My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back

off to the side of the piano.

I sit up straight on the stool.

He begins by telling me that every key

is like a different room

and I am a blind man who must learn

to walk through all twelve of them

without hitting the furniture.

I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.



He tells me that every scale has a shape

and I have to learn how to hold

each one in my hands.

At home I practice with my eyes closed.

C is an open book.

D is a vase with two handles.

G flat is a black boot.

E has the legs of a bird.



He says the scale is the mother of the chords.

I can see her pacing the bedroom floor

waiting for her children to come home.

They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting

all the songs while couples dance slowly

or stare at one another across tables.

This is the way it must be. After all,

just the right chord can bring you to tears

but no one listens to the scales,

no one listens to their mother.



I am doing my scales,

the familiar anthems of childhood.

My fingers climb the ladder of notes

and come back down without turning around.

Anyone walking under this open window

would picture a girl of about ten

sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,

not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,

like a white Horace Silver.



I am learning to play

“It Might As Well Be Spring”

but my left hand would rather be jingling

the change in the darkness of my pocket

or taking a nap on an armrest.

I have to drag him in to the music

like a difficult and neglected child.

This is the revenge of the one who never gets

to hold the pen or wave good-bye,

and now, who never gets to play the melody.



Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.

It is the largest, heaviest,

and most beautiful object in this house.

I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.

And late at night I picture it downstairs,

this hallucination standing on three legs,

this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

From Sailing Alone Around the Room, Random House, 2001

In the last blog I discussed how music exams should not be used and how they work best. In this  blog I want to share some of the benefits I have seen come out of music exams. I’ve seen this in my own experience and also in that of my pupils. I think I would have liked to have understood how useful to me exams were going to be down the track when I was in the thick of them myself as a young person.  


A well prepared music exam…

  • takes learning to a recognisably new level. The pupil really senses that this has happened in a way that going to the next tutor book on the list just doesn’t. They know that they have progressed to a particular level of playing.
  • inspires the pupil in his/her learning. Getting to the next level is a pretty powerful way for pupils to realise that the work they put in has helped them achieve something for themselves. I often see new levels of enthusiasm after pupils gets their exam results.
  • develops a sense of direction. The anticipation of working towards the next grade up is a good thing. When a pupil sees other pupils developing their skills from one year to the next in exam concerts, they often look forward to playing pieces at a higher level.
  • helps learn different music styles. Because the pupil has to prepare a range of musical styles, they get exposed to range of music that can often help the tutor see the sort of music they like. I quite often will look for other pieces like those that the pupil enjoyed in their exam.
  • shows skill in the moment and offers potential life lessons. In an exam, you have to perform at a given moment and show what you know. I had a pupil tell me that doing music exams helped her pass her driving test. This was a student who always played beautifully but got quite nervous in her exams. It was something we had to work at, but I would not have guessed this would have become a side benefit to her.
  • helps develop a performance mentality. Being a musician means that there are very likely going to be times you need to play in front of others in some capacity. It may be solo or in a group setting. I got terribly nervous in some of my exams, sometimes shaking uncontrollably throughout. But with each one I discovered how I best prepare for performances. In particular, I realised that I could actually enjoy the experience, even shine, when my pieces were well learned. It gave me confidence to play in music groups as well.
  • provides an international qualification. For many, a music exam is the first internationally accepted qualification they will have. I must have been around 7 when I sat my first exam. I still remember the lady examiner with an elaborate hat who was very kind. It all took place on our family piano which was the music room where my mother taught many pupils. The examiner would come out from England and travel to various smaller centres in New Zealand where the exams took place. It was only ‘initial piano’, but it was an internationally recognised qualification.
  • checks out if your teacher is teaching you well! I love nothing better than for my pupils to get an exam report affirming a perspective on issues I have already been addressing, such as dynamics and phrasing. I also think of a pupil’s exam comments as a way of seeing how I can improve as a teacher too.
  • improves sight reading. Quite often it is the preparation for the exam sight reading exercise that helps the pupil understand how to sight read better. (That said, I actually work towards this skill with every lesson, though my pupils don’t usually realise it, because I don’t play the new piece of music before they have sight read it themselves first.)

Maybe I have missed a benefit you have had from doing a music exam. Let me know in the comments so we can all learn it too!