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?

 

Why take a music exam?

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.