Saturday, December 09, 2017

Making the Grade: a documentary of distinction about learning to play the piano

Not every film has to be flashy. Not every film has to be unusual and in-your-face challenging. Sometimes it’s good to appreciate something that is well made, keeps its focus, uses structure, and is heart-warming. Particularly at Christmas when quality seems to have a habit of going to the wall.

Making the Grade is just such a film.

It presents a series of vignettes captured over seven months with learners and teachers across Ireland, loosely arranged using the framework of the eight music grade exams.
“The best thing about playing the piano is when you get it right: then you thing you’ve done your job.”

At the FilmHubNI Christmas screening, director Ken Wardrop told the assembled cinephiles that he was drawn to make the documentary by his mother who strangely wanted to take her piano with her when she moved house, despite not having played the ‘very fine piece of furniture’ for forty years!

What could have been a very boring sequence of similarly framed interviews is transformed by the quality of the cinematography, the quality of the sound, the quality of the people on show, and the quirky yet relatable stories that are conveyed.

One of the Microsoft ‘Tips of the Day’ used to suggests that “It's never too late to learn to play the piano”. Young and old compete for viewer attention and Making the Grade includes people who have been badgered into learning as well as those who have returned to the ebony and ivory keys after many, many years away. Some find it therapeutic, many find it frustrating, but all seem to enjoy getting their fingers wrapped around the music and working towards their next examination.

There are smouldering volcanoes of teachers as well as ones who are more eccentric, joking, flirting or free flowing. At times the portraits are quite confessional: we learn a lot about the hopes and dreams, hurts and disappointments of life. While there’s a prevalence of beautiful kitchens and well off families, we are also introduced to learners who practice on plastic keyboard while standing in their narrow hallways.

You don’t need to be a great music lover to appreciate the richness of the documentary, with the variety of teaching methods, musical styles, instruments and piano stools (the upturned hands are my favourite).

Ken Wardrop’s documentary Making the Grade demonstrates the importance of relationship, trust, stickability, confidence and enjoyment. And it showcases a talent for telling a simple story well. With a distributor now in place, expect to see this film back on the silver around April 2018.

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