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15.10.2014

​Syllabus Wars

Sam

Sam Burnett

When Rockschool first became an independent music syllabus in 2002, many musicians and tutors were excited yet sceptical. Could a syllabus that revolves around pop music challenge the status quo of classical music exams? And if so could this new syllabus finally give pop and commercial musicians the academic equalities that artistically so many have been chasing.

ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall syllabus have dominated the music education world since the 19th century. It is no surprise that many perceive rock/pop and commercial musicians to have received far less training, ,and therefore have less academic credibility when it comes to music than their classically trained counter parts. Commercial musicians have always had to defend their techniques, knowledge and stylistics ever since Jazz musicians broke away from the traditional methods in the early 1920’s.

Having taught from both the classical syllabus, (Trinity and ABRSM) as well as the contemporary counter syllabus (Rockschool) I find it amazing amongst teachers and players a like is the constant feud between those who are classically trained and those who are trained in a more contemporary format. The conversation usually goes “You can’t play that there it clashes with this chord”, “That’s the sound I was trying to create”. To any musician this example of dialogue is a common feature amongst rehearsal rooms up and down the UK where both classical and contemporary musicians are trying to create new music.

However what is rarely taken into consideration are the different skill sets needed to pass either the classical music exams and the popular music syllabus. For instance to pass the Trinity Guildhall classical guitar grade 3, you need to pass a sight reading test, in fact all of the music is in notation from grade 1, unless you can read music or have a teacher capable of showing you how to read you cannot any play any of the pieces. Contrary to this the Rockschool syllabus eases the beginner in with tablature used as notation. The student must also complete improvisation sections in order to pass the exam.

The up’s and downs of this are simply, notation is harder to read yet more rewarding once you have nailed it, yet it takes much longer for the student to be able to learn songs independently, and improvisation over chords should only be done at a time when the student is ready to take on this daunting concept. By watering concepts down and trying to come up with a grade 1 improvisation test seems ridiculous to many tutors including myself. Just like many concepts in sports, theatre and art that are shown at a stage when the pupil can really understand what the tutor is asking of them, the music exams seem to like to get as much in as possible right from the get go.

This can lead to situations where if the wrong teacher handles the wrong information at the wrong time the student will be able to play something but have no understanding of what they are or are not playing.

Despite all these differences when classical musicians and pop musicians learn from each other, you have an all round balanced knowledge of the more theory based classical knowledge, and the sound changing scope of contemporary musicians. You could argue that Trinity are alienating many fantastic teachers due to the impetus put on sigh reading, a skill as fantastic as it is, is dying in the commercial and every day aspect of music.

With more people able to create music by the click of a button and music taking a less and less original and pioneering route for many today, it is vitally important that when learning an instrument that you indulge yourself in all the knowledge there is out there. From the Classical concertos of Ludwig Van Beethoven to the colourful melodic tones of Charlie Parker. Once young musicians are shown the whole picture by tutors and discuss not only what you need to pass the exam, but the other far greater elements of music then it will thrive under the new vision of creativity, knowledge and expression. Making music is something that you have to train yourself to do and when training yourself listen to as much as you can because what you may hear and judge to be insignificant may just hold the key to fully understanding music!

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Nathan

Nathan

Guitar Student

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