Posted in For The Love of Music, Learning Music

Should You Do Music Exams?

“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?

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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!

Pro’s:

  • 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.

Con’s:

  • 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

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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.

Pro’s:

  • 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!

Con’s:

  • 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

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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!

Posted in For The Love of Music, Learning Music

What Is The Best Age To Start Music Lessons?

When I was young, I remember my mom telling us kids that we would only start music lessons when we turned 9 years old. Back then, I was disappointed that I would have to wait a few more years. For my mom, 9 years old was the right age to start music lessons. At that age, most children have basic reading and writing skills, which aids them in learning to read and play music. I come from a very musical family and as a result, from an early age I had wanted to learn to play the piano or violin. And I was so jealous of my older brother who had just started learning the violin.

Learning to play an instrument is a fairly common subject that is brought up for parents of young children. There seems to be very different lines of thought as to what age children should start. As many of us have gawked at YouTube videos of chinese toddlers playing the piano way better than we ever dream of being able to play – we can’t all help wonder what exactly is the “right” or “best” age to start taking our kids to music lessons.

I hate to break the news to you, but the answer to this question depends on several factors. Because every child is different.

Ready, Set… Go?

I think a lot of the readiness factor is influenced by the child’s musicality as well as their desire to learn. Because most of the leverage obtained in getting a child to practice music comes from their love for the music they practice. This desire could spark from seeing other musicians perform or it could merely be an inherent desire within themselves to learn to play their favourite nursery rhyme. This desire to play an instrument kindles from the toddler years.

So in a nutshell: if your child isn’t really interested in learning to play the piano (or whichever instrument it may be) hold off dragging them to the piano teacher’s front door. Instead, expose them to a lot of good musical performances, like orchestra concerts, jazz bands or musical productions with a live band. Or even watching videos of them are beneficial. When they have a great enough desire and interest, you can be sure they will be nagging you to sign them up for lessons.

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Does your child have a good fundamental understanding of counting and numbers as well as the alphabet? Learning to read and play music is all about counting and being able to decipher what the names of notes are.

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I like to compare learning to read and play music to learning to read a book. You have to learn the letters and the rules to identify the words. This takes a lot of practice, right? Generally the same age that children are able to read beginner reading books is pretty much the same age that they are capable of learning to read and play music. Also, they should at least be able to write their name because their fine motor skills need to be sufficiently developed to play an instrument.

 

So What Now?

Based upon my experience as a teacher, if you ask me what is the best age to learn music, I would say from about 5 years of age. 5 year olds are tough to teach for sure, but the musical training is excellent for their developing minds. On the other hand, I do enjoy teaching the 8 or 9 year olds more of course, because they can sit still for longer. And also they fly through the songs they learn. My mom was right about that!

But starting from 5 years old definitely does benefit the developing brain. Besides, lessons should not be hardcore Mozart lessons. They should only be a half hour which is quite manageable for a 5-year-old, if  the lesson is kept interesting.

In the lessons I give,  I only do 15 minutes of actual piano playing to learn the songs and exercises. Then the other 15 minutes is done in our fun music theory sticker book that has games and activities. I also will use a tablet with great music learning games that the kids beg for. So honestly, music lessons should be fun and suited to each child’s needs!

Then, just for the record, I would say for babies, play good music for them – especially different varieties. Show them how to clap along and move with the music.

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For ages between 18 months and 4 years of age, parents could enroll them into a music and movement program. Music and movement is a lovely way to engage in music and discover music principles. In these lessons they are learning important concepts to prepare them for formal music lessons. Music and movement classes are not just sessions of singing silly songs and bouncing around. Dynamics, beat and rhythm are taught, just to name a few. As the name implies, there is a lot of movement – which keeps their little active bodies happy. Music and movement lessons are more like music lessons tailored for little ones who lack the concentration and fine motor skills to actually sit down and try to play a single note on an instrument.

A Few More Things To Keep In Mind

So when you do enroll your child in formal music lessons, if they are young, start on piano or recorder or ukulele. Those instruments are physically the least demanding to begin with. Also, take note that at a young age, practice sessions at home need to be encouraged and even supervised by the parent. Yes, the Parent. Practice is your problem too! I have too many students whose parents are not even trying to get their kids to practice 5 minutes a week. Please, Parents!

But – and here’s a big but – when the music lessons start becoming a fight and a stress for both parent and child, I recommend either changing to a different instrument, changing the teacher or taking a break from lessons. If lessons are terminated, keep exposing your child to different instruments and musical performances. This is most important to developing your child’s musicality and consequently their desire to learn an instrument.

Lastly, remember that everyone has some degree of musicality. Even a non-musical person deserves to express themselves musically, in their own way. It does something for the soul. A music therapist once told me that music is actually a human behaviour – it is an innate desire in human beings to express themselves musically. Many people have been traumatized in their childhood by being forced to play the piano. The piano may have not been suited to them and perhaps the trumpet, for instance, may have been better.

My point is: Many adults have been deprived of a lifetime of musical pleasure and satisfaction that comes from playing a musical instrument, because (a) they were not given the opportunity to learn or (b) they had a bad experience as a child.

Let us as parents give our children the opportunity to learn an instrument. From birth, play music for them. From 18 months enroll in a Music and Movement class or something similar. Then from 5 years, start on an easy instrument such as the piano, recorder or ukulele. And remember that every child is different and may be ready for formal lessons at slightly different ages and stages of development. So really, the time to start exposing children music be it an informal or formal setting – whatever their age – is really, now.

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Here’s my 4 year-old son during one of his first piano lessons. He’s so proud to be learning to play! Comment below with your own personal experience about what was the right time for music lessons for your kids.