There are so many piano teachers who ask this question and others. Is it REALLY important? Who benefits? Does it cause more angst than rewards?
These are great and valid questions and as a piano teacher of 40 years, I have also pondered the process. I also come back to one answer, however, YES! I think all students should have goals and testing is the perfect way to measure their progress; determining what kind of test is the real issue. What do we want our students to know? Should they have working knowledge of scales? What about sight-reading & transposition? Musical language?
Many piano tests allow teachers to “pick and choose” what they think their students should know. Does this mean that some parts of a student’s education is not being addressed? Other tests are all-inclusive, but have set repertoire that students must learn, boxing a teacher into teaching the same pieces every year. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does get a bit tedious year-after-year. Some tests are not cost-effective for the majority of students. Almost all tests have scheduling issues that requires school-aged students to get out of school or test late, even into the night hours. How are these issues beneficial to students and is there a solution? Well, of course there is!
PCS Piano Proficiency Examinations were designed to address all of these issues. The test is accessible to any and all students who take piano lessons. It is cost-effective and can be scheduled any time during the year. We allow teachers the freedom to choose their repertoire, but it must include 4 periods of music (Levels 4+). This is a simple test to see if the student is making progress and “getting the job done”. Based on a numeric system, students are graded in different areas as to their competency. Did they add dynamics or not? Did they play the correct notes & rests? Was the tempo correct? Do they know their musical terms? Parents understand this system and appreciate the simplicity. As their children are graded in school, numeric grading in piano is a plus. If you make a 90+ on the test, you receive a grade of Excellence; if you receive a grade of 70-89, you receive a grade of Proficient; if you score below 70, it is scored as Remedial and the student has to take that test again in order to advance in level.
Why you wouldn’t want your students to have their progress measured? It seems very logical to me. I want my students to have the skills to be competent and capable pianists (and musicians). When they stop taking lessons, I want them to be able to sit down with a piece of music and be able to read and analyze it. I equate it to being their piano parent: I must give them all the tools to go out into the world and not need me to hold their hand.
YES! You can test your students long-distance. This is one of the unique features we offer to our teachers. Regardless of where you teach, you can test. All of our certified judges have been trained and are ready to hear your students. This is especially convenient for teachers living in remote areas or those who do not belong to music teachers groups.
Skeptical? When this idea came to me, I wondered how it would be received. I shouldn’t have been, for it is very appealing to so many teachers. You don’t have to worry about selecting a venue and you can set your own schedule (along with your judge). It is no different from testing “live”. The students meet their judge prior to playing and the process begins. Once the testing is completed, the judge sends the critique sheets back to the teacher. It’s just that simple.
You can read more on the PCSPPE page: https://pcspiano.com/pcs-piano-proficiency-examinations/
OR you can contact me (Elise) directly at: email@example.com
Who is a PCSPPE Certified Judge?
Our judges are teachers who have been teaching many years. I require all of my judge’s who have private studios to test their students, so they are held accountable on both ends of testing.
With PCSPPE, you can be assured that your student’s scores will be very consistent, year-after-year. There are so many testing systems that do not have strict guidelines for their judges. The testing teacher doesn’t know if the assigned judge is going to be a strict or lenient; consistency is very important to me. By having my judges recertified bi-annually, we all stay on the same page. Training sessions occur every two (2) years.
Checks and Balances:
I think the most positive aspect about our judging system is the checks and balances I have incorporated. Not only do judge’s evaluate students, but our teachers evaluate the judges! YES, you read that correctly. I ask every teacher to evaluate his/her judge after each session. I want to make sure my judges are working at the highest level. If a judge gets less than stellar reviews on three different occasions, I terminate their contract.
When a testing teacher is ready, there is a list of certified judges on our website (https://pcspiano.com/product-category/our-team/). This is the only standardized testing system, to my knowledge, that allows you to select your judge. My advice is to select your judge PRIOR to selecting your date, especially during peak testing times-April through June. If you lock in a date and then contact your judge, you might not get your first choice, as they may have other commitments. I suggest you contact them as early as possible and have them give you several time-frames, then set your dates.
For more information, you can download the free Teacher packet
Or purchase the PCSPPE Syllabus
Why is it important to test students on vocabulary when PCSPPE is a piano proficiency exam?
When devising this test, I tried to include elements that I thought were vital to a student’s education. Vocabulary was certainly a “no-brainer”. How can a student play repertoire without understanding the directions the composer has indicated? Each level of testing has 25 words that students are required to learn. They are level appropriate and usually appear in the pieces they might be playing. They include general and piano specific words.
