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Music exams can be limitations instead of goals

By John Terauds on June 20, 2012

Here’s the real stuff Venezuela’s el Sistema can teach us.

The vast majority of Canadians who take regular music lessons at some point end up in a rigorous curriculum of prescribed, graduated goals validated by exams — most often the tried, tested and true system developed by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Our world is built on objective standards to measure progress, but is this the best way to foster true engagement with an instrument and music itself?

Three incidents have been bugging me for weeks:

I’ve spent the last six months subbing for a piano teacher on maternity leave. Because the 12 youngsters in my charge are not really my own, I’ve tried not to intervene too much, but I’ve repeatedly found myself wanting to halt their quest for the next RCM exam so we can focus on specific issues and, most importantly, make these kids actually care about what they’re doing.

One student, who did well on his Grade 7 exam in January, has really bad technique — and doesn’t enjoy playing the piano. I figured we can’t work on the first without addressing the second issue, so I tried really hard to connect him with something he enjoys.

One day, I gave him a book of songs by Coldplay, his favourite band.

He put his foot down and said this wasn’t going to work because he wanted to get all of his RCM stuff out of the way before regular school became too demanding (he just finished Grade 9). He would only learn the exact number of pieces required for the next exam, and then move on. Period.

(How do you argue with a stone-faced teenager?)

The second incident involved a prosperous, middle-aged couple who were looking for someone to buy their fine, European grand piano. Two years ago, their daughter had completed her ARCT, the final diploma awarded by the RCM’s community examination system, and had not touched the piano since.

The couple said the piano was crowding their living room, so there was no point in holding on to it.

Anyone who takes the ARCT exam is supposed to be a fine musician, able to tackle pretty much anything in the repertoire. Shouldn’t something — anything — have left enough of an impression on this young woman to compel her to occasionally caress the keyboard?

Perhaps, later in life, she’ll return to her childhood companion. But I can’t help being haunted by the hours this person spent through at least a dozen years of prime childhood learning something that did not make a deeper connection with her soul.

The third incident was on Monday. As I walked towards my practice studio, I heard some very fine playing coming through the door. I opened it to find my pre-teen student sitting at the piano. As soon as she saw me, she stopped playing.

I asked her to please re-play the piece of music I’d heard. it was a song she’d heard on YouTube and figured out to play, with surprising ease and completely correct fingering, during her free time. She played with commitment and a lot of expression.

It bowled me over because she plays her assigned music with all the gusto of a recalcitrant 4-year-old being told to eat their broccoli. I have come close to suggesting to her that piano may not be her ideal creative outlet.

I was proved wrong — without any thanks to the dedicated people who set up music curricula for kids.

The examinations and prescribed curriculum are efficient from a teaching point of view. They help students and teachers measure and compare progress.

They may not help foster a love of music itself, at least not consciously, but they are a help for would-be professionals, right? Well, according to several Faculty of Music professors I’ve spoken to who sit on admissions juries, the quality of auditions varies widely.

They complain that their incoming students need remedial work, much the same way English profs say their new arrivals aren’t able to write a proper essay.

Is this the way is ever was, or could it be different?

In a new blog post today, The Independent‘s always insightful Jessica Duchen has, I believe hit the nail on the head.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivár orchestra are currently in the U.K., inspiring Duchen to ask what this magical, ineffable extra something is that these musicians have that her country’s incredibly talented youth orchestras don’t.

Duchen spoke to people who have taught in Venezuela and discovered that part of the success there comes from not limiting what music each student has access to.

Duchen writes:

In a recent interview for The Strad, I asked Levon Chilingirian, leader of the Chilingirian String Quartet, what he thought about this. He and his three colleagues visit Caracas regularly to coach the students of El Sistema in chamber music. “One aspect which is very different from here,” he says, “is that they don’t have any limits set for them.” Many children learning music in the UK work their way through the Associated Board grade exams system by hook or by crook. “Mostly by crook as far as I can see,” Chilingirian adds. “It can be a case of: ‘You do your Grade V this year and next year I’ll give you a nice present when you do Grade VI’. And if you suggest to someone that they might learn a particular piece, they’ll say ‘No, no, that’s Grade VII and I’m only Grade IV.”
That doesn’t happen in Caracas. Chilingirian met a young violinist who’d been learning for only a year, but brought the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 to a lesson and was determined to perform it with an orchestra soon afterwards. The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi driver who, bored with his job, met some youngsters from El Sistema, heard about their work and decided to become a cellist, having never touched an instrument before. “Nobody said ‘You can’t’ – so he did it,” says Chilingirian. “He’s a very accomplished player.”

Here is part of her conclusion:

It’s worth reflecting that in a target-oriented, achievement-focused society blighted by the class-ridden nature of the education system, children have to be very lucky to find themselves making music for the sake of enjoying it. Oftener than not they do so to please their parents, to win a music scholarship (few parents realise the hard work involved in that), to pass exams that will allow them to go on and pass more exams. It’s all about measurement and competition. But for El Sistema, it’s about personal and social transformation.

I heartily recommend her entire blog post, found here.

I was fortunate enough to grow up and have piano lessons on both sides of the Atlantic — graduated exams here and free choice to play whatever I pleased under the guidance of a very demanding composer-pianist in France.

I never realised in France that I was playing music supposedly beyond my abilities, and I’ll be forever glad it never would have occurred to her to tell me any such thing.


I’ve never played video games, but plenty of music students do, so why not combine both pleasures, once in a while?

Some games come with sountracks that lend themselves nicely to a variety of instruments, like Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros:

John Terauds

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