Exam-obsessed?

The longer I teach (over 11 years at the time of writing), the more anti-exams I have become. For many – teachers, students and parents – exams are the visible benchmarks of progress, not just in music but in education in general. Children and young people are constantly tested, almost from the moment they enter school, and our society is now thoroughly geared to measuring of progress through objective standards or metrics (or “box ticking”). Exams and a structured curriculum are efficient from a teaching point of view as they can help students and teachers measure and compare progress, and the music exam structure allows students to sample music from different periods and genres, improve their technique etc. Many students take graded music exams each year, drawing pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument: I wouldn’t every wish to denigrate nor deprive students of these achievements – I went through the entire graded music exam system myself as a child and teenager and I drew a lot of satisfaction from it.

But we now live in a culture which is overly obsessed with attainment, competition and grading: the exam certificate is symbolic of “talent” but not necessarily indicative of actual talent, merely an ability to fulfil the requirements of the exam syllabus.  By the time I’d completed all my ABRSM grade exams at 16, I was a competent pianist, but those grade exams did not truly feed nor foster my musicianship and musicality – that came from exploring music by going to concerts and the opera, listening to my parents’ LPs or Radio Three, and my O and A-level music classes, where I learnt how to read and harmonise figured bass, how to compose a simple song accompaniment and how to analyse musical works in detail. I also played the clarinet as a teenager and this gave me the opportunity to learn how to transpose.

All this reminds me of a conversation with my driving instructor on the day I passed my driving test (in my early 30s, after three attempts). He shook my hand, gave me the official piece of paper and then said “Now you’re going to learn how to be a real driver.” Pianist and piano teacher Dylan Christopher expresses this perfectly with reference to music: “You pass the exam when you are ready, but you are not ready just because you passed an exam.” (read Dylan’s At the Piano interview here). What Dyan is of course saying is that grade exams do not necessarily make musicians. Students whose music tuition only follows the exam path may reach Grade 8 having learnt only 24 pieces of music – hardly what could be describe as “varied repertoire”! Nor does this route offer much opportunity for broadening a student’s musical horizons or developing an appreciation of music.

Unfortunately, a lot of parents believe graded music exams are Very Important (interestingly, those who took music exams as children themselves are often less concerned about their own children “doing the grades”). Many don’t really understand that the proper study of music is very broad, far broader than the narrow confines of the exam syllabus. In addition, there’s a lot of competition at the schoolgate, especially if you live in an area populated by high-achieving, ambitious people, as I do (read more on this here), and this competitiveness inevitably filters down to the children: not only are kids being tested to within an inch of their lives at school, they are also being pushed to take music exams by their parents…..

A recent encounter with one of my advanced students reminded me uncomfortably of how exam-driven/exam-obsessed young people are today. Her piano practise time has been eroded by the demands of school work (she is working towards the International Baccalaureate at a respected private school in SW London) and she has not progressed as far as I had hoped with current Grade 8 repertoire (though I am fairly relaxed about this). By the time she enters the Upper Sixth in September, her primary focus will be her schoolwork and university applications (which is how it should be). But she is adamant she wants to take Grade 8 because, to paraphrase her, she wants the “complete set” of graded exams.

This to me is not a valid reason to take an exam. If she had said “Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, and I really like the music”, I would have been more sympathetic to her decision. But does she really need that Grade 8 certificate to validate her pianistic abilities? I don’t believe she does. She is very musical (she also plays the ‘cello and is involved in drama and dance too), she plays with expression, poise and confidence, and is able to work independently. These abilities are not going to disappear if she doesn’t attain Grade 8. She is already playing Grade 8 and early Diploma repertoire, and I think anyone hearing her would agree she is a very competent and sensitive musician.

