Exams or not?

Questions on learning to play the piano, and piano music.

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Katmid
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Exams or not?

Post by Katmid » 04 Oct 2008, 19:50

Hi all,

I've been following the forum for a while and found it very useful so I'll take the opportunity, before anything else, to thank you all for the great info and advice... I even found my piano tutor on here. :D

But, finally, it seems I have a question that hasn't already been answered - or at least I haven't found the answer. :wink:

I had my first lesson the other day and my tutor asked what I wanted to achieve and if I wanted to take exams. I really don't know. I like structure, I like goals and I like to know how I'm progressing, which makes me think exams would be a good idea, but I wonder if there's actually any purpose to them. I read a debate on the forum about people who work through the grades but still can't play properly or creatively. Ultimately, it's highly unlikely that I will play for anything other than my own enjoyment so perhaps I should not bother with the grades and exams and stuff.

What are your thoughts?

Cheers,
Kat

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Post by joseph » 04 Oct 2008, 20:11

Exams, if used wisely, will provide a structure to your learning and goals to work for. They are very useful in that respect.

When used as an end in themselves, they become boring and can hinder progress. This is usually the case when the pupil isn't motivated which can be as much the fault of the pupil as of the teacher, or when the teacher just sits back and says 'thats fine, i'll hear it again next week' without actually providing goals in the repertoire to work towards (like touch, tone, phrasing etc)

When all is said and done in my own teaching I am all for exams. I use them in conjunction with other repertoire.

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Post by Gill the Piano » 04 Oct 2008, 20:26

You like goals and you like to know how you're progressing. Exams are goals. So...?
Exams are just an evaluation. If you're happy with your teacher's evaluation of how you're playing, you don't have to get Grade V by next year for your academic requirements, and you haven't got an overachieving mummy who wants you to be better than little Tarquin next door, then you don't need exams. If you are all the things I've just mentioned BUT are a lazy tart like me who doesn't do enough practice, then exams will MAKE you practice, and you need them! But make sure they're leavened with repertoire. All exams and no repertiore makes the pianist a bad one, however many grades they have! :)

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Post by joseph » 04 Oct 2008, 21:03

The little Tarquin complex! I hate all that 'but tarquin is doing his grade 6 and he's only 10, My Emilia is 12 and you're only letting her do grade 5, why are you holding her back?!'

Actually I have a real life case at the moment where mummy who has grade 3 and knows everything about piano playing says 'I don't want little euphemia (not real name) to do exams because I just don't see the point of her playing the same pieces over and over again, besides, she can already play her pieces and you say she can't'

The fact is little euphemia doesn't practise properly and SORT OF gets most of the notes right, and SORT of gets the timing right and SORT of uses the right fingering - well, she uses the ones on her hands anyway - and whenever I put forward the suggestion that perhaps she should practise slowly I get hell from the mother and tears from the child 'I CANT i CANT its NOT FAIR MR FLEETWOOD YOU ALWAYS SAY THAT'.

She also thumps 7 bells of crap out of the piano in every note she plays. I'm so glad she's a school pupil and not one of my private pupils!

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Post by Katmid » 04 Oct 2008, 21:25

Why, Euphemia sounds like a little angel, Mr Fleetwood!!! :P

I probably should've mentioned that I'm 30 and my Mum's tone deaf and my Dad's just impressed that I can read music on the basis that he can plonk by ear but music might as well be dutch for him - hehe!

Anyway thanks for the advice - I can be a bit of a lazy tart, but I have wanted to learn for the best part of 15 years, so my enthusiasm is right up there at the moment. Perhaps that might not be the case in a few months. :wink: Perhaps the best bet is to see what happens and maybe take the decision to do exams at a later date.

Cheers all - uk piano forums save the day again! Hehe!

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Post by markymark » 05 Oct 2008, 01:40

There is absolutely nothing wrong with piano grades provided that the examination music isn't the only stuff you are playing. It is sad to say that even the best teachers are not teaching skills such as improvisation and playing by ear. I was horrified when I heard Myleene Klass trying to play Auld Lang Syne on the BBC broadcast for the new year. Again a classically accomplished musician, but based on that performance, not impressed in terms of playing by ear.

Anyway, provided your teacher helps you with this - and provided you help yourself cos there is a lot of stuff out there to help you play outside of traditional classical, music-reading driven teaching - then you will be fine as far as the creative playing issue goes. Perhaps this is something that you can build into your long term goals that your teacher was trying to discuss with you prior to your first 'normal' lesson.

