Exam Time

stressed lady

stressed teacher or mum!

Once again we are in the last run-up to piano exam with the usual nerves and anxieties for teacher and pupil alike!  If only children realised the stress they put their teachers through.  When I was a child I can remember thinking how lovely it would be to be the teacher, immune to the worry of approaching exams.  I wish!!

I think one of the biggest worries for the teacher is the unpredictable nature of children.  I never seem to learn this, after many years of teaching.  Once exams are over I seem to have amnesia, as with childbirth, and I forget the process entirely. Then here we are again.  My carefully planned timing is completely undone, and with weeks to go there are children still painstakingly learning scales and notes, never mind my imagined meticulous polishing and adding exciting touches. So what goes wrong?

I think I am an idealist.  In an ideal world all children would practise efficiently every day, they would delight in the musical adventure, laugh at the joy of speeding up scales and eagerly anticipate each new piece. Unfortunately there are very few children who fall into this category.  These children are a real joy, and like other music teachers I see my teaching excelling as our enthusiasm feeds off the other.  But some children are there only because their parents insist, and many more, while they like playing, are only too willing to fore-go the practice.  So while we think pupils are making steady progress, there comes a week when other things get in the way, and then another happy-go-lucky week, and suddenly your plans are ruined and we are into damage control, our tense and tight voices panicking the child who is then ready to bolt, like a startled horse.

I wish I knew the answer…  Allow more time seems a sensible idea, but I’ve found it often means the child delays doing anything.  Some children just will not work until their backs are against the wall, and then it is often too late.  Children are not good at planning ahead and assume teachers are old and fussy and all will be well in the end.  I had one pupil who timed it to perfection.  She started working about 3 weeks before the exam and walked out with a distinction every time, to my great annoyance and increasing grey hairs!  Alas, this doesn’t work for many who usually scrape through, but never really achieve anywhere near their full potential.

Mastering the piano is a skill, and like all skills there are many hidden elements to be mastered. Every Olympian must have complete control over themself in order to succeed. We witnessed this year just how many great athletes failed to reach their personal bests because of faulty timing.

lady playing piano cartoon

self discipline

I guess these hidden elements are:

  1. self-discipline – ensuring daily practice comes first
  2. Taking the right steps, looking at detail
  3. Picturing the goal and being determined to get there
  4. Believing in yourself

Many of these fine traits lead to success in other things and are well worth cultivating. But to acquire them needs commitment from the child and great support from the home.  So teachers – we can only do our best, the responsibility is then with the child.

Time for a glass of wine!!

Should children sit exams?

Library of classical music books

facing exams

Should children sit exam?  Yes that old chestnut again! Just about everyone has an opinion about this, even people who have nothing to do with music, or learning the piano. But somehow it always draws hot debate, with tales of horrendous childhood experiences abounding. Let’s face it, our society is soft on stressing children out, commitment, pressure.  But, although we are conscious of keeping stress down, these are the very things that build life skills and dare I say character.

Piano exams are upon us and for once I feel that our timing is not bad.  Pieces are still nicely in control, and we are relaxing and reaching the peak at just the right moment. But my pupils have worked hard to get to this stage, a year’s work has reached its peak and they are about to reach their reward – not just an impressive certificate, but the satisfaction of knowing that hard work has been done and a bench-mark standard has been reached. Learning piano is a very solitary past-time and it is very isolating to watch friends meeting for band/orchestral rehearsals. Eisteddfods allow some experience, potentially very frightening, of playing for an audience. But what about sitting exams – is it worth the stress and hassle?

As a teacher of 35 years experience, I have fluctuated between a resounding “Yes!” and resounding “NO!”  As a teacher I agonize over every note with my pupils when they sit exams, urging them on over all the fences.  Result – exhaustion!  As a parent I have agonized over every note and urged my children on over all the fences.  Result – “exhaustion!”  I’m sure teachers and parents will relate to that!  When between houses, we lived in a small townhouse with 3 children doing exams each on 2 instruments, the organization and stress was amazing.  Miraculously all the exams were passed.

So what about the children, do they benefit by taking exams?

8 Reasons why Children Should take exams:

  • There is a well-worn path from beginners to advanced (primary to Grade 8 ) which takes 8-10 years and leads to mastery of the instrument.  This standard is international and it is a good yard stick for comparing self with others.
  • Exams ensure that essential steps are not missed.
  • Exams help to build confidence.
  • Exams give a sense of achievement.
  • Exams can be very motivating and tend to make children strive for higher standards than they would otherwise.
  • Exams introduce repertoire that may not otherwise be experienced.
  • Exams provide the firm technical background essential for technique which may not necessarily be achieved otherwise.
  • Exams provide valuable life-lessons for coping with and conquering nerves when in stressful situations.

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5 Reasons not to take exams:

  • Exams can be a very stressful experience if the child is not fully prepared.
  • Exams may take a long time to prepare for, and repertoire may be restricted if the teacher relies on this source for the year’s work.
  • A rigid syllabus can be very limiting for the imaginative child.
  • The goal of passing exams can become the only  reason for taking them. The musical element, what music is all about, can be forgotten.
  • A few parents use exams to watch their child shine and enjoy the reflected glory. They become obsessed with their child passing exams and their child excelling. This can lead to unrealistic expectations.

I now enter all my pupils, who wish it, for exams.  But there have been periods when I have refused to put children into exams.  During that period we were able to do a rich feast of music, adding a range of styles and old favourites into the usual mix.

But I found that, although the sense of freedom was marvelous, it was harder to get the best  out of pupils. It was hard to instill self-discipline into the practice routine because of the lack of enforced deadlines.

My answer is a compromise.  We try to spend at least half the year looking at music outside the main repertoire and then do our yearly exam.  So far I have had no complaints.