How Much Practice is Enough? Part 2

In Part 1 of How Much Practice is Enough? I attempted to calculate, in real numerical terms, the amount of practice required to get through a certain AMEB exam. In this follow up article, I will explore some of the other issues surrounding exam preparation.

Preventing boredom

Boredom would have to be the no.1 reason for good exam preparation being thwarted. There is nothing worse than having the same four pieces to practise all year round, with only miniscule improvements each week, if any at all.

Exam repertoire is most definitely getting harder. Every teacher I speak to agrees with this; every three years or so the AMEB brings out a new series and – sure enough – the pieces are more difficult than the previous series. So it’s not surprising that the repertoire takes longer to learn, and that students can get bogged down perfecting one piece over a long period of time.

So what’s the solution? More repertoire. But obviously not more of the same super-high-standard repertoire… just some simpler pieces, say 3 or 4 grades lower, which can be learned in a couple of weeks (max!) and which provide variety and a sense of instant gratification (which we all know this generation thrives on J). My esteemed co-author and dear friend Abe Cytrynowski calls these shorter pieces ‘rocket’ pieces… they must be learned and mastered at rocket speed!

Rocket pieces are also a terrific way to keep motivation high during the holidays. See how many pieces you can surprise your teacher with in the first lesson back!

Piano for Leisure

The Piano for Leisure (PFL) syllabus is fantastic for those who either can’t put in as much time or who are somehow not quite efficient enough with the time they do put in (it would be fair to say that the 1500-hour total discussed in Part 1 applies mostly to the Piano syllabus rather than the Piano for Leisure syllabus).

The main differences in the PFL syllabus are that there is MUCH less technical work to do, and only three pieces to learn instead of five or six. But beware… the actual repertoire for each grade is just as challenging, so it’s definitely worth including lots of rocket pieces in the weekly routine!

Reaping the Rewards

When a student is working towards an exam, the result reflects the amount of practice undertaken by that student. Lots of practice usually results in a good mark, hardly any practice usually results in a poor mark. (Yes, there are some students who somehow manage to fluke an ‘A’ with very little practice, but this is rare, and dare I say somewhat annoying.)

Regardless of your result, if you go on to attempt a higher grade, you will need to do more practice. Yes, you may be a better pianist than you were a year ago, but it just doesn’t work to keep the amount of hours at the piano the same. So, to keep up with the challenges of the exam, you need to increase your practice time by about 15%[1] – and this will pretty much get you the same mark you got last year (since the exam itself is harder). The table in Part 1 takes this necessary increase into account.

Skipping grades

Skipping grades doesn’t mean you can skip the practice required. You still need to put the hours in.

Most students who find they can successfully skip a grade have probably put in much more than the average amount of practice for the previous grades they’ve attempted. For example, if you got a B+ in grade 4 and decide to skip Grade 5, this still requires around 350 hours of practice in order to secure a B+ in grade 6. That’s quite a lot to squeeze into one year.

Some students ‘scrape through’ their exams, with a C or C minus. This can be due to an unexpected breakdown on the day, which is unfortunate. But for most students who end up with this result, it is due to a deficit in the number of hours’ preparation for the exam.

As an example, let’s say you got a B- for your Grade 4 exam. You’re a little disappointed, but let’s assume you didn’t actually do your 140 hours[2]. Perhaps you only did 100. That amounts to a deficit of 40 hours.

Now you have 160 hours ahead of you for Grade 5, but it all seems a bit difficult because of the 40-hour deficit from Grade 4 (resulting in a poorer technique, less well developed sight reading skills, etc.). You’re hoping to do better than you did in 4th grade. But if you don’t actually put in the full 160 hours for Grade 5, plus try to make up the deficit from Grad 4, you certainly won’t get a mark as good as the B- you got for Grade 4. You might end up with a C. And if from there you decide to forge on to Grade 6… well you can see how the pattern goes.

Easing the Pressure

Many students and parents assume that one year is ample time to prepare for an exam. However is there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking more than one year, and in many cases it works much better to take 18 months or so. This can work particularly well for students forging ahead into the higher-grade territory who are still incredibly busy and can’t quite adjust the weekly timetable to accommodate more practice. Averaging out one year’s worth of exam preparation over 18 months can really take the pressure off.

Conclusion

The whole point of doing exams is not just to go blindly on to higher grades & harder pieces without first having a critical look at what is involved, and whether you actually have the time and lifestyle structure to get the result you want.

If you are an extremely busy person with a wide range of co-curricular activities, it may by that music exams will take up too much of your time and will prevent you from pursuing all of your interests. However, this does not mean you should give up. Just because you don’t do exams, it doesn’t mean you’re not learning! Playing lots of pieces, learning to sight-read, playing by ear, developing technique, enjoying playing for others – these are the the goals of learning any instrument. It’s not about simply churning through the examination system.

So however you decide to spend your 1500 hours, whether it be on getting to Grade 8, or perhaps just playing ‘for fun’… make sure you enjoy them. You won’t get them back!


[1] 15% is only an estimate here, based on the increased amount of technical work in the Piano syllabus and the duration of the pieces. PFL technical work does not increase from year to year.

 

[2] As per the table in Part 1, which suggests the average minimum amount of practice required for each grade.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

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