Should I do grades? (19th March 2015)

I have hit a bit of a dilemma this week. It has cropped up in conversation with parents of students that I teach guitar to but this week I have had to weigh up the possibilities of either putting my own son through piano grades or simply leaving him to play pieces that he likes to play. 

The grades route requires discipline. The scales, arpeggios, sight reading and music theory and skills taught throughout the grades program are invaluable to all musicians. You can't communicate without it. It can however be a long haul, stuck perfecting the same pieces for months at a time. Some of these pieces can be a tad grim, especially some of the "modern", more atonal ones. I often wonder if this stuff is the Associated Board's response to being repeatedly asked for more modern music but because of an aversion to popular culture that they don't really know what it means. The problem is that just because it may have been written in the last 20 or 30 years, does not necessarily make it the modern music that many young musicians would like to play. 

Here is a clip of a Leo Brouwer piece, beautifully played by Corey Harvin. Leo Brouwer is a wonderful musician and has written some iconic guitar works but grade 2 and 3 guitarists can't make it sound like that. It needs to be played extremely well to work. I for one wasn't remotely interested in it as a kid, although that probably says more about me. If you read my first blog about my entry into guitar playing you will probably get the idea.

Students (and parents) misuse  the grades route when they use the grade of the pieces they are currently playing as a yardstick to measure themselves against other musicians. It seems to bring out an intense snobbery among students and competitive parents alike. " ... Well my Tarquin you see who is  grade 8 on basoon, has moved on to trumpet to get a more prominent place in the orchestra, and has already reached grade 5 while only having been playing for three weeks and sight read the exam.....yawn....."
You don't often see these types of students playing into old age as the music loses it's edge when there is nothing more to boast about. 

I have all too often seen students make mediocre at best, attempts at playing grade 8 pieces when they could have played a grade 6 piece beautifully but went for the harder one for the kudos. I can totally understand it when students are doing this for either A-level or GCSE examinations where the difficulty of the piece actually affects the number of marks available but not when playing for entertainment purposes. 

The theory taught in the formal route however is not the be all and end all of music theory. While doing A- level music at school, which was the only time in my life that I found myself surrounded by lots of classically trained musicians, I found many were clueless when it came to improvising or being able to figure out the chords for songs to just be able to jam. Even at A-level, lessons in chord construction go little beyond inversions of basic chords. 
Many of the students I came across were completely unable to play anything unless the music was in front of them. This included many players of grade 8 standard and beyond.  Again, I don't know of many of these guys who still play.

On the flip side, there are drawbacks to just playing what you want to. I feel that students who don't do the grades generally have poor sight reading skills. Initially, this is not a major problem. Many students can figure out a piece by ear. This is fine when the music is either simple or repetitive in construction. The guitarist's dream musical style to learn is blues. It sounds great, but is a bit formulaic and repetitive. Plus you can mix up very simple melodic techniques such as string bending to make something sound essentially different. Eric Clapton is a master of the blues style of playing and professes to not be able to read a note. 
The problems with not being able to read music manifest themselves much later on in the musician's learning journey. There comes a point in every improving musician's playing where they have to be able to read to be able to push it further and escape those old  habits which were once nice tricks but have now become old hat. 

If you are playing one style at a high level beautifully by ear then need to move to another style, reading helps you learn more quickly.
The musician with poor reading skills has to take a step down several levels because their reading isn't good enough to cope with the more tasty stuff. 
This can be totally demoralising for some, knowing that they will have to work for several months to get even close to the standards that they are capable of. It causes musicians to switch off or simply return back to the style that they know and are comfortable with. 

This whole thing could rumble on and I have work to do so I suppose I have to draw some conclusions here. 

Typically, I am going to have my feet in both camps. The best approach to learning is a varied one. Some of the grades certainly open doors for young musicians studying music at school and beyond. Grades five at GCSE and grade 8 at advanced level certainly seem to be the benchmark grades for students to be able to access  the highest performance marks. I would certainly put more chord construction and harmony into the curriculum as to a guitarist, this is what music is about. I would actively encourage students to play as many different styles as possible from the outset.

I want to see my son playing for life, just as I have. He is very lucky to have a teacher who is more than capable of following the traditional route, and teaches scales and broken chords, coupled with a bit of the Italian needed to express the music properly. She also gets a massive kick to see him happy playing stuff he enjoys.
I asked him what he wants to do and he's happy to leave it for now. Suits me fine.