An earlier version of this article appeared on my sister blog

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





A new book charts the development of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) from its somewhat undistinguished origins in the latter part of the nineteeth-century to become what it is today – a highly influential, preeminent and internationally-renowned music examinations board.

The text, by David Wright (retired Reader in Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music, London), is the first extended history of the ABRSM, and follows a largely chronological course. The author examines the cultural and historical context of the development of the ABRSM, how it has shaped musical taste, habits and attitudes of students and teachers, and influenced the lives of millions of people since it conducted its first exams in 1890, and how it has adapted and responded to the changing landscape of music tuition and study, and the preferences of its customers.

Today the ABRSM has a ubiquitous presence in music education, yet few people know much about the institution and the criteria on which it determines syllabuses, and maintains standards, trains its examiners and manages its exams. The Board is an important legacy of Victorian Britain, an institution which grew out of that society’s concern to expand the technological and professional workface to run the Empire. The development of the Board’s exams represents a peculiarly Victorian ethos: that of combining education with entrepreneurship by providing an objective assessment of learning a musical instrument or voice on an industrial scale. During the 120 years of the ABRSM, its music exams have come to represent a significant rite of passage in musical study, from early beginnings at Grade 1 to the final pre-professional stage of Grade 8.

Music exams are an emotive subject, and I am sure many of us recall the dreaded, toe-curling moment when the examiner announces that it is time for the aural test section of the exam. Very few people relish the idea of singing a melody back to a stranger, or identifying an interval! Sight-reading is another element of the exam that can put the fear of God into candidates. Many teachers question the value of setting students on an “exam treadmill”, and in the course of my own teaching, I have met a number of music teachers who simply refuse to enter students for exams, because they believe the rigid discipline of the syllabus does not lend itself to developing musicianship and performance skills, and that the idea of being “examined” in music is unnatural, robbing the student of spontaneity and musical creativity. This issue is very much open to debate: whatever we may feel about music exams, they are now unquestionably part of everyday musical study, used not just as benchmarks for teachers and students, but also contributing “points” to GCSE, A-level and university entrance requirements. Many people who took and passed music exams as children carry their successes as a badge of honour into adulthood, the sign that one has had the staying power and commitment to study for something with tangible evidence (a certain level of attainment and the certificate to prove it). For teachers, the graded music exam system (not just ABRSM, but other boards such as Trinity Guildhall and the London College of Music) has had an important impact on the way they teach, and has enabled teachers to introduce their students to a wide variety of repertoire, from classic “standards” by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart to contemporary repertoire, some commissioned especially for the exam syllabuses.


For much of the earlier Victorian era, music teaching was not considered a respectable living, and certainly not a “professional” or middle-class occupation. Music teaching was largely unregulated, with no independent quality assurance in place (diplomas were later intended to provide this). The exam system was important in changing some of this, providing a common currency of professional and educational attainment, and was a crucial factor in transforming the standing of music teachers and music teaching. A new landscape for the professional training of teachers emerged out of this, and continues today, though with a rather bewildering array of diploma post-nominals (LRSM, LTCL, ALCM, LGSMD and so forth).

The development of a system of music exams also came about at a time when amateur music making at home was becoming increasingly popular. The number of pianos manufactured in the UK at this time confirms this, together with a huge increase in the availability of affordable sheet music,and the growth and popularity of music shops. Ancillary activities such as music festivals and competitions helped to fuel the enthusiasm for domestic music making.

Ultimately, however, the ABRSM came into existence to settle a damaging rivalry between the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM) When the RCM was granted its Royal Charter in 1883 it was tasked with “the advancement of the Art of Music” through teaching and examining, and awarding degrees and certificates to candidates, whether or not they were students at the College. Under the charter, the RCM was also charged with promoting and encouraging musical tuition in schools and elsewhere. The charter effectively made the RCM the “chartered institute” for music, which caused considerable resentment amongst other establishments, including the RAM and Trinity College, London (TCL).

Apart from the RCM, the RAM was the only other institution bestowed a royal charter, and the ABRSM partnership gave the RAM the appearance of a chartered institution. Exams promoted by these institutions became a way of testing teachers by examining their pupils, and thus the ABRSM, in a form recognisable to us today, was created. The exam system, with the support of the RAM and RCM, also enabled graduates from the RAM and RCM to set up teaching practices of their own by suggesting that the conservatoire system made for better-quality teaching. Finally, the fees gained from exams gave the two colleges more financial leverage and additional income.

In the years following the formation of the ABRSM, its method of examining candidates, with the requirement not just to play a selection of pieces but also technical exercises, sight-reading and aural training, was exported across the Empire, and the ABRSM developed into the prestigious body it is today. Over the course of its existence, the ABRSM has had to adapt to the changing musical and educational environment in which it operates: in recent years, the introduction of popular and jazz-inspired repertoire into syllabuses demonstrates the board’s determination to continue to attract candidates, together with the broader range of instruments covered, and the innovative Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 taster exam for early students. The computerisation of the exam entry system represented a significant modernisation, making the process more streamlined and simpler for teachers and candidates. Other offshoots from the Board’s main activities including publishing – not just exam books but teaching guides and its popular ‘Signature’ series of authoritative performing editions of standard keyboard works, prepared from original sources by leading scholars, the most recent of which is Professor Barry Cooper’s critical edition of The 35 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, which includes the three Elective sonatas. The value of these editions is open to discussion (see my earlier post on The Urtext Score), but they are attractively produced and are used by many students and teachers around the world.

