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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10 Responses to Music exams can be limitations instead of goals

  1. Thank you John for this great post and quote. One thing that has shocked and disturbed me since returning to Canada is that emerging artists aim to fit into the applications for funds rather than plan their careers. They aren’t thinking of making music as much as the next deadline. Ann Summers Dossena

  2. Robert Loewen says:

    John – thanks for your thought provoking article, read as I begin my day preparing to do a full day of voice exams in B.C. I am Elizabeth Loewen Andrews father. Check out her husband’s youtube site, “rigormortis999″. Mark Andrews has done hundreds of piano transcriptions from great game scores. His piano students love him because he will throw simplified transcriptions, based on their level, into the mix of his teaching.

  3. [...] The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi … … Go here to read the rest: Music exams can be limitations instead of goals | Musical Toronto ← Expert Players Business Struggle With Digital Piano Reviews [...]

  4. Andrew Hisey says:

    Any curriculum can be seen as either limiting or enabling/motivating. Any program with defined, articulated levels can be viewed by a teacher or student as an end unto itself or as one tool among many for organizing and inspiring learning. A measurement against a consistent national standard that attempts to be somewhat comprehensive is absolutely of value in my opinion, but it never can and never should be the whole picture. It’s something that teachers need to remind themselves of regularly, and help both students and parents to view exams/assessments within a bigger context of musical and life skills.

  5. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful article. I recently switched all my students from ABRSM exams to Trinity Guildhall, because I found ABRSM to rigid and old-fashioned, with its emphasis on learning 100s of scales and sight-reading from Grade 1 (which terrifies most young students). Trinity places far more emphasis on performing and musicality, and instead of 100s of scales, students learn 3 technical exercises which have a relevance to the pieces in the syllabus. The repertoire is more interesting and enjoyable, for students and for teacher. As a result, all my students who took Trinity exams this season passed with good marks (3 merits, 1 good pass).

    I don’t have a problem with graded music exams per se, as they do serve a purpose, and many students, their parents and teachers like the benchmarking exams provide. But if they are putting kids off music for life, then they are not useful. My main motivation for teaching is sharing the joy and pleasure of music, rather than encouraging note-bashing and rote-learning. I want my students to remember their lessons with me because they had fun, had a laugh, played music they wanted to play (I regularly adapt film scores and pop songs for my students), and caught some of my enthusiasm and passion. My piano lessons as a child were very dull and I was determined when I started teaching that I would not replicate that experience with my students.

  6. Jordan says:

    I know, and know of, lots and lots of people now in their 20s and 30s who went through the RCM system and then dropped the piano (and music-making in general) like a hot potato the moment they were “done”. In that sense, the story about the grand piano owned by the parents of an ARCT-level former pianist is very familiar to me. These people didn’t study piano for the love of it: they did so because their parents expected them to.

    We need to re-orient music education toward the joy of it, not the pain of endless rote repetition of scales (leave that to the very talented and fantastically driven). It should be about both playing and singing, jazz, pop and folk music as well as classical, music-making in groups as well as solo, etc.

  7. rivron says:

    I think Cross-Eyed Pianist knocks the nail on the head.

  8. Julia says:

    Thank you very much for this!

    If you have a look at International Violin Competitions, the vast majority of candidates is from countries where graded music exams don’t exist or are not considered important – Japan, Russia, former Soviet-Union countries, South Korea, China, Germany.

    And not just at top level, but even at general level the standard in those countries seems to be higher.

    However, neither parents nor pupils in the UK understand this. I’m wondering how “cross eyed pianist” managed to switch all pupils from Trinity to ABRSM.

    I prefer Trinity G. too, but parents (particularly who are not musicians and not musical themselves) even think ABRSM is “better” (because of the “royal” in the name!!) or “harder” than Trinity Guildhall.

    However, I see more pupils get away with a poor technique in ABRSM than Trinity G.

    How a pupil is allowed to pass an ABRSM violin exam with a merit when they are playing with a very obviously completely wrong technique (left wrist leaning most heavily on the neck of the violin and completely stretched, stiff bow fingers, thumb UNDER the frog) is beyond me.

    In the small print, ABRSM even admit that they do not take technique and posture into account, which in my opinion is absolutely shocking. At least TG examiners do sometimes comment on a particularly good or bad posture.

    Yet parents are in awe of ABRSM.

    So parents think their child is “great” when in fact the technique is fundamentally wrong and when I suggest making changes to the posture to an inherited student they just don’t understand and ask if the child can do the next exam at the end of the term.

    I’m not totally against exams as they can motivate lazy pupils to practise more and getting a certificate gives them a sense of achievement.
    I agree that funnily enough the most talented students I have care less about exams and often choose not to do any or just do them once in a while because in the UK almost “everyone” takes them. But they don’t “need” them to prove they can play.

    The fact that the exams are only a snapshot makes them meaningless in other respects. Sometimes, my most extremely talented students only get a “merit” or “pass”, while others who can barely play and have to be spoon-fed every note also get a merit.

    It’s because the examiner doesn’t know or doesn’t/can’t take into account that the talented pupil may be much younger, has practised a lot more, is far more musical, has played for fewer years and learned lots of pieces other than the exam diet. Whereas the older pupil who never practises, gets coached for years until he/she can finally play the three most manageable pieces in he syllabus (refusing to play anything else) with a bad technique and intonation then also gets a merit at the same grade.

    I don’t quite see the point of it.

    Exams can be very limiting in another way, as neither board demands studies for example (occasionally, it is optional to play a study at Grade 7 as one of the three test pieces, but that’s about it). Pupils think it’s fine to play 3 pieces, scramble through the scales and do the next exam. They don’t see why they should even learn one more piece than the required three.

    Most have 30 minute lessons only which seems to be the standard in the UK for some reason. For most pupils, even the more talented ones, let alone average – below average pupils hardly enough time to cover the grade requirements beyond Grade 2, let alone do any additional pieces,whether they’re graded pieces or pieces outside the sylllabus.

    They have trouble memorizing all the different scales (why do these have to be memorized but not the pieces?)

    I grew up in a non-grade-exam country and it was exactly the other way round! It was encouraged to play scales from the music, but to perform pieces in a concert from memory). So try to fit in a study, even occasionally – impossible. Plus, they wouldn’t see the point.

    And yes, I’ve come across that attitude that after Grade 8 you can stop because then you’re done. When I tell them that even to get into a conservatoire you need to be beyond Grade 8 they don’t understand. Or that most world-class violinists never even did Grade 1 – because either in their country this system didn’t exist or they were too talented to “need” the stamp of the ABRSM, they don’t understand.

    In my opinion, the exams are a big money making machine as well if you look at the price for a thin book containing 9 pieces. Most Russian and German violin tutor books contain at least 100 pieces and lots of scales included and often even studies and exercises which seem to be almost completely ignored by exam boards.

  9. phil newton says:

    CURRICULUM FOR enhancing visiting peripatetic teachers status.