Rather than go down the narrow exam route, this student has a number of other options if she wants to put her music before another set of ears and receive formal critical feedback on her playing. She could have her performance assessed by a more senior colleague of mine or she could do a Performance Certificate (Trinity College London offers this option) or a Performance Award (London College of Music – info here). Alternatively, she could continue to work on and play the varied repertoire she enjoys (she’s currently playing a Chopin Waltz and late Nocturne, one of Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances and Gershwin’s The Man I love – all pieces which offer plenty of technical and artistic challenges), and go on to learn and enjoy other music which will stretch her and allow her to explore the wider piano repertoire. Personally, I feel this approach is far more beneficial to her ongoing musicianship and musicality than the highly artificial process of a formal exam, where one is playing to satisfy a set of criteria set out by the exam board (more box ticking) and the examiner’s personal tastes (to a certain degree).

It’s very encouraging to see music exam boards responding to the changing wishes/needs of music students, particularly adult students, who may want the challenge of taking a music exam without all the technical work and sight-reading/aural tests (the London College of Music Recital Grade for example is a performance-based assessment, with a viva voce). Imaginative syllabuses with a broad range of repertoire and alternative exam formats now offer prospective candidates a far wider range of exam options.

There is no “right way” of course, and as a teacher it is my role to advise and support my students, whichever path they wish to follow.

 

 


Further reading

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

Grade Exams Don’t Make Musicians

Faking it: stagecraft for graded piano exams and performance diplomas

I am continually surprised at how infrequently stagecraft is taught as a specific skill to developing musicians, from children taking graded music exams to students at music college. I think this stems in part from a misplaced view that stagecraft is only for “professional” musicians. Yet the ability to comport oneself well in a performance situation is a crucial skill for the musician, whatever their level of skill or ability, and well-organised, practised stagecraft can add an extra layer of confidence and polish to one’s performance. It also offers a useful life skill, for giving presentations or public speaking, for example, and helps to build confidence generally. Personally, I think stagecraft and presentation skills should be part of the graded exam syllabus, certainly for the higher grades

In performance diplomas candidates are assessed on their presentation skills and stagecraft, and in the Trinity diplomas this is marked as a separate aspect of the diploma recital and includes elements such as appropriate attire (“for an afternoon or early evening recital”), programme notes and communication skills. While candidates are not currently assessed on presentation skills in graded music exams, a certain amount of polished stagecraft can help the exam go well by instilling positive feelings in the candidate, and I feel it is especially appropriate in the advanced grades (6-8).

Stagecraft is not just the ability to walk to the piano without tripping over the hem of one’s concert dress, or how to bow properly. From the moment the performer enters the stage, his or her communication with the audience (or examiner) begins, and the way one greets and acknowledges the audience (or examiner) can have an important effect on the way the audience receives and enjoys the performance which follows.

Actors well appreciate and understand the need to take on a specific character or persona, and to inhabit that character for the duration of the play. As musicians we also need to employ a degree of “acting” to step outside the practice room and into the persona of “performer”. Those with little experience of performing can feel very exposed when playing in front of others, and these feelings of exposure can contribute to performance anxiety. I have found it helpful in my own performances to “act” the part of a performer, which puts me at one remove from my anxiety. It can also put one into an appropriately focussed mindset ready for a public performance.

Good preparation is crucial for all, regardless of grade or ability level. The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a concert, meaning that he knew he’d done the right kind of quality practice to ensure he would not be derailed by slips or errors, or by distractions from the audience etc. A well-prepared teacher will ensure his/her students are equally well-prepared ahead of an exam, audition or other performance opportunity.

Some ways to foster good stagecraft and presentation

Encourage students to take their time in the exam/performance situation: I like to remind my students that it is not their responsibility to ensure the exam runs to time – that is the job of the examiner and steward at the exam centre (this, however, is not the case in diploma recitals where it is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure the programme is within the designated time limit). Enter the room/stage confidently, greet the examiner politely and walk straight to the piano. Ensure the piano stool is the right height, that one feels comfortable.

