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Choosing the right AMEB piano exam

Twelve years ago there was only one AMEB course of study offered to aspiring pianists but today there are three: Piano (Pianoforte), Piano for Leisure and CPM Keyboard.

Many teachers prefer to prepare their students for Pianoforte grades as this is the system they themselves undertook and best understand. Other teachers, however, will lodge enrolments each calendar year for a variety of the keyboard syllabuses to customise a path for each student based on individual interests, aptitudes, available practice time and musical goals. This approach is encouraged as the right AMEB syllabus will result in the best exam experience for each student.

The Piano (Pianoforte) course involves slightly more preparation time due to the extra list requirement – with five pieces presented for examination in Grades 2–4 and six pieces in Grades 5–7. The candidate is examined on both their aural and sight reading skills. This course encourages the candidate to study repertoire from significant periods in traditional keyboard musical history. From a Sixth Grade level, written examinations must also be undertaken in order for the Practical certificates to be awarded.

‘For longer than anyone can remember,’ says Dr Michael Barkl, ‘the AMEB has been providing a classical piano syllabus that identifies the finest repertoire and provides a rigorous framework for graded development. It has been, and continues to be, a tried-and-true, reliable system for achieving excellence.

‘In recent years the AMEB has also developed two additional syllabuses for equally serious students: Piano for Leisure for those who are serious about enjoying their music, and Contemporary Popular Music (CPM) Keyboard for those who are serious about developing their musical creativity through performance.’

Multi-talented AMEB (NSW) examiner Dr John Terry conducts examinations for all three syllabuses available to pianists: Piano for Leisure, the classical grades (Pianoforte) and Contemporary Popular Music (CPM).

‘I have noticed that many students undertaking the regular “classical” grades would be better placed taking alternative AMEB keyboard exams,’ says Dr Terry. ‘I feel it is important for keyboard/piano teachers to recognise appropriate examination avenues for their students to pursue.

‘Piano for Leisure should not be seen as a “lesser alternative”. This syllabus allows students to pursue classical or light classical piano, more contemporary repertoire, pop repertoire, jazz or any tailor-made combination of these styles that suits the candidate’s taste.

‘Piano for Leisure is also designed for students with busy activity schedules. Examination requirements are less than those for Pianoforte grades. It needs to be firmly understood, however, that this does not mean a lower standard in performance. Piano for Leisure is for students not intending to pursue keyboard performance as a principal focus. It is for those seeking life-enrichment through musical activity of a high standard.’

The 2008 Winner of the AMEB (NSW) Teaching Shield for Piano Preliminary to Sixth Grade, Neta Maughan, also embraces the Piano for Leisure syllabus. ‘I agree that Piano for Leisure is not a lesser alternative,’ she says. ‘It is instead a way to encourage students to aspire to playing at a certain level but present an examination program that requires less preparation. Therefore, many of my students will sit for a particular grade in the Piano for Leisure syllabus in the First Metropolitan round. Thus we will prioritise working on the subset of the technical work required for the same Pianoforte grade and we can focus on their choice of either Aural Tests or Sight Reading. We select and prepare our two For Leisure syllabus pieces and use a piece from Pianoforte as the third Own Choice selection.

‘Once they have sat for this examination, they know they have much of the preparation under their belt in order to focus on the other areas in the second half of the year, where they will sit for the same grade in Pianoforte. The program they have already presented in their Piano for Leisure exam provides their two extra list pieces and one list piece toward their Second Metro Pianoforte exam. It is then a small matter of learning the remaining Pianoforte list pieces and focusing on the residual technical work and either the Aural Tests or Sight Reading option that wasn’t presented in their earlier exam.

‘This approach achieves impressive results and allows a student to focus on different pieces in each semester so he or she is less likely to get bored by playing the same material for an entire year.’

The CPM Keyboard course uses the printed score as a starting point for interpretation and improvisation within the broad contemporary music genre. Katrina Love is another versatile musician and educator who examines all three keyboard syllabuses for AMEB (NSW). She also enrols her own candidates for all three syllabuses with great success.

‘The CPM Keyboard syllabus caters for candidates who would like to really develop their creativity,’ says Ms Love. ‘Backing tracks and/or live accompaniment are encouraged to enable the candidate to develop their ability to play with other musicians. Three pieces (two set works and one free choice) are presented for examination in Preliminary–Grade 4 and four pieces (two set works and two free choice) in Grades 5–8. Similar to the Piano for Leisure course, the teacher can utilise the candidate’s strength by selecting either Sight Reading or Aural skills to be examined. In addition a "creative” section is included, giving the candidate an opportunity to improvise over a given chord chart with a backing track provided. Improvisation, original compositions and arrangements of pieces are encouraged in this course. There is the flexibility to choose repertoire from jazz, rock, fusion and popular music styles.’

Dr Terry adds that teachers should not feel insecure about encouraging their students to embark upon the CPM program. ‘Of course, improvising and reading from chord symbols may initially seem alien and daunting for some. However, upon investigating the course structure and the relevant terminologies, piano teachers would be pleasantly surprised by the friendly approach this system offers to students who enjoy creativity and musical exploration and who have a passion for contemporary music styles.’

Piano (Pianoforte), Piano for Leisure and CPM Keyboard are all graded from Preliminary to Grade 8, with an exam that provides a cap for the Grades, the Certificate of Performance.

The three syllabuses complement each other by providing for the varied needs and aspirations of piano/keyboard students of all ages in today’s world. Any of these approaches has validity if the chosen keyboard syllabus is enjoyable and the style and repertoire can capture a young musician’s imagination, motivating him or her to practise and maintain a life-long passion for the piano.

Dr Michael Barkl has written a resource titled ‘Improvising’ which explores a variety of useful skills and tools to encourage creativity. Dr Barkl has kindly invited our readers to email AMEB (NSW) and this booklet will be forwarded to AMEB teachers who include the subject heading: ‘CPM Improvising’.

We would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this article:

Dr Michael Barkl, AMEB examiner and AMEB (NSW) CPM Syllabus advisor

Dr John Terry, AMEB examiner and editor of Piano for Leisure Series Books

Katrina Love, AMEB examiner

Neta Maughan, AMEB examiner and multiple recipient of AMEB (NSW) Teaching Shields for Pianoforte

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