Muswell Hill piano teacher

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How soon before a piano exam?

Work on establishing the right learning conditions first

"When can my child start to do piano exams?" is one question that is commonly put to piano teachers, sometimes after a couple of lessons, sometimes after the first lesson, and sometimes even before lessons have begun! It is a question many ask, and not without good reason:

Why do piano exams?

Doing a piano exam gives some sort of focus to the learning, and perhaps gives a target to aim towards. It is not to say that not attempting piano exams is a bad thing - for some students, the sheer joy of being able to play familiar songs is reward enough - but exam certificates can be a useful recognised indication of ability at a later stage in life.

Doing a piano exam gives some sort of focus to the learning, and perhaps gives a target to aim towards. It is not to say that not attempting piano exams is a bad thing - for some students, the sheer joy of being able to play familiar songs is reward enough - but exam certificates can be a useful recognised indication of ability at a later stage in life.

Certain educational institutions offer benefits for learning an instrument. When it comes to university admissions, students can get UCAS points for having attempted music exams. If there is a benefit to be gained in return for the time and effort invested in learning an instrument, then why not?

The educational institutions that offer advantage to those with proven and assessed instrument proficiency are not just limited to universities. Some secondary schools also allocate a certain percentage of places each year to new students who have musical ability. This means that if the school is overly subscribed, and you fall outside the catchment area, the musical route may be an alternative way of securing a place.

An examination certificate gets you through the filtering process

You may query why a child may need an examination certificate in order to demonstrate musical proficiency to the school. After all, wouldn't it be simpler to just prepare a piece of music to play when the time comes?

That is possibly the case, but usually such schools are so over-subscribed that by the time they have conducted their few rounds of entrance exams, they would rely on the student to produce an examination certificate to avoid prolonging the pre-admission process by conducting more auditions.

The Head of Music for a school in the area I cover mentioned to me that the standard required for such a route of entry is generally around grade 5.

Can you imagine if every student wanting to take up a place - from those who have been learning for a long time, down to those who have recently started learning the piano and are having a speculative punt at upper school entry - if every single one of them went down the performance route and music departments had to sit through a twelve-minute audition for every one? (Twelve minutes is the time for beginner exams.)

It is easier to ask a student for an exam certificate and transfer the burden of assessment elsewhere. Those without examination certificates but claim to be of a certain standard, or having played for a certain number of years, don't make it past the cut-off.

The two main exam boards If you are considering piano exams, there are two main ones learners normally opt for. The first is the one offered by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), and the second is the one offered by Trinity College of Music. They are different exam boards, just as there are Pearson Edexcel, AQA and OCR. The ABRSM exams involve more technical exercises, while the Trinity ones are more performance-based, and have less technical exercises.

Don't focus too soon

Deciding too soon when a child can do a piano exam is like asking, for example, when a sunflower might grow to be five feet tall or start to show the first signs of yellow petals: you'll only know closer towards the time. Otherwise it is speculation, the kind of talk akin to those around financial markets, which keeps a buzz in the background but not really of much actionable use.

This may be perceived as a somewhat evasive answer but it is difficult, when lessons have just started, to predict that kind of timescale for various reasons. Firstly, past progress is not definitive linear measurement of future progress. If your sunflower grew two feet in its first two months, there is no guarantee it will be four feet tall at four months. If you grew taller by an average of two inches every year from ages of nine to fourteen, it gives an inkling, but nothing definite, of how tall you might be later on at a particular point in time.

Secondly, progress cannot be charted by the applied measurement of tasks. "If my child started learning the piano from age 6, and practised twenty minutes a day every two days, how soon would it be before he reached grade 5?"

The probable answer is the same amount of time it would take you to put on thirty pounds of muscle if you ate 7000 calories a day and lifted weights three times a week.

Charting results by measuring the progress of the process works arguably better for calculating production of economic goods. If you are thinking of setting up a car factory, and estimate you can produce a car every week, the data indicates you will have 52 cars in a year.

"But hang on," I hear you say. "Just because a car is produced in one week doesn't mean you get fifty two in a year. Workers go on strike. Machinery breaks down. The delivery of parts gets slowed down. Factories close over Christmas. Poor sales in the future may force production to be artificially slowed."

Not a good method of measurement to apply to anything then.

Learning and understanding cannot be measured by measuring how many minutes you play on the piano. Practice regularly of course, but understand what you are doing when you practice - what the notes and rhythms and all the markings on the sheet mean.

If you planted an apple seedling and watered it once every two days, and after two months you worked out that it had been growing taller at the rate of an inch each week, how long would it be before it was ten feet tall?

If you could bother to work that out, you probably have too much time on your hands. And the answer is hypothetical anyway.

Work on creating a positive environment

It is a better use of time to concentrate on the factors you can control and which have meaningful value, such as ensuring the quality of the soil and creating conditions that will enable the tree to grow best.

When it comes to piano practice, how do you create the right conditions for growth and progress?

A plant grows best when it absorbs and utilises the growth elements around it: water, sunlight and fertiliser. So when learning the piano, absorb the knowledge that you are learning about.

Practice slowly and with the right frame of mind. When teachers recommend, say, twenty minutes of practice a day, they are not suggesting to position your fingers to certain keys and then execute the motions of the piece for twenty minutes, and then hope that you have incorporated it into your muscle memory. What they are saying - and this would give you the best returns - is that you spend trying to work out what the printed music is trying to express, and how to achieve that, and because it involves a lot of concentration to tease out the details, twenty minutes is probably long enough to ensure the quality of the work.

Patience is also a key factor. When you are learning a piece of music, learn it in short sections, and go at a speed that allows you to interpret the visual details from the score, translate them into instructions for your fingers and locate the keys to play kinaesthetically. Learning to play the piano is learning to manage these tasks all at once, so the piano player has to work at a speed that allows these skills to simultaneously happen. That is the absorption part of the piano learning process. (For this reason playing by ear is not necessarily a good thing, but that's a post for another day.)

Listen to music. Listening to music is like giving sunshine to a plant. You don't have to focus on it, but just have it occasionally in the background. Learning an instrument without listening to music is like watering a pot of flowers that are in a dark room.

If you want to grow a sunflower, concentrate on getting the soil conditions right first, then as the seed sprouts and grows and absorbs all it's given, closer towards the time you'll know when it is about to grow to a certain height, or to flower; or whatever predictions you wish to make about it, you can be certain they would be more meaningful as long as the right conditions are maintained.

So work on getting the conditions right, making sure the piano practice is a meaningful absorption of knowledge rather than mechanical attainment of a target number, or mechanical repetitive fingering. Seek to understand what you are doing, and practice slowly at translating the printed music into notes your fingers play. Listen to music. And with the accumulation of these positive factors, watch your flowers spring forth and your efforts bear fruit.

Then think about doing a piano exam. The time will be right then.

For more information about piano lessons in Muswell Hill, Crouch End and surrounding areas, please visit