“Oh, no – I don’t want to do music exams”, a student of mine would tell me. “I just want to learn to play the piano for fun.”
“Cool! Okay, which song would you like to start learning?” I (the music teacher) reply. I am slightly disappointed. Afterall, exams can actually be really fun to prepare for and the progress my exam students make is amazing. However, this is the student’s choice to make.
If you or your child have heard about music exams and are not sure about why it’s something you should consider, read on and I will give you the low-down on all the pro’s and con’s of doing exams and vice-versa. Hopefully, you will be able to better decide if music exams are for you.
I admit, music exams sound scary, right? Why all the fuss about exams? Why not just learn for fun, as learning an instrument should be?
No Music Exam – Playing for Pleasure
I can see it now: the student chooses some of their favourite songs – maybe one pop song they love to listen to on their phone. We tackle together the notes, technical stuff and rhythms (pop songs’ rhythms are generally a nightmare, like Adele’s Hello). It comes together slowly. A little too slowly, even? There’s no rush to perfect it or anything anyway, these songs are just all for fun. Although there may be a deadline for a talent show, someone’s birthday, or a piano concert, but at least there’s no examiner critiquing the way you play!
- No pressure/stress to learn songs to meet an exam deadline (but there may be a concert deadline, etc.).
- Learn whichever songs you choose, at your own pace, for your own pleasure.
- No potentially traumatic lessons or exam experience.
- No exam registration fee (which is a bit pricey).
- Lessons are all just fun and relaxed.
- If the student is not old enough or mature enough for exams, playing for pleasure is a better option.
- No exam deadline to spur on progress.
- Songs chosen may not be the correct level (although the teacher will do their best to find a song that will suit the student’s level).
- Many musical principles and technical skills are missed without a complete music grade syllabus.
- Lessons are not always full of purpose, which may waste time.
- No exam experience – which could have been a good growth opportunity.
- Weak level of commitment – “I can do XYZ instead of going to my piano lesson today because there is no pressure to learn my songs anyway”.
You may have read the above points still knowing that exams are not for you. All the con’s may not sound that bad anyway. Everyone is different, so do whatever is best for you. Perhaps you would not enjoy learning the instrument if there was a bit of exam pressure, so you don’t want to ruin it for yourself. Or maybe now is not the right time for you. I myself only did my music exams after I had left highschool!
Music Exam – Playing for a Purpose
Now I am not saying that playing for pleasure is not a purpose, because pleasure is a purpose. But when you know you have an exam to prepare for, you really are driven to learn the songs and exercises for a deadline-driven purpose.
- There is an exam deadline to spur on your progress.
- You can choose your favourite songs (usually three) from a prescribed list of exams songs that are appropriate for your level.
- Many musical principles and technical skills are learned, as there is a complete music grade syllabus that helps you learn a wide range of concepts and techniques appropriate for your level.
- Lessons are always full of purpose, making efficient use of lesson time.
- You may have a positive exam experience that serves as a growth opportunity as a developing musician.
- You get examined by a highly qualified and expert music examiner who will score you in your exam, which serves as a yardstick in your progress.
- You receive written commentary on your playing which serves as feedback as to what you need to improve on in your playing/knowledge.
- You get a beautiful certificate (if you pass) to add to your achievements, depending on the College adds to your points for university.
- In the UK, Trinity’s Grade 6-8 exams can contribute towards higher education through the allocation of UCAS points (The United Kingdom Universities’ and Colleges’ Admissions Service).
- You need a strong level of commitment in order to prepare for the important exam.
- You may be accepted to study music at university level if you complete Grade 8 music exams (theory and practical).
- You can earn a good income teaching music lessons to beginners, even if all you have are a couple of exams under your belt. The income could definitely come in handy later on in your life!
- Exam stress! Especially if you have not been diligent enough in practicing – yikes!
- You may not be physically strong enough to play the pieces well, probably because you haven’t consistently practiced your Hanon exercises…
- If you really are not prepared and you forfeit the exam, you lose your exam registration fee – no refunds!
- You may not be emotionally capable of dealing with the stress of performing the exam and you make lots of mistakes in the actual exam.
- You need to make time to practice about 30 minutes everyday (the amount of preparation will differ depending upon the individual and grade level).
- You have to work hard in you music lessons trying to learn everything.
- The exam experience could potentially be a bit traumatic.
- You need to attend all your music lessons to prepare well – no excuses!
- You could be the cause of stressing your music teacher out if you don’t practice – oops.
The con’s of doing music exams are only possibilities. In my personal experience, I never had many con’s of doing music grades.
My Personal Experience
When I was young, I never ended up going to music lessons. They were traumatic for all three of my older siblings. With me, the youngest child, I was taught only in little bits and pieces by mother. I learned from her mostly by listening to her play and watching her play. I am forever grateful to her!
I then played only for pleasure, but mostly for church and functions all through my childhood and teen years. Playing at church required a good amount of practice, especially when a congregation or choir is singing! As I mentioned, I actually only did exams after I had finished school and while I was in university. So when I actually did music exams I thoroughly enjoyed them and saw them as exciting opportunities to determine how well I played. In my situation, it was awesome, because I made the decision myself, I wanted to do exams, I was motivated to do exams and I was more mature and experienced in playing. The groundwork was already all done in my earlier years, so I was able to complete 2 grades a year.
When I started exams, the teacher guided me to refine my technique and my playing. After I had gotten married, I didn’t end up doing so well in that particular exam because of the life-adjustments. But all-in-all, I loved doing exams.
Alternative: Music Festival
I am a strong believer in goals and deadlines to aid progression. If you opt-out of doing exams because you are not ready but are still in school, why not enter the local music and arts festival (also known as the eisteddfod)? For those of you who don’t know what an eisteddfod or music and arts festival is, it is a music and drama competition open to any instrumentalists, singers, choirs as well as those wishing to recite poetry or do drama items. Your teacher will be able to help you with the entry and preparation. Eisteddfods are open to even very, very beginners from young. Entry is relatively easy and inexpensive and eisteddfods provide a fantastic opportunity to perform in front of an audience and adjudicators. You get a nice little certificate based upon your score, and overall it is a very good opportunity to perform as an alternative to exams. You have an eisteddfod deadline to learn the songs and so you will progress nicely in your instrument.
In a Nutshell
If you really want to get down to becoming thorough and experienced in your playing, with any accreditation, you should pursue music exams. Just because you do not want to become a professional musician one day, doesn’t mean you don’t have to do exams. If you want to earn a good part-time or even full-time income starting or joining a music school as a teacher, you totally need to do your exams! You don’t even need to start at the bottom at Initial Grade or Grade 1 if you are good enough, I myself started at Grade 3.
Take a look at the pro’s and con’s above of doing/not doing exams and decide for yourself. You should absolutely also discuss it with your teacher if they think you/your child are ready for exams. You totally can take it at your own pace and do a grade every other year – you’ll get there when you are ready for exams physically, mentally as well as emotionally.
I wish you all the very best in your music learning and playing! If you are preparing for any performance or have decided to do music exams, may you have an enjoyable experience and good luck!