March is the month for spring music festivals! Here at the New School we have our own March festival—Piano Progressions. This is a week of in-house examinations, in which our students are tested on performance of repertoire, skills, ear training, and written theory tests. Students complete these tests in lieu of their regularly scheduled lessons and classes, and receive comprehensive written evaluations. Early March is an ideal time to conduct such an exam week. There is a natural lull in the school calendar between our December Parents’ Classes and our May Spring Recitals. This could be a time where students lack motivation to practice. Instead, we give them an important event for which to prepare. This often jump starts a student’s preparation for the Spring Recital as well: the Progressions repertoire can be used as a building block for the recital, it is a good chance to perform by memory under pressure, and for our advanced students it is a chance to try out a piece that will be used in state festivals or other competitions.
Our exams are divided into three categories:
Students prepare two pieces which they play for a teacher who is not their private or repertoire class teacher. Our goal for each student is that both pieces are memorized, but students are welcome to play with the music if needed. Our philosophy is that a well-prepared, confident piece with music is preferable to an insecure piece by memory. The primary goal is for the student to feel as though their performance was successful. Students are evaluated on accuracy, expression, fluency, and preparedness. Each piece is rated on a 10-point scale (nine points for pieces played with music).
2) Keyboard Skills/Sight-Playing/Ear-Training
Our students take a leveled skills exam, created by our Educational Director. The skills progress in difficulty through four elementary levels and eight intermediate-advanced levels. A beginning student may be asked to play a brief warm up and some five finger patterns. However, by the time students reach the advanced levels, they are expected to play five finger patterns, scales, triads and inversions, and arpeggios. Of course there are variations of all of these skills, including scales in thirds, sixths, and tenths, and all forms of arpeggios, including dominant seventh and diminished seventh arpeggios. Each level has a variety of optional (bonus) skills so the teacher can modify the test to accommodate every student’s needs.
In addition to skills, there is a sight-playing exam. Students typically read an example designed to be about 1-2 levels below their playing ability. They practice looking through the example prior to playing and are encouraged to start with a count off and play without stopping once they begin. New to NSMS this year is an ear training component to the exam. Our students were also evaluated on hearing intervals, minor/major scales, and triads, as well as hearing playbacks and clap backs. This added element encouraged weekly ear training in the private lessons, as well as student practice of these skills at home.
3) Written Test:
The final component to the exam is a written test in which students are asked to complete theory concepts at their level. Examples of what the students are asked to do are identifying and writing key signatures, writing in counts of rhythms, and writing scales. It is a good way to test a student’s complete knowledge as it is often more difficult to write theory concepts than to hear or play them. It gives a great opportunity to refine a student’s writing skills—writing stems correctly, placement of sharps and flats, etc.
The primary goal of this festival is to celebrate our students. We are proud of their development of complete musicianship and this festival shows their progress in all areas. Students receive a certificate after they have completed all three exam areas. In the week following the festival, we often sit down with the students and parents. We discuss the areas in which the student performed well as well as the areas they might continue to work on. These conferences have a positive tone and students understand that this is a very comprehensive test. They are proud of their work and accomplishments. I often tell my students that Piano Progressions is a bit like going to the doctor for an annual checkup. You might be very healthy, but oftentimes the doctor finds a couple of areas that you can work on to become an even healthier person. So it is with our students: they may be well-prepared in many areas, but find that they can improve their ear training or sight-reading. Our goal at the New School is to develop students who are complete musicians; Piano Progressions is a festival that helps us to achieve this goal.