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Post by joseph » 05 Oct 2008, 09:33

I could be wrong but I think Myleene Class played the harp at junior academy, not the piano. Then she trained as a musical theatre singer.

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Post by markymark » 05 Oct 2008, 14:15

I rememer her doing an interview with Johnathan Ross I think when she was talking about the new release of her CD in which she was playing the piano. She went on to say that she holds Grade 8 in piano.

According to this article, she has been playing piano since she was 4 years old and harp since she was 11.

http://www.biogs.com/imacelebrity/klass.html

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Post by joseph » 05 Oct 2008, 14:33

like I said, you can have grade 8 piano and still not play very well :wink:

Still, i'd swap with her! Given the opportunity I'd sell out too!

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Post by markymark » 05 Oct 2008, 14:47

Her CD is very good, but it's like I said, improvisation and playing by ear are two very useful skills to have but I wonder how many teachers are teaching it? Personally I think it's irresponsible of teachers not to teach it to some level or other. Trinity Guildhall have built this component into their revised syllabus and examinations in favour of the traditional ear-tests.

Obviously, due to her music training, improvisation isn't Myleene's forte, but her strengths are in her performing, which comes back to my point about performers not always being the most "rounded" and fully developed musicians either to be teaching others. She is a graduate from the Royal Academy of Music so she's a little beyond Grade 8 standard, Joseph....

Warning, Joseph! I am feeling argumentative today!

Well, you never know - a talent scout may try to snap you up during your tours. Maybe then, we'll see you in the next top pop group, or presenting the BBC new year show, playing Auld Lang Syne in the early moments of 2009?? :wink:

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Post by Katmid » 06 Oct 2008, 00:42

Thanks again chaps... I fear it shall be many a year before a BBC talent scout is likely to sniff anywhere near me... either that or there will be some sort of disaster in which all the musically talented people in the world are somehow lost! :wink:

Thanks for the advice on playing lots of different music. Fortunately I have a very broad musical taste and there is plenty that appeals to me so that shouldn't present a problem. I'm fascinated by the concept of learning to play by ear though. My Dad plays by ear but I'm hopeless. How does one go about learning the art of improvisation and playing by ear???

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Post by markymark » 06 Oct 2008, 17:14

Improvisation is very closely linked to a personal awareness and understanding of chords and chords within song progressions, much like an average guitarist would as opposed to a classically trained guitarist who would train to read notation. There are free subscriptions to this kind of teaching online but your ability to improvise also depends on a good general awareness of music in terms of your ear, the keyboard and experience of popular music and its arrangements.

I mention arrangements because most contemporary musicians (who do actually play their own instruments as opposed to miming on them) will use chord progressions in music and make up the twiddly stuff as they go along.

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Post by Moonlight » 06 Oct 2008, 22:34

Katmid wrote:How does one go about learning the art of improvisation and playing by ear???
I would think that being experimental with what you play such as changing the timing and playing around with the chords in a piece and knowing your scales would be a good place to start.

Don't be afraid of 'mucking about ' and having fun with the piano. I do it all the time, today I was experimenting with arpeggios with the damper held down to make a kind of 'floatly' sounding tune.

Also make a note of what you think sounds cool / intresting.

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Post by Katmid » 06 Oct 2008, 23:14

Good advice as always! I figured it was a case of get the basics first then trying 'playing' as well as playing. :wink:

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Post by joseph » 06 Oct 2008, 23:16

I lost my talent scouts phone number marky. You know how it is. So no Auld Langs for me this year. Besides I'm not particularly telegenic :wink:

Myleene didn't actually study piano at the RAM, she studied Musical Theatre, so that wouldn't really affect her piano playing, and at the Guildhall Juniors, she studied singing.

I'm not saying she's not good, i just made a flippant remark which perhaps you took seriously. Artur Pizarro told me that he thinks she is good in her field, she's not saying she's a concert pianist, she is just having a laugh, recording some music and saying oh this is nice, do you fancy having a listen?

