On returning from my holiday, I enjoyed reading Rosie Millard’s recent interesting and thought-provoking article in The Telegraph deliberating over the benefits of music exams (you can read it here). She labels herself a ‘pushy’ parent, although I don’t find her approach particularly ‘pushy’. I think her concerns are fairly natural amongst parents who want their children to succeed; indeed this approach could be applied to ballet, chess, maths and a whole host of other activities so often undertaken by children.
Many feel music exams are irrelevant, outdated and have little to do with being able to play an instrument. This view is surprisingly prevalent in some unsuspecting circles; there are piano teachers who don’t enter students for exams, believing them to be totally unnecessary. Certainly, exams are not for everyone and, as Rosie points out, they definitely aren’t for the faint hearted! Hours of work, dedication, motivation, and perseverance are necessary – and that’s just to obtain a pass! Some talent is also required beyond a certain level too.
On a personal note, I loved taking piano exams; they gave me a sense of achievement and a feeling of advancement in my playing. I took Grades 2, 5, & 8 (if my memory serves correctly!), but I found them fun. And those I teach also enjoy working towards them (I never push students to take exams).
One of the main issues amongst those who don’t favour an exam system, seems to be the limitations of the syllabus (usually irrespective of the board taken; whether ABRSM, Trinity College, London College of Music etc.); three pieces, a group of scales, sight-reading and aural must generally be negotiated and this can take time to assimilate (sometimes it can take years, depending on the student). Many students (and their teachers) would rather work at a larger group of pieces, learn a more varied repertoire, skip scales (or exercises) and never really have to be put through the trauma associated with sight-reading (or aural). I can certainly empathise with this view, especially for those who want to play for pleasure.
Playing the piano should be for enjoyment, shouldn’t it? Yes, it should. And for some this means a challenge. For those who want to improve their playing, with the intention of reaching new levels of technique and musicianship, and receive a measured view of their progress, an exam may be a great option.
Yes, the syllabus could be viewed as narrow, but then it isn’t meant to be the only course of study; the concept surrounding piano exams is to work at the exam syllabus in conjunction with a whole host of other piano material, forming a broader musical base. Moving from one piano exam to the next (without learning anything else in-between) is not a sound method of progress, as most already know.
The thing about dedicating much time and effort to just a few demanding pieces is that whilst this may seem dull, perfunctory and limited, after working at them correctly (this is vital, so please find a good teacher who can teach the necessary technique required to play everything demanded in the syllabus), students should have acquired new technical (and musical) skills. These skills can then be applied to a multitude of piano pieces, thus encouraging an increasingly higher standard of playing. For many, the whole point of an exam is to overcome or surmount new difficulties.
When there is a deadline, an impending performance and a marking system for that performance, most pupils are motivated to work. They want to go beyond that particular grade or level. That’s not to say this level can’t be achieved by not taking an exam, but they do seem to afford the fundamental carrot. And a good mark provides a very satisfying sense of achievement, as well as the motivation to continue playing.
I’ve been working with several piano professors and university faculty members over the past few months (worldwide), frequently enquiring about entrance audition standards and procedures for their respective university or conservatoire, as well as the selection process for their piano majors (a subject which fascinates me). On asking which group of students consistently offers the highest level of playing at audition, the answer has (more often than not) been those pianists who have adhered to an examination system, particularly the British system (i.e. ABRSM, Trinity College London, or London College of Music exams, which can all be undertaken worldwide).
The main reason for this appears to be that these students have frequently taken diplomas (which can serve as excellent preparation for a prospective conservatoire student), are used to presenting recital programmes, and have a more reliable technical grasp due to regular technical exercise practice (of which scales and arpeggios play an important part). These young piano majors intend to be professionals, and should therefore not be compared to those who play for pleasure, however, the ideology is exactly the same; formal exams can foster a high standard of playing.
No exam system is (or will ever be) perfect, but in my opinion, if you or your child wishes to improve, and learn to develop the required focus, discipline and performing skills needed to do well, working at a piano exam or diploma, as part of a rounded musical education, might be an excellent way to proceed.
For more information about the British Music Examination Boards, please visit the links below:
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.