During testing, students will be asked to define, orally, 4 words from their 25 word bank. They do not have to define exactly and are also allowed to demonstrate if they have difficulties putting into words. As long as the judge feels confident the student understands the term, they will receive credit. This section is worth 0-4 points of the test.
In my studio, I have my students study and then we have “pop quizzes” throughout the year. My students purchase the Complete listing upon entering the studio and then have all the words throughout their studies.
You can find individual levels of vocabulary (through Level 8) in The Piano Lesson Companion Books
You can also find them in Piano World
Or you can find the complete list in PCS Piano Proficiency Examinations Vocabulary Words Complete Listing
Sight-reading is such an important element in piano! All students should have the ability to sight-read effectively, so I have included this into PCSPPE. Each level has a short example (1 page or less) that the student must read and play. As of 2014, I contract the renown Ann Rivers Witherspoon, to write these examples. She incorporates required elements (see Syllabus), making each example very accessible for students. The examples are generally 2-3 levels below the testing level. This portion of the test is worth 0-3 points.
When the student is finished sight-reading, the judge will ask him/her to then transpose the example into another key. Ann and I take great care when deciding which key is used. Although the student should be able to transpose into many keys, we try to make these accessible without being too painful. All examples through Level 10 are in major keys. Levels 11-HSD may be in either major or minor. This portion is worth 0-3 points.
My students are always sight-reading, so preparing for that portion of the test isn’t really a challenge. Transposing on sight is another story. As we all know, this is something that is quite difficult. Spending quality time, coaching your students, will assist them in being successful. I always ask my students the obvious, what key is it in, what is the time signature, etc, but then we dig deeper and talk about intervalic reading and how the two keys relate. If you begin this process early in a student’s study, they adapt quite easily. If you try to “cram”, they will probably be nervous and frustrated. My advice is to take time every week or two and play different examples.
If you would like to see past examples, I have put together booklets that are for sale. You can find them under Piano Proficiency Examinations on the Home Page.
Preparing students for the “scale” portion of PCSPPE
Students are asked to play level appropriate scales, chords, cadences and arpeggios at the beginning of the testing session. When preparing them, understand they will be playing 2 different keys in each area. Other testing systems might ask students are asked to play a “block” of technical skills, ie, 1 scale with tonic chord, a cadence and perhaps an arpeggio, from the same key. This is great, but if they student just memorizes this block, do they really internalize the key?
With PPE, the student is asked to play 2 scales (2 different keys), 2 chords (2 different keys, not the same as scales), 2 cadences (not the same as scales or chords) and 2 arpeggios (not the same as scales, chords or cadences). I felt this was the perfect way to encourage students to study these throughout the year and internalize a sense of key. Going a little deeper, I will share my process of teaching Level 1.
In Level 1, students are responsible for all Major white key scales (C, G, D, A, E, B & F) 1 octave, tonic chords, I-V6-I cadences and tonic chord arpeggios. At the beginning of the year, the student begins to study each key in what I call a “block”. I begin with the scale, ask them to write the fingering and then the student proceeds to learn the scale, hands separately. They are also asked to add dynamics (p < f > p). Once they have mastered the scale, I then add the tonic chord and I-V6-I cadence, hands separately and with dynamics. I then add the arpeggio. As the student becomes comfortable with each portion, we move on to the next key. I always use the Circle of Fifths, when teaching scales.
A few months before testing (usually 2), I begin asking the student to practice differently. They play all there scales, followed by all their chords, then cadences finishing with arpeggios. Some students will play these in the Circle of Fifths, but others like to just go up the keyboard. It usually takes them 2-3 weeks to get comfortable playing in this manner (we are now about 6 weeks out from the test). During the last few weeks, I begin mixing everything up. I might ask them to play me a C Major scale, F Major tonic chord, A Major cadence and G Major arpeggio. I always give them a few moments to process what I am asking, but with each week, they become more confident.
If you look at the critique sheet, you will notice this is the first element that is tested. Each section, has 3 areas: notes, fingering & dynamics, totalling 20 points (5 points per area).
I hope this has helped you in preparing YOUR students for their upcoming exams. We have many supplemental materials that are assessable under PCS Piano Proficiency examinations, The Piano Lesson Companion Books and Piano World. If you are unsure about which materials would benefit your studio, do not hesitate to contact me either on our Facebook Page or directly.
“I’ve decided to test with PCS Piano Proficiency Examinations! What’s next?”
Well, you have made a great decision. Here is what you need to do to proceed with the process.
2. Once you have downloaded the Syllabus (digital), read through it completely. Of course, if you have any questions, you can contact me directly.
3. The Syllabus contains:
a. Procedures and forms
b. Level requirements
c. Venue suggestions
d. Judges information
e. Student Awards and much more.