Incidentally I'm not really one of those people who become jealous and think 'oh why has such and such made it when I haven't, and I've got way more talent....' I heard that all the time at the RCM and it became a bit wearing after the first week :D

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Post by yourforte » 28 Nov 2008, 00:58

As a teacher I find it disheartening when pupils want to go from grade to grade without learning any music in between for relief. These pupils don't really learn to play piano but only learn how to play a few pieces. On the other hand, I do find that those pupils who go through the grades at a sensible pace, and learn other pieces too, achieve a higher standard than those who don't do grade exams at all. Learning music for an exam means that it has to be learnt rigorously well. Attention has to paid to detail that pupils would lose patience with if they knew they weren't going to be examined.

To get onto Myleene Klass: she can play the piano quite well but she's not a concert pianist. I don't blame her for wanting to make a bit of money. But she got where she's got because she was on Pop Idols and then, of course, was recognised to be a beautiful young woman. I've no doubt whatsoever that if she hadn't initially found 'fame' in Hearsay, and if she was ugly, then she wouldn't have achieved the success that she has. There must be many graduates of the RAM who are at least equally as good as she is. As I say, I wouldn't want to deny her her success, however.
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Post by Gill the Piano » 28 Nov 2008, 16:51

I hate it when these little 12 year olds tell me they've got grade VIII and I know damn well they can only play 24 pieces - that's on the assumption they haven't missed a few grades out...:(

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Exams

Post by yourforte » 28 Nov 2008, 19:24

Oh, I quite agree, Gill
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Post by joseph » 29 Nov 2008, 10:06

i think we all think the same thing about exams. a means to an end, not an end in itself.

its the same with conservatoires. i know some music teachers that only talk about what they played at college because thats all they have played - 30 years later and they still have a very limited repertoire. Some of these people were awarded first class honours!

Yet, I know some teachers, fabulous teachers, never really been on the concert circuit, who have so much knowledge, repertoire, character and wonderful communication skills, who were awarded an ordinary degree or second class honours, and they could play alot of the famous pianists under the table, and teach the first class students a thing or two!

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Post by yourforte » 29 Nov 2008, 20:42

Hi Dave,

Life's okay thanks. I taught two adults this morning and two children. I must say, I do enjoy teaching adults.

I'm now playing piano at my mum's nursing home. The manager says he wants to hear me playing 'things that people can whistle'. Frankly I want to tell him where to stick his whistle... Anyway, today I've been playing Shirley Bassey tunes, The Carpenters, Perry Como, etc. When I'm really naughty I'll sneak in a quiet bit of Debussy.

And how are you?
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Post by yourforte » 29 Nov 2008, 21:18

No, don't lessen up on your practising, Dave. Actually there are lots of posts on YouTube of people playing grade exam pieces that you might find useful. You clearly have the desire to learn - and that's what counts for most, I find. What makes you want to play the piano so badly? Did you want to learn as a child?

People in nursing homes aren't as old as one imagines. I mean old people now are not the same people who were old when we were younger. A woman who works in the local music shop reminded me that people who are now about 80 were enjoying music in the 1950s-60s. I think they enjoy hearing the piano whatever I play on it to be honest. An old man asked me to play Clair de Lune, for example. Cavatina's another one that everyone likes. My mother (who suffered a devastating brain haemorrhage 4 and 1/2 years ago) even turned round and said "that was a nice tune". I think they enjoy anything so long as it's not rowdy. It's suffocatingly boring in there for them so I think it makes a difference to their quality of life. As well as playing the piano, I also play dominoes, quoits, Connect 4, etc etc.

E
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Post by yourforte » 29 Nov 2008, 22:22

I was once diagnosed with clinical depression and put on Prozac, et al. So I sympathise with you whole-heartedly. It's strange that I got loads of flowers, boxes of chocolates, etc when I broke my arm, but nothing but embarrassed looks when I had depression.

Oo, at the age of 39 you're just a spring chicken, Dave. I was 40 + 10 earlier this month. I'm studying for a PhD in philosophy (I have to hand in my thesis in January) and I'm trying my hardest not to let my dying brain cells have anything to do with it... Well you know what they say: it's not the size that matters but what you do with it.

I'm so impressed with your learning Welsh. That would be beyond me, I'm afraid.

Music is supposed to be good for the mind, anyway. Mozart in particular. I do find that playing the piano helps me think. In fact I'm not thinking about the music at all when I play (which is bad) but concentrating on metaphysics.

I have various physical problems so I take a lot of drugs too. They make me gaga sometimes.

If you send me your email address via my website, I'll send you some bits and bobs to try to keep your spirits up.

