Are graded music exams important?

By Jade Bultitude
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Are music exams necessary? This is a question I am constantly asked in one form or another. There are actually many different answers to this, with some students finding exams an extremely positive experience and others finding them to be extra causes of stress that they could do without. 

What are the options for music exams?

Music exams are extremely popular among many students and parents at all levels. There are many different options when thinking about exams. Some of the more popular exam boards are the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), Trinity college exams and Rock School Exams to name but a few! 

Each of these offer a slightly different experience. ABRSM require you to perform three pre-prepared pieces, some set scales, a piece of sight reading and some Aural Tests. Trinity College, slightly differently, gives you some choices. You have to perform three pieces from a set list, much like the ABRSM, but after this you have a choice of playing exercises instead of scales and you also have different choices for the supporting musical tests. The supporting tests include things such as improvising, musical knowledge, sight reading and aural tests to choose from. This variation in exam boards and tests is actually very beneficial for each student and does provide something for most different student needs. However, are these exams actually necessary for a student’s development? 

How do I approach this in my teaching?

I find that in my teaching I have to tailor my view on exams to each student. For some an exam can give a lovely clear focus, with the specific aim being very motivating. For others it can be an extra cause of stress and anxiety which can be detrimental to a student’s development. 

Here are some of my thoughts on taking exams…

Pros to taking exams

  • An exam can give you a clear focus. This very specific aim can motivate you to achieve a goal. 
  • Having the choice of specific material can be useful when deciding what to play. If you are not aware of the repertoire available to your instrument and which pieces are within your capability, it can open up possibilities you otherwise might have overlooked. 
  • An exam is a tangible achievement with many of the exam boards offering an internationally recognized qualification. This can be extremely helpful when contacting schools, universities, orchestras etc as you can prove what level you are on a piece of paper. However, often these places require an audition as well!
  • The exam provides a student with a performance opportunity. This can be particularly useful if there are not many opportunities around your area. It is also a great way of putting yourself in a stressful situation. However, as mentioned before this isn’t great for all student’s needs. 
  • An exam provides a scheme of work and can be a great learning tool. 
  • The exam can ensure that you keep up with technical skill. There is always a component that helps with this, whether it be the scales/arpeggios or a technical exercise. 
  • Practical exams require your theory knowledge to develop with your instrumental skills. There is usually a sit-down theory exam required in order for you to take the higher instrumental grades.

Cons of taking exams

  • Graded music exams can sometimes fall into the trap of becoming the sole basis of the musical work. Unfortunately, an exam cannot cover all aspects of your musical development.
  • Exam boards often provide us with limited repertoire. This can lead to less variation between performers as many people are learning the same piece! This can lead to very boring school concerts…
  • Speaking of concerts… what’s enjoyable about performing is the audiences’ feedback. Unfortunately, in an exam there is no audience, rather just one examiner on their own who rarely gives you strong feedback! The focus in an exam is on critiquing your playing, whether this be positive or negative, it is the main focus.
  • An exam can help you keep up with technique but this can often be limiting and pretty general It is easy to lose the broader ideas of technique and why we should practice this. Often students can end up disliking scales as they just see them as one annoying component of an exam. 
  • One thing I often see, particularly among parents and sometimes from schools, is music becomes a competitive sport. Yes, there will always be a level of competition within this field but surely the main focus should be enjoyment?
  • Focusing on exams can lead us to miss out other musical elements being neglected, such as improvising and composing.
  • As above, although some exam boards are now starting to offer different musical styles this is also not as popular as the classical music options. 
  • I often find a lot of students losing confidence and also parents losing confidence in their child’s musical ability based on exam results. Exams are not a sole measure of your ability but can often be made to look as such. 
  • If an exam is used badly it can knock student’s confidence and there is a big risk of negativity surrounding their musical education. This doesn’t mean that all students are like this but it is important for a teacher to tailor their exam use to each student as for some it can cause a lot of anxiety and stress.  

Final thoughts on Exams

Exams can be brilliant if you have an intelligent teacher who uses them wisely. Simply working your way through each exam one term after another is not beneficial for the student or the teacher. Many elements of the musical development can be missed out and we are in danger of losing the enjoyment! It is important to have many different aspects of musical education in each lesson to produce a well-rounded musician! 

You can find more information on these exams on their relevant sites, ABRSM, Trinity College and RockSchool.

Have a great week and if you have time check out my other blog posts! Jade x

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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.