I love cake! What’s more I love making cakes, especially cupcakes but I am not someone who just remembers recipes so when I have to make a special, celebratory tea with a menu made up of sandwiches, jelly, cupcakes, swiss roll etc. I go straight to my recipe books, usually Nigella where I know I will find out what the essential ingredients are!
I know that if I have all the necessary ingredients and follow the recipe carefully, my cakes will emerge from the oven fluffy and moist. These days I am becoming more confident in my skills and often add my own creative touch – cherry and almond for example.
Without the basic recipe though I am lost and more likely to end up with a collapsed and stodgy mess!
WHAT IS GRADE 1?
Last week we asked ‘what is Grade 1? You might have found it’s really quite a hard question to answer! We do know that Grade is made up out of a number of sections: pieces, scales, sight-reading, aural, improvisation, viva voice etc. This doesn’t provide us with the detail or method of what should be taught though, any more than a tea menu tells us the ingredients of the cupcakes and how they were made.
That’s because the graded instrumental exam boards produce a syllabus, a menu, of what is to be examined. What is not provided (nor is it the exam boards role to do so) are the details of what to teach, the ingredients, and how to teach them. That is up to us to provide in the form of a curriculum or framework.
A curriculum is a plan of activities or a programme of study and but the trouble is that as a profession we have never worked out exactly what this consists of. I admit that as an individual it is a big job and rather daunting – similar to the task on Masterchef where contestants get to taste a finished dish and have to work out what it has in it and how to reproduce it!
So I want to share with you a few of my thoughts on this, based on my work on The Piano Framework, and the four essential ingredients that I think need to be considered when creating a piano curriculum; Musical Concepts, Technical Skills, Pianistic Skills and Stylistic Awareness.
INGREDIENT 1 – MUSICAL CONCEPTS
The first set of ingredients to consider are the Musical Concepts that pupils should know. The sub-sections of this might be rhythm, melody and structure with each of these subsequently divided into different elements. For example, Rhythm consists of pulse, simple time rhythms, compound time rhythms, triplets and duplets, dots and ties, metre and time signature. Melody breaks down into pitch notation, intervals, keys and key signatures whilst Structure divides into phrases, devices and structural.
INGREDIENT 2 – TECHNICAL SKILLS
Then we need to move onto Technical Skills the subsections of which are Technique and Keyboard Geography. The elements of Technique might be posture and body awareness, fingering, co-ordination, tone quality, articulation, scales, arpeggios and broken chords. I would highly recommend looking that the Piano Curriculum first produced by the FMS in 2002 for further breakdown of these elements.
INGREDIENT 3 – PIANISTIC SKILLS | MUSICAL CONCEPTS
The third set of ingredients consists of musical concepts that are approached via the piano. The broad divisions are titled Expressive and Harmony. The Expressive elements might encompass pedal, texture, ornaments, dynamics as a starting point whilst Harmony should begin with triads.
INGREDIENT 4 – STYLISTIC AWARENESS
The final ingredient is an awareness of different styles and genres of music. It would break down to include the different periods of Western Art music as well as encompassing jazz, pop and world music.
MAKING A START
All this comes with a health warning! This is a long term project, especially if you are attempting it by yourself. To give you an idea of how to break each of the elements down even further and place them into a sequence, here is an example of what you might do with simple time rhythm, from a real beginner up to roughly just above Grade 1 (Late Elementary level).
Rhythm values | simple time*
Beginners | crotchets and quavers, minims, semibreves
Early Elementary | crotchet, minim, semibreve rests
Elementary | single quaver and rest, syncopation, upbeats
Late Elementary | semiquavers, quaver and semiquaver patterns
GRADE 1 IS
musically and pianistically quite advanced. It requires a fundamental understanding of musical concepts, a high degree of technical skill, a developing sense of being a pianist and an emerging awareness of musical style along with an ability to listen with understanding.
Grade 1 is musically and pianistically quite advanced. - Sally CathcartTweet quote
The Grade 1 exam should happen a significant distance into a young pianist’s learning journey; in my experience (and I know that I am not along in this) the average 6 – 7 year old takes between 2 – 3 years.
Here’s the thing, children can and do pass Grade 1 within 18 months but many of them will stop having piano lessons a couple of years later (my own PhD research and ABRSM stats clearly show this dramatic dip).
Why do they stop? The reasons given are varied but underlying nearly all of them is the point that learners lose heart and motivation under the weight of their ‘mis’understanding. If you kept making cupcakes that kept collapsing and didn’t taste very good wouldn’t you stop making them?
The good news is that when piano teachers have a curriculum at the centre of the learning process pupils develop strong foundations ensuring that later learning remains a positive and progressive experience.
When all the ingredients are in place the exam system can take its rightful place as the cherry on top of the perfectly balanced cupcake!
* This is a suggested sequence only – feel free to change!
This post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers