What is “musical achievement”?

That’s the view of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the major UK (and worldwide) music examinations board. It’s a view I don’t happen to agree with and this emphasis on “assessment” and testing rather than encouraging musicianship, musicality and, above all, enjoyment in making music, is one of the reasons why I stopped using the ABRSM exam syllabus only a few years after I started teaching piano privately in 2006. For me, this tweet is a sign of just how out of touch the ABRSM, an organisation which apparently prides itself on being the “gold standard” for music education, has become.

Unfortunately a lot of people – parents and teachers – think assessment and “getting your grades” is what learning music is about. You can read my thoughts on this subject here.

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  1. Exams may have a role to motivate one to accomplish certain skills, but one needs to still be mindful of the ultimate goal of expressing music. I felt exams helped propel me to practice and play pieces I would never have played otherwise. The RCM exams in Canada, broadened my appreciation and technique. It forced me to practice at least three hours a day, four months leading up to my exam and allowed me to learn something about myself , how to manage anxiety, how to be able to be consistent, how to delve into my mind in the middle of a performance, how to confidently memorize over 45 mins of music. The monthly Piano meetups helped but messing up during a performance had less consequence than during an exam. I am also grateful to my teacher who always kept me in perspective that the ultimate goal was not the grade but the ability to create the “sound” I was looking for.

  2. Hi Fran.

    You nailed it in one. Despite being a collector of grades when I was young, I knew even then that this was about getting ribbons, certificates, medals and attention. It took a few teachers who hated grades who opened up the door of musicianship. Only then could I walk through that door.

    Graded exams do not open any doors other than the one which leads to a trophy room.

    Morton Feldman’s piano teacher, Madame Press, instilled in him a sense of musicality, not musicianship. She stated musicianship was all the theory, technical scales/arpeggios, conformity to rules of artistic acceptability, etc

    Musicality is developing your expressive self through musical sound.

    If societies can tap into musicality and artistic expression, our social and individual health will improve.

    Many thanks for the post.

    All best,

    Kevin

    >

    • Thank you Kevin and I agree wholeheartedly with your comment. I went through the grades as a child/teenager – I enjoyed the challenge of working towards them and the satisfaction of the results, but I was lucky to have piano teachers who encouraged wider musical explorations, and parents who took me to concerts and the opera from a young age (for which I am profoundly grateful). But when I started teaching myself, I saw the limitations of the exam system and how parents (especially in the leafy affluent suburbs where I taught) used exams for “bragging rights” and simply wanted their children to collect grades. I ditched ABRSM and turned to Trinity and latterly LCM as I felt these exam boards offered a far more broad musical education and encouraged performance and musicality above all. Many of my students, especially the teenagers, decided they didn’t want to take exams and we concentrated on broadening their musical horizons through music which they enjoyed playing and which appealed to both their individual sensibilities and talents.

      I am now very anti-exams as I feel they can stifle creativity and even put children and adults off music altogether!

      Fran

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