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Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
#2963253 04/03/20 09:13 AM
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Since most of us are stuck at home, here’s a hypothetical scenario for us to sink our minds into. Just for fun!

As some of you may know, I’m following the RCM curriculum and I intend to do as many exams as I can, subject to time constraints, loss of interest, finances, etc. I’ve been dutifully learning many of the pieces in the repertoire book and etudes book, as well as practicing sight reading and ear training, and a bit of theory here and there. I do the exams to give myself a goal that I can accomplish and I like goals.

I’m learning many pieces in the repertoire and etudes books so I can get a well-rounded foundation of styles, techniques, eras, etc. But here’s the thing. A person doesn’t need to do all that work if she just wanted to pass or even do well on the exam. A person could simply learn the pieces required by the exam, play those pieces well at the exam and pass with flying colours. For example, that person could simply learn 1 piece for List A, 1 piece for List B, 1 piece for List C, and 1 etude, for a total of 4 pieces. This is the exam requirements for the earlier grades. Higher grades may require a piece or 2 more. Then that same person could repeat this at every level. Sure I’m sure it gets tougher and tougher to do this as you progress up the grades but I think it’s doable. So in effect, the person has learned only a total of 4 pieces at a particular grade and is officially grade “x”.

So what do you think? Is this “cheating” the system or “cheating” yourself? I personally think it’s the latter but what do you guys think? Maybe you think this is perfectly acceptable and even efficient or savvy. I wonder if there are students that actually do this so they can fly through the grades and get the accolades. It sure sounds impressive to say, “Oh, I passed grade 10 in only 3 years”. Let’s focus our discussion on regular children and adults, not prodigies.

Last edited by WeakLeftHand; 04/03/20 09:21 AM.
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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963256 04/03/20 09:36 AM
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Originally Posted by WeakLeftHand
So what do you think? Is this “cheating” the system or “cheating” yourself? I personally think it’s the latter but what do you guys think? Maybe you think this is perfectly acceptable and even efficient or savvy. I wonder if there are students that actually do this so they can fly through the grades and get the accolades. It sure sounds impressive to say, “Oh, I passed grade 10 in only 3 years”. Let’s focus our discussion on regular children and adults, not prodigies.

I'm sure people do it, but I don't know what is the point. I don't even think it is cheating yourself. it just seems rather goal directed and without any useful point - and I'd ask, "why piano?" There are things one could get certificates for that are more rewarding (including financially) than piano.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
Tyrone Slothrop #2963262 04/03/20 09:46 AM
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Originally Posted by Tyrone Slothrop
I'm sure people do it, but I don't know what is the point. I don't even think it is cheating yourself. it just seems rather goal directed and without any useful point - and I'd ask, "why piano?" There are things one could get certificates for that are more rewarding (including financially) than piano.


A person with a grade 10 could certainly start teaching beginners in many locales I would think. I think the point is that people could show off to family and friends, and online. Anything for a “like” these days, right? That’s surely an ego booster. Me, I would just feel like a fake, like I’m lying, so it’s not something I could do.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963265 04/03/20 09:50 AM
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Tyrone +1

If they do it just for a like, well let them have their cookie.
Start teaching piano? I think you do not need any qualification at all for that.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
wouter79 #2963278 04/03/20 10:13 AM
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Originally Posted by wouter79
Tyrone +1

If they do it just for a like, well let them have their cookie.
Start teaching piano? I think you do not need any qualification at all for that.


Agreed, except in my locale they won’t get any students without qualifications. Too many qualified teachers.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963282 04/03/20 10:31 AM
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I see it differently. In my past day job, you had to have a degree with high GPA or at least had certifications achieved by passing harder and more difficult exams. People paid for expensive technical training that guaranteed passing the exam. In those classes, the “fluff” was removed and the sole focus of the training was passing the exam. Period. We had sayings about new people with certifications but no real experience. Eventually the newbies learned and earned real experience but at least they had the certifications to get an interview. I’m not a professional pianist or certified teacher by any means. If getting the certifications is just to help you get creds for a job or degree, then doing the minimal work to pass the exams is efficient. If however you’re using the recitals and exams to learn and improve your playing then enjoy doing above and beyond the coursework. You’ll improve your knowledge and skill. It’s entirely up to you. Best Wishes!


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963321 04/03/20 01:04 PM
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Originally Posted by WeakLeftHand
But here’s the thing. A person doesn’t need to do all that work if she just wanted to pass or even do well on the exam. A person could simply learn the pieces required by the exam, play those pieces well at the exam and pass with flying colours. For example, that person could simply learn 1 piece for List A, 1 piece for List B, 1 piece for List C, and 1 etude, for a total of 4 pieces. This is the exam requirements for the earlier grades. Higher grades may require a piece or 2 more. Then that same person could repeat this at every level. Sure I’m sure it gets tougher and tougher to do this as you progress up the grades but I think it’s doable. So in effect, the person has learned only a total of 4 pieces at a particular grade and is officially grade “x”.

