“Making The Grade,” a documentary directed by Ken Wardrop, had its North American premiere at SXSW on March 11. The film is about the musical education system in Ireland, specifically the grades and exams for piano. We had the chance to interview the director about his feature documentary.
As a documentary filmmaker, what drew you to the topic of piano lessons & exams?
Ken: The film was made with the support of the Reel Art scheme, which is an Irish Arts Council documentary fund. It’s a wonderful opportunity and I have been looking around for ideas for several years that would fit the funds criteria. Projects have to be of a theatrical nature and are to document themes from the world of the arts.
I was visiting home one day and my attention was drawn to my Mum’s old piano. She had insisted taking it with her when she moved homes. I thought this was rather silly, as the piano had never been played. Neither myself nor my brothers had ever tried. My sister had a few ill-fated lessons, so my parents had abandoned all hope for a “musically-interested,” let alone talented, child. Our piano had been inherited and was simply used as a piece of furniture for ornaments to sit on. It got me thinking that there must be so many pianos abandoned around the country. It was sad to think these beautiful instruments had lost their purpose of making beautiful sounds. So that was the idea for the project. However, as I investigated the world of piano playing further, I discovered that Irish students learn to play through a graded educational system: a structure of exams that move from beginner grades through a one- to eight-grade system. As a documentarian you’re always looking for the a narrative structure, so I was excited to have a ready-made one.
How did you go through the process of choosing which students and teachers to focus on?
Ken: We decided we would concentrate on the teachers to begin with, and we approached the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. This is the institution that governs the most popular of the exam systems in Ireland. The staff at the RIAM were of great help and really were key to kick-starting the whole research process. We wanted to make sure we had a really good geographical spread of characters from across the country, so we split Ireland into the four provinces and started to contact teachers via their schools, or if they were listed in the telephone books. Once we started to make contact and have conversations with teachers, then word of mouth took over. The teachers were great at introducing us to their pupils and we tried to help guide this process too. We were looking for students with stories rather than their star pupils – students that stood out for a particular reason. I was drawn to the players that had a particular struggle or were just great characters. I also wanted to make sure that each student offered us something different. Basically I wanted to find the characters that were relatable and that could help tell this story of the “every persons” piano playing journey.
Was it ever difficult for the subjects of the documentary to act natural during filming?
Ken: As a documentary filmmaker, this is really one of my most important tasks. I have to be able to make the subjects feel at home – to be themselves in front of the camera. Otherwise we will lose the audience very quickly. I don’t always succeed, but for the most part I think the subjects in this film were happy and comfortable during the filming process. Of course it helped that I was operating the camera myself and there wasn’t a huge crew around the piano with big scary lights, etc. I also try to make the process as much fun as possible and I hope I don’t take it too seriously. The lovely thing about this project was there was no pressure on the student to get their piano pieces right. We were simply practicing – a wrong note was going to be an even better outcome for this film.
What are some interesting things you learned while working on the film?
Ken: From this film I took away what a wonderful gift learning a musical instrument is. How it can bring a person so much pleasure and solace over a lifetime. Learning to play the piano offers so much more too – like helping with one’s patience – something I could really use at times! I also I learnt it’s never to late to start to play an instrument, so who knows? I may just have to give it a go.
It truly is a learning experience every time you make a film. This is simply down to the new subjects and worlds that you are introduced to. This is a wonderful honor and the reason I have one of the best jobs ever.
How does it feel to be bringing “Making The Grade” to SXSW for its North American premiere?
Ken: It’s such a great honor to have our film selected for SXSW. It’s the perfect fit for a film that celebrates music. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to showcase our film to an American audience and to see how another culture reacts to the Irish people and world that we have documented. I have never been to Austin or SXSW before and it’s been such a great opportunity to partake in an inspiringly creative festival. I hope we’ll be back again someday.
We want to thank Ken Wardrop for answering our questions about “Making The Grade.” Learn more about the film and where to see it next here. Stay tuned for more SXSW 2018 interviews, recaps, reviews and more here.