Why music exams are not the be all and end all

*Why I’ve changed my views on exams.*

Here in the UK, we seem to have a predilection for music exams more than most countries in the world. 

But is there a general sense that some teachers use exams as the main focus of learning in music lessons? I’m afraid the answer is “yes.” 

The worst case scenario is where pupils literally follow a treadmill of working towards grade 1, then starting on grade 2, and so on. This leads to a diet that’s so restricted that pupils simply aren’t getting nearly enough nutrients to survive! Perhaps this is why so many children in particular give up piano lessons after a couple of years (the most common time, apparently, being around Grade 3 level). This is generally because they have not built up the independence to learn music for themselves (and here, I’m not talking YouTube tutorials!). 

The fact is that exams are a syllabus and NOT a curriculum. The range of skills in technique, musicianship, music reading, theory, sight reading, aural skills, improvisation, etc that they must have as a PREREQUISITE for taking exams is incredible. Preparing for an exam doesn’t mean learning the notes until you can play them - being able to actually play the pieces is only the beginning! And what is worse: spending six months or even a whole year on just three pieces is soul destroying for students. 

The problem is that it’s TOTALLY possible in piano to play to at least grade 2 exam standard simply by showing a pupil how to play the pieces. In other words, the pupil can just copy the teacher and memorise the pieces, but they wouldn’t actually know how to go about learning the music themselves. This means the gap is simply too wide between their understanding and the task - in short: their learning is shallow with little foundation, usually due to too little time given for building up skills over months and years. A good marker is that of sight reading - if they really don’t know where to start with the sight reading for the grade, it’s a pretty clear marker that they’re not ready. 

The recommended time before taking grade 1 - on average - is THREE years of study. These “kindergarten” years are essential to build up the range of skills required. And of course, this is all based on the individual student and their attitude to practice and learning! 

So I take exams with a pinch of salt. They are a wonderful way to measure success - and, of course, they are internationally recognised qualifications and recognised as such in terms of UCAS points. 

However, I’m all about the LEARNING, and not the accolade at the end. My job is to develop well rounded musicians with a wide experience of music, not little exam factory workers who begin to hate their restricted diet. 

My philosophy is that exams should be taken when a pupil is MORE than ready for them. That way the time spent preparing is NOT months and months and months! In that way, they become an enjoyable experience rather than a drudgery and a source of anxiety.