grade exams -- what's the point

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SallyEva
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grade exams -- what's the point

Post by SallyEva » 21 Feb 2009, 07:54

I find myself baffled by the emphasis placed on grade exams in music. In other areas of children's lives certificates etc are offered. But these are really to encourage the child -- the important stuff is in the teacher's mind -- where has the child got to, what does it need to do next. There is sometimes a syllabus and the child is progressing through it but there's no need for all this external exam/moderator stuff (or bills for being tested)

In music everyone seems obsessed with grade exams -- even adults who are just playing for pleasure. Why is this? Aside from making money for the ABRSM and keeping musicians in work setting and marking the exams (important I know) -- what's the point?

Sally

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gill the Piano » 21 Feb 2009, 21:04

No point at all. Except that it helps to pigeonhole a child when it gets to a new school/teacher, as a sort of shorthand indicator of ability. Some kids - like me - needed an exam to make them work. Last exam I took I was 40, and it still applied... :oops:
Some competitive parents make the poor little s*ds take the exams 'because I wish I'd learned the piano'. (That makes me cross; you want to play the piano, YOU learn it, don't make littleTarquin live your life for you). Then they get wind of the fact that grades mean points mean prizes - at least when it comes to university applications...more parental pressure.
Adults put themselves under exam pressure - some thrive on it, some shrivel. Up to them!
I'm not a teacher,I'm a tuner, so I see it from reluctant pupil/ exasperated, browbeaten teacher/ determined adult beginner/ pushy parent points of view!
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Descombes
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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Descombes » 22 Feb 2009, 15:13

I am not an advocate of rigidly working up the exam ladder, but they do serve a purpose. Being able to perform is one of the fundamental aims of learning to play an instrument. It's therefore only natural that the budding performer wants to know what others think of the performance. Auntie Mabel's view that it "sounds wonderful" could be biased, so the alternatives are:

1 Put on a concert and invite the public - not practical.
2 Enter a Music Competition - something I dislike intensely, unless it's at professional level, and even then I have doubts.
3 Get an expert's opinion - the AB examiner!

(Does anyone else share my dislike of Music Competitions? I have never entered my own pupils, but recently I have done a lot of accompanying of young instrumentalists at these jamborees. The pressures on the entrants, the awful competitiveness of pushy parents and the inane comments of the "expert" adjudicators have combined to make me resolve that my next booking, in two weeks' time, will be my last ever!! Before anyone claims that the same could be said of exams, I would say that exams are in private and the entrants are competing against the standard set for that grade, not against each other!!)

SallyEva
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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by SallyEva » 22 Feb 2009, 17:14

Performance seems so much better to me -- it's what matters. Do you sound good to other people!! I praised a lovely piece played by a friend in church and she said to me "It's only around grade 3" She has Grade 8 piano and says of herself "I could only ever play my exam pieces".

that really says it all to me. The beautiful music was Schumann Kind Im Einschlummern and I think it would be possible to play all the notes in all the right places and sound horrible. My daughter is autistic and she plays it with an over-rigid rhythm. My friend played it with sympathy and beauty.

thanks for the views on music festivals. I was thinking of entering my daughter in one in order to increase her performance opportunities. Maybe I should think again

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Descombes » 22 Feb 2009, 17:53

Hi Sally Eva
I played that Schumann piece (which was then called Child falling asleep) for Grade 6 in 1966, (I've just checked!), so I think your friend is being modest in describing it as "only around Grade 3". I agree it's a lovely piece.
Music Festivals suit some people, so don't let me put you off, if you have found a good one and if it suits your daughter. I think the worst ones are the ones that stress that they are Competitions! It's music, not the Olympics.
Concerts given in a school or in front of a teacher's other pupils are great, in my view; they try to show the best of everyone's achievements, without the dreaded winners and losers!

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gill the Piano » 22 Feb 2009, 18:44

Spot on about festivals, Descombes! Sally, if she goes in for one, just make sure she doesn't come into contact with the pro-festivallers who scurry from festival to festival scooping up awards and simpering at the ones who didn't get a medal...they're pure poison and are what upsets the little individual player who just wants an opinion on their playing from an 'expert'! You seem to have a relaxed attitude without the frenzied ambition which drives the pushy pro-festival parents - you'll be fine! :D
And by the way, I'll always remember my teacher telling me when I was 6 that an examiner might give higher marks to someone who played a few bum notes than to a note-perfect performance. Sensitive interpretation goes a long way... :piano;
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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by markymark » 22 Feb 2009, 18:59

SallyEva wrote:She has Grade 8 piano and says of herself "I could only ever play my exam pieces".

that really says it all to me.
Unfortunately this is a common problem even among current learners and it's mostly the teachers that are to blame for that! Your friend could sort that problem by trying to play outside her set pieces and develop a repertoire.

