SXSW 2018: Director Discusses MAKING THE GRADE

A heartfelt documentary about learning piano from director Ken Wardrop.

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Piano students of any age prepare for exams that place them in a grade, from 1 to 8. Ken Wardrop’s documentary Making the Grade — having its North American premiere at SXSW this weekend — is sectioned into these grades. Instead of focusing on a few students for a certain length of time as they move forward in the process, the film introduces us to a group of teachers and students from different economic, family, and geographic (within Ireland) backgrounds. A small child goes to his first day of training, while a woman in her late sixties is in his same grade and eager to learn.

A numerous amount of people are featured, and although most of the students are children or teens, a few adults are shown learning the art of piano. Pedagogical styles differ, from a strict educator who criticizes a child’s hand positioning to a freewheeling teacher who encourages her student to improvise. Teachers speak glowingly or affectionately critique their students, and students talk about how their methods for learning.

Given the nature of this project, a few of the vignettes flow slower or are slightly less engrossing than others. The degrees of dedication and talent vary; one young student even asks their teacher for something to learn on their own over a break, and knocks it out of the park. No matter the state of their piano or keyboard, Making the Grade compels the viewer to listen to the ingenuity (or lack thereof) in a pianist’s playing style. Or as one instructor calls it, the “nuance.”

Making the Grade is full of characters that instill an innate humor to the work. A small number of montages placed amidst the grade sections show strong editing technique while making emotional impact. The skill and proficiency of these pianists, as well as the relationship they build with their instructors, is inspiring. Making the Grade is unabashedly sincere and full of heart.

After viewing the film, I had a few questions for filmmaker Ken Wardrop, who was kind enough to reply (via email):

How did you find the many piano players/teachers involved in the film?

The film was made with a tiny budget so we had to work very cleverly with the few resources we had. I worked alongside another colleague to reach out to teachers and students across the country. We used every trick in the book — all of our own contacts, old school connections, a social media outreach and of course the old fashioned telephone directory. In fact, most of our success came from cold calls. Thankfully we had the support of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and their blessing gave us a little street credibility within the music community.

We also knew we wanted to have a good geographical spread across Ireland so we split the country into quarters and focused on different areas. This added a little competition to the casting process — and helped keep us motivated when we were getting nowhere fast.

How many people were filmed originally? Did everyone make it into this final edit?

I can’t recall how many characters we filmed with but we did have to lose a few stories during the editing process. Unfortunately, this is part of the documentary storytelling process. It’s never easy to lose great characters or material but sometimes the story just dictates it.

For example, it was always my intention to continue after the Grading process had concluded and finish the film as a character walked out to perform their first solo performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. We filmed this scene with a wonderful young Irish pianist and a rising star of the piano world. During the edit it became clear that film was less about the journey to this “highly accomplished” pianist but rather the everyman’s story of learning an instrument. Of course, the relationship between teacher and student also became a focus as we realized the strength of the material we were gathering. It is an ever evolving process and we were ultimately led by this material.

How long did it take to film?

The film took us about eight months from the beginning of the research phase through the production and post production processes. It was actually the shortest amount of time I have taken to make a documentary. This was simply down to working with small but super talented and dedicated team. Also on previous occasions I had edited my own films and the process took forever. Thankfully this time around I had the editing skills of a wonderful talented editor, John O’Connor. He worked his magic and made the process far smoother than I could have ever imagined.

Making the Grade premieres at SXSW at 11:15am on Sun, March 11 at Alamo S. Lamar, then plays again Tues, March 13 at Alamo S Lamar and Fri, March 16 at Alamo Ritz.

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