29 January 2012

How to Pass a Piano Exam

Walk round the maze of back streets in Hong Kong or venture inside one of the less glitzy shopping centres and you will almost certainly pass a private music school.  The vast number of these places in Hong Kong bears testament to the value Chinese parents place on their children learning a musical instrument. 

You won’t be able to see in through the windows of these schools because they will be smothered in photocopied sheets of handwritten paper.  Look closer and you will see that these are the report forms from ABRSM examiners and Hong Kong Schools’ Music Festival adjudicators.  Even closer inspection will reveal that these reports – some going back years – show students from the school achieving wonderful results; Distinctions and First Places by the dozen, a handful of Merits, but not a single mere pass or even a failure.  The intention is clear; Send your child to us, they are guaranteed a really good result.  Chinese parents may be willing to spend a large amount of money on getting their children to learn a musical instrument, but they don’t invest an equal amount of thought in selecting the best school, and in the absence of a critical analysis of what’s on offer, they are clearly swayed by these bits of paper stuck to the outside window.

Of course, anybody who stops to think for a moment will realise that these reports are highly selective and that the school will have had its crop of mere passes and failures.  For nobody can absolutely guarantee that a student will get a Distinction in an exam or be first in a Competition; they may deserve it, but they may not get it.  The best one can do is guarantee a pass but, funnily enough, I’ve never seen one of these schools make that claim. 

I can, though!  I guarantee that any pupil of mine will pass a music exam.

Nonsense, you will be saying, if you could really do that you would be making a fortune teaching in Hong Kong. 

I stand by my guarantee, but there are two very clear reasons why this won’t wash with Chinese parents.  Firstly, while I can guarantee my students pass, the guarantee can only be made on the proviso that I decide which exam the student is to take and when it is to be taken.  This flies in the face of Hong Kong parental desires, which is, in a nutshell, one grade up every year, the whole aim being to reach the diploma at the youngest imaginable age. 

I frequently tell the story of a diploma guidance course I ran in Hong Kong when the subject of pedalling came up.  I suggested that too many students had no real understanding of the function or use of the piano pedals.  A question came from a lady in the audience who was a teacher.  “What if the student can’t reach the pedals?”  My advice was that they should chose repertory which did not call for pedals.  “The student is playing a Chopin Nocturne” I was told.  In which case, was my response, she must change her programme.  “She can’t”, came the retort, “the exam is next week”!  It turned out the student in question was aged 10 and was doing an ATCL.  When I learnt that the lady was not just the teacher but the mother as well, I turned on her and berated her angrily for destroying any musical future her daughter might have had.  At 10 to have done nothing except work for exams is bad enough, but what was to happen next?  “Once she’s done her FTCL at 14 she can concentrate on her schoolwork”.  In which case all the money and time spent on her musical tuition has been wasted since she will surely never go back to the piano which she will have been taught to regard merely as an examination vehicle.  (A nice postscript to this is that, whenever I have given a talk in Hong Kong since, the mother and daughter have always been in the audience and usually come up afterwards for a chat.  My words hit home, the girl never sat the ATCL, and is enjoying playing for fun, planning to tackle the diploma when she’s finished her school exams.)

The second obstacle to my making my fortune teaching in Hong Kong is that I regard assimilating musical experiences as a vital part of the learning process.  So my lessons include a lot of listening, a lot of discussing and a lot of repertory half learnt.  Parents do not like to pay for lessons if their child is not complaining about all the hard work they have to do; pupils go back from my lessons saying they enjoyed listening and talking and never played a note, and parents decide to send them to a teacher who makes them “work”.

So, how can we bridge the gap between musically ignorant parents’ demands and the demands of giving students a worthwhile educational experience?

The obvious thing is to educate the parents, but when I have tried to organise parents’ meetings to tell them what is involved in true music training, they never turn up.  By paying the teacher, they feel they are absolved from further involvement other than what they regard as their right as paymasters to dictate the exam schedule.  Young teachers, in need of money and trying to establish a solid teaching base, cannot allow ethics to enter into their life and they meekly submit to these parents’ demands.  The result is generations of youngsters who feel that Classical Music is not fun but merely a competitive sport which, once having passed all the hurdles, ceases to have any relevance.  That is why, despite candidate numbers in their tens of thousands in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, professional concerts attract very few music students.