Anyway, back to the thread... Grade exams do not make you a musician - that is where the teacher and the pupil need to work so that the pupil becomes a well-rounded musican. The graded exams will not do that and can lure people into a false sense of security when they get a classification for playing a handful of scales and three set pieces. An exam and examiner can not follow your around and see what you play and practice outside the confines of the exam. So let's be very clear about something - the teacher helps mould the student. The exams partner with standard teaching practice to reflect a benchmark of achievement and are useful in helping develop performance skills and also give a target towards which to work. Problem is, and your friend is a case in point, some teachers use the grade piano exam pieces as a teaching scheme which is never what they were to be used for! This sort of "teaching" is more tutoring or coaching but not quality teaching.

While grade exams, in themselves, are not the making of the musician, they are still authorised and accredited thresholds of achievement which may be useful to slip onto a CV down the line for instance. Speaking from experience, I wouldn't have gotten my last two teaching posts without being able to add Grade X onto my extra qualifications section of the application forms. Right now, I know that's long way away but still something to bear in mind.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Bazzer » 22 Feb 2009, 22:35

Sally
Your question on what is the point of grade exam, raises important issues about the way we, or our children, learn music

Working through grades provides a good grounding in the key competencies of classical music. They provide a frame work for study and a means of assessing and monitoring progress as well as setting clear objectives. They provide an excellent study route for anyone aiming for a career in classical music or even for those who just want to do classical music and share its values. That does however restrict their values to a small section of the population. Classical music despite its high profile is very much a minority interest, most people listening to music on their MP3 players are not listening to classical music.

If the population learning to play the piano is typical of the population at large then only a minority will be interested in classical music. So what of the majority? We either do grades and waste much of our time doing work which is at best irrelevant, or we work in a more or less random fashion with no structure, no benchmarks and no means of objectively assessing our performance. Structure and self assessment is so important in studying anything, that many people will opt for doing pointless exercises for grades and working with a style of music for which they have little attraction. Or in many cases making the same decision on behalf of their children

There are books which do provide structure for non classical music such as the Kenneth Baker series but these all run out at around grade 1 or 2. I suggest that this situation is because of the ABRSM’s virtual monopoly of the market and a customer base that is all to willing to accept a totally out of date product. Grades, with their emphasis on memorisation learning by rote and accepting what is presented without understanding or question, are based on 19th century learning. This in turn may be due to the widely held and totally erroneous view that classical music is somehow superior and less ‘worthy’ than other forms of music.

Trinity Hall does move a little way forward with less emphasis on memorising transpositions of a scale (or scales) more emphasis on understanding rather than just repeating and a wider choice of musical styles. They do however mirror the ABRSM format, presumably because it is familiar to music teachers. The grade system probably works well for those whom it was intended, people on their way to becoming classical musicians, but the failure to provide an appropriate structure for the majority of learners is in my view a major deficiency in music teaching.

PS
Just re-read your second posting- maybe grades are not even very good for their intended purpose, in which case the hole in music teaching is even bigger than I imagined. I think there is a need a new frame work which provides structured learning and objective assessment that is suited to the 21st century and adresses the need of those interested in a range of music types - including classical.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gooday » 23 Feb 2009, 18:49

I think it would generally agreed that having grade 8 doesn't mean you're a well rounded musician or indicate you have a diverse repetoire, but I don't understand why the G8 exam (in particular) seems to consistently receive negative comments on this forum. There's going to be a degree of subjectivity in the exam, but surely the technical requirement needed to become a proficient classical pianist haven't changed over the years, so why change the format? If you have the top grade, I would imagine you have proved that you have a reasonable set of technical skills, good tone and touch and the theoretical basics to make use of these. So, I'd guess a pianist with grade 8 could make a good go of any piece I'm attempting now, perhaps learn it quicker and would have the potential to play it better. That's certainly how it seems having met a few. I see the exam as a benchmark, and one I'm working to in my own slow way. It's not elitist to attempt to measure progression or competence. Out of all the exams around, I suspect these have been the least dumbed down, so perhaps is a bit more challenging hence the negativity? I hope it maintains its significance. Despite my 'pro exam' rant, I'm actually not on an exam track at present (evening classes instead.)...

