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 lower than 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 to read 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.

7 thoughts on “How Hard Is a Piece of Music: June 2010 Installment

  1. Did you just BASH ABRSM? I actually take the ABRSM tests…gonna do 6th grade practical end of this year. To me, they get harder, it’s going from grade to grade is harder. Maybe if you look at all the pieces from over the years for one grade level they are getting easier (not sure…gotta do some research), but going from grade level to grade level isn’t easy.

    Your blog is interesting, can I add you to my blogroll?

    • No I didn’t bash ABRSM!!! And of course Grade 1 is easier than Grade 2 and Grade 6 is harder than Grade 5!! But the Grade 6 you are sitting in 2010 has easier repertoire than when I sat Grade 6 back in 1980, and you only need to prepare three pieces, whereas I presented four! In addition, there are pieces that ABRSM has previously had as Grade 3 pieces which more recently have appeared as Grade 4, and so on. My blog to-do list includes writing a piece detailing some of these changes….

      Grade 8 hasn’t changed much over the years, however, and I’m sure that these days students experience quite a gap between the level of difficulty of Grade 7 music and the level of difficulty of Grade 8 repertoire.

      I’m thrilled you find my blog interesting, and of course you may add me to your blogroll!!

    • I took Grade 1 back in the late 1960’s !! THe pieces I played were at least as difficult as today’s Grade 3 repertoire. I have no doubt at all that significantly easier pieces are now set at each grade level than 40-50 years ago. ON the other hand I think that a certain style of useless non-teaching that was prevalent when I was a young learner has almost disappeared, and that is a good thing.

      [I know that anecdotes are not evidence, but people do like to hear them … especially when they confirm their own experiences and opinions!!]

  2. It’s the same with singing exams. The songs on the AMEB Singing For Leisure list are often stupidly graded. Richard Morphew (years ago) published a list of suggested musical theatre repertoire, which he organised in levels from Gr 5 to Gr 8. “Colours of the Wind” features as a Gr 6 suggestion on his list. However, when the SfL syllabus was published, the same song is listed as a Gr 2 song. There’s an enormous difference between the two levels and to be honest, I don’t believe either grading is correct for this song.

  3. Hi Elissa.

    Interesting article – thanks.

    Any thoughts on your own composition – Groovy Movie – in grade 1 PFL? Seems full value to me!

    • Groovy Movie is more like a Grade 2 piece in my opinion too! The key indicators of that grading are the finger position changes in the left hand part (extending beyond the five finger position, compressing the hand into a four-note five finger position, changes of finger on the same note), the rhythmic challenge of playing three crotchets in a six-eight time signature, and the non-symmetrical nature of the two hand run at the end of the piece.

      On the other hand, none of these elements in itself would require a piece be graded higher than Grade 1 – it’s simply the accretion of mild challenges that would suggest a Grade 2 grading might be more appropriate.

      But Piano for Leisure is roughly half grade more difficult in the repertoire than the standard Piano exam in the AMEB syllabus, so in THIS context the grading is probably spot on.

      • Thanks for your views – on the strength of that I’ll stop whinging about AMEB sandbaggers and get back to work on it.

        By the way, I’d definitely add bar 14 to your list – I haven’t seen anything like it in my admittedly limited experience, and succeed in mangling it on almost every attempt.

        That said, it’s a great little tune – I do have the CD so I know what it’s supposed to sound like!

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