Do not to rush to start playing but take a moment to think oneself into the opening of the piece – its sound, mood and character. Don’t hurry into the following pieces. Again, take a moment to consider the mood and character to be conveyed. In a diploma recital, the pauses between pieces can be integral to a professional overall performance: some works segue into one another logically, others require more time to “reset” the mood (for example, a very fast piece followed by a more contemplative work may need a longer pause between pieces). Don’t fill the time between pieces by talking to the examiner/s or fiddling with your nails but remain poised and focussed, “in the moment” of the performance and ready to continue.

At the end of the performance, don’t scurry away from the piano as if you can’t wait to leave (even if you feel like this, take time, “act” confident and remain poised). In a diploma recital you may wish to bow or acknowledge the examiner/s (a little dip of the head and some eye contact). Walk confidently from the room.

All these aspects can be practised at home (in front of parents and friends) and with the teacher. My piano is in my living room and when preparing for performance, I ask students to “come on stage” from the hall while I sit away from the piano, being the “audience” and giving the student someone at which to direct their performance.

I called this article “faking it”, recalling a former student of mine who liked to “channel” her favourite musician (Nicola Benedetti) in a performance situation. When preparing for a performance we would discuss “what would Nicola do?” and my student would try to imitate Nicola’s poise. Another student found it helpful to look at pictures of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (who always looks as if she adores performing!), and I have personally found observing musicians in live concerts very helpful in teaching myself good stagecraft and poise.

Here’s actor and comedian David Walliams showing us how not to do it…..


Related article

Performance anxiety: a stressful subject

LCM piano grade handbooks 2018-2020

LCM_Piano_Handbooks_2018

I was delighted to act as a consultant in the selection of piano pieces for the new London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus and I was impressed with the breadth and variety of music under consideration. When I received copies of the new handbooks, I was pleased to see some of the pieces I had suggested included in the new syllabus.

I am a recent convert to LCM music exams, having heard very favourable reports of both the exam formats and repertoire from teaching colleagues and friends who have taken both Grade 8 and the ALCM first level Diploma. LCM is clearly alert to the changing nature of piano teaching in the 21st century and in addition to traditional graded music exams, the board also offers Recital Grades, Leisure Play, Performance Assessment and the new Concert Diploma. This allows teachers and students to select an exam format which suits them (some students, particularly adult learners, prefer not to learn technical work or undergo the stress of aural tests or sight-reading). Several of my more advanced students have opted for the LCM Recital grade and are very much enjoying the repertoire, as am I. If we are to encourage and support students of all levels and ages, I believe it is important to be flexible in one’s approach to exams and to find an appropriate syllabus and format to ensure maximum enjoyment is combined with progress.

The new LCM piano syllabus is impressive in its variety. Across the grades there is a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, “crossover”, and contemporary classical music, as well as core repertoire from the classical canon, which should appeal to all ages and tastes. In the early grades, there are pieces which will suit adult learners (often a problem in other syllabuses, where there is a preponderance of “children’s music”). Of all the exam boards, LCM is the one which features the most music by female and living composers, including works by Max Richter, Joanna Macgregor, Sofia Gubaidulina, Teresa Carreno, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, and Lera Auerbach. In addition, there are pieces by perennially popular composers of accessible and interesting piano exam music, including Pam Wedgwood, Christopher Norton, June Armstrong, Ben Crosland and Elissa Milne.

The handbooks are very well-produced with robust covers and high-quality thick cream paper (very similar to the paper used in Henle Urtext editions). The books are slightly larger than the previous LCM piano handbooks and the typesetting of the music is very clean, uncluttered on the page with clear markings. Each piece is accompanied by a note which gives background information on the composer and the music and guidance on how to explore and shape the music for performance. It is particularly gratifying to find these notes are written by active concert pianists (such as Daniel Grimwood and Zubin Kanga) who are thus able to offer expert experience on how to approach the music in performance.

In addition to the pieces and notes, each handbook contains all the relevant technical work for each grade, two studies, guidance for the Discussion (viva voce) element of the exam, including sample questions, sample sight-reading pieces and notes on the aural tests, all of which should ensure candidates are fully prepared and means teachers/students/parents do not need to purchase additional books of scales and arpeggios or sight-reading exercises.

