Exams don’t make musicians

An earlier version of this article appeared on my sister blog http://www.franspianostudio.me

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to completely miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these successes as “bragging rights” to be paraded before other parents and children in the school playground or used as bargaining tools when applying to a particular school.

Do these exam achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure….. Admittedly, at no point in the article does Ms Millard mention musicianship or musicality: her focus is simply on her children’s accumulation of grades. I do applaud her, however, for submitting herself to Grade 5 piano, “to see just how terrifying taking a grade really was”, but she does not mention if she derived any actual pleasure or satisfaction in learning the repertoire or any of the musical or personal developmental benefits of taking a music exam. But at least she has a degree of insight into what she is putting her children through in insisting they take all their grade exams.

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I really hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my ABRSM Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier (yes, it really was that awful, despite the fact that I played well and achieved a decent pass). A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad sweep of music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment and progress. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared with support from a teacher who can advise on aspects such as stagecraft, presentation and managing anxiety). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Box-ticking music-exams are utterly unhelpful, both to development of musicians and to those subjects that are lured into UCAS points-collecting.

Look at it this way: how many music teachers here would regard an A-level in biology as being indicative of a good future as a concert pianist?

A quote from a member of a music teachers’ online forum

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

Rosie Millard

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

My students have the option to take grade exams if they wish. No one is forced to take an exam and some students simply wish to play music which they enjoy and which enables them to develop as musicians without the pressure of exams. Sometimes they opt to have their playing assessed by a teaching colleague of mine, to gain experience of playing for other people and useful feedback from another listener. Other students enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, but this is always done within a broader focus (learning additional related repertoire, listening around the pieces, historical contexts etc).

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. In short, it is about enjoyment.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent