“How soon will she be able to sit her first exam?” is a question often posed by new or prospective student parents, often with a memory of their own days learning the piano.
When I was a kid, it was normal to start lessons at the start of the year after turning seven. We concentrated on one extracurricular activity (or only a couple) and we could practise every day. In the middle of the following year, we were usually ready to sit the Preliminary grade AMEB exam.
But these days the answer to the ‘when’ question is as uncertain as the length of the proverbial piece of string and there are a number of reasons why.
- The AMEB Preliminary exam has been growing substantially and steadily more difficult. Pieces that appeared in my old First Grade books are now more likely to be found in the Preliminary repertoire. It was rare to venture beyond the basic five finger position and both key and time signatures were beginner level. In comparison, one of the pieces in the current Preliminary syllabus has interchanging compound and simple time signatures and two different pentatonic key signatures, as well as extending to both extremes of the keyboard.
- Kids these days have quite heavily-scheduled lives. They often have a list of extra-curricular activities that take up so much time, there is little time left for home practise. If they can’t practise effectively, they won’t improve at the rate that may be expected. Just turning up to lessons isn’t going to do the job. A student who can manage 90 minutes a week of quality practise will take double the time to progress as a student who can manage 3 hours (and this commitment to practise is pretty much out of the control of the piano teacher).
- Students are often starting lessons at a younger age. While I still prefer to not start them until around seven, many kids are starting as young as 4 and 5. This is a major factor in their exam-readiness. While there are many benefits to starting kids in music lessons earlier, without those language and maths basics behind them, it takes longer for them to learn concepts and many weeks of reinforcement activities are often required for each note or concept. Looking at the practise aspect, younger children’s attention spans are shorter and it can prove counterproductive to insist they sit at the piano for a specific amount of time. They also benefit greatly from having a parent sit with them and guide them through their practise, which becomes difficult when both parents need to work.
- Both parents working often means kids aren’t coming straight home after school. Afternoons spent at facilities such as OOSH offer no opportunity for scheduled practise time and the precious few hours left at home are rightly dedicated to family time.
The first point above makes the combination of issues somewhat specific to Australia, as the Australian Music Examination Board (AMEB) is the dominant player in providing instrumental assessments in Australia only, but the problem of less available practise time and younger beginners is lamented by teachers worldwide, whether in relation to exams or just general progress.
We can no longer expect piano students to follow the same progression as all the generations before them. Whereas once upon a time it was not uncommon for a beginner aged seven to spend eighteen months acquiring the basics and practising 20 – 30 minutes every day of the week to be ready to sit for their Preliminary examination (which were much easier), these days it is a rare student who is ready to be entered for this first examination within any less than two-and-a-half to three years of tuition.
If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.