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Music exams. What are the benefits?

(20 Posts)
BarbarianMum Sun 06-Jul-14 21:31:43

Both my dc are learning to play the piano. They are 8 and 6 and have been learning (at a relaxed pace) for about a year.

What I am wondering is, what are the benefits of starting them working towards their grades (I think that's the term) as a pose to letting them just keep learning?

Also, with grades, is it vital to start w grade 1 and build them up, or could we leave it for now with the option of slotting into say grade 3 later?

This is all quite alien to me to any views would be welcome.

JulieMichelleRobinson Sun 06-Jul-14 23:14:06

You can do no grades and then just randomly do grade 8, as long as it's not with ABRSM where you need to do grade 5 theory/practical musicianship/jazz before you can do grade 6 or above in the instrument. So you don't need to do them all.

As a teacher, I have a mixture of students who want to do exams (or whose parents want them to do exams) and students who don't want to do them. The main advantages are external, moderated assessment (teacher's p.o.v.) and a formal, national, recognition of achievement (student's p.o.v.) - the main exam boards are regulated by Ofqual and higher grades count for UCAS points. I use examination repertoire as a guide to student level and progress anyway, and since I'm relatively new to instrumental teaching am experimenting with different exam boards, with most of my piano students doing various pieces from ABRSM, Rockschool, LCM jazz syllabus... you name it.

ABRSM does music medals which I use with my younger violin pupils (I video them, mark it and send it off for moderation) - these exist for keyboard, but not piano; LCM offers performance assessments in most subjects which are submitted by DVD but I don't think they start before grade-1-equivalent. The performance assessments aren't regulated by Ofqual, whereas music medals are recognised nationally; however, the LCM assessments may be a more friendly way to gain a first 'proper' certificate and is assessed at the same standard as the grade, only you just do the pieces. My plan is to use these for the older students doing more jazz or simply who don't want to do 'proper' exams, so that they gain some recognition for what they've done. It won't count for UCAS but can be mentioned in a personal statement.

Alternatively, I've just been doing my own certificates for my youngest students (starting piano at 3 because I'm insane) when they reach certain landmarks such as the end of a book, which I print in colour, write their names on in beautiful calligraphy, and laminate. They're thrilled with those, I don't think they're concerned about doing grade 1 any time soon. smile

JustAShopGirl Mon 07-Jul-14 07:38:09

Another advantage in the exams - especially from an early age is that they get used to actually doing exams where it is not vital that they pass - if you fail a music exam you can go on to the next and do not have to resit, your future/university choice etc does not usually depend on you getting a merit at grade 1 piano.

The more exam practise they get before the ones that really count, the better for some kids (one of mine does them, one does not - they both did grade one then chose whether or not to do the other exams).

RunAwayHome Mon 07-Jul-14 09:07:14

Sometimes they make you explore music that you would not otherwise have chosen. I'd have played list A (Baroque) pieces almost exclusively out of preference, but learned to like some other things.

It also makes you do some of the technical requirements more seriously than you might do without exams. I didn't do exam sort of curriculum on one instrument, and although I did some work on the scales and arpeggios, I didn't do as much as I ought to have, in all the weird variations, double stopped, various positions, etc etc. and I really notice that now as an adult still trying to play along in an amateur orchestra.

It can make you polish pieces to perfection in a way that you don't when you are just learning them for yourself - you think you have a piece learned well, and move on to something new. But it's a slightly different level of polish for an exam.

And performance experience - I rarely did the actual exams, though followed roughly the syllabus, and I kind of wish I had, as I'm still so terrified of public performance.

And it can give you the discipline to have something to keep practising for, if you are the sort of child that enjoys music and wants to be able to do it, but can need some goals.

Definitely not essential, and no need to do them if a child doesn't want to. Also no need to stick ONLY to three pieces and scales etc; much better to do a wide variety of pieces, and then do an exam when ready.

The advantages can be gained by other similar things - festivals or concerts, for example, or chances for improv, or whatever given lots of performance experience, and if the child has wide tastes already and lots of discipline to work on technique, and enjoy practising, without specific goals or deadlines, then exams might not provide any further advantages in that sense. But for some children, they can be helpful as part of music education. Just not the be-all-and-end-all.

RaspberryLemonPavlova Mon 07-Jul-14 09:11:18

I'm not entirely convinced by the starting exams early to get them used idea.

DD (14) hates all exams with a passion, and just does grades on her sax, she doesn't have to do any at all but wants to do them to try and get more used to exams, she has no concept of 'being OK to not pass'. Her first music exam was G2 sax at 9, but she had ballet exams from younger. She also chose to do the entry exam for our super selective Grammar to prove she could do it (She did it, but chose not to go.)

