music Examination Board is the dominant player in providing instrumental assessments in Australia, and the AMEB does not operate outside Australia.

But I suspect that the problem of younger beginners and less practice time is one that piano teachers around the world grapple with every day, whether examinations are part of the music education culture or not.

5 thoughts on “Younger Beginners & Piano Exams (in Australia)

  1. This is brilliant, Elissa. Thank yo so much for publishing it. It reflects many of my own thoughts on the matter, and some more besides. Would you mind if I printed this, in order to leave it on my waiting-room table, for parents to read?

    I think that another reason for pupils (or their parents) expecting exams to be taken too early is the fact that they see other people playing other instruments (or sometimes themselves if piano is not their only instrument) taking exams and seeming to move along the Grade Ladder much more quickly. I often have to explain to them that, whereas most instruments use single line notation and require only one note to be played at any one time, piano uses two clefs and two hands simultaneously. Not to mention one or two feet. This does tend to mean that reaching exam levels takes a little more time.

    A useful way, I’ve found, for filling in the “If I can’t do an exam, what goal can I have?” time is a termly pupils’ concert. Not only a goal, but useful experience in performance. And, of course, fun (an idea often missed out by people who just want to hammer through the exam ladder).

    Not quite the same thing, I know, but I teach several people with quite severe degrees of learning difficulty. While these people may cope with the ABRSM Prep Test, they often find the needs of any further exams too difficult. I’ve found it really useful to have a friend or two who actually are ABRSM examiners and who are willing to examine these pupils according to a test that I devise specifically for each one, taking into consideration their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Each test is devised to be a challenge to them, but not an insurmountable one. And they receive a printed mark sheet and certificate afterwards.

    You said that your article here is Australia-specific. Well, mine is England-specific. But I think we do meet in the middle quite a lot!

    Best wishes

    Sue Greenham

  2. Well, you are right about the problem existing all over. Here in the states, there are a number of competitions one can be involved in at all different ages, but parents can choose a teacher who participates in these curriculums or not. To be a piano teacher, you don’t have to be a member of certain organizations. As a matter of fact, we teachers have to educate the parents about the opportunities that are available to children. A lot of parents just know that piano lessons will be good for their child, but are not interested in participating in the intense competitions available for young students. So, unless a student has transferred from a previous teacher who participate in these (or took lessons as a child with one of these teachers), the parents don’t often ask about competitions for young students.

    But all of this to say that no matter whether the parent is competition driven or not, parents just don’t allow enough time for their children to practice and often too much time is not fitting for their overscheduled or overstimulated child.

  3. Thanks for this great post, which I have just read today, having not looked at your blog over the holidays. I was just talking to my husband about how difficult the Preliminary syllabus seems to have become of recent years, so I’m glad to read your comments here and see it’s not just my imagination! I also agree with Sue G. on the differences between piano and other instruments, and while it might be possible for some students to take eg 1st grade flute in the first year of study, it is unlikely that a student could do preliminary piano in the first year. Ballet students, also, seem to start exams quite early. I can see why “non-musical” parents expect their child to be taking exams quite early. I think concerts are an excellent idea when possible, but a teacher friend of mine commented to me on the difficulty in finding a venue due to the lack of good pianos in public halls, and due to insurance issues in schools. I teach in a small studio at home and it is not an option to hold a concert there. Another possibility is for a student to work on producing a CD. My daughter’s sax teacher did this and my daughter had a CD to give to relatives one Christmas with her pieces from the year.
    Personally I doubt that I would ever put a child in to a P-Plate Piano exam, (don’t need to add any more exams to my teaching year!) but I can see the reasoning behind it, and the need for it.

  4. What a true analysis of preliminary standards today compared to 20 or even 30 years ago. The time needed to prepare a 5 year old is almost 3 years. The difficulty in the pieces being the major issue. This article should be read by every teacher and examiner.

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