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gill the Piano » 23 Feb 2009, 19:10

I think the main beef against grade 8 isn't the exam as such, it's the number of teachers/pupils who concentrate on grades alone, rather than going a little slower up the grades and incorporating other material which would widen the pupil's repertoire. A lot of this is school/ parent-driven, as they're often infected by qualificationitis, preferring certificates to well-rounded repertoire. I often come across 'gifted' (according to mummy!) children who attain grade 8 at the age of 12 - and whose technique is indubitably good - but who can only play their exam pieces, which can make them a little one-dimensional as a musician. Also, one doubts whether a child of 12 has the emotional maturity required to play Beethoven convincingly in any way other than technical 'parrotting'. That said, I'm not a teacher, I just say what I see!
I play for my own amazement... :piano;

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by markymark » 23 Feb 2009, 19:27

Bazzer wrote:I think there is a need a new frame work which provides structured learning and objective assessment that is suited to the 21st century and adresses the need of those interested in a range of music types - including classical.
Trinity Guildhall for example, has worked hard to make it possible for non-degree holders to study HOW to teach children effectively taking into account long, medium and short-term planning as well as modes of assessment. Huge refurbishment of these courses have taken place in recognition of the way in which private teachers are generally so unprepared to teach. Unless one studies for a PGCE or similar teaching qualification, these basic skills are not developed on batchelors courses, save for the mechanics and theory of music as well as in your chosen voice(s). Being an accomplished musician does not make an effective teacher.

I can't speak for the other boards, but TG has worked hard to include contemporary pieces in their music selection. While I agree that music needs to be interesting for the child, at which point is a child mature enough to decide which pieces he/she wants to study? The education department has tried the same thing with children deciding their careers at the age of 14. How can children make a quality decision on this point? More mature learners may have leaning towards a particular style but then they have life experience and have had time to develop a real taste in music.

There is research to prove that classical musical compositions from the likes of Mozart for example actually stimulate a child's creativity, irrespective of what they are actually doing. School classrooms are exploiting this to help focus children on an independent task. How much more then would this be relevant to music students? As you'll know, baroque and classical music by their genre have some of the most basic and element melodies and structures when compared with the syncopation and irregularities of contemporary and modernist pieces. Personally, I feel that these music styles are important to developing a child's musical ear.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gooday » 24 Feb 2009, 14:41

Re "Gooday wrote:
I think there is a need a new frame work which provides structured learning and objective assessment that is suited to the 21st century and adresses the need of those interested in a range of music types - including classical."

No I didn't!

I was saying the opposite. Let's trash the technical requirements and make it all easier and more accessible. Let's change 'examiner' to 'awarding body'. Let's drop musical notation as stuffy and too demanding. Submit your piano exam pieces as 'coursework' via mp3 or MIDI for that authentic 'performance' (after downloading them from the internet). It doesn't seem fair that pianists must play so many notes at the same time, as you can have a grade 8 in oboe with just the one, so lets drop the left hand and use one finger only. Award everyone grade 8, they deserve it.

Dumbing down just creeps up on you. 28% for a C in chemistry GCSE? Drop calculous for GCSE maths (vs O level) and those tricky exams? (actually I appreciated that one :) )

Let's keep the standard where it is and develop different qualifications for those who want them.

(Maybe I'm a bit sensitive about this because it's been a goal for such a long time.)

- Gill, Grade 8 at 12? Even if they are 'parrotting' think what they could do later in life if they develop a real interest in music...

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gill the Piano » 24 Feb 2009, 16:15

Gooday wrote:

Dumbing down just creeps up on you. 28% for a C in chemistry GCSE? Drop calculous for GCSE maths (vs O level) and those tricky exams? (actually I appreciated that one :) )
I'm with you on that one; as someone who was thrown out the bottom of the bottom division for maths at school and FORBIDDEN to take O level, i shall be taking Maths A level in 2015 or so, by which time the pass rate'll be 100%...

Gooday wrote: - Gill, Grade 8 at 12? Even if they are 'parrotting' think what they could do later in life if they develop a real interest in music...
Definitely...but the prevalent mentality of the parents, and often of the kids themselves, is that by Grade 8, they've 'finished' learning... :roll:
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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by markymark » 24 Feb 2009, 19:13

Gooday wrote:Re "Gooday wrote:
I think there is a need a new frame work which provides structured learning and objective assessment that is suited to the 21st century and adresses the need of those interested in a range of music types - including classical."

No I didn't!

I was saying the opposite.
Sorry about that but not my fault! I clicked on "quote" and this is what the forum displayed!
I have manually editted the quote but as I said, your name came up beside the quote automatically.

Breathe...