I do however sometimes wonder if no exams at all in anything might actually have been better and she could have arrived at exams with a more mature approach that its not world ending to not pass or 'only' get a merit. She has never failed or got a pass and doesn't recognise that as an achievement, but sees it as a failure as she hasn't got a distinction.

MY DSs (16 and 11) aren't phased by exams at all. Both have some Distinctions, which I am sure is partly because they are relaxed in the exams. DS1 however, got a huge shock last year with piano G5 last year, passing with 2 marks to spare, because he had very much underestimated the amount of work involved. (He gets away with less practice on his brass instruments as he plays in a lot of bands). He was annoyed that DS2 got a good Merit for piano G5 in the next session, but learnt a lesson.

Their attitudes really showed up in May, DS1 has just sailed through GCSEs with very little stress (but some very hard work this time!), DS2 had his KS2 SATS week and bounced off to school really excited at doing exams. DD had an internal end of year Maths exam and was very worked up about it.

If you do them there is definitely no need to do them all, apart from anything else with multiple DC playing multiple instruments it would get very expensive!

BarbarianMum Mon 07-Jul-14 09:20:24

Thank you all for your thoughts on this. I like the idea of them maybe trying grade 1 when ready to see how they feel about it. The point about getting used to exams is a valid one too.

My main concern is not to take them down a path that makes playing less fun. Ds1 plays percussion with a band and really enjoys it but piano seems to be a pretty solitary instrument.

BarbarianMum Mon 07-Jul-14 09:23:22

Cross posts pavlova

Yes I am not sure that ds2 is the type to not mind failure. I think it would either drive him to be a concert pianist or to give up entirely.

More food for thought.

JulieMichelleRobinson Mon 07-Jul-14 20:35:00

I play nine instruments at last count; I only have exams in two of them (they are, however, the ones I teach!).

JimBobplusasprog Mon 07-Jul-14 21:33:44

Exams are quite expensive. For that reason alone I have no objection to my children learning the repertoire and performing the pieces but for abrsm exams, I'd skip the even numbers before 8.

JulieMichelleRobinson Mon 07-Jul-14 23:42:16


That doesn't always work, depending on the instrument, because the 'big gaps' happen at different times. I did 1 then 4 on violin, and 1 then 3 on piano, but took all the higher grades.

I have a few older students who'll be skipping grade 2, but after that we'll see... and a couple of younger ones who've done prep test as an informal non-scary introduction but may skip grade 1 and go straight to 2 (though they'll work through the scales/technical requirements and through pieces on various syllabi for grade 1, but not necessarily from the exam books).

I also have a friend who's an ABRSM examiner so I could probably get her to come in and informally assess students as mock exams.

RaspberryLemonPavlova Tue 08-Jul-14 00:51:54

DCs secondary school tends to do whichever of the lower grades, then 5, 6 and 8.

OutwiththeOutCrowd Tue 08-Jul-14 18:50:16

A potential benefit of doing music exams has only just become apparent to me now that DS has started at secondary school; it allows you to take part to a fuller extent in the musical life of the school.

DS's school organises music competitions and provides opportunities for getting involved in orchestras, bands and ensembles - but these are only open to children who have achieved a certain grade level through formal exams in their chosen instrument/instruments. (For example, the minimum level for the 'beginners' competition is grade 3.)

I've also realised as the year has progressed that if you haven't been beavering away collecting grade certificates during the primary school years, your opportunities for performing in public through the school, will be limited. At DS's school, there is a subculture of elite-track young musicians who have already reached a high level of expertise - grade 6 ish - before entering Y7. They are given most of the performing opportunities.

I emphasize here that I am describing DS's school and I don't know how representative his school is. When I was at school, the children who played instruments - and there didn't seem to be many - were only just getting started at the beginning of secondary school and were virtually assured a place in the orchestra if they wished to be in it. Perhaps there are still opportunities these days for late bloomers if they choose less common instruments. Maybe DS's school is particularly competitive - I think it might be.

DS did no grades whilst at primary school. He has only just done grade 2 at the suggestion of his teacher because you need the formal qualification to be invited to play in an ensemble. I don't know if he'll ever perform in public but he'd like to have the experience of playing in a group.

Having said all that, I think in the longer term that if you play an instrument for the sheer joy of making music rather than in an 'achievement chasing' sort of way, you are more likely to carry on playing into adulthood, even if you never ever play for a large adoring audience!

