Grade-1-a-thon – conclusion! 👩‍🎓👨‍🎓

February through to May 2021 and a lockdown which saw 6 dedicated students come together for an hour twice a week with the goal of achieving their Grade I piano. 

Music Network invited the Nation to take up the Grade-1-a-thon Challenge, in aid of the Music Network Instruments for Older People project.  Starting in January 2021 the goal was to enter the Royal Irish Academy of Music Grade 1 in the Summer sitting, learning a new instrument and beating the lockdown blues – raising money along the way!

Ardagh Music Room thought this was a brilliant idea, put together a Challenge Package and put it out there – initially thinking it would be people local to Longford who would respond.  With my Piano Package Challenge getting caught up in the overall Grade-1-a-thon promotion, my reach extended further than Longford, with the majority of participants hailing from Dublin!

The six candidates:

  • National School Teacher who had done some piano when she was younger, and despite being utterly convinced that everything had entirely fallen out of her head, muscle memory seemed to remember some of her scales!
    Also found it to be the most mindful, relaxing break from the pandemic. 
  • Stay at home Mum whose daughters had both started the learning the piano with me using the Dog and Bird method.  As a child she was told that she had “no ear for music”, so even though she would have loved to have learned how to play a musical instrument, she didn’t.  I disagreed with this idea of having “no ear for music” and started her lessons.
  • A Dad whose three sons had been learning with their Mum – Grade VIII pianist – and had started with me to follow up with exams.
  • A retired nurse who had always wanted to play the piano and had started many times but never had the patience to finish a piece properly.
  • A musical mom who thought…if my kids can do it, I can do it!…and found it to be a great bonding experience 
  • A solicitor with absolutely no music experience or knowledge at all but who needed something to survive another lockdown with 3 young boys and both parents working from home. 

Using experience gained from past adult students, they key factors in putting together the Piano Challenge Package were:

  • Timeframe – with the deadline for RIAM exam entry in March, we had to have enough work completed at that stage to decide whether or not to commit to entering.
  • Practise Schedule – some adults, in my experience, are notoriously bad for committing time to practising, so we needed more than once a week to ensure that everyone was playing the piano at least twice a week even if they didn’t get any other chances to play.
  • Dedicated time – Despite lockdown, people are still time-poor. I hate that phrase, I think it’s an excuse and if people want to do something they will make time.  So, I made time for my candidates by scheduling two 1-hour group lessons per week.
  • Speed – factoring in the short timeframe and the need to keep what we were doing engaging I decided to set my expectations of them from the outset and keep the pace going.  By having a barrage of information ready for the first lesson, available for them to refer back to in the student’s page on the website the pressure was immediately on.

I will admit to never having run group piano lessons before.  I could never see how working with different abilities would meet individual requirements.  However, because we were all working towards the same goal, with the same pieces there was less room for falling behind.  Plus, a real advantage, turned out to be PEER PRESSURE!!  No one wanted to be the one holding the others up so everyone really put in the extra effort!

The Schedule had monthly targets and using a selection of material from various methodologies the programme had us starting the first Grade 1 piece, Menuet in A minor, Johann Krieger mid-February, 6 weeks after our start date of 11 January 2021.  By breaking everything down into small sections nothing was too daunting or overwhelming and the moral support within the group really played a significant part in helping everyone to stay the course.

After the initial 3 months everyone had all the scales and three pieces chosen on for the exam and felt they’d be ready for the summer exam.  Weekly sight-reading and theory tests using shared-screen PowerPoint ensured a rounded music education. The aural observation sessions provided much good-humoured laughter for all – no such thing as a non-singer in Ardagh Music Room!!

Lockdown of course meant no in-person exams, everything had to be recorded and uploaded to the RIAM website.  Each teacher had to assess theory, aural and sight-reading and submit their grades for their own students.

The recording sessions at home had to be done all in one sitting, scales and pieces straight through.  Interestingly children didn’t have quite the same outlook to this as adults.  Children would do one or two takes, maybe three depending on the level – but the thought of re-doing scales over and over was off-putting!  Most adults, however, were of the opinion that they could do better than the last, so were recording and recording…  was it a case of better is the enemy of good enough or perfectionism?

I think it’s a good thing to do it over and over then select the one you feel is best.  I wondered how I would approach it if I were doing an exam now – but I’m so last minute, it would be done the morning of the upload deadline so I wouldn’t have a choice!

We were well ahead of schedule and the hour had naturally divided into two half hour sessions with 2 candidates in each session.  For some it had got to the point where pieces were being over-practiced so we recorded and shelved until the upload date and moved on with new pieces.

So, towards the end of July – out came the results!!  Of course, everyone  passed with flying colours:   2 Distinctions (90+), 3 Honours (80+), 1 Merit (70+).  Excellent achievement all round!

What’s more exciting is that after a well-deserved summer break (not from practising though!) everyone has come back to focus on Grade II.

What a fabulous, musical, talented, dedicated gang!!

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