Saturday, May 31, 2014


by: Jelia Megawati Heru

Studying music is not all about fun. In order to be the complete musician, a pianist has to pass through the challenging studying process: practicing, concert, and EXAMS. Talking about out of the comfort zone. When I was little, I used to think that the piano exam is like the most 'evil' thing in the world. The idea of repeating and practicing the same pieces for 8 months, just makes me tired and hate music.  

The piano exam is definitely not an absolute parameter of a successful pianist. Even though my student got perfect score for music theory and piano practical, doesn't mean that they love what they're doing. But piano exams are, or could be, a useful tool to compare one's technical level or factual knowledge of piano and music to some objective standard - and thus could be helpful in countries which do not have a long established western musical tradition.

Ella, one of my student got full score on music theory exam.
She started the piano lesson about 1 year ago.

There's a lot of pros and cons about the idea of taking a piano exam. Some people said it's good taking the exam, because it will give you standard in which level you are, how much you have learned so far, and also will give you learning purpose/goal to the next level. And not to mention, you will get the certificate. On the other hand, people would just enjoy to play a lot of interesting repertoire, having a great time performing the pieces in concert or school events, and could contribute something in church or other social community.

In my opinion, the piano exam has two sides of coins. It could makes or breaks the piano student. The culture plays an important role in this matter. In Europe or USA, music has become part of their life culture and community since hundred years. They have really high-quality of music schools, conservatories, universities, and music teachers. The passion for music of so-called Western Music or Classical Music is in their blood. They have really good-skilled and dedicated music teachers, that studied music education as a major and who could assess their own students. 

It's nothing to compare to Asia. The good music teachers in Asia, especially in Indonesia are rare gems. Here is often found, that the of 8th grade certificate holder has already teach a 7th grade student. IMPOSSIBLE? Here is more likely "I'm POSSIBLE!" The major piano performance degree could teach music education in university. Major piano performance and music education is a complete different field, that's why they split them into two different majors. But here, who cares? As long as their students could be a star/winner or being famous in competition. 

For some people, the famous piano teacher is the good ones. Music is treated like a beauty pageant and the Asian parents (or so-called "The Tiger Mom") is really highly demanding. A lot of Asian parents force their kids to take piano exams every year. They worship the term "INTERNATIONAL" piano exam. The idea of pushing students through exams every year, it was enough torture and horror for both student and teacher.

Taking exams every year or almost every year stifles creativity. It was like, as soon as the student got their results for the previous exam and sometimes even before they got the results, the teacher was getting them to begin the next year's pieces and scales.  So after all these years of piano, guess what? They have nothing in their repertoire, beside their exam pieces!  N-o-t-h-i-n-g! All the students do is exam, exam, exam... It's so boring. At the end the student couldn't think anymore and feel sick about the piano exam. If the students haven't had any desire to play, they will ended up losing interest or hating piano. In Asia, we're dealing with this kind of situation. Which makes us have to sacrifice our teaching idealism. The system for the benefit of the system itself. We have to be very, very strong to survive that. The students should try anyway to free themselves from all that and rediscover the joy of piano playing.

The bit of artist that is already present in the student also dies if he/she, for the sake of those exams only, has to drill the same pieces over and over for such a long period of time, even more so if they realize that their peers elsewhere are having a lot more fun, have a more balanced technique to play a wider range of repertoire, and are generally developing a lot faster.

What they don't measure - and can't measure - is the emotional aspect of music making: the ability of the pianist to feel and express what is in the music; the ability of the pianist to take setbacks in their progress or tough times and keep going.

  • Encourage exams but do not enforce them! Only taking the piano exam, when the student is ready for it. Don't push them to do it! 
  • Nurture their passion, desire to learn the piano (long-term goal)
  • A relaxed teaching approach. Don't be the dictator, but be their brain-storm partner! - let them consider, if they want to do the exam or not, let them choose the exam pieces (listening, picking out what they want to learn,) guide them.
  • More other "FUN" repertoires beside exam pieces, please! Avoid boredom!
  • Avoid long-term piano exam pieces drill! Three months are enough to play the same exam pieces. More than that, you need to be careful, so they don't lose their interest.
  • Good preparation. Make sure you practice everything through together with the students - include the aural and sight reading test. A lot of hints and tips, please! It gives them a secure feeling. If they agree to do the piano exam, please make sure that they understand the consequences and they're willing to do the daily practice!
  • Tame the tiger moms! Give some explanation about the positive and side-effects of piano exam - the do's and don'ts. Usually when the teacher make a good point out of it, hopefully they would listen.
  • Avoid too much expectation and pressure to the student. Some degree of expectation is good in learning piano, but too much expectation will lead to frustration.   

Concerts and exams are total different things. Concerts are (or at least they should be) pleasant, enlightening experiences – both for the public and the performer. Exams are a ‘necessary evil’, being a perfect illustration of Nietzsche’s words: "What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger." After passing through the thorns and blood of a serious piano studying process, everything will seem easier – even the most difficult concerts.

At the end, we have to understand that our students are only human. They're not robot or circus animal. The teacher is also not a magician. We couldn't force them to excel such ability over a night. It takes endless nights to encourage them to love piano, but it takes only a second to make them hate piano. Not every child should take the piano exam anyway. It depends on the circumstances and what the student's needs. The exams and concerts could be both a rewarding experience and also horrible experience for them. Consider the option and chose it wisely. As a music teacher, we could just hope that whatever the decision is, will push the right button to love music more.