Practice Makes Perfect: Music Students Shine at Certificate of Merit Exam

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Written by Tara Leonard

La Vida Local

SANTA CRUZ (March, 2010) - Eleven-year-old Isabel Corser sat at the upright piano, her blond hair still wet from swim practice, her bare right foot working the damper pedal as she played a lulling rendition of Sparkling Waters by Martha Sherrill Kelsey. Finishing with a confident flourish she said, “That piece is flowing, so it makes me think of a river moving. But my other one is completely different.” Turning back to the keyboard, she launched into a bouncy, happy Little Joke by Kabalevsky. “That one is more staccato,” she explained. “If you were walking, staccato would mean you pick up your feet quickly.”
Corser, along with more than 29,000 music students across California, is practicing for the annual Certificate of Merit music exam. For over 70 years CM, as students call it, has been sponsored by the Music Teachers Association of California (MTAC), a statewide network of professional music teachers. Here in Santa Cruz County, the exam takes place on Sunday, March 21.
Throughout the day, the UCSC music building will host more than 200 participants of all ages and abilities. They’ll arrive clutching worn sheet music and battered violin cases, the boys in pressed dress slacks and the girls with their hair in tight braids. After checking in, the musicians will enter a hushed lecture hall where a written exam tests their knowledge of music theory, terminology and history. One by one, students will be called into practice rooms to perform for a trained evaluator. For several months, they’ve been working on selections from a pre-approved syllabus with ten levels from beginner to advanced. As their level increases, students learn and memorize a greater number of increasingly difficult pieces covering a range of musical periods – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary.
Students are also required to play technique, such as scales and arpeggios, and brief sight reading exercises. While the majority of students participate on piano, vocal selections, strings and woodwinds will also be heard floating through the corridors, where anxious parents await their musical progeny.
A handful of adult students take part as well, although they are looked upon with some suspicion by younger participants. When I entered the exam room last year, a little girl whispered up at me, “I don’t think Moms are allowed in here!” I assured her that even us moms enjoy the challenges of the yearly CM process.
“CM gives students a graded, annual rite of passage,” explained Cheryl Dougan, President of the Santa Cruz County branch of MTAC. “They can say, ‘Look at all I’ve accomplished this year, all that I know.’ It also gives them a firm foundation with the theory and technique. The more you understand about what you’re doing – chord progressions, major and minor keys, cadences – the easier it is to make it sound beautiful. It makes sense out of what you’re doing.”
As a returning piano student who never learned music theory as a child, I’ve come to think of it as the science that makes the art possible. For instance, once students know the order in which sharps and flats are always added on the staff, they can quickly recognize any key signature. Theory also teaches students how to determine the dynamics and tempo of a piece. If a section is marked “adagio” or slow, you don’t want to play it “vivace” meaning quick. And as Isabel Corser obviously understands, “staccato” means to play short and detached notes, while “legato” means smooth and connected ones. (Most of these musical terms are in Italian because many famous composers were Italian during the Renaissance period when musical notation was used extensively for the first time. Pay attention! That might be on the exam…)
 “CM encourages students to be well rounded in the five parts of our musical instrument –technique, theory, ear training, sight reading and performing,” said Ellen Khayat, Director of Certificate of Merit for the Santa Cruz County Branch of MTAC. “It also gives students and teachers another sounding board, the chance to perform for another teacher.”
It’s an opportunity that Marina and Natasha Nogueira relish. “I just love playing music,” said Natasha, age 15, who as a Level 5 piano participant will perform the Sonata in B Major by Clementi and the Mazurka in B Flat Major by Chopin along with a contemporary number. The multi-talented Natasha will also be participating as a voice student. “Singing the songs is a lot more comfortable for me than playing,” she reflected. “But the sight reading for voice is a lot harder!”
“It’s not a win or lose situation,” added Marina, age 17, a Level 6 piano participant who will be tackling Mozart’s Sonata K545. “It’s almost like an audition atmosphere, where you get to play in front of someone who will give you valuable feedback.”
This year, Marina hopes to qualify for the honors recital at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center that recognizes more advanced students who do well on the exam. “That makes it a little bit more nerve wracking,” she admitted. “I just try to fit in practice time everyday now, knowing that it’s coming up.”
And thus one of parents’ favorite things about CM! With busy children juggling school work, sports, friends, and family commitments, piano practice can slip to the bottom of the “to do” pile, where only relentless parental nagging gets it accomplished. With CM just weeks away, parents are suddenly hearing more scales than excuses, more Grieg than grumbling.
To further encourage students, local MTAC instructors organized a Practice-a-Thon with proceeds benefiting the Opportunity Grants Scholarship to assist low-income music students. “My grandma sponsored me $3 an hour,” Corser told me. “So I practiced as much as possible for 14 days!”
“CM is a terrific motivational program,” agreed Mary Jane Cope, a CM committee member who is also on the piano faculty at UCSC. “It keeps some students ‘hanging in there’ who might otherwise have given up the study of music. It provides a structure for both teacher and student, yet there is enough built-in flexibility that repertoire and curriculum can be tailored to suit the individual student. Additional incentives such a convention performances and branch honors appeal to the more gifted students.”
“It’s very kid friendly,” Dougan added. “You only have one judge. And for those who find that intimidating, there’s even an option to be evaluated in your teacher’s home.”
“If you’ve never done it before, don’t be afraid,” Corser advised. “Until last year I’d never done anything fancy like that, playing in front of a judge. But I just let my fingers do what they know to do. I’m prepared this year and I just really like playing the piano!
And that’s music to any teacher’s ears.