4. The Vocabulary (digital) contains:
a. All 13 levels of required vocabulary
b. Each level has 25 words I feel are beneficial for students to know and understand.
c. Students are asked to orally define 4 of those words during their test.
d. I often suggest that students order this as well. They can keep it on their computers and as they advance, they will have all the words at their disposal.
5. Once you are comfortable with all the requirements, it is time to begin working with your students. As you will quickly realize, this isn’t an exam that can be “crammed” or achieved in a short period of time. I designed it to help teachers throughout the year instill solid technical skills, without resistance.
6. As students become comfortable with the progression, they will actually find it easy to move from one level to the next. They understand what is expected and achieve these milestones relatively easy.
The beauty of this test is you can start now and test whenever your students are ready! We test year-round. The majority of exams have set dates or windows of testing. This puts some students (and teachers) into panic mode. With our test, you don’t have those issues. April through June are our most popular months to test, but remember we can and will test July through March.
If you are confused or have additional questions, do not hesitate to contact me. Hope to see you testing soon!
Who should test with PCS Piano Proficiency Examinations?
ANYONE and EVERYONE
When determining the criteria for testing, I wanted the average student to be successful, if they are “doing their work”. We are all different, but I do believe we all want our students to be competent. Each level moves forward, building on what the student has already accomplished and introduces 1 or 2 new elements. Let me give you two examples.
In Level 1, students are asked to play 1 octave white key scales, hands separately. In Level 2, they are asked to play these scales hands together and are also asked to play the parallel harmonic or natural minor scales (either form is accepted) 1 octave. This is a natural progression for students as they begin playing in minors keys.
Time Signatures are part of the required elements. In Level 2, the students is asked to play one piece in either 3/4 or 3/8 and another piece in 2/2 of 4/4. In Level 3, they build on these and then are ask to include a third piece in either 6/8 or 9/8. By the third year of testing, it is felt that the student should be able to feel the difference between simple and compound meter.
As you can see, each level adds a building block. If you have students who have a difficult time achieving these benchmarks, they can always test every other year.
I have found that even adult students appreciate this exam! Those who like to have their progress measured, understand the simplicity of the grading.
This is how PCS Piano Proficiency Examinations got started and my mission to make it accessible for all students, young and old.
Having tested my students over the years with many different systems, I was becoming more and more disenchanted with their process. I was also becoming aware that other teachers were feeling the same. Wasn’t there something out there, that allowed a teacher to have a little more control, while still seeking high standards? I decided to go investigate.
After almost a year of probing and studying, I decided there wasn’t anything out there that met the needs of my students, so it was up to me to create something. I wanted to keep the best portions of some of the existing systems, but streamline and tweak. I wanted to target the most important elements that an AVERAGE student should be able to accomplish within a year-nothing more, nothing less. I decided that the most important aspects for all students was basic technique, sight-reading & transposition, vocabulary and repertoire, so this is what is included in the exam.
There are 2 phases: Technical & Repertoire
The technical phase is always addressed first. Because so many students don’t “enjoy” this aspect of lessons, if they know they must test in this area at the beginning of the exam (or as I like to tell my students-get it out of the way), they must be knowledgeable in 7 areas: scales, chords, cadences, arpeggios, sight-reading, transposition and vocabulary. Each level, has specific requirements (found in the Syllabus). Students are asked to play 2 each of scales, chords, cadences & arpeggios….HOWEVER…they are NOT from the same key! This ensures us as teachers that the student has a great understanding of key and can easily adapt. This cannot be learned in just a few month, it takes every lesson….so YOU (as their teacher) are able to get those elements into your lesson without issue. The next area, sight-reading and transposition are vital in my opinion. As we all know, pianists are often asked to sight-read, but what is usually most horrifying, is if we are asked to transpose on the spot. Students can generally transpose with practice, but to be able to think in a different key is challenging. The third portion of this phase is vocabulary. How can a student play without understanding the language? Each level has 25 words, that a student is asked to learn for the test. They are asked to define 4 words from that list. If there are language barriers, they are allowed to paraphrase or demonstrate.
The repertoire phase is just that…pieces that the student is asked to memorize. The test requires 4 pieces and in the upper levels, must include 1 piece from each musical era. Students are allowed the freedom of choice in selecting their pieces, but must adhere to required elements, which may be found in the Syllabus.
I then decided there should be a time limit for each level. I encourage students to choose shorter pieces that will exhibit their proficiency. This is not a contest, pieces should be limited to the number of pages.
So there you have it. PCSPPE in a nut-shell . If you have questions, please ask!