In this, my first post of 2020, I thought I’d get back to it with a BANG! This article will cover my reasons for my passionate belief in why we should at first discourage our learners to enter for graded instrument examinations, especially in their formative stages of learning. Warning, this is going to be a very candid account – please do not read on if you are faint hearted.
As a beginner guitar player, back in the day I myself was the product of the guitar grades, and as a result became what I’ve coined a grade player (more on this later) for a number of years. When I was learning, I enjoyed the fact that I could tell my mates that I was studying whatever level grade that I was studying at the time. I liked the way that my progress was given a number, and the higher that number became, the ‘better’ I was as a ‘musician’. No doubt, my guitar teacher at the time also enjoyed the fact that my grades reflected on him positively, showing ‘progress’ in his practise along with providing tangible evidence that he was doing his job correctly. Seemingly, win-win.
Personally, I liked the feeling of mastering the pieces, and I developed a somewhat tunnel vision towards this. As a child, I didn’t feel that I was very good at anything at all, and encouragement at home was few and far between. When I began playing guitar, however, something clicked within me, and I became obsessed; for me, everything became about the numbers, and the numbers provided me with a lot of esteem. Tempo markings, beats per bar, the grade I was on all became benchmarks for my purpose and the standards that I gauged my self worth and ‘ability’ on; the higher the number, the better I thought I was. However, the numbers were also an Achilles heel, damaging my musicianship in ways that I couldn’t possibly realise at the time, and would only realise as an adult. Crucially, the numbers distracted me from critical points about being a musician that I had never been encouraged to see with any real conviction. This then became the foundation of my practise as a teacher when I decided to begin my teaching business, which was born in Swinton, Manchester, 2012. Not long after starting my business, for reasons unknown to me at the time, I started to feel very frustrated about my teaching and the results I wasn’t getting (at this point in my life, I was still very focussed on numbers). I spent a long time unpicking my practise and educating myself, and after many years of self development and reflection came the harsh reality of my findings. However, no one finding was as harsh as the feeling that I had spent my first number of years as a teacher failing my students. I then continued, when I could, to critique my teaching practise and learn from student and parental feedback. I read, gathered opinions from some of my trusted peers, teachers in my family, and also from students and parents of students that had experienced poor, grade focussed lessons before reaching out to me, often as a last resort.
I want to be very clear before I continue; the whole point of this article is to articulate that there is a better way to cater for our learning musicians, this is not an attempt to shame any individual approach, or to insinuate that my approach is ultimately the best. I’ve already been very truthful about my failure as a teacher, and crucially what you are about to read is the learning that has taken place as a result of that failure. This article is designed to serve as an appeal for a drastic development in our provision to our learners; no person is an island, and, whilst we are living and breathing, no individual is a finished product. Beneath are the lessons I learned.
Lesson 1 – Instrument Grades ARE NOT Schemes of Work.
Time to be candid again – back in the day, I used to treat my guitar grade books like armbands to my otherwise drowning teaching. I used to select a piece for my learner, and base each lesson around being able to play the piece. My teaching method was then to correct the mistakes my learner was making, followed by wonderment when I evaluated the finished lesson and wondered why my learner wasn’t progressing. Perhaps most worryingly, I used to then come up with all sorts of reasons in my head to justify how and why my student was failing, and how they perhaps ‘didn’t get it’ or ‘didn’t love the guitar as much as I do’. Of course, I now know that it was indeed my past approach that was failing, not the student. I also know that the stories I used to tell myself were in my head to protect my numerically driven ego and poor judgement from being beaten to within an inch of it’s life.
Lesson 2 – Grades are the cake.
My learning and realisations led me to the understanding that the grades are the cake. This might sound whacky, but hear me out. Imagine you are looking at a cake, in a shop; you can of course recognise the fact that the cake didn’t just appear out of nowhere. You are intelligent enough to work out that the cake started out as a variety of individual ingredients that were masterfully sourced, prepared, combined, then baked in order for the final product to rise and be enjoyed. Italics, much.
Lesson 3 – Even the Initial/Debut grade is hard for a beginner.
It is all too easy for us to make subconscious connections between a beginner guitarists and the beginner grades. This connection must never be made. If we consider the previous cakey point, it is easy to understand the reasons why beginner grades are not suitable to beginner guitarists. Even the most basic of the core skills take time to develop.
Lesson 4 – Result lead instrument education is toxic.
Grades are supposed to be fun, enlightening, engaging, inspiring and challenging. These are coincidentally the things that I – and I’m sure countless other musicians – love most about music. Music learning should be focussed on the journey leading to the destination. In other words the focus should be on the music before the qualification. Studying and consequently playing music this way can teach us so many things about not just the music itself, but ourselves, other people, the world, history, culture and language to name a few. These learning experiences are positive and based within growth mindset. Music learning in general should be about developing the whole musician, a love for music and a love for the instrument, as well a resilience to failures whilst enabling positive self reflection. If an individual only gets to Grade 2, so what? If they had an amazing time doing so, then nothing else matters.
Now, lets for one moment consider an environment that is results led. The focus is on the destination, not the journey. In other words, the focus is on the qualification before the music. Like my younger self, the individual engaged in results led learning will cherish tangible, numerical growth over more fun, enriching, musical growth. This becomes the benchmark by which the individual will identify themselves. But the damage doesn’t stop there. When a learner focussed on numerical growth comes up against a challenge, they are much more likely to avoid it in favour of easier things, especially if they feel like they appear to be failing. The reason for this is self esteem; learners focussing on result led learning typically have a very skewed, closed minded and self centred view of failure. The outcome of this is a lack of confidence, self esteem, and often a void of will to perform in front of their peers. The reason? An all consuming fear of failure. What good is Grade 8 if the learner has just learned all they need to know for the exam and connected that knowledge to nothing more than a fear of getting it wrong on exam day? This is a grade player.
Lesson 5 – Our students are individuals.
When most learners pick up the guitar for the first time, they don’t have a clue about grades. What they often do have a clue about is their identity, and specifically what made them want to play guitar. This should always be the vehicle by which we begin navigating and experiencing the journey of music learning with our learners. Nothing drives me bonkers quite like taking on students who have arrived at my doorstep from another teacher, who has been hanging on to the teachings of Bach by tooth and nail for the last 20 years. Sure, I accept some learners may want to learn classical music (and you should always have variety in your curriculum), but most individuals are inspired by what they hear on the radio, on YouTube or on TV ads. Flippin’ heck…I was inspired by the theme tune to Knight Rider!! If this journey with your student leads to grades organically, that is amazing. If the journey doesn’t lead to grades, that is also amazing.
Lesson 6 – Proper instrument provision encourages mindfulness.
My final point is the most pertinent, at least to me. In today’s age of apps, downloads, streaming and instant gratification, distractions are everywhere at the expense of our minds. Social media at present seems to be all about exploiting our weaknesses, much like one huge and sustained advertising campaign. Today, young people and adults alike are loosing their resilience and are in danger of giving up their precious self esteem to app/game developers and large corporations that want us to be dependent on their products to make us ‘happy’ and ‘worthy’. Approaching the grades compassionately is one way we can positively contribute towards the growth mindsets of our learners, not only to strengthen them as individuals and keep them from these worthless distractions, but to actually give them a powerful set of transferable skills, as well as an internationally recognised qualification. THAT, is something to be proud about.
What are your thoughts?