The book is rich in detail – anecdotes, statistics, source references, quotations and a detailed bibliography and index – and offers a comprehensive history of the Board together with an examination of its continued significant place in British culture and musical life.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Boydell Press
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184383734X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843837343
  • RRP: £50

This question seems particularly pertinent as I help prepare another crop of students for their piano exams. The question was, in fact, put to me last week by a student of another teacher (Clarinet) who came to me for some extra aural training ahead of his Grade 5 exam next week. I found myself quoting from the ABRSM website when I said “Aural tests help to train your musical ear, and to help you make an important link between listening to music and playing music”.

I think most of us who took music exams as children would agree that, along with sight-reading, the aural tests were the most dreaded element of the graded music exam. I can still remember being “trained” by my music teacher at school, Mr Weaver, and, in my nervousness, finding it almost impossible to sing a simple major third or fifth. (I was also tested for perfect pitch when I was about 12, in front of the entire class, which was excruciating and cringe-makingly awful.) One of my students, Laurie, absolutely refuses to sing for me and so when we come to the part of the test, where he is required to sing an echo, we mime (or I sing it for him), on the strict understanding that he will sing at his exam!

Joking apart, as well as forming an integral part of the graded music exams, training the musical ear is a crucial process for the developing musician. Intelligent and informed listening lies at the heart of good music making, whether listening to others, or to oneself, and is fundamental to music training, especially for performance. The key aspects from the Prep or Initial stage are:

  • Identifying and clapping a pulse
  • Clapping a rhythm
  • Singing and echo or pitching notes in a sequence
  • Identifying simple features in an extract of music – e.g. detached or smooth playing, loud or soft

As one proceeds through the graded exams, additional skills are tested

  • Identifying a rhythmic or pitch change in an extract of music
  • Identifying features such as staccato, legato, dynamic, tempo or key changes
  • Singing and identifying intervals
  • Identifying cadences
  • Learning to appreciate music from different periods – e.g. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Jazz

What bothered me while working with the other teacher’s student last week was that the child had no idea why he was required to take an aural test, hence my explanation about training the musical ear. Being able to identify a pulse is crucially important, for any musician, and those of us who have played in ensembles or orchestras can surely still remember the player/s who could not keep time. I regularly do pulse and rhythm exercises with my teacher, and anyone who has learnt ‘Bah-Ba-Doo-Bah’ (John Kember, ABRSM Grade 2 syllabus) with me this term has had to do a lot of clapping and counting to master the syncopation in this piece.

Singing is also incredibly useful as a musician, and I often sing (not especially well!) to demonstrate a line of melody or the shape of a phrase. So much music follows a “singing line”, and singing a phrase rather than playing it demonstrates “natural shaping” which comes from the innate rise and fall of the human voice. It’s a pity that so many students are reluctant to sing because I think if they were more prepared to try it, they would find phrasing music so much easier.

When I worked with the clarinet student last week, I was astonished at his lack of knowledge of music history and the distinct periods in classical music. He did not even realise that the piece he played for me was jazz! He came armed with a book on how to improve your aural, and, flicking through it, it fell open on a page about the main periods of classical music. Each one – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – had four bullet points identifying the key features. When I played an extract of a Gershwin Prelude (No 2 – the middle section) he reeled off the salient features of Baroque music – and my heart sank.

If one doesn’t develop an appreciation and understanding of different kinds of music – and not just ‘classical’ music, but jazz, rock, pop, world, ambient, electronic etc – how can one properly understand how to interpret and play a piece properly? One of the first things I do when looking at a new piece with a student is set the music in context. When we study Bach, we look at the kinds of keyboard instruments he was writing for (I have pictures loaded onto my iPad) and listen to Bach played on the harpsichord or organ. While working on a simplified version of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ with a student recently, I played both the sung version and the quintet to him. Result: the next week he was beginning to play the piece with clearer phrasing and a nice sense of the “song line”.

I was very fortunate when I was growing up: my parents were keen concert-goers and LP buyers, and of course there was live music in the house because my father played in both a wind ensemble and an orchestra. From a very early age, I went to concerts, and my tastes and knowledge developed quickly. Listening and playing were normal activities for me – and remain so today. But many children who are learning instruments now are doing just that – learning the instrument, without being taught an appreciation of music. Perhaps their parents are not interested in music, or the school is not encouraging an appreciation? I admit I’m on something of a mission to encourage my students to both play well and to love music: if just one or two of them remember what they did with me as students when they are browsing iTunes or similar when they’re older, and they download some Beethoven piano sonatas, or one of Schubert’s String Quartets, then I can consider my job well done.

So, there is a lot of point to aural – and it is important for us, as teachers, to explain WHY!