RockSchool exams at De Notes in Damai. Work and fun, all in one

Kevin Tan of De Notes Music School in Damai called me up last week and asked if I would like to meet a guy called Ed Walker, who is the visiting examiner from the UK, for RockSchool.

I said, “Sure,” and in my mind’s eye I saw ‘UK EXAMINER’ – an elderly English man wearing specs and being quite severe.

Well, I turned up at De Notes’ offices, signs saying SILENCE – EXAMINATION IN PROGRESS [TRINITY GUILDHALL]  were all over the doors and walls, so I whispered ‘Hello’ to Marie at reception, and sat quietly, waiting for the last exam of the day to finish.

Looking through the glass window, sure enough I saw a white guy with specs, but hang on – this one had a long pony tail, and was smiling a lot! Then I heard some aural tests being conducted, and a kid singing his heart out to something I would hear on JJ and Ean’s Hits FM morning show. This is an exam? No way! This is too much fun! Weirdest of all, the kid came out of the examination room SMILING! I mean a great big grin on his face! He just took an exam? Are you kidding me?

“Hiya,” said Ed Walker, stepping out of the examination room and shaking my hand, “Is it alright if I take a couple a minutes to have a smoke?” Sure! I said. Whoa! This guy’s a Scottish rocker! We’re gonna chat about music examinations?

Okay, let’s cut to the chase, I said, when Ed returned and he and Kevin were seated on the nice sofa in the De Notes reception area.

I’m a parent, I want to know whether sending my kid for RockSchool examinations is just for fun, or is this a serious qualification? Grade 1 RockSchool versus Grade 1 Associated Board. Can we compare them?

“Right,” said Ed. “This is the fundamentals. Whether you are playing rock guitar or rock drums, or classical violin, if it is Grade 1, the standard is exactly the same. So if you get a Grade 1 rock drums, it will be exactly the same standard of musicianship which you would need for Grade 1 classical violin at Trinity, or Associated Board or any of the big examination boards.

“Right,” said Ed. “This is the fundamentals. Whether you are playing rock guitar or rock drums, or classical violin, if it is Grade 1, the standard is exactly the same. So if you get a Grade 1 rock drums, it will be exactly the same standard of musicianship which you would need for Grade 1 classical violin at Trinity, or Associated Board or any of the big examination boards.

“The format is virtually the same. You get 3 pieces to be played, technical exercises like scales and arpeggios, a sight-reading OR an improvisation test, an aural test and general musicianship questions.

“It’s exactly the same as a Trinity classical music exam, except that the music is loud and fun, and the kids love it.”

Well I couldn’t argue with him there. I remembered my own examination pieces and thought how I would have LOVED to have learned blues and to JAM to a cassette tape, when I was a child.

Head of De Notes, Kevin Tan, reflected on music teaching in Malaysia. “In the yesteryears, the way we train our musicians, for example the classical examination for piano, there is no thought given to a musician playing with another musician.”

“No interaction,” Ed concurred.

“It’s more like one person interpretating the work.” continued Kevin. “But in this syllabus, you can be the soloist when you are playing the melody, and you can be the accompanist when you are comping the chords. So you know your roles well. If I am an electric guitarist, I need to know, ‘Now I’m the soloist,’ and, ‘Now I”m the backup and rhythm.’ This is all part of music! This is the part which is missing in our music education.”

Kevin himself is an accomplished flautist. His primary instrument is the Chinese bamboo flute (di-zi). He was under the tutelage of Professor Zhan (ranked Number Four Chinese bamboo flautist in the world) at Nan Yang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) Singapore, and later immersed himself in music composition under two renowned Malaysian composers Yii Kah Hoe and Chong Kee Yong. In other words, he’s not a musical lightweight.

Right. Next. More about RockSchool. How did it come about, who owns it, and who accredits it?

RockSchool has been established for nearly 20 years. “The two guys who originally started the company – Norton York and Dr. Simon Pitt – they are the two main working directors,” Ed explained.

“Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music have merged, and RockSchool is part of Trinity.  In the early days, Trinity accredited us, but we are now accredited by the Q and C. It is recognised by any of the education authorities.”

[Here is some information about this UK body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. http://www.qcda.gov.uk/]

Without batting an eyelid, he said: “‘Smoke on the Water’ would probably be about Grade 4 or Grade 5. You can choose your own pieces, so if you wanted to bring in ‘Smoke on the Water’ as part of your exam, you could probably do it for Grade 4 or 5. That would be fine. A lot of people do that, not so much here, but in the UK, you get a lot of choices, and people bring in very adventurous stuff some times. I mean, by Grade 8, you’re getting into professional territory.”

Ed has conducted examinations in Hong Kong for several years, but this is his first time in South East Asia. This time round, Ed held examinations in KL, Brunei, Johor Bahru. Jakarta, and Bangkok, as well as in KK.

“We probably been going for about 3 to 4 years in KL, and we’re more established in Hong Kong, where we’ve been going for about seven years maybe,” he said.

De Notes is the only institution in KK where RockSchool conducts examinations, and it has been doing so for two years.

Kevin explained that he adopted the RockSchool syllabus to bring some structure to the teaching of electric guitar, bass and drums at De Notes.  “In teaching electric guitar, bass and drums, we found out that, at a certain point, it was hard to track where every teacher is going. So,  I knew that there is a new syllabus out there, designed by RockSchool. Of course there are also other competitors, like LCM (London College of Music).

