The Fallacy of Grades

Some reassurance and thoughts.

Knowing this title will prove controversial or a little eyebrow-raising to a number of readers, it is important to begin with a little disclaimer:  I am not against, nor am I promoting a desertion of exams in general.  I am also not promoting one exam board over another since I have no affiliation with or interest in either the ABRSM, LCM or Trinity.

Instead, this article will share a philosophy on syllabus content and how a Water Pianist does well to recognise that what is laid out traditionally over eight grades can easily be compacted and put into what one may call 'The Smallest Components'.  I shall expand upon this later in the context of this article.

Exams do indeed provide a way for a piano enthusiast to measure progress and feel good about what has been achieved and if the reason one wishes to sit the exams is for personal satisfaction only, then I would support that individual on their endeavours.  If one also wishes to attend higher education in music, then of course Grade 8 certificates are critical.  If, however, one puts all their faith into exams and trusts that they are the be-all-and-end-all of pianism and that, by Grade 8, they will be a master of piano, or because they simply enjoy the ego boost, I would not hasten to enlighten them before it's too late!

A very damaging experience about piano exams is the pressure and stress leading up to the big day.  For both adult candidates and younger candidates with pushy (or not) parents, preparing for an exam is such an unnaturally uncomfortable thing to do, not least in part due to the fact that what is being studied, both technically and in terms of the repertoire, is usually not in harmony with either the mind or body of the candidate.  I found an example situation in 10 seconds here.

Because of this misalignment, what results can be enough to put the individual off playing the piano for years or even forever, if not due to exam fails then due to a feeling of dissatisfaction over true abilities, repertoire and emotion even if Grade 8 is indeed achieved.  If I had a pound for every email or discussion I have had over the years on this very topic...!

Exams do not always result in positive progress and any progress perceived may actually be artificial, unnatural or of limited benefit to the individual due to the vast differences in forced, 'graded' exam repertoire/theory and their own natural Self.  Of course, this implies that one does indeed know the Self already...!

For this reason, it is very important to understand the most important Water Pianism philosophy which teaches that the channel of energy begins in the balanced and patient Mind, passes through a well-maintained and strong Body and presents itself finally at the Piano using theory in all its forms as appropriate.

In addition, understanding each component in detail will take the pianist to a level no exam syllabus could ever dream of since they only focus on the Piano component.  All three, however, must be in harmony with each other for maximum progress.

Returning to the title, I use the strong word Fallacy because of the simple fact that what is contained in the higher grades is entirely possible to acquire in your earliest weeks, months and years of your destinationless journey.  No traditional school of thought would ever let you believe this to be realistic... but it oh so very much is.

For example, using the Grade 8 ABRSM syllabus scales and arpeggios requirements, it can be seen that playing major scales 3rds apart only appears from Grade 6 and even then, only in the key of C major.  Also only appearing in Grade 6 is playing the chromatic scale in contrary motion.  Grade 7 introduces C major a 6th apart but only in that key.

Somehow, diminished 7th chords are required in Grade 6 before dominant 7ths are finally introduced in Grade 7 but dominant 7ths are for more common than diminished chords so this is bizarre.

I could go on...

Now, how about I tell you that what is required at Grade 8 (and beyond, since I insist for your benefit that all twelve keys are absolutely mastered away from the piano before you do anything else at all) is possible to attain relatively quickly and that it need not take 10+ years?

This comes under what I mentioned earlier as 'The Smallest Components'?  This means that your primary focus from Day 1 must be on these because everything you ever want to play, at any 'level', contains the smallest components in some way.  They must never be forgotten or neglected.

Do not be put off by certain musical aspects being considered 'more advanced' or 'easier' as dictated by exam syllabuses.  Very often, what is considered easy to achieve for one is difficult for another, and vice versa.  Only by following Your way, Your method and working on Your interests will you make pleasing progress minus the inevitable frustrations of doing otherwise.

In conclusion of this article, however, I hope that you will approach exams in the knowledge that they are not designed around You; only by identifying your own musical personality and desires and working on related techniques and theory will you make the progress you desire and deserve.

Spend time working on your major scales on your internal piano until you get to a point where you know the seven degrees instantly in your mind.  Then, work on the chord types and develop emotional connections with them.  Use the major scales as a tool to develop dexterity and when away from the piano, maintain your body with good food intake, lots of water and adhere to a strict daily arm and tendon stretching/strengthening regime.

...And you will do well.