Yesterday, the Grade 8 performance exam results came in for a student who has been with me for three years. He earned a distinction. This is only the second exam he has taken with me during this period.
“That's great! …But three years?"
You may say,
“Isn't that way too long?"
“... After all, in Singapore, a student is expected to take an exam at least once a year or risk being labelled an underachiever."
But let's step back and ask ourselves: What's wrong with this picture?
The Tree of Knowledge
The skill tree of learning an instrument consists of multiple branches that expand from thicker, more fundamental branches, which in turn, sprout from the core trunk of fundamental knowledge.
Consider the pieces performed in any one exam as the fruits of this tree. The sturdier the core and the healthier the branches and canopy, the sweeter the fruits. This may seem intuitive to most of you, yet this was not the mentality I initially encountered when I started teaching in Singapore.
This raises an important question.
Why is that?
For starters, the private music school scene in Singapore boldly competes to over-deliver on expectations set by ambitious parents.
The expectation is simple: fast results, no dilly-dallying!
In this race for quick outcomes, music schools and teachers employ every trick in the book to achieve progress that would usually take months, within weeks.
Stickers on fingerboards, specialized bow-holding contraptions, and 'sing a rhyme' rhythm memorization are just a few examples.
This result-driven hyper-stimulation of growth often results in gaping holes in fundamental technique, left for teachers of higher grades to untangle later. Unfortunately, by that stage, most students give up out of frustration, and few young talents ever progress past Grade 6 in the Trinity/ABRSM exam syllabus.
The only way to break the cycle is to address the problem at its root: start educating parents about the dangers of chasing fast outcomes in the form of skipping grades at the expense of strong fundamentals (direct school admissions notwithstanding).
In the case of my student, he first joined my class after a series of teachers who could no longer stimulate any illusion of progress. Stuck at Grade 6, the student was left disheartened and on the verge of quitting violin altogether.
Ironically, when I took him on as my student, the first person I had to convince of the need to change approach was my former employer, who was in constant fear of students migrating to other schools (more liberal about making miraculous promises).
With a renewed emphasis on fundamentals, we managed to complete Grade 7 (for which he had already applied) that year. He achieved a respectable 'merit'.
Despite this, I was rather satisfied. Not only was he able to play through the program consistently with ever-increasing confidence, but the evidence of our hard work was beginning to shine through. The tone was warmer, the vibrato more free, and the intonation much cleaner.
After the exam, however, it was time for a talk with his parents. There would be no exam for at least a year. It became apparent that the tension in his hands would not disappear without a proper return to fundamentals. What was needed was time for fixing what had been ignored for far too long.
It's clear that the journey of mastering an instrument is not a race, but a marathon. It requires patience, perseverance, and an unwavering focus on the fundamentals. It's not about how quickly you can reach the next grade, but about building a solid foundation that can support your lifelong passion for music.