The new LCM syllabus is valid from 2018 until the end of the summer exam season 2021.

Further information about LCM piano exams, including the complete piano syllabus

A few highlights from the new syllabus:

Grade 1

Quasi Adagio from For Children – Bela Bartok

Grade 2

The Lonely Traveller – Evelyn Glennie

Grade 3

From the Rue Vilin – Max Richter

Grade 4

When Rivers Flowed on Mars – Nancy Telfer

Grade 5

In the Owl’s Turret – Liza Lehman

Grade 6

Railroad (Travel Song) – Meredith Monk, Forest Musicians – Sofia Gubaildulina

Grade 7

D’un jardin clair – Lil Boulanger, Bloodroot – Rachel Grimes

Grade 8

Desdémona – Mel Bonis

Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

This a question I believe we as teachers should all be asking our pupils. It came up in conversation between myself and my friend and teaching colleague Rebecca, and we agreed that in future all students should be asked to consider this question.

Why?

Because it is all too easy for teachers to become complacent about exams and for students to submit studying for grade exams without considering exactly why they want to take them.

I want to get to Grade 8 before I leave school

This was from one of my teenage students. He didn’t elaborate on this statement, and at the time (about 2 years ago)  I didn’t challenge him. As I recall, I think I was quite impressed by his determination. He sees exams as things to be attained and ticked off the list so that one can move onto the next one……

Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, I really like the music – and because my mum wants me to do it

This is more encouraging, but the last comment worries me. Studying music should come from a passion and a willingness to engage with the subject in a mindful way. It should not be about notching up achievements which parents can parade as a kind of trophy or used for bragging rights

I don’t know

This student hadn’t really thought about the question at all…..! In this instance, one might wish to question why the student is taking piano lessons at all. Are they having lessons because they genuinely enjoy learning the piano, or because they are simply complying with parental wishes?

Here is my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight on this subject

I’ll only enter students for exams if it something that they really want to do. When the subject arises (“when am I going to do an exam?” or “when are we going to start working on Grade X pieces?“) I’ll ask them if they want to do an exam and, if so, why. I’ll make it very clear to them that they don’t have to do it – it’s not like school, where they have to sit exams whether they like it or not! Clearly I’ll also involve the parents in these discussions, especially with my younger students – but ultimately I have to be convinced that the student themself wants to do it.

Answers such as “all my friends do them” or “my parents expect me to” or “dunno” really don’t cut it for me. They won’t be motivated to work hard, and there is a real possibility that the process of preparing for the exam will put them off the piano altogether. However if the students come up with some or all of the following answers then it’s all systems go!:

– they want something to aim for and know that they work best when a specific goal is in mind

– the opportunity to learn 3 contrasting pieces to a very high standard

– the sense of achievement that comes with working hard towards a goal and then succeeding,

– the discipline it provides in preparing not just the pieces but for the scales and supporting tests

– they are taking (or thinking about taking) music at GCSE or A Level and believe that a graded exam will help towards this

Clearly they also need to be prepared to put in the work, and I make it clear that regular, probably daily, practice is essential. We then enter a few months of ‘exam boot camp’ – after all, if we’re going to do it we are going to do it properly!

Once an exam is done, I won’t allow the student to go onto the next grade until some specific non-exam objectives are met. Typically this involves spending one or two terms on a “X-piece challenge” in which we both agree a target number of pieces to learn to a reasonable (but not necessarily exam) standard. This provides a real contrast from the process of working on only 3 pieces – and really broadens their repertoire. Some students may also want to include their own compositions in the target. Only once the target is met will we discuss whether or not to start preparing for the next exam – and of they want to then the question is asked again!