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by SallyEva » 25 Feb 2009, 08:51

thank you very much to everyone who responded. I personally think that the exams as musical qualifications are part of our "better-than-you" culture and valued as cultural signs of child hood genius when playing parental one-up-manship, as several people have said.

The need for a syllabus and assessment is obvious and fine by me. In sport there are progressions and certificates but the coach decides and there is no panoply of exam boards and paid examiners. The mummies like the certificates though and get cross if there isn't a new one at the end of each term.

I was under pressure to put my daughter through grade exams (from my mother who thought, rightly, that outsiders would be impressed by them). At that point I rang up the music colleges and asked if entry was by Grade exams/paper qualifications or audition. As everyone here will know, they said "by audition" as if I was a lunatic. Their point really is confined to impressing Mummy's friends and showing off at "show and tell" in circle time.

Thanks very much people. You have made me feel saner.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by markymark » 25 Feb 2009, 18:03

SallyEva wrote:thank you very much to everyone who responded. I personally think that the exams as musical qualifications are part of our "better-than-you" culture and valued as cultural signs of child hood genius when playing parental one-up-manship, as several people have said.

Their point really is confined to impressing Mummy's friends and showing off at "show and tell" in circle time.
Respectfully, that view was expressed by one other person who is in a minority in that view when put in the context of the other comments on this thread. While we all agree that grade exams are not the making a musician, let's not go to the other extreme and say that they are nothing more than social status symbols. If taht's how they are being used in your area, that is unfortunate, but to say so would be to completely underestimate and undermine others' musical achievements. They'll soon discover as your friend has done, that racing through exams for reasons other than learning will leave them with a repertoire of exam pieces and no ability to play anything else.

Besides, kids can brag about ten A* at GCSE just as quickly a having obtained grade whatever. How many parents send their kids to private tuition just to get to their choice of secondary school? LOADS! Look at the bigger picture; NO qualification really matters save for getting you to a hurdle but in the right context, testifies to your competence not your social standing or personal worth! As you mention, ALL universities will look at exam results, A-levels, GCSEs, etc. but will also use the audition to back up and inform their current perception of you. Ironically, a music degree does not always indicate a high musical ability either! Theory and write-ups can easily cover over weaknesses in your practical musicianship!

This is why, in my job, although we may advertise for some one to have at least Grade VI in an instrument, we will also ask them to demo as part of the interview which is composed of the performance of both a prepared and unseen piece as evident of their competence. Thankfully, the vast majority match up to thier crudentials but you can't always be sure! We could well ask, "What's the point of doing any qualification then?" We know that's unrealistic because some level of learning must have taken place but auditions and trial periods following appointments in any line of work exist because learning without application does not mean accomplishment or maturity.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Gill the Piano » 25 Feb 2009, 18:26

It really depends on your attitude, Sally; there are plenty of well-balanced parents who see the grades as a useful indicator of ability, and who encourage their kids to take the exams without pressurising them. As long as you have that sane approach, exams are fine, useful and productive. It's the minority - as usual - who see exams as an end in themselves who make exams a negative experience for the kids.
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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by PianoMum » 06 Mar 2009, 13:54

I have read this discussion with great interest as my daughter has stated she no longer wants to continue with Grades but wants to play music she and other people will recognise eg film music, pop music etc. She is 12 and has Grade 1 (after 3 years of lessons). I don't want her to give up the piano completely so have tried to respect her choice by buying some simple arrangements from my local music shop and asking her teacher to work with her on these rather than the Grade 2 pieces, even though I do feel she hasn't really got far enough in the grounding that Grades give you to be able to play satisfactorily for enjoyment in the future. (I should declare myself to be a piano-playing parent who did all the Grades!). However, the teacher does not seem to be really "on board" with this idea as if he doesn't know how to teach her or make progress with her outside of the Grade structure; all the music and ideas have been suggested by me so far, and the teacher is regularly hinting that she should pick up the Grade 2 pieces again before they run out of time. I can't teach my daughter myself (tried that!) but I don't know how to go about finding a teacher sympathetic to her wishes. I live in the Kingston upon Thames area. Any suggestions?

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by SallyEva » 06 Mar 2009, 16:22

If your daughter doesn't want to do grades I think you are right to go along with her. You probably haven't got much alternative if she is like many 12-year-olds. Maybe you need to think even more alternatively -- she wants to play this music (or this type of music) she doesn't necessarily want to get it "right"

Perhaps what she needs is other 12/13/14 year olds to make music with. Then she can work it all out for herself and make music. She will be self-taught -- the traditional way to learn lots of instruments. Maybe a club in school, or a youth club, or even a group of friends.

