Notes from the Piano

Playing the Piano-It’s NOT about the Scholarships & UCAS points!


Music is such a wonderful part of life, those of us who play an instrument or sing are so privileged to be able to understand and to share music on such a deep level. Those of us who also teach our instrument are especially lucky as we get to not only share the music through playing, but to inspire our students on their own musical journey and to share a large part of that journey with them as they learn and develop their own skills and unique musical voice.

It makes me very sad therefore, that increasingly I find myself being asked to teach students solely with a view to them gaining a scholarship or the relevant UCAS points, for me this is not a reason to learn an instrument, nor should it be the main goal. The ability to achieve a music scholarship or to gain UCAS points (or indeed achieve graded exams etc) should be something that may or may not happen along the way as part of a wonderful musical journey, not the sole aim.

We need to think about why we want to play a musical instrument, for most learners it is both, a very personal journey to a place where one can sit and play much loved works, explore the piano repertoire, and equally one where we can share our music making with others through performance, to gain a level of skills which enable us to then communicate via the music we play with our audience, be that professionally or on an amateur level. Most students set out to want to achieve that level of competence, to get inside the music and be able to share that with others.

What music is NOT for in my opinion, is UCAS points, or to gain a scholarship to a good school!

Of course if your child is a good musician then why not use the points they have earned via any grades they may have taken along the way, towards their UCAS points, why not audition for a musical scholarship to a good school, but please do not use these as the goal.

Why not, is the question I am often asked by parents, well, because UCAS points and Scholarships are not musical goals or destinations  (neither are grades), for me these are stops along the route of  musical journey,  for those who want to take them, they are to be taken when students are already playing at that standard, when they have built and possess the skills necessary for the repertoire at that level, without the necessary skills they will not only become very bored of their very limited repertoire, but often disillusioned and frustrated as the music they are trying to play is too hard for them.

A good teacher knows their repertoire and will be able to choose repertoire through which the student can build their technical and musical skills and through which the student can enjoy their learning and exploration of many different genres rather than be confined to 3 or 4 exam pieces over the course of many months.

Interestingly, at Junior Guildhall where I teach on a Saturday, we do not focus on exams, we focus on performance, we focus on the musical journey. My students there learn a huge amount of repertoire each year and enjoy building their performance skills via opportunities to play in weekly concerts. If a student wishes to take an exam, they can of course do so as and when they are ready, at the teacher’s discretion. The outcome of this is students who love learning, love practising and love performing, and as a result, they progress quickly, much more quickly than those who take the exam to exam route.

I cannot stress enough, the importance of building performance skills and confidence outside of an exam room, the importance of learning to share the music, to communicate with an audience for the sake of the music rather than simply for the sake of an exam or a scholarship.

Each term, in my private practice, I try to hold a concert for my private students, increasingly, it is very difficult to get enough performers to make this a viable proposition.

There seems to be a strong movement of a certain school of thought whereby performance is only deemed important for an exam or a scholarship audition, I find this very anti-music.

I find that increasingly that I have parents trying to dictate the repertoire their child will play, the lesson content and the pace of the lessons/speed of progress they want to see! I want parents to understand that as a teacher of 40 years’ experience, I will design an individual musical curriculum for your child, one which will build the necessary skills to play music of increasing levels of difficulty as they progress. There are no short cuts, there is no quick fix, learning must be scaffolded, skills built and then honed, repertoire carefully chosen to achieve this.

Students will be ready, when they are ready, if you have chosen your teacher carefully, then trust your teacher, if your child is not taking grade 5 it is because they don’t yet have the skills, if your child is playing lots of wonderful music in many different styles, if they are engaged with the music, enjoying performance, loving their musical journey then please celebrate and encourage that, don’t stress about exams, points or scholarships, these things may evolve along the way, equally, they may not, however the most important thing is the journey not the destination. When it comes to playing the piano, the destination cannot be rushed, to try to do so will destroy the love of the instrument.

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.