'Making the Grade': Film Review

A gently amusing mosaic.

Ken Wardrop's documentary is a love letter to piano teaching.

Anyone who's ever struggled to nail a crotchet will feel nostalgic watching Irish documentary Making the Grade, an elegant tribute to piano teachers and their charges. Footage from lessons is intercut with interviews in which students discuss working with their teachers, and vice versa. A traditional approach to this subject might have centered around a few key characters, but director-lenser Ken Wardrop instead checks in with (and promptly leaves behind) dozens of student-teacher combos, and frequently doesn't even bother to introduce them. Ascending through the grades in a series of vignettes, the film is chock full of precocious but hugely likable and articulate kids, as well as drily exacting teachers, and the warmth displayed by both young and old makes it a persuasive advertisement for the humanizing power of musical instruction. A long festival run beckons after the doc premiered at SXSW last month.

Thirty-thousand students take piano exams in Ireland every year, and not all of them are young. One middle-aged beginner in Making the Grade, struggling through Bartok's "Lament," notes that, whatever else, anybody listening will truly understand the meaning of the word. Her self-deprecation never registers as a lack of confidence, however, and the measured way in which all the students talk about their progress is striking. Teenage brothers discuss how they stack up against one another — "Miles doesn't like reading the staff notation, I'd say that's one of his weak points" — with perfect equanimity. Their teacher, Sister Carol, has them learning duets, and the banter between them is plainly affectionate. It's a habit, not a costume, she reminds the boys, who are tickled by her preference for the Toyota Yaris. Carol herself reminisces warmly about her old piano teacher, Sister Gertrude, a gentle figure who nevertheless carried a stick to rap her students over the knuckles.

The Connemara abbey Carol calls home reps what is easily the film's most spectacular setting. Most of it takes place in uncluttered suburban homes, with a variety of wintry Irish landscapes glimpsed outside. Eschewing handheld photography for locked-off compositions at the edge of the piano or directly in front of his interviewees, Wardrop's lensing is as precise as the metronome by which the students maintain their timing. One of them, a ginger tyke full of easy enthusiasm, likens learning piano to building something out of Lego, with notes similar to building blocks: small and seemingly unconnected but coming together to form something beautiful.

There are lots of Saul Leiter-esque shots through doorways and windows, with a young prodigy skipping rope or Dad waiting outside in the car, and parents often join their kids in front of the camera, where they gently interrogate each other. A thirtysomething metalhead in leather pants asks his son what he thinks of his music; the sweetly diplomatic youngster doesn't know where to look. Elsewhere a weathered Irishman agrees with his daughter that "Whitney Houston is a diva, one of the best ever," in a confab about the music they blast on the way to lessons.

One teacher admits that while the grading system can help push students, giving them a goal to aim for, it doesn't work for everybody, and one of the film's themes is the responsibility of the teacher to be patient with her pupils, lest she tarnish their pleasure in music forever. The introduction of a mature student, returning to piano in the wake of a difficult separation 35 years after she left off, highlights the emotional dividends a musical education can pay. The tears flow over Liszt's "Liebestraume," its own kind of therapy, while a teen with cerebral palsy finds solace from bullying in music, which gets her out of her head.

Making the Grade doesn't bother to include footage from the examinations themselves, and it doesn't double back to register who has progressed and who has not. The film draws a line between gardening and teaching ("You can't force things, time will always tell"), and it ends with a montage of students farewelling their teachers at the end of a session. One teacher's metric for success is simple: "I hope they remember me the way I remember my piano teacher."

Production company: Venom Films
Director-cinematographer: Ken Wardrop
Producer: Andrew Freedman
Editor: John O'Connor
Sound recordist: Steven Battle
Sales: Film Constellation

87 minutes