If she then feels that she needs more technique to make music more like the stuff she hears in her head -- then you can offer her lessons with a "piano teacher". Lots of famous jazz musicians learned in this way.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Stuart » 06 Mar 2009, 19:28

As someone who went through the grade system many years' ago, indeed many decades ago and still plays (presently gradually, very gradually, getting to grips with Beethoven's Op 111) may I add my perspective. I was taught (ie forced) by my father from 7 - 11. I then transferred to a professional teacher, indeed the one who taught my father. A poor experience doesn't begin to describe it. On arrival, he assessed me and put me in for Grade 4, which I passed - easily if I may say so. So my father's non-existent teaching skills had some effect. At around 11, I still did not want to practise - what child other than the Kissin's of this world does? - but I did start to enjoy playing. I went through the grades, roughly one per year but also had a teacher who would throw me other stuff. At around 17, the Hammerklavier 1st movement! (Together with John Ireland and Granados) Crazy. The Hammerklavier is still beyond reach of course. But I was rooted in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. Hanon and Cramer studies. My teacher had a favourite saying "Scales and arpeggios, your daily bread." Needless to say, I preferred cake.
It is obvious in retrospect that music was in me, but the exams provided real focal points, specific aims and achievements. They also provide an objective assessment of one's ability, technically and musically. Whilst having a demanding job and young family my level of playing decreased, but knowing I had achieved Grade 8 was a help in getting back into serious practice again. Most children have to be forcefully persuaded to develop performance skills in music or, say ballet, in the first place. The saddest comment I hear all too often from people who hear me play is "I wish I had carried it on." It is parents and teachers who have the responsibility to encourage children beyond their natural limits of time alllocated to an instrument, so long as they are sensitive to the child who really doesn't want to know. Playing music domestically is a joy, particularly the great music of those cited above plus Brahms, Chopin, Debussy etc etc. It is a shame that so many people could experience that joy, but are left with "I wish....."
Grade exams are an integral part of the path to that joy.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Paul Sparham » 26 Mar 2009, 22:21

An advantage of taking grade exams in sequence is that the student is focussed on achievement. It provides something to work towards. It can also make the teachers responsibilities easier. It would be wrong, however, not to supplement the syllabus of grades with additional material conducive to development. I find with new students who have taken grades that most time has been spent on the prepared pieces - and why not as they account for most marks - at the expense of skills such as sight-reading. Indeed some grade aspirants can pass on prepared pieces and technical requirements alone. Faced with, for example, a simple duet such students can display a remarkable lack of musicianship and spontaneity - proof that passing grades alone is not necessarily enough.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by bluedianthus » 25 Jun 2009, 11:11

Even though I'm late participate in this forum, I must admit that whether you got talent or u already passed 8th grade, you should know how to improvise the songs and withiut memorizing the music sheets. I had younger sister who can played very well, even without having take lesson formally, she learn by herself, and lots of preachers in the church said her standard can be compared to the one that had 5th grade of piano lesson...even me, i juz know a lilttle chords..and i always ask for her help. So, grade exams, what's the point? if you are asked to play one song, and without music sheets, you're finished?

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by markymark » 26 Jun 2009, 17:52

I agree mostly with what you say. I have grade 8 standard and can improvise in various styles too. However, when performing music written in musical notation, memorising music is as important to a performer as it is to an actor. Memorising the music carefully allows for your creative mind to become more active, not being limited by having to keep your place in music. An actor's overall performance would be very seriously hampered if he/she was walking around the stage, glancing down to the script every so often.

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Re: grade exams -- what's the point

Post by Jonahcc » 21 Jul 2009, 06:40

Grade exams are only helpful as an incentive and deadline to work hard. If you can come up with your own motivation without the exam-- all the better! And there are negative aspects to going the exam route-- the examiner chooses what you work on, and they may or may not make the best choices to meet your personal goals in music.

As for memorization-- internalizing music is much more important. Memorization is a part of this. But truly, an actor internalizes the script and character they are playing, until it becomes second nature. The musician internalizes the music-- becomes the music. Memorization is one step that can help you do this.

I've written an article about the learning process, particularly about the distinction between learning theoretical ideas in music and internalizing these ideas-- only when they are second nature and you can forget about them is it possible to use them as tools for music-making.

To read more on this subject, please feel free to go to: www.jazzpianoteacherslondon.co.uk and have a look at the pages titled "Learning jazz piano: the process" and "Jazz piano lessons: a fun and creative approach".

All the best!

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