The thing about RockSchool is that they stress the joy of playing and interacting. At the same time, it’s very balanced: On the one hand there is  a [technical] standard to prepare, on the other hand there’s a lot of joy because the songs are fun and not dull! They’re playing today’s music. There’s a score, either with modern notation or with tabs.  There is academic recognition upon completing this syllabus.”

I HAD to ask Ed,  “So, if you’re playing ‘Smoke on the Water’, what level are we talking about?”

Without batting an eyelid, he said: “‘Smoke on the Water’ would probably be about Grade 4 or Grade 5. You can choose your own pieces, so if you wanted to bring in ‘Smoke on the Water’ as part of your exam, you could probably do it for Grade 4 or 5. That would be fine. A lot of people do that, not so much here, but in the UK, you get a lot of choices, and people bring in very adventurous stuff some times. I mean, by Grade 8,  you’re getting into professional territory.”

Ed said, “Most parents understand that it’s a fun thing, but that it’s a serious qualification as well. And what Kevin was talking about earlier, the interaction, that is a great thing. The way the RockSchool syllabus is set up,  you’re playing your tracks along with a CD.  It’s like playing with a virtual band.  It’s the nearest thing to playing in a band, without playing with a band, if you know what I mean.”

“Most parents understand that it’s a fun thing, but that it’s a serious qualification as well. And what Kevin was talking about earlier, the interaction, that is a great thing. The way the RockSchool syllabus is set up,  you’re playing your tracks along with a CD.  It’s like playing with a virtual band.  It’s the nearest thing to playing in a band, without playing with a band, if you know what I mean.”

Students for a particular grade in drums, bass or electric guitar, will play along with a “Minus one” CD, with the respective instrument missing. But they are all learning the same song. This means you can bring students together to jam.

Kevin gave a real example at De Notes. “We have a successful couple,  two girls.  Both are Grade 5s, Grade 5 drums and Grade 5 bass. They have fun because they can play together. One is reading the score for bass while the other is playing the drums part.

Ed joined in. “Just recently, exactly the same thing happened with me. I had three Grades 5 candidates in an exam:  bass, drums and guitar. None of them had ever played in a band before.  I got them to come back in the evening for a get-together presentation, and the three of them played it live. I was the first time any of them had interacted with another musician.  You should have heard them!  They were amazing, and they surprised themselves. It was just fantastic. It was almost as if they were a well-rehearsed band, but if was off-the-cuff, just like that.”

RockSchool is broadening its offering, Ed said. “We have a brand new keyboard syllabus out as well. It just came out in the last few weeks, and it’s all band based as well,  and in Grade 3, 5 and 8,  the pieces are all the same as the drums and bass.”

Kevin  is keen on this.  “That’s a product we are waiting to offer, because I know that there are a lot of people who are not into the [sound] of classical piano, and they would like to switch. They might want to know more about jazz, the chord progressions, and at times we are caught in the middle. This RockSchool syllabus gives you the direction.

“I really want to give credit to RockSchool and Trinity’s local representatives of the national offices. They will help us to conduct talks, and workshops, once or twice in a year.  This is the kind of thing we are trying to show parents, teachers and students – the importance of learning [music in a broader sense], at the same time going through the academic side and exams.  Remember that classical music was the pop music of yesteryear.

“RockSchool syllabus is helping out our school,  De Notes, to set that kind of standard.”

Ed agreed. “Yeah,  music is music. You know, that’s why I’m saying the RockSchool syllabus and the grades are the same standard as the classical syllabus. It’s a new thing, The school is 20 years old,  and it’s understandable from the old school that there’s some scepticism about whether it is as good a qualification.  Of course it is. It’s a new thing, but it’s just as good. There’s crossovers within RockSchool too, just off the top of my head, at least three pieces within the Grade 8  guitar syllabus are jazz.  So you’ve got rock, jazz. blues, lots of contemporary styles. ”

RockSchool has introduced four diplomas. There are two diplomas in teaching, and two in performing, Ed said.

“The first one [in each category] is the equivalent of the final [end] of your first year in university, and then [the second diploma is equivalent to] your final year of university.  So for anyone getting this new RockSchool diploma, it’s equivalent to a university qualification.”

This qualification would be in order to teach?

“Yeah.  Actually, in the UK right now,  to teach privately, you don’t need any qualifications to teach. But shortly, the government are going to bring in some new regulations saying anyone teaching music must be qualified. So this new qualification is perfect. It’s like, for anyone who already teaches, it’s a very natural progression to make. It’s not like you suddenly start studying up for it. If you’re doing the job properly, it’s a very natural qualification to achieve.  IF you’re doing the job properly, that is.”

Kevin summed it up:  “The kids come to De Notes and say ‘Hey, I want to go to my guitar class, my drums class,’  instead of having to drag them into the classroom! And they come away saying,  ‘Hey we should do more!’

RockSchool website

Information about Ed Walker

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3 responses to “RockSchool exams at De Notes in Damai. Work and fun, all in one

  1. hey, i just want to know what courses you guys offer for acoustic guitar and what’s the setting like because i have already self-learnt some guitar and can play songs-just strictly chords; nothing fancy and i want to find out more…
    how much is it going to cost, how many people in a class, how long’s the course, etc…..

    thanks a lot …

  2. Hello Guitarz.
    These particular courses are based within De Notes Music School. Best to initially direct your questions there. 088 538 951. However, there are many good guitar instructors in KK, depending on how you want to learn. Let me know if you want more info. I’m sure I can provide a short list of phone numbers of some proficient teachers I know personally. Good luck. Joanna

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