BFN, E
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Post by joseph » 30 Nov 2008, 09:58

I'm sorry to hear about your depression, Dave and Elaine, but it looks like you are managing to conquer it.

I have a very good friend who I love as much as any member of my family, who is suffering from acute depression. He goes through phases where he just wants to curl up... When he's on good form he's brilliant company and it is heartbreaking to see what he has to go through.

Safe in the knowledge that there is absolutely nothing I can do to cure him, I don't try, but I can be there for him and recently, we haven't really spoken about his depression much at all which is a bit of a breakthrough.

ANYWAY. The world tour has gone well. Its almost over and I'm pretty shattered to be honest. I adore performing music in public, and I love it when people come along and clap between movements etc, because it means they probably don't get to concerts that much, so I'm playing to a new audience.

The best thing is when someone says 'I don't usually come to classical concerts, infact thats the first ever concert I've been to, but I'll look out for more now!'

Dave, its never too late to learn piano- 39 is really not that old, and while the drugs do affect your concentration, remember that you don't have to concentrate for long periods at a time.

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Post by Moonlight » 30 Nov 2008, 17:45

Hi Elaine, and all

Its nice to see you on here again, been bussy?

I'm sorry to hear about that too. Before for I started learning the piano again, I was beginning to fall into some kind of depression, ( not officially, as in diagnosed ) I have been out of work for 11 months now, and I am finding it really hard getting a job again. Its really frustrating and depressing; as I left university with a really promissing future head as I worked really hard there - it obviously didn't pay off.

Relearning the piano has really helped me get out of that hole, so I am more optimistic, and just look forward to when I do have a job again, and my money can go towards this fantastic hobby. We all go through some bad times, but what we have in common is our love for music!

I'm learning that Bach little prelude C minor BWV 999, the one you said you love; I can see why! - one little question, do you use the pedal at the start of each bar for that one? I'm not too sure about it.

bwt If you ever have any time join me and Dave and Jan in the 'Piano Lounge' for some idle chit chat ! - You too Joseph!

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Post by Moonlight » 30 Nov 2008, 17:53

joseph wrote: I love it when people come along and clap between movements etc, because it means they probably don't get to concerts that much
Yeah its funny when that happens! Sorry Joseph, I missed your concert at Hern Hill :cry:. I didn't know the time had been changed until it was too late :cry: .

I hope you do decide to come down to London to play again, I will be more vigilant of your tour dates etc next time. Hope your stay in London was ok.

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Post by yourforte » 30 Nov 2008, 23:45

Re: the Bach BWV 999 - I do use a discreet amount of pedalling - and yes, it's at the beginning of every bar. Actually there are numerous performances of that piece on classical guitar on YouTube. It sounds wonderful on guitar. I'm not sure whether or not it was originally written for the lute. It's played in d minor on guitar, not the c minor that the keyboard has.

Ebonyivory, yes, I'm sure you do have the feeling that you could be getting on with Grade exam music instead of learning other stuff. Why not do both simultaneously? Your reading will become fluent and you'll be able to learn lots.

Joseph - I love it when people clap between movements too. It seems to have become some sort of trend. Even with orchestral music. Yes, it can be to do with not having been to a concert before but I also think it shows a sort of unbridled appreciation. I like it.

Btw, I haven't suffered from depression since about 1987. At least I haven't been given a diagnosis of clinical depression since then. I was found to have MS in 2001 so, even now, I'm not sure whether the diagnosis of depression was correct. I've had phases of tingling, peripheral double vision, blind spots in my eyes, tightness round my torso, problems with my stomach sphincter muscle, etc etc over 20 yrs or so. I've been told over and over again that I've had stress/depression/anxiety. Of course they're all signs/symptoms of MS. Whatever - it's true that I have days/weeks when I feel black. I feel sorry for anyone who periodically feels like this. It's bleak.

Better get on with some work...
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Post by Moonlight » 01 Dec 2008, 14:58

yourforte wrote:Re: the Bach BWV 999 - I do use a discreet amount of pedalling - and yes, it's at the beginning of every bar. Actually there are numerous performances of that piece on classical guitar on YouTube. It sounds wonderful on guitar. I'm not sure whether or not it was originally written for the lute. It's played in d minor on guitar, not the c minor that the keyboard has.
Thanks Elaine

I had the right idea then I guess! I like the way this person plays it on You Tube http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=oXfFMlxV5 ... re=related
Its nicer played slowly(ish) I think, if its played quickly it loses its beauty especially; if someone is playing it fast just to show off :roll: .

I don't know what version I have of it, but it says in tiny writing at the bottom of the sheets 'for the lute' so you might be right.

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Post by yourforte » 01 Dec 2008, 19:26

I agree entirely Moonlight. Bach can sound wonderful even when it's played really too slow. I don't like it when Gould whips through Bach at the speed of light. You miss so much of the beauty of it. I'll check out the youtube link, thanks. E
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Post by yourforte » 01 Dec 2008, 19:29

Just looked at the youtube clip, Moonlight. Yes, this is a good performance. The tempo is perfect. E
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Post by Moonlight » 01 Dec 2008, 20:26

I'm glad you like the clip, its the one I use as inspiration :lol: . I must admit when I'm praticing it I play it fast, just to memorise it, but when I 'play' it, I slow it down to make it more reflective. It does really sound nice played on the guitar! I had a listen to the guitar versions. :wink:

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Post by yourforte » 01 Dec 2008, 22:08

I like playing it as a series of chords - it sounds nice and it does help with the memorising. The same goes for the Prelude in C major (WTC Bk 1).

I think most Bach can be played slowly or quickly. It's always the mark of a masterpiece that the tempo doesn't matter that much. I often enjoy Bach when it's played really slowly though. Although some of the orchestral music sounds good if it's played really quickly.

Best, E
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Post by Moonlight » 02 Dec 2008, 14:35

yourforte wrote:I like playing it as a series of chords - it sounds nice and it does help with the memorising. The same goes for the Prelude in C major (WTC Bk 1).
Oh yes, I did that with the C minor one, very moody and tense when played as chords. I haven't really tried it with the C major one yet, but will do!

I'm really happy Bach composed some really nice music a beginner can play, I have memorised all of the C major one, and am memorising the C minor one ( roughly half a page to go ), plus I am learning Beethoven's Ecossaise. Its such a milestone for me to start learning pieces I can use as real repertoire :D .

Yeah, Bach is cool! 8)

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Post by Gooday » 02 Dec 2008, 18:12

- Gill, "only24 pieces"... at exam standard? That's not so bad!

I've got some way to go before I get to that point. :(

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Post by ebonyivory » 08 Dec 2008, 19:58

I have read the original post then jumped to the bottom so sorry if I am repeating someone.

I wanted to take exams. I started learning piano and music from scratch last year. I thought it would give me something to aim for and hopefully bring achievements.

A couple of months before the exam I started to get worried about what I had put myself in for. On the day I felt dreadful, really shaky hands due to nerves. But, I have got to tell you when I received my certificate, I was over the moon and it was definitely worth all the uncomfortable feelings I'd had before
:D

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Post by Gill the Piano » 08 Dec 2008, 20:03

Gooday wrote:- Gill, "only24 pieces"... at exam standard? That's not so bad!

I've got some way to go before I get to that point. :(
Ah, but it IS bad if you think that these kids could be teaching themselves, although only knowing how to play these few pieces. A good repertoire is far more important than a few bits of paper...you learn a lot by playing widely and extensively rather than the narrow spectrum of exam pieces.

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Post by Gooday » 11 Dec 2008, 18:06

But surely you can't pass the sight reading on grade 8 without being able to play a good few bars of a grade 6 piece at sight? And if you can do that, there are lots of pieces you can play without much effort. Or does sight reading not get any more demanding after grade 5? I don't think it's healthy to be focussed on exams either, but I see passing grade 8 as some sort of landmark. Could be wrong, because I haven't done it yet!

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Post by markymark » 11 Dec 2008, 23:51

Of course sight-reading gets more challenging along with the grades. As you move on through the grades, a musicians notation and music literacy should be at the stage whereby they can scan music without having to move through notes slowly, analysing each note like you would in Grades 1-3. Much like the difference between a 5 year old trying to read words and a 10 year old reading. The old child can scan words and understand without having to sound out each phoneme.

Good sight-readers at Grade 8 level can only manage the sight-reading test this way if note accuracy is to be assessed. Of course, note accuracy is not the only element in sight-reading, but it is increasingly important as you move towards the upper grades.

Again, maintaining a balance across your musical training is the key to becoming a good musician. It's not good enough to focus on scales and set pieces to "get by" when real life requires a flexible, skilful and balanced musician. Non-musicians can soon spot a fraud!

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