Ishouldbeweaving Tue 08-Jul-14 20:14:04

OutwiththeOutCrowd - I'm not sure that your school is representative in requiring music exams for participation, DS has taken a couple of auditions at county and national level and they asked for grade X or a letter from their music teacher to confirm that junior is playing at grade X standard. This is no help for a self taught prodigy but covers children who have lessons but don't take exams as well as children that take exams but skip a few in between. I know that there are children in some of the senior ensembles at our Saturday morning music school who haven't taken an exam and there are some who have stopped having lessons but still come for the ensemble playing.

Our secondary school does not have a musical bias and they'd be happy to provide performance opportunities to anyone who could put two notes together and turn up on a regular basis. I can see that if they were overwhelmed with talent then it would be different and they would need to be more selective but if the National Youth Orchestra will accept a letter from a music teacher in lieu of exams then you'd think that would be good enough for a school.

morethanpotatoprints Tue 08-Jul-14 20:57:11

I think it depends on the instrument and the child as well.
My dd hasn't done a grade one on any instrument and has done 2,3,and soon 4 on violin. grade 2, 4 singing and after 18 months playing, grade 4 sax.
She will skip grade 5 singing and sax and do grade 6 this time next year.
Not sure about viledin yet she may do gr5 who knows.
I think if they enjoy the challenge and want to do them well why not.
If they get stressed and practice is a chore it hardly seems worth it.
I think you also have to remember it is possible to learn 24 pieces, relevant scales and have a grade 8. It doesn't make you a musician.

OutwiththeOutCrowd Tue 08-Jul-14 21:01:49

Ishouldbeweaving, that's interesting. Yes, it certainly wouldn't seem fair to be passed over if you were playing at a certain level but just didn't have a certificate to say that you were.

Thinking about it again, I'm guessing that one of the reason for the stringent conditions at DS's school is that they have to whittle the numbers down. DS tells me that around 80% of his form are learning to play instruments. If this is representative of the school at large, then it seems like an extraordinarily high number!

The culture within the school seems to be that you do the exams as a matter of course - most activities are approached in a competitive achievement-oriented way that I don't completely agree with. I don't know what the school would do if a brilliant musical maverick arrived with no qualifications and no desire to jump through those hoops - surely they'd have to allow him his moment on stage?

morethanpotatoprints Tue 08-Jul-14 21:33:42

Apologies folks, have just read my post back and realised how arsy it sounds.
I mentioned the above because I know parents like this and teachers unfortunately.
The children play a few pieces throughout the year, a few weeks before the exam if the dc is lucky the teacher will do a little sight reading.

I think some teachers are particularly grade orientated because their superiors expect them to enter dc for the next grade every year. I suppose its like everything else its a measurement of progression as well as achievement.
I think the real institutions that teach music aren't bothered about exams but will give an indication of the level they expect, but aren't bothered if the exam hasn't been taken.

HercShipwright Thu 10-Jul-14 10:40:11

In the old days, you didn't need to do any exams at all. You needed to be 'at the standard'. These days, you need grade 8 to go to university or conservatoire, to do music, some universities don't even audition. For some you need a grade 8 plus grade 5 piano if it isn't your first study. My DCs have skipped some grades on some of their instruments, but all of them have done far more exams than I ever did - I just did 5,6 and 8 on my first and second studies and 8 on my third. And I never did a piano exam although I was playing grade 6/7 repertoire when I decided to not pursue music and thus not bother taking grade 5.

There are clearly some benefits to taking exams, esteem-wise, for example - but from a musical standpoint the important thing is repertoire and technique. Not bits of paper.

RaspberryLemonPavlova Thu 10-Jul-14 11:11:22


Certainly not the case at DCs secondary school either. Some of the groups are invitational but certainly not by exams passed.

HercShipwright Thu 10-Jul-14 11:34:08

I have a friend who is an extremely successful composer and musician. He never took a music exam in his life. Exams really aren't important in and of themselves, sadly in the current climate of standardisation, computer sifting etc, they become signifiers of talent (which of course, they can be - but they really aren't the main thing).

My DDs especially are quite into doing them, which is both annoying, from a philosophical standpoint, and expensive.

OutwiththeOutCrowd Fri 11-Jul-14 07:49:30

What the boys at the school (it's all boys) are told is you have to be at least grade 3 on your instrument to take part in the music competition. There are similar stipulations for playing in various musical groups within the school.

So I think you would at least have to have experience of playing the graded repertoire (or equivalent) at the specified level, and have a teacher who could vouch for this, even if you hadn't actually played the pieces in an exam situation.

I'm happy to hear of schools with more opportunities for 'B-team' players like my DS! Schools should provide playing experiences for all, not just those who are quick off the starting blocks in attaining grades.

DS's school is a grammar school and maybe it's not typical in its policies.

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