In the affluent leafy suburbs of London where Rebecca and I both teach one quite often comes up against parents who demand that students are pushed into exams simply to notch up those results. Sadly, many parents, and some students, do not appreciate that with a complex art form such as music it takes time and effort (practising, engagement with that art form) to acquire the necessary skills to be able to take music exams. As the longstanding and highly experienced cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly notes in her article in the latest edition of ‘Music Teacher‘ magazine, today music lessons are viewed by some parents as a commercial transaction: “Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product” [exam success]. Teachers are expected by such parents to produce students capable of passing exams, yet the parents (and students) are not prepared to put in the effort to ensure practising is done. They focus on the exam as the end result, without appreciating that application and engagement are crucial in achieving that result, and instead, as Alison says, “instrumental music has become talismanic for middle-class achievement and accomplishment“.

I am fortunate that any students whose parents exhibit these attitudes have now left my studio (from the child whose mother asked me to “fast track him to Grade 5” – this was a pre-Grade 1 student – to enable him to apply for a music scholarship to a smart private school, to the parent who told me anything lower than a distinction in her daughter’s Grade 4 exam would be “unacceptable”), and I am blessed with a group of very engaged and committed students, who not only want to progress and achieve in their musical studies, but who also understand (in part, I hope, through my coaching and encouragement) that studying and playing music can bring huge pleasure and satisfaction.

My teaching philosophy is founded on a wish to encourage and support my students as individuals, but I will always question the student (or parent) who, on completion of one exam, wants to embark on the journey to the next one straight away.

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

 

Further reading

Exams don’t make musicians

Why take a music exam?

 

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

 

 

 

 

Celebrate every pass, merit and distinction

Now is the season of piano teachers up and down the country expectantly waiting for the sound of exam results dropping through the letterbox or into their email inbox. The summer season for graded music exams is the busiest and results are coming in thick and fast. It is cheering to see from colleagues’ posts on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs that students are achieving excellent results in their grades. Of course we want to celebrate our students’ successes in achieving a Merit or a Distinction in their piano exams, but we should also pause to consider the value of a pass. It’s not “just a pass”. As my colleague David Barton expresses eloquently in his own article on this subject:

We’re very focussed these days on results. I am conscious that when I send my own pupils for flute, piano or singing exams here in Lichfield, or in Sutton Coldfield, it is the result rather than the experience which is at the forefront of their minds. Children are driven to succeed at school, and adults the same at work; there are targets to be met every step of the way. Whilst when I was having lessons as a child, I and most of my friends would have been happy to pass an exam, more and more people are now hunting for that elusive merit or distinction mark. There is a lot of talk from parents, particularly online, about exam results; there’s an inevitable competitive edge. It can be disheartening for pupils who’ve worked very hard for their exam to be made to feel that they have somehow fallen short of the standard by not achieving either a merit or distinction. But let’s stand back and look at the wider perspective.

If we think about most HE level exams and assessments, the pass mark is often 40%. For graded music exams, the pass mark is normally around 65%. This means that any candidate achieving even just the pass mark has ensured that well over half the material presented was commendable.

Music exams are hard. Maybe they have dumbed down slightly from when I took mine in the 1970s and early 80s, but graded music exams are still challenging, not least because the student is required to take the exam alone, and to perform to an examiner whom they have never met before. For some students, children and adults in particular, this can be an incredibly daunting prospect, let alone processing all the notes and being able to play the assigned music in an expressive and meaningful way. Alongside the repertoire, there are scales, technical exercises, sight-reading, aural tests: taken all together, these elements create a very comprehensive test of one’s musical ability. Teachers can help their students perform confidently and with poise by assisting them in the preparation of their pieces and technical material, by offering advice on stagecraft and performance anxiety, and be reassuring them that it is about the whole experience, the chance to show off one’s playing to someone else, rather than the end result which is an important part of one’s musical development.

So every result is worth celebrating and teachers should congratulate their students, whatever the mark achieved. (I would like to congratulate my students Jessica, Vicky and Daniel who achieved Merits and a pass in their exams this summer.)

Further reading:

Why a grade 1 pass is a superb result (article by David Barton)

What is Grade 1? (article by Rebecca Singerman-Knight)