Music SXSW

SXSW 2018: “Making The Grade” Review

“Making The Grade” is a documentary from Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop. SXSW was the North American premiere for the film, which is about a journey many students in Ireland take: learning to play piano. Each year, over 30,000 students take graded piano exams to rise to the next level of music education.

Making The Grade – Official Trailer from AntidoteFilms on Vimeo.

The educational system for learning piano starts at Grade 1 (beginner) and advances until Grade 8. These are not age-based levels; the documentary features small children, teenagers and adults going through this journey. Each piece of “Making The Grade” is split up by grade level and those subjects who are in each one. In addition to following the students who are learning and preparing for end-of-year piano exams, we also get to know the instructors, parents and siblings of those students. While none of the stories go particularly in-depth, Wardrop does a great job of getting the subjects to share their dreams, their interests and their motivations.

Title card for Grade 3

One might expect the film to focus on the stringent standards of the exams, but it’s more of a character study. It’s pleasantly surprising to see that most of the children’s parents are supportive but not pushy about learning piano, and we get plenty of glimpses of kids just being kids – playing with dolls or blocks and jumping rope. One of the major takeaways from “Making The Grade” is the relationship that forms between student and teacher, which is often fun and heartwarming, but still well within the authority dynamic one would expect.

Piano instructor and student at a lesson

Instead of using a soundtrack, Wardrop lets the piano music of the subjects play as the backing to the film, which is charming and prevents a distraction from the focus of the doc. Though it is an English-language documentary feature, some of the accents may be more difficult for some to understand, but it typically doesn’t seem to be a problem. What does sometimes make the feature hard to follow is the lack of introductory text onscreen; the grades are denoted but the characters are not, so if you do learn names it’s only by someone within the film mentioning it. It doesn’t take away from the film, really, but it is an interesting choice. All in all, anyone who is interested in music and how it can improve lives will enjoy watching “Making The Grade.”

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