When I was learning the piano as a child, I remember feeling that I was chained to an exam treadmill: every year I took another exam, and as soon as the exam was over and the results were in, I moved on to the next grade’s syllabus. I did all this willingly, because it pleased my parents and my teacher, and I suppose I was pretty pleased too, to receive a smart Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music certificate as proof of my achievement.
My teaching philosophy is to make piano lessons fun and to share with my students – children and adults – my passion for and love of the piano and its literature. No one is obligated to take an exam in my studio, but in these days of ‘anti-competitive’ sports days at our primary schools, I find that most of the children I teach are keen to take graded exams, as a measure of where they are in their piano studies, and proof that they can do it.
For students who have been immersed in study for an exam for more than a term or two, it can sometimes be difficult to remain focussed on the task in hand and to remember why one is taking a music exam.
Motivation: taking a music exam encourages commitment, stimulates the student to practice and gives the student an extra nudge to their learning. Success in an exam offers a real sense of achievement, and the student will receive a report with positive, helpful comments and constructive criticism, plus a smart certificate which can be framed.
Benchmarking: Achieving a graded music exam gives the student a sense of where he or she is in their studies, and a visible, recognised measure of personal progress and attainment. Meeting other students who are further advanced in their exams is a useful and inspiring pointer to what can be achieved next or in the future. Graded music exams are also recognised by other teachers, schools, colleges and universities, and show that you have reached a certain level of competency as a musician and instrumentalist.
Building skills: Graded music exams are designed so that skills such as technique, memorisation and musical awareness can be developed gradually and thoroughly.
Exploring repertoire: At every level, from Initial/Prep Test to Grade 8, there is a good range of repertoire to choose from, from Baroque to present-day and jazz. This allows students to offer varied and interesting programmes, and to enjoy studying a range of musical styles.
Boosting confidence: The experience of playing for someone else, whether it is teacher, examiner, adjudicator or before an invited audience is incredibly valuable. Learning to deal with performance anxiety and playing a programme of whatever length to others builds confidence and presentation skills which can be transferred to other areas of your life.
Exams are not for everyone, of course, and some students, especially adults, are happy to study a variety of repertoire of varying degrees of difficulty for their own interest. For me, the most important aspect is to introduce students to as wide a range of music as possible, and to encourage listening, sharing and enjoyment of music. Between exams, I like to teach ‘step up’ repertoire, which allows the student to transition comfortably from one grade to another.
The spring exam season will soon be upon us. To all students, junior and advanced, young and old, I wish you the very best of luck.