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Music lessons just for fun

Some parents are letting their children learn music without taking any examinations

When Elston Sam was 11 years old, he wrote a letter to his piano teacher.

It read: "I have no talent. I have no interest. Please tell my mum to stop sending me to piano school."

His mother, Ms Regine Wong, 53, was blindsided when the teacher conveyed his message.

"It was a shock and a warning. If I placed too much stress on him, it would be harmful," says Ms Wong, who felt she had "failed" her son.

Ms Wong, a housewife, immediately stopped his lessons ahead of his ABRSM Grade 7 piano examination for which she had already paid the registration fees. ABRSM stands for Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

The grind of his weekly piano lessons, which he had taken since the age of five, had "killed off" his interest. This was partly because Elston, now 21 and a business student at Nanyang Technological University, felt "pressure and expectations" to do well in the yearly piano examinations he took. He later picked up the guitar, sans examinations, and was the vocalist for a pop band he founded in his secondary school days.

Shortly after the letter-writing incident, his younger brother, Ethan, then five, asked Elston to "give" him his piano. Ms Wong insisted that Ethan take piano lessons purely for enjoyment. Ethan, now 16, has never taken any piano examination.

In examination-obsessed Singapore, where parents and children often exhibit great anxiety over the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), it is uncommon for children to opt out of music examinations.

While music examinations have a valid role, obsessing over the "paper chase" of ABRSM and other qualifications can be detrimental, say educators, music teachers and parents.

The pros of taking music examinations include having a certificate to indicate the child's level of proficiency, says Dr James Ong, head of education programmes at SIM University's School of Human Development and Social Services.

However, experts say the disadvantages are facing the stress of sitting another examination, a limited repertoire and no lifelong love for music.

Some children, sadly, stop playing their instruments after they have passed Grade 8 and may even develop an aversion to classical music.

Many children who take music lessons are drilled on the same three pieces for a year to prepare for the examination, notes piano teacher Benjamin Loh, who also works part-time at schools such as Lasalle College of the Arts.

He says there is no need to take music examinations annually, which would give more room for children to widen their repertoire during the music lessons that parents enrol them in.

"Parents have to ask themselves what their goals are. Are they collecting badges of honour in a paper chase? The purpose of learning music is to have an appreciation of this art form. It's a lifelong pursuit," he says.

"A lot of kids are drilled into playing with technical proficiency. They are hardworking, take instructions well and achieve good results. But a lot of them are lacking in creativity and imagination."

Ms Goo Chui Ping, chief music consultant at Mandeville Conservatory of Music, a music school that provides lessons in piano, violin and other instruments, agrees.

Parents sometimes feel pressure when comparing other children with their own, which can result in an intense focus on achieving Grade 8 as an end goal to complete the set of ABRSM assessments, says the music teacher.

Some parents also aim for their children to ace Grade 8 before their PSLE year, which is the main focus in the year they turn 12.

She adds that while some children thrive on music examinations and the ABRSM is an "excellent, tried-and-tested system of gauging competence", the child often gives up the instrument after Grade 8 when taking music examinations is the dominant goal.

This was the case for Mr Lee Ying Choong, 37, a vice-president at a foreign bank. He finished Grade 8 in junior college, but does not remember specific pieces or composers he learnt for his music examinations.

It would have been more meaningful if he had learnt pop songs instead of "esoteric classical music", which he does not appreciate. As a child, he took music examinations once a year or once in two years because his mother told him to.

Now, he touches the piano only when guiding his daughters, Vivienne, seven, and Charmaine, five, who both take piano lessons.

He and his wife opted for their children not to take music examinations because they want the girls to enjoy a "sustainable" interest in music and "not just spend money to get a piece of paper".

Letting their children take piano lessons is part of their decision to help them gain exposure to different experiences and an appreciation of the arts.

Another parent, Ms Grace Seet, 39, wants to instil discipline in her three children, aged one to 10, by making them learn at least one musical instrument.

Francine, 10, and Timotheus, seven, both play the violin as a co-curricular activity in their primary school's string ensemble. They are not required to take music examinations. In addition, Francine takes piano lessons, but does not sit the examination.

Ms Seet, a housewife and co-owner of a mathematics enrichment centre, does not want music examinations for her kids because she had seen how other children were pressured by them, playing three examination pieces for eight months at a time and practising scales every day.

She wants Francine to enjoy playing music, but is open to letting her take the piano examination at a higher level, as it gives her a career option.

"If she wants to take a diploma, I'm with her every step of the way. A certificate is useful. She can teach music," says Ms Seet.

While graded assessments can undeniably be useful, moving beyond a narrow focus on music examinations entails embracing a holistic approach, music teachers say.

Ms Sylvia Ng, who has been Ethan's piano teacher since he was five, says there are other ways to gauge a student's musical progression and development.

These include widening students' repertoires and encouraging them to put on performances, as well as participate in concerts and music festivals, says Ms Ng.

Ethan took part in Steinway Gallery's Rising Stars concert series earlier this year.

Ms Ng reckons that Ethan, who can play complex pieces by ear but cannot read music scores, can perform diploma-level pieces such as Mozart's Piano Sonata In C Major, K.309.

Piano teacher Mr Loh says taking part in music competitions, attending concerts and listening to recordings are other ways to deepen one's musical education.

Performance builds confidence and can be a source of motivation for music students, says cello teacher Hughes Chong. Performing in groups also builds a sense of community, he adds.

One of his students, Ms Jasmine Lim, a 25-year-old researcher, has been taking cello lessons for a year.

She had previously studied the piano, taking mostly annual examinations until Grade 8 in junior college.

Recalling those joyless days, when she spent a lot of time mastering three examination pieces and running scales, she says: "Music didn't seem like an enjoyment."

Now, she does not take music examinations for the cello. She charts her own progress by relying on feedback from Mr Chong and focusing on "a sense of achievement" from completing a simple piece of music or holding the bow correctly.

"I derive more joy in what I am doing now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Music lessons just for fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe