In September last year, I wrote a blog post titled Australian piano exams compared: which syllabus is the best? and made a commitment to my readers that I would trial a couple of the alternate (i.e. non-AMEB) examination boards in the coming year and report back regarding my experience.
The original post has remained in my top-five most-viewed articles ever since so I thought it was time to give you an update and discuss my experience with one of two new exam boards that I trialled this year: Trinity College London (TCL). I’ll be writing about my experience with another board, ANZCA, later this year.
You might be wondering why on earth I would bother getting my head around a whole new exam system (or two!) when the AMEB has always provided a comprehensive and well-regarded program for students.
I guess, for a variety of reasons, AMEB exams do not always suit the way I teach or the students in my studio. For example, most of my students have hectic social and sports lives and see piano as more of an enjoyable sideline than a potential career. Preparing for AMEB exams is an arduous process for these kids as they just don’t have the time to properly learn long, difficult pieces and even if they do, they don’t have much time for the jazz, pop, improvisation, aural skills, theory, etc. that should form part of a balanced education.
I’m also a big believer in the importance of improvisation, which is not studied as part of the AMEB syllabus, but can be a focus in Trinity. Similarly, I like that Trinity students need only prepare 3 relatively short pieces per grade rather than the AMEB’s 4-6 often long ones. This results in students being able to continue studying many other pieces during the year rather than just their exam pieces (see my post on the success of my 40 pieces challenge).
Personally, I also have a strong desire to continue learning and improving my studio teaching practice. There are at least 5 exam boards available in Australia and some are far more progressive than others. Effective teachers should make certain that the exam syllabus they choose gets the best outcomes for their students. One size definitely shouldn’t fit all!
So, what was the outcome of the trial? As you’ve probably gathered from the above comments, I have been extremely impressed by all aspects of the TCL system, its staff, examiners and teachers and most importantly, the syllabus itself which has a number of key differences when compared to the AMEB:
- Up to Grade 5, candidates may choose two of either Sight Reading, Aural, Improvisation or Musical (“General”) Knowledge for their exam. From Grade 6 on, all students prepare Sight Reading and then choose either Aural Tests or Improvisation.
- Students may test out any aspect of their Sight Reading on their instrument during the 30 seconds preparation time before they are officially examined.
- Students may choose the order of their examination.
- Students need only prepare 3 pieces, one of which may be their own composition.
- Fewer scales are required, but students must learn three short Technical Exercises that demonstrate various aspects of technique in a musical setting, two of which are examined. Students may choose to learn either melodic or harmonic minor scales.
- The exam is marked numerically on the report (out of 100) so teachers can see exactly where candidates have lost marks. Candidates receive a maximum of 22 marks for each piece (7 marks for notational accuracy/fluency, 7 for technical facility and 8 for interpretation), 14 marks for technical work/exercises and 10 marks for each of the two chosen extra tests (eg. aural, sight reading, etc).
- If students choose the Aural Tests, they will find them much more musically relevant than those asked by the AMEB. Instead the endless singing-based exericses, students are asked questions based on listening (eg. finding differences between printed and heard melodies), identifying triads and intervals in music, conducting main pulses, commenting on phrasing, style, time signatures, cadences, tonality, etc.
In addition, here are the other things that impressed me in a more general sense:
- The official TCL books of all the exam pieces, scales and exercises for each grade cost only $10 delivered.
- The TCL syllabus is freely available online (here’s the piano one).
- I received prompt support and helpful advice from the local representative whenever I had a question.
- My student commented on the friendly, positive and supportive nature of the examiner and staff in the waiting area whom he said made him feel at ease and calm before the exam.
- I received my student’s exam report in 1 business day!
There are plenty of other aspects to commend TCL including piano duet and trio exams, performance exams which are offered at multiple levels, and a completely new Rock and Pop syllabus. The exams do cost a bit more – $128 for Grade 3 versus $88 for AMEB; I imagine much of this is due to TCL bringing over an examiner from London.
All in all, I strongly encourage other teachers to give Trinity College London a trial in their studios if they feel their students would benefit.
Published in Music and the Teacher, the journal of the VMTA November 2012 Vol 38 No 2.