Music Resources

Background

I learned piano from around age 11 to 16 (to AMEB Grade 5). My tuition was interrupted by the departure of my first teacher, so I fell behind most of my peers and was not thereafter a particularly dedicated student. I also played trombone in the school orchestra during my high school years, and while I did not study music at school, was thereby fortunate enough to be included in many of the school's musical activities. Barb leaned to play the recorder at school, as did many children of our day, but never had the opportunity to develop any particular appreciation for anything beyond popular music.

Growing up in Albury, in the 60s, my mother also subscribed to, and took me along to the ABC Concert Series, a series of classical music performances (vocal, various instruments, and once a year, an orchestra) that used to tour regional Australia.

Painted against this background, we were both very keen for Steve to start learning music, one way or another, as early as possible. My ambition (yes, my ambition—I am not shy in admitting that this certainly began as an exercise in vicarious living) was for him to complete the AMEB syllabus to AMusA level before he became distracted by the 'big wide world', as I had been.

We generally only listen to classical music and a bit of jazz at home, and made a particular point of playing classical music both when Barb was pregnant with Steve, and throughout his infancy. Whether or not this had any bearing on his subsequent musical development will probably always be debatable, but he has nonetheless become quite an accomplished young pianist.

The Instruments

I had 'inherited' the piano I had learned on as a child, so there has always been a piano in our home. While this was fine for me and my standard of playing, the limitations of this almost 100-year-old instrument quickly became apparent when Steve started taking lessons, so we upgraded to a new Yamaha (U3) upright piano. This instrument was fine until he reached AMEB Grade 5 (age 12), when we changed to a teacher who taught on a Yamaha (C7) grand piano. Literally within weeks of starting with this new teacher, we noticed that we were simply unable to reproduce some technical details, learned on the grand, on our upright piano, and we upgraded again to a Yamaha (C7) grand piano. We don't expect to have to upgrade this instrument in the near future...

We recognise our good fortune in being able to afford such beautiful instruments, but the grand piano cost less than a couple of years fees at a private school, so, on that basis alone, we figured it was much less of an extravagance than it might at first seem. The only reason for mentioning all of this is to say, simply, that you will find that to achieve a high standard in anything, you will ultimately need to invest in quality tools. You can buy a piano for a couple of hundred dollars, and it might be fine for a couple of years. But a good student will very quickly 'outgrow' a 'cheap' instrument. The build quality affects the sound quality of the instrument and the quality of the mechanism has a direct impact on the student's technical development, not to mention the ability of the instrument to hold its tune. A student can most certainly work through the AMEB syllabus with an upright piano, but there is no question that from about AMEB Grade 6 on, regular access to a grand piano will make a huge difference to the student's development.

Steve actually started learning music at age 3, ultimately following the Kindermusik curriculum with a small group of children and a private teacher. Children typically begin Kindermusik classes with their mothers in their pre-school years (age 4-5). In spite of my poor application in my youth, I have always loved music (mainly 'classical' and 'traditional' jazz), and I looked upon my son's musical education as an opportunity to 'round off' what had hitherto been an education/career with a heavily practical, scientific focus. To this end, when I was able, I also took him to Kindermusik classes.

During this period we acquired many percussion instruments and actively encouraged playing with these. Barb also learned guitar for a time, so that instrument was always accessible too. We never kept 'toy' instruments in the house—we have many instruments, but they are all 'real' musical instruments. If an instrument was tunable, it was always kept in tune, and all instruments were tuned so that, even when just playing around, they could be played (harmoniously) together.

Beating the Drum

Steve also learned to play the drums for several years. I think the main attraction here was the drum teacher, the son of his piano teacher. He was like a big brother, and Steve really enjoyed the company as much as the drumming. We bought a regular (acoustic) snare drum at the outset (before investing in a kit), but very quickly decided that this did not fit in with our 'lifestyle' and we invested in an electronic drum kit. This helped Barb and me retain our sanity while Steve enjoyed his drumming.

As kids often do, Steve pretty quickly decided that he knew how to play the drums and didn't need to practice any more. He liked going to lessons, because of his attachment to the teacher, but he found practice a little tedious. As with piano, I insisted on his practicing for a couple of years, but then I let the drumming side of things go, pointing out that, while he was a very good 8-year-old drummer, if he didn't practice, he would only ever be a very good 8-year-old drummer. Of course, this sort of explanation is usually lost on a child. By the time he was 10 years old, he was starting to get the idea—he was still just a good 8-year-old drummer, but he was an ordinary 10-year-old drummer. By the time he was 12, he understood completely what I'd been saying, but other interests were taking his time, and he has not, at the time of writing, returned to the drums. Maybe one day he will. He does understand the basics, the rhythm and coordination required, and that drumming is more than just whacking a bunch of drums with a couple of sticks.

This was, however, a valuable lesson (quite intentional on my part) that helped keep him going when piano practice seemed to become a bit of a chore. Be assured, no matter how good you are, there are always times when practice gets to be a bit of a drag. The student needs to understand that this is perfectly natural, and that the solution is not to turn away, but to develop the application to push through these times.

Lessons

Steve started piano lessons just before his sixth birthday. He quickly worked out how to play Barb, me and the music teacher off against each other when it came to how and when things had to be practiced, and so I ultimately took sole responsibility for music 'supervision'. This meant going to lessons with him, taking notes during the lesson, and directing his practice.

When Steve initially started to push back on our efforts to direct his practice, Barb took the opportunity to lead by example and started taking lessons herself. It made a big difference when he was not the only one having to practice. As an only child, not going to school, there was never much opportunity for competition (something we actively discouraged in any case—perhaps, with hindsight, a little too much), but Steve reveled in showing Barb how to do things on the piano (He would later derive similar satisfaction from teaching me aspects of computer programming.) When I took over music 'supervision', I started taking lessons again too, and continued until our teacher moved away from Canberra.

