Making The Grade

As a welcome back experiment I have been asking secondary pupils of all ages to read their way through an engaging minimalist piece I rediscovered in the holidays. In theory, this piece should be very easy as it featured, until the year 2000, in a Grade 1 syllabus. However, it looks fiendish. I have also indulged in the customary game of guess the grade with my instrumental and classroom colleagues. Guesses have ranged from Grade 3 – 6 and all are equally astonished to discover that it has been a Grade 1 piece. The key thing here is speed. Played at a slow enough tempo, it could be believed to be a Grade 1 piece. Multiply that by four and it seems more than four times as hard.

I have often wondered whether other subjects* feature speed of accessing and delivering information. It seems an odd thing to suggest but there is always a time limit in music. A note arrives in time or it does not. Nobody claims to know something well, when it has arrived late. Take reciting multiplication tables or conjugating verbs as examples. Is there any value in rehearsing these to a gradually accelerating beat to prove increased familiarity? I was once asked to deliver a session on “techniques of teaching” for guitarists studying at the RSAMD. I mentioned use of a metronome not only for improvement of physical tasks but to check the speed of access to supposedly known information e.g. the “spelling” of scales. The idea was lightly ridiculed as making a fuss about nothing. I suggested we try reciting the scale of A flat upwards and downwards at a modest pace, reciting the names aloud. Not one person succeeded.

One important fact here is that music goes down as often as it goes up. Therefore fluent knowledge of (the first 7 letters of) the alphabet in both directions is an essential, if seemingly bizarre, skill. Leaps as well as steps have to be calculated very quickly and an understanding of European harmony assumes a reasonable knowledge of these distances and relationships (more of which, alongside “musical grammar” another day).

* Typing is the only one I can think of apart from some events in PE being timed and dance steps having to coincide with the tempo of the music.

3 thoughts on “Making The Grade”

  1. That’s so reassuring! I saw that piece and it was maddening. I’m used to being able to sightread pieces at that level but that one beat me.

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