Are music exams for everyone?

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Classical Piano By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Piano » Classical Piano
Last updated: 02/02/2018
Tags: abrsm, music exams, piano exams

I have nothing against the ABRSM, which I consider to be the best examination board on the planet. However, after Grade 8 The Well-Examined Pupil has learned (and forgotten) 24 pieces. He/she has only experienced Bach as an exam problem. Caught maybe a fleeting glimpse of Chopin. I’m beginning to feel a bit lost. Am I the only one who thinks music exams can be more trouble than they are worth?

As a piano teacher I love meeting new pupils. So at a get-acquainted assessment with a 7-year-old named Jemima, Mr/Mrs Parent says, “She’s has been at the piano.” Oh good good good. And what’s the driving force? Is this the child’s idea or the parent’s?

“Why do you want to play the piano?” I ask. Marvellous answers come out, answers which will grow and change and it’s my job to keep the pupil in touch with those answers, to develop those precious childhood gifts: curiosity, creativity, and imagination ... and further down the line when little Jemima who loves playing arrives at a lesson with, “My friend Titchy is doing a Grade 2 exam, can I do one?” Hooray! The sacred cow has appeared, at the right time and place: no hint of parental pressure. Peer pressure, maybe, curiosity.

So this capable player is launched. A most satisfying pupil: Tommy, enjoying himself, struggling with the simplest exercise but valiantly trying, hampered perhaps by mild dyslexia, maybe a hint of autism, or perhaps he’s just plain un-pianistic but loving every minute of it. Tommy is probably a late developer. He’ll grow into his technique, happy with modest achievement, great satisfaction. I prefer an untalented student who works over a gifted pupil who doesn’t.

The phone goes and it’s Mrs Tommy: “When will Tommy do his Grade 1?” An imperative as Mr and Mrs Tommy pay the bills. A crack appears: Tommy progresses, at his own speed, in his own way, and happily. Emotionally he doesn’t need motivation or peer group approval but well, okay, he could be force-fed an exam at the expense - possibly - of his relaxed enjoyment and progress. He would definitely not be happy with exam pressure.

Despite my respect for the ABRSM and the known value of music exams, I have my doubts about an exam mentality which expects exam results from all, despite ability or the reasons a pupil is studying piano. I’ve never had an adult pupil who says, “Ooooh, I want to play the piano so I can do exams!” At a recent teachers’ conference, the speaker said she could get a pupil through a Grade 5 theory exam aged 7. Hello? I raised my hand: “Does she understand the material?” Star Teacher: “No, but she will later.” Hmmm. So what’s the point? The little girl who achieves Grade 8 cello then never touches it again, what’s the point of that? Are exams a teacher’s badge of honour? Who comes first, the child or the music? Or the teacher? Or the parent?

As Tommy’s parents lobby for a Grade1 and I wrestle with my thoughts, to my great surprise I find I’m not alone: I’m approached by a teacher at a workshop who in an undertone says: “I don’t think exams are good. They nail them with scales and pieces - and I can’t do anything else for a couple of terms”. I agreed with heart-stopping speed. A primary school music teacher tells me about her last school concert where the student who played with the most spirit and musicality was the only person NOT doing exams. Could it be that music exams are not for everyone?

Yes, of course, exams are important for music schools and universities. Excellent motivators for some pupils, excellent structure for some pupils, excellent indicators of progress for those who need it. Mini-auditions along a professional trail. But how many students want to go to music college? How many are emotionally suited to music exams? Jemima was made for them, but are exams the best way to keep Tommy in touch with why he came to music? Of course if he begins to feel left out we’ll do a re-think and find something suitable for him.

The job of a teacher is to keep the student in touch with the reasons he came to music in the first place, not just till Grade whatever. I want for Tommy a personal relation to music, to make it HIS music.

The child does not exist for the music - the music exists for the child.

Evelyn Preston Classical Piano Teacher (West London)

About The Author

I want to develop the creativity, imagination and love of music in all my students.

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