So, to get back to the issue, how can I, or any other teacher, guarantee a pass at a music exam while the pupil derives some meaningful and lasting benefit beyond bits of parchment stuck on bedroom walls or hand-written reports used as publicaity materials for commercial ventures?

Firstly, a lot of time must be devoted to teaching the student to listen.  This has two benefits.  It immeasurably enriches their own performances by expanding their aural capacity to differentiate between the playing right notes and performing a good interpretation.  If you play Bach at Grade 6 but have never heard the Brandenburgs, the solo Cello Suites, the Magnificat or Goldberg Variations you’re clearly under-prepared.  If you play Debussy at Grade 8 and have never heard a professional pianist do the Préludes or Children’s Corner you’re never going to do it well.  Listening also opens up the ears so that the aural tests come as second nature.  Any teacher who has to “teach” the aural tests before an exam is a bad teacher – they should have been doing it at every lesson.

Secondly, a lot of non-examination music has to be learnt before the exam pieces are even attempted.  This develops two more skills; an increased familiarity with the geography of the keyboard which is not just learnt in relation to a specific piece or two, and an ability to grasp a musical concept quickly.  In relation to the exam, this makes learning the pieces so much easier, and immeasurably enhances sight reading skills – which are uniformly abysmal amongst Hong Kong students.

Thirdly, talking and discussing the music gives the student “ownership” of their performances and makes them determined to present them convincingly to the examiner or adjudicator.  It also makes the Musical Knowledge aspects of the Trinity exams – an area which is incredibly badly done by the vast majority of Asian candidates – second nature.  How often at Grade 4, for example, when you ask a candidate how they identify the key of a piece, they cannot answer.  They have been told it’s in F minor but have not been told why.

Fourthly, you devote some time every lesson to basic technical exercises.  Not hours and hours of sterile scales and arpeggios which teach a kind of mechanical sequence of fingering, but genuine exercises which develop supple fingers and establish correct hand positions.

Students fail exams because they are underprepared, because they have no understanding of the musical content of what they play and because they can’t listen.  My students are taught to do all of those things, so they can’t fail.

[I will be running a series of seminars in Hong Kong and Singapore during March and April about How to Pass Exams.  Contact me via this blog for more details.]


  1. priya chaturvedi29 January, 2012 21:55

    As a music teacher in India, I find I have to contend, with wearying regularity, with parents who have a 1 point agenda for their children: Get That Certificate. Your remark about instruments being just a vehicle for examinations is spot- on. They don`t want to listen except to themselves and music means their fingers on the keyboard, everything else being a `waste of time`.

  2. Very good points you made in your article. I have experience with Far Eastern musicians and students as well as those in the Middle East.
    Those from Japan and Korea are most concerned with literal interpretations. I taught some voices students from both countries and when they sing the repertoire they learned from their native teachers, almost invariably they don't know the content or meaning of the words, or were even told these may be useful or important. Their teachers are gods however, and if you disagree with some sensei's trying to turn a mezzo soprano into a SumiJo, they will never listen to you, rather believe what their teacher said even if it highly dysfunctional for them.
    Certificates may be important in the Middle East but even more alluring is the prospect of winning competitions. These are usually internal and carry substantial money prizes which are not really related to the students' abilities or acheivements so much. When done in such a manner, they give a false impression of their true standing in the outside world that is populated by the same Far Eastern prodigies who can run circles around them.

  3. You have very accurately analysed the piano learning environment in Singapore too. May you please send me details about your seminars. My email address is klfiyuen@singnet.com.sg. Thank you.

  4. Dear Dr. Marc,

    The only thing i have to say is that, i wish you were my music teacher. Unfortunately, i'm at the ATCL level now, but i still think its not too late for me to correct my mistakes :)

  5. wow great advice thanks! what do you think of my site's page about sight reading tips?? Thanks

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