If the student spends all his time (and it's almost always a male) practicing the required pieces, he'll still fail - or barely manage to scrape a pass (but only if he plays those pieces like a pro) - unless he also practices his scales & arpeggios, sight-reading and aural skills. If he also works at those, he'll have gained a decent technique and musicality, even if he never plays pieces that aren't required for the exams - which is more than can be said for many other students (with or without teachers) who never do exams anyway.

I'm sure there are people who try doing that, just for the sake of a certificate.

I never kept any of my several piano or academic certificates I obtained over the years - not any of the ABRSM grade ones (nor the diplomas), nor even the ones from graduation from university which enabled me to do the job I've been doing for several decades. And no-one ever asked to see them.

But I did keep the ones I earned for summiting a few famous mountains over the years (after all, I did risk life & limb on one or two of them).........as well as one I obtained from winning a go-kart race when I was at university grin.


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963432 04/03/20 06:09 PM
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Originally Posted by WeakLeftHand
Is this “cheating” the system or “cheating” yourself?


I think it’s just that the system is calibrated for students who are able enough that they will benefit more from doing the minimum required at lower levels and moving on to more advanced study as quickly as possible rather than lingering. The multitude of repertoire pieces at each level are just to accommodate teacher or student preferences.

Many of these students will be kids who need to learn enough by the time they finish high school that tertiary music study and/ or professional career is an option. So there is an element of time pressure.

For anyone not in that ability group, well, all bets are off, the system isn’t really aimed at you and I guess you can do whatever suits your needs and goals. It’s a free world. If you’re just doing it for fun, no-one except yourself cares and you are “cheating” no-one but yourself.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963497 04/04/20 01:03 AM
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Originally Posted by WeakLeftHand
Sure I’m sure it gets tougher and tougher to do this as you progress up the grades but I think it’s doable. So in effect, the person has learned only a total of 4 pieces at a particular grade and is officially grade “x”.



It is great to learn as many pieces while you can, but by the time you get to grade 5 (AMEB/ABRSM) there is significantly more pressure. What surprised me at grade 6 was the sheer amount of time I had to spend on getting the pieces to performance level, and getting technical exercises to the same level. I have cited this before but I had to learn, and get up to speed, 54 different technical items, mainly made up of scales and arpeggios in different variations/inversions. Not to mention the ear tests. All the additional work takes time away, and learning new pieces for the sake of it are a luxury.

Additional to learning six pieces I had to:
study for the mandatory theory exam (a lesson once a week at the local conservatorium for four terms plus self learning)
take singing lessons (for the melodic dictation component)
take additional piano lessons (just to concentrate on analysis and sight reading)

The reality is the attainment of each grade, although heavily marked on the pieces, is more about gaining a musical education you might not get if you choose just to learn pieces alone.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963557 04/04/20 06:42 AM
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We'll all done this, maybe not for music, but for some class or test you had to take in the past. I remember a math test in high school circa 1969 (before smart phones, before computers, before handheld calculators - anybody remember back that far?) when we were allowed to have one index card (3x5) with formulas on it for the test. I sharpened a pencil to a pin point and wrote so small I would never be able to read it now, but my card was covered in every possible thing I thought I needed for that test. I seem to remember passing... I remembered nothing after the test.

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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963565 04/04/20 07:16 AM
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Originally Posted by WeakLeftHand
So what do you think? Is this “cheating” the system or “cheating” yourself?

I don't think it is cheating the system. There are requirements to pass, you fulfill them, you pass. The system is not interested in how much time you spend learning your pieces, if you only learned to piece required for the exam, or not.
Neither is it cheating yourself. You know exactly what you do.

However, I think doing as little as possible will only get you so far. You'll most likely be able to pass the first couple of exams much quicker with your system, but once you get above a certain level, you'll need much more time to learn your 1 piece for List A, 1 piece for List B etc. due to lack of broad, general experience.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963574 04/04/20 07:43 AM
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I'm pretty sure that the majority of teachers teach children exactly like that. Being under parents' pressure they rush kids through grade systems as fast as they can fulfilling only the minimum requirements on the way. The luxury of studying different styles, techniques, eras comprehensively is probably a part of adult beginner's world only.

Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963756 04/04/20 07:48 PM
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A lot depends on where you live and the local people's general attitude toward such exams. For example, in my state our state music test is literally aimed at the "average" student.

Some cultures that were completely foreign to the idea of piano testing saw a similarity in the word "test" and immediate associate it with prestige and recognition for hard work. For example, in old China the civil service exam had something like a 97% FAIL rate. People worked very hard to pass that test in order to get a good job with the government.

Now, compare that with these music "tests" that have over 97% passing rate.

You get the point.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963760 04/04/20 08:23 PM
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But you are assuming learning a few pieces is less work. I agree with what bennevis said. I think a lot of side work must go into those few pieces. Maybe you acquire the techniques by learning many other pieces, while someone else learns the techniques from exercises or the exam pieces themselves. I can learn the notes of a grade 10 piece but I don't have the training to play it well enough to pass an exam. In other words, I don't believe there is a shortcut.

Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963767 04/04/20 09:43 PM
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If a person chooses to do the bare minimum, that person can do so with or without exams. Therefore, criticise the person and not the exam system. People have got to take responsibilities for themselves and stop blaming the system, society, tradition, culture, family, weather, pets etc.

Exams don't dictate how a person must learn. They give students a basic structure to train as a well-rounded musician. Key word here is 'basic':
- Pieces from different periods
- Technical works
- Sight reading
- Aural test
- General knowledge of pieces and composers
- Theory of music (prerequisite for higher grades)

Also, quantity doesn't equal quality. You can spend a year or more on 4 pieces and there are still never ending things you can learn and improve. Or you can learn 50 pieces in a year and leave each piece as soon as you can play the notes fluently, which is a false sense of completion. Why would Yo-Yo Ma return to recording Bach's cello suite again last year? Surely he has finished learning these pieces decades ago?

Let's not forget different people have different goals for learning music. Some people take music seriously and thus do way more than exam requirements. Some people learn music to gain basic understanding and appreciation. Just because someone is doing the bare minimum in one part of their lives doesn't necessary mean that person is lazy, or that the system is flawed.



Last edited by Tubbie0075; 04/04/20 09:43 PM.

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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
AZNpiano #2963784 04/05/20 01:05 AM
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Originally Posted by AZNpiano
For example, in old China the civil service exam had something like a 97% FAIL rate. People worked very hard to pass that test in order to get a good job with the government.

Passing those exams had their pluses and minuses. I had a distant relation who spent his life studying for the exam (which included such important topics as calligraphy and the Chinese classics) and passed a few levels of it, and as a consequence to becoming a minor court official acquired a large home and an addiction to opium, which he smoked until he died. I assume he also grew those super long nails which were in favor during the Qing Dynasty to show that one did not do any manual labor...


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
AZNpiano #2963786 04/05/20 01:15 AM
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Originally Posted by AZNpiano
For example, in old China the civil service exam had something like a 97% FAIL rate. People worked very hard to pass that test in order to get a good job with the government.
Today's Continental Europe is similar in some countries for some positions. The exercise is often pointless, as important positions are frequently filled by important people.

Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963787 04/05/20 01:24 AM
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To progress in many endevours, I find developing a deep and broad skill set can springboard me to a very high level of fluency. I just don't have much luck with cheap shortcuts.

Many of my university and work colleagues are very fast learners and taskmasters. Only a couple were truly impressive in their fields; they just had much more mental horsepower than the rest of us.

Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
Tyrone Slothrop #2963792 04/05/20 02:49 AM
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Originally Posted by Tyrone Slothrop
Passing those exams had their pluses and minuses. I had a distant relation who spent his life studying for the exam (which included such important topics as calligraphy and the Chinese classics) and passed a few levels of it, and as a consequence to becoming a minor court official acquired a large home and an addiction to opium, which he smoked until he died. I assume he also grew those super long nails which were in favor during the Qing Dynasty to show that one did not do any manual labor...

But the amount of work that's involved--writing essays after essays for three days, quoting the classics and their innumerable commentaries FROM MEMORY--is much more stringent than any piano test that's out there today.

I've been following the RCM repertoire for the last 20 years. With each new publication, it's like the kids are getting dumber and dumber, and the RCM people recognize that kids are stupider and stupider. A level 6 certificate today is akin to a level 4 certificate from 20 years ago.

I have taught Transfer Wrecks from Canada and I have friends in Toronto, so my observations are not completely baseless.


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Re: Passing exams by doing the absolute minimum
WeakLeftHand #2963808 04/05/20 04:54 AM
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In my situation i think it was neither cheating the system nor was i cheating myself; in fact to a small extent i've always had the nagging feeling that i was the one being led along by teachers who were so caught up in a race to accumulate as many certificates for their students as possible.

Three years of lessons got me to grade 8 (abrsm). So i had my first "proper" lesson when i was 22. Then, i only knew how to blunder through "Fur Elise", nothing else, and i had no idea what to look out for when choosing a piano teacher. The first led me through grades 3 and 5 in two years; i had no idea what i'd learnt apart from the pieces i had to play for the exams. Realising i knew nothing and had learnt little, i looked for a second teacher and told him i wanted to start from scratch. Somehow i got so intimidated by him that i unquestioningly obeyed whatever he said, so within the year of lessons with him he made me sit for my grade 8 exam. Then he wanted me to continue, and i said i wanted to retake the exam and learn things properly, but he kept pushing me to pursue a diploma. Knowing things would get nowhere, i stopped lessons with him.

That was more than 7 years ago. Although i'm now learning many new pieces from various genres and of various levels of difficulty under a new teacher, i feel like i've lost out on so much and whatever i do now can't buy back that lost time.

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