Changing places

8 months ago

There are always lessons to be learnt from putting yourself in someone else’s place and at Surbiton High School, in South West London, they actively encourage this through their regular grade-a-thon programme. During each grade-a-thon, students teach members of staff an instrument from scratch with the aim of getting them to Grade 1 by the end of the school year. Over the 2021-2022 academic year more than 20 teachers and support staff took on a new instrument or learnt to sing, offering challenges and rewards for everyone. Watch our short film and read on to find out how students and teachers got on.

Surbiton High School Grade-a-thon 2022

Beginners’ nerves

Inevitably there was nervousness among the students: “I worried about how to approach the lessons,” explained one student. “What if I teach the wrong techniques? How can I criticise a teacher? How would I get my student to Grade 1 in under year?”

This feeling was echoed by a student teaching the drums. “Before taking part, I’d had no experience of teaching and was nervous. I was used to taking on criticism and advice from my own teacher, but not necessarily being able to apply everything I’d been taught into teaching someone else. What if my student had a wildly different learning style to me? What if I forgot something important?”

Getting started

Once they began, the students soon realised that their own experiences as learners and players were a good basis for passing on their knowledge and understanding, as one cello-teaching student explains. “Having gone through many exams myself I knew the standard I would have to hold my student to but also the immensely rewarding feeling that comes from seeing all the hours of practice come together. I found myself looking back at how I had learned the cello and drawing from that to try and create lessons that would work for my student.”

For our drum-teaching student, an early focus on the basics provided a way in. “The actual process was far less nerve-wracking and far more enjoyable than I had imagined. I started with the basics: introducing the pieces of the kit, outlining the differences between drum kit and tuned instruments like piano that my student was used to, and teaching basic patterns. Then I built from there.”

Making progress

There was also surprise at how quickly the new students made progress. This was certainly the case for the cello team: “After the first term, my student had managed to get from never touching a cello to playing at Grade 2 standard, even tackling harder techniques such as vibrato.”

Another student, passing on their singing expertise, saw similar success and even took on another learner, expanding their own skills along the way.

“I was chosen to teach someone with lots of musical theory experience, so I had time in our lessons to develop singing techniques such as diction, breathing and vibration. I decided to move my student up, first to Grade 2 and then 3 as they were quick to take on feedback. Halfway through the programme, I took on another student with much less musical experience. I had to adapt and focus more on expression and using all of their voice.”

Teacher becoming student – celebrating success in their ABRSM exams

Being a learner again

Those having lessons valued the opportunity to experience being a learner again. “The Grade-1-athon taught me many things: I learned the basics about playing the cello and reading the bass clef, I learned how to play with an accompanist and work towards a grade, but most importantly I learned what it feels like to be a student. It's so humbling to suddenly be the student again.”

There was also the challenge of being an adult beginner. “From my first lesson on holding the bow to my final lesson working with my accompanist, I found myself pushed outside of my comfort zone. Just like my own students, I found myself having to make time to practise in between lessons. Sometimes progress would come within half an hour of focused practice, other times I would go weeks without feeling I was making any progress – but on reflection, progress was always happening.”

New perspectives

For everyone, the opportunity to see teaching and learning from another perspective was incredibly valuable. Here’s what some of the students doing the teaching came away with:

“The process of teaching was rewarding but I also found myself learning through attempting to teach what had become almost subconscious in my own practice.”

“I enjoyed the programme as it allowed me to develop my teaching skills. I developed a lot of listening skills … I also noticed that I picked up on details that I could focus on in my own lessons.”

And like all teachers, the students were delighted to witness their pupils’ achievements:

“I was immensely proud of the progress my student had made.”

“I’m incredibly proud of the progress of the two ‘students’ as they both achieved high distinctions.”

“It was genuinely uplifting to see the progress my student made over time and I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and drive they had to achieve.”

For more information about grade-a-thons please visit our website.



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