Practicing an instrument–in my case the piano–tends to be a process that is constantly changing. But just like any type of learning, it is good to have some semblance of structure. This is why the California Music Teachers Association Certificate of Merit program was so valuable for me. As outlined in my first artifact, an informational pamphlet about the program, the CM is for students of piano, voice, strings, and woodwinds and is “designed for progress at the rate of one level a year.” Students are given a “syllabus” for each level and they have one year to master the various items on the syllabus. Students are tested at their specific level each year on all of the areas covered by the syllabus: sight-reading, technique, ear training, theory, and performance of four pieces, one for each musical era.

The CM program kept me honest and engaged with learning the piano throughout each year. It focused my attention in a more purposeful way than my high school classes. The reason for this is that each of the five categories is designed to force you to learn a specific set of musical skills. Each year I made substantial and exact progress on each category. By the time I finished all ten levels, I was not only advanced at playing the piano, but also advanced in my overall musical knowledge. I was learning the piano, but I was also learning how to focus my attention on a subject and study it in depth.

The CM is clearly structured to teach budding musicians that they will eventually need more than just performance of a piece to succeed at an instrument. This idea runs parallel to one of Mike Rose’s ideas about education in his book, Why School?. He writes that our education system should be worked on alongside other programs, like health care and crime reduction programs. Rose believes that this will benefit students by preparing them for the countless situations and challenges they could have to face. Similarly, the CM’s structure is in place to account for the different skills pianists could need at different points in their studies. As the informational pamphlet reads, the breadth of the Certificate of Merit program “provides your child with an understanding of music, history, styles, composers, musical forms, harmony and contemporary idioms.” This is an education that I simply would not have gotten without the CM program.

My second artifact is my completed and graded Certificate of Merit Level 9 Theory Test, which I took in 2016. Theory is one of the five categories tested by the CM. While I do not have the space here to focus in on each category, it is essential that I elaborate on one or two. And theory was my least favorite part of the CM, so why not study it some more?!

Page 6 of Level 9 Theory Test

In Level 9, the theory that was tested included key signatures, scales, triads, intervals, inversions, seventh chords, figured bass, modulations, cadences, transpositions, historical periods, composers, and rhythms.

Here are a few examples of how these components translated to my piano expertise. First, learning everything there is to know about seventh chords now helps me spot a seventh chord easily in a piece of music. Then, I can use different inflections and dynamic changes to emphasize the importance of the seventh chord. 

Second, the knowledge I accrued from studying the historical periods has done wonders for the way I style different pieces. One of the four historical periods is the Baroque Period, which began in 1600 and ended in 1750. Composers in the Baroque period were very restricted in the music they could write. Therefore, without following particular characteristics, Baroque pieces would sound very boring to the listener. The first characteristic is repetition of melody. Knowing that the melody will be repeated, I can style the melody differently each time I play it. The second characteristic is terraced dynamics, which means that the dynamics shift suddenly, unlike during the Romantic period of music, where the dynamics shifted gradually. The third characteristic is polyphonic texture, meaning that pieces from the Baroque period have several melodic lines coming from different voices. There is no way I could play the Bach Symphonias or Scarlatti Sonatas that I played recently without having the knowledge that I do about polyphonic texture.

Studying these components, though, did not just improve my piano theory knowledge. It improved my ability to really focus on a topic–to pay attention to what I needed to know to master it. And every topic–both in theory and the other categories–served a specific purpose in my advancement as a pianist. In my opinion, if the students of any education program are able to come up with detailed purposes of each topic of the program, this is a fantastic indicator that the program has achieved success in its teaching.

Another positive aspect of the program is that it is mostly an individual experience. Yes, I worked on my four pieces of music with my teacher each week. But beyond that, I worked through the pieces, studied the theory material, and prepared for the other categories at my own pace and style. There was enough instruction in the syllabus for me to do this without any problems or confusion. I believe that going through the studying process every year on my own was highly beneficial. 

The CM was mostly individual, but I did learn a lot from the feedback I received after taking the test each year. While students perform their pieces and go through sight-reading and technique, the judge is constantly evaluating the student’s playing. My third and final artifact is my evaluation report from 2016, when I completed Level 9.

Section of Level 9 Evaluation Report

The evaluation reports were a great help to me because the insight I received from the judge was always super detailed and important. One of the pieces that I performed in 2016 is Frederic Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. This is an excerpt of what the judge wrote for my performance of this piece: “The tempo is OK, but again, some unsteadiness–for example measures 27-34 were quite rushed and muddy. You certainly have fast technique, but it’s always important to stay in control of the tempo so it doesn’t sound mushed.” This advice helped me tremendously. The past few years, I have played two pieces similar to Fantasie Impromptu in terms of the technique and speed of the piece. Making sure that I keep the rhythm steady as I continue to raise the speed of the piece allowed me to play these two pieces at a much higher level than I would have otherwise.

While I strongly believe that the ways in which the CM focused my attention were incredibly useful to me, I do think that the program is missing one element: improvisation. Improvisation is such an important skill and one that most classical pianists lack. Improvisation is so important because it speeds up reaction times and forces pianists to think about what they are playing before they play it. I think that the importance of improvisation to classical pianists is similar to the effects that the Algebra Project has had on students over the last several decades. The Algebra Project’s core belief is that math literacy will allow people to be confident in themselves and their ability to fight for a cause. To me, improvisation allows pianists to be way more confident in their playing because improvising teaches pianists to think about what is going to come next in a piece before they play it.

Because I believe that improvisation is so key to learning the piano, I teach my beginning piano students how to improvise on the very first lesson. My background as a piano teacher is one of the reasons I feel legitimized in analyzing the CM and its method of schooling. My participation in more than 20 chamber music camps and the several years I played jazz saxophone are other reasons.

And after 14 years of being educated both in school and in music, I believe that the American education system could learn a lot from the CM program. I am not questioning the material that my high school or middle school taught me. I do, however, take issue with the way it was taught, similar to the critique on our current testing culture that Jose Vilson gives in his blog “An Open and Extended Response (On Testing Season).” My middle school and high school teachers seemed more concerned with making sure their students knew how to do well on tests than actually teaching students the information they perceived to be most valuable. Conversely, the CM program’s style is to provide students with a very specific set of instructions that will allow students to undergo the learning process on their own–to really work at it, step by step, over time, with a clear process and clear goals. Forcing students to push through hard material on their own is invaluable and the CM forced me to do this year after year.