Many people will not agree with my approach, but for the first four of five years, I sat with Steve every day when he practiced the piano. From the very first pieces he learned, I 'actively encouraged' him to make his playing 'musical'. I learned all his pieces and played them to him so that he could hear them played with a degree of musical expression from the outset. When his music teacher found out I was doing this, I was severely reprimanded, as she felt this would inhibit the development of his music reading ability. I was never really convinced, but didn't question the teacher, always holding her up as the authority in these matters.

My father's brother learned to play the piano when he was about eight years old, became the local church organist at 13, when all the men went to war, and at 82 is still playing the organ at church every Sunday. My father never took lessons as a boy, but learned to play a little by ear, there always having been a piano in the house. He developed an interest in jazz which remains to this day, and I maintain that it is no coincidence that Steve has a good feel for jazz, even though his training has been almost entirely in the rendition of classical music.

By the time he reached AMEB Grade 6, in spite of all my extra lessons, Steve was consistently playing at a standard well above anything I had ever achieved, and I slipped quietly into the background (this latter claim is subject to debate...). I still went to all his lessons and took notes for the teacher, and I still chipped in when I didn't think practice was being directed quite as I thought it needed to be, but from that point on he was largely self sufficient with his music.

The AMEB Syllabus

We have followed the AMEB syllabus from the outset, because that was what our piano teacher offered, and, frankly, for years I never knew that there was any other music syllabus. I have no experience with any other syllabus, so I'm not in any position to comment on the relative merits of anything else. The AMEB syllabus has served us well.

In the higher grades (Grades 6-8 and the Diplomas), the AMEB practical syllabus requires that the student also study either Musicianship or Music Theory. I've never fully understood the distinction between these two branches of (AMEB) music 'theory', except to note that the Musicianship syllabus had an aural component that was absent in the Theory syllabus. The two syllabi share most elements of theory, but introduce them at different Grades. Some people maintain that the Musicianship syllabus is easier to handle because the Theory syllabus dives into heavier subjects, like writing four-part harmony, relatively early on. Some also favour Musicianship because of the aural component. We have, however, followed the Theory syllabus throughout, simply because, once again, that's what our teacher offered. Steve finds this very tedious, and does not particularly enjoy it at all. To be honest, while the scientist/engineer in me finds the subjective elements of composition quite difficult to deal with, I find most aspects of theory fascinating, as does Barb, and I think this has helped us to keep Steve moving along. It's hard to stay grumpy when everyone around you is enthusing over the subject. And, like them or not, achieving good results in exams has also made it a lot easier to keep going.

Our original piano teacher held separate theory classes, where she taught theory in a group of about six students. We attended these classes until she moved away from Canberra and we had to change teachers. Along with the practical lessons I took while Steve was learning, I also studied music theory, following the same syllabus that Steve would follow. Steve's new teacher did not provide any theory classes, and we did not find any satisfactory options in this regard so I provided the tuition for Grades 3-5. I managed OK up to Grade 4, because to that point most of the material was reasonably prescriptive. But much of the Grade 5 syllabus was 'creative', and a real stretch for me, without any more formal education in the subject. Nonetheless, with input from our practical teacher, a number of syllabus books, and the Web, Steve managed to pass every Grade exam with Honours.

The AMEB has recently (~2005) introduced a new, consolidated Musicianship/Theory curriculum, called Music Craft. It appears that this is being developed to replace the two distinct streams, so that some of the discussion in the previous paragraphs may now be quite irrelevant.

Performance

Our original teacher held concerts at the end of every term. I am convinced that these were an invaluable element of the whole musical development experience. Steve had the opportunity to hear students of all ages play. As much as anything else, this provided inspiration and helped to set performance goals. At these 'concerts', I also played duets with Steve, although, by the end, he was doing most of the work.

There were also several other performance opportunities in Canberra each year. The Taylor Music Festival and Miles Franklin Music Festival both offered a relatively low key, competitive performance environment. The National Eisteddfod provided a generally higher standard of competition, but with the additional pressure that comes with performing at that level. There were also competitions held by the local branch of the Music Teachers' Association, notably the MTA Awards and the Janice Battisson Awards. We participated in all of these, were encouraged by our successes, and leaned a little more about life when success did not come our way.

In more recent times, Steve claims that he is always nervous before, and even during, a performance. I'll probably never know if this is the terrifying sort of experience that I endure under similar circumstances, or just a 'healthy concern' that helps him focus on a the task at hand. I remain of the belief that, if I could perform as well as he does, I'd never be nervous, but it's highly unlikely I'll ever have the opportunity to test this theory.

One Small Step

Because Steve is quite an accomplished young musician, I am often asked about Barb's or my musical background. From time to time, parents then lament that they have no musical background and that they feel, as a result, their children are at a disadvantage. My personal perspective is that in matters such as these, life should be viewed across more than a single generation. By giving your children a foundation in music, they will each be in a better position to build on that foundation with their own children, and your grandchildren will be the richer for any contribution that you have been able to make.

I have nonetheless met parents, with no musical background, who have raised very talented musicians, so one's own musical experience does not necessarily limit the standard that one's children can achieve. There can be little doubt, however, that what you can provide for your children in almost any endeavour will enhance their ability to improve the lot of subsequent generations. I must also say that I cannot recall having met any parents who have developed a practical love for music themselves and not passed that love on to their children.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither, I would maintain, are skills necessarily developed in the span of a single generation.

21-01-2011