Exams, Piano teaching

Grade exams don’t make musicians 

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 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 simply success as “bragging rights”. Do these achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure…..

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 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 Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier. 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 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. 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). 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.

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

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.

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.

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





5 thoughts on “Grade exams don’t make musicians ”

  1. Hello, my nearly 10 year old is taking his first keyboard exam, it will be his last and he’s finishing keyboards to concentrate on his choir time. I think he has dyscalclia, maybe mild autism shown through anxiety, I want him to do the exam as a bench mark, if he wants to return in 2 years then he can say he’s done this exam. He is struggling to read the music despite playing for 19 months, it just doesn’t stay in his head. When I teach him his maths, he still needs to finger count the likes of 3 add 3. He does not want to practise, his listening skills are fab, he can play back what he’s heard etc…


  2. Love this post!

    Most of my young students only practise when parents schedule it, and are around when practise gets challenging, so the students have company while they go at it.

    Parents (who often don’t understand music at first) seem to be more motivated to put time aside to support their kids, when there’s a clear goal in sight. An exam, or a chance that their child can perform somewhere.

    With this end, I’ve started ‘Class concerts’ this year, where the student brings the audience to piano class – mostly family (parents and grandparents,) because friends are often not free at class time. We had a couple of concerts, where the student performed and we had some rhythm games with family participation. They were real fun!

    …and no extra work for me, so I could focus on the student without needing to run around making concert arrangements.


  3. I couldn’t agree more with you regarding “Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally.” Although many experienced musicians learn the concepts of music theory, I have found that few truly understand how to combine those theoretical concepts together to put together the running musical machine. All independent musicians understand the “theoretical machine” that runs under the surface out of sight; although omni-present and ever-running in the backs of their minds whenever they play.

    The simplest and most common concept of the major scale is a fine example of rote training that misses the mark of relativity to even the most advanced students who cannot harness their skills to play independently without music in front of them. Truly, volumes could be written on the importance of the major scale and it’s expansive influence over one’s ability to control music and (say) play by ear. However, the rote explanation of that simple concept typically disregards the underlying power that the major scale wields as a measuring tool to gauge where one is and figure out where one is going.

    When it comes to understanding theory, I think of two types of musicians; those who are “enlightened” and those who are not. Unfortunately, those (who are not) may be able to answer questions correctly with an unenlightened rote reply. Whereas, those who ARE “enlightened” do not respond through rote but rather, through cognizant understanding of the practical applications of the given theory being tested. An enlightened musician is able to see the Big Picture of theory in a way that gives them power to create their own unique works either through composition or improvisation. Without enlightenment, many miss the underlying chordal structure of a piece that makes it easier for them to memorize and play.

    Really good article. I enjoyed it quite a bit.


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