‘Hanging on a Cliff of Sorrow’

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

The rather stark title of this week’s Fermata post comes from a quote found in a book written by two of the world’s leading education experts:

Pasi Sahlberg & William Doyle: Let the Children Play
(2019, Oxford University Press)

Assuming we respect the research, expertise and authority of Sahlberg and Doyle, as so many leading international organisations and educationalists do, then the strength of their impassioned plea will command our immediate and undivided attention.

As well as being an indictment of our present schools system, it follows that those who promote regular graded exams as standardised testing of musical attainment, however well intentioned, are actually on very shaky ground.

Amateur music qualifications can be useful for some players as occasional milestones, but their supposed value and recommended frequency have been grossly exaggerated in recent years, skewing the learning priorities of many, and profoundly impacting players’ sense of worth, confidence and potential.

When Sahlberg and Doyle assert that there is no evidence to support the idea that such testing ‘has helped our children’s learning or their futures’, we can be sure their claim has academic veracity. And with so many of the world’s most acclaimed pianists originating from countries which largely avoid the British obsession with graded exams, we can hardly feign surprise.

But to be fair, these truths about standardised testing and benchmarked grading are so disruptive to the falsehoods we have collectively bred that some will inevitably and sincerely struggle to accept them.

Some may be wondering whether advocacy for a more playful approach is a thinly veiled harbinger for “dumbing down”, a dangerous shift away from the work ethic that is so crucial for success as a pianist.

Others will quickly chip in that without the grade exam system, we have no way of knowing whether players are making effective progress.

But these claims seem to be predicated on a rather dismal conviction that players lack motivation, and that teachers, parents and players are themselves incapable of recognising, evaluating and celebrating their progress.

In my article Putting the PLAY back into Playing the Piano, I have presented a positive manifesto for a more informed, engaged, and imaginative approach to piano education that aligns with Sahlberg and Doyle’s research, and which appropriates the seven properties of play proposed by Dr. Stuart Brown.

Let’s stop acting like “lemmings heading for the sea”, mindlessly following the crowd with little or no professional reflection.

Let’s not leave today’s piano students “hanging on a cliff of sorrow”, but rather adopt a more personal, playful, positive educational pathway.

The power of play will increasingly be invoked in education. Yes, we are still learning what this means in practice. But better to contribute to a brighter future than to remain stuck in a loop of boredom and regret.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.