Grade Exams And Musicianship


I have thought about doing this for a while, now. I want to write a little bit about music exams, my approach to them as a music tutor, and why I feel they are a valuable part of music education.

There often seems to be something of a divide in the music world about grade exams. Plenty of people I know have criticised the system, saying that exams are unnecessary; I suppose this is true, insofar as it is possible to be an extremely good player without ever having taken an exam – then again, you could say it’s not strictly ‘necessary’ to insure your musical instruments against damage or theft either, but it’s still pretty useful!

Another major criticism I sometimes come across when talking about exam work is that the system is flawed because music – like all art – is inherently subjective, and so can’t truly be ‘judged’ by anyone else. Again, there is some truth in this; the various exam boards (I currently use Trinity, ABRSM and Rockschool) do an excellent job of ensuring their examiners adhere to very strict guidelines about judging performances, and ensuring a high level of consistency of marking across the board – but yes, despite this, there will always been an element of subjectivity.

It is not true, however, to say that this results in the exam system rewarding technical ability but not recognising musicianship or performance skills, and thus producing carbon-copy ‘robotic’ musicians who lack feeling in their playing. Of course, even if this were the case, grade exams would still be worth doing; technical proficiency is an essential part of being a competent musician, and encouraging those skills is a good thing – you can have all the feeling in the world, and if you don’t have the technical facility actually to realise it on your instrument, you’re stuffed! But there are, in fact, several reasons why I believe that taking grade exams does actually encourage better musicianship.

One good argument for taking exams is that they push you to work harder, progress faster, and be better. This is absolutely true, and something I have observed many times in my own teaching work – with the pressure of a performance on the horizon, an exam deadline to work for, students tend to practise harder, work better, and improve quicker. But the exams push you and challenge you in other ways, too…

Without the structure of grade exams, there is a tendency to stay in your nice, cosy ‘comfort zone’ – playing music that you know, music that you like, music that you’re familiar with. There’s nothing wrong with playing the music that you like, of course, but when you’re working from an exam syllabus you don’t necessarily get that choice – you end up being exposed to more different styles of music, to composers you might not have heard of before, to different ways of playing and different approaches to your instrument… How anyone can say that this broadening of horizons doesn’t contribute to developing musicianship, sensitivity, and an all-round better understanding of music as a whole is baffling!

As well as learning and playing the set pieces – often in styles of music you might not otherwise have considered playing, and in doing so becoming considerably more open-minded and more well-rounded as a player – the grade exams system helps you to develop as a musician in other ways.

Learning scales may seem like a strictly technical exercise, designed to help fluency and technical ability on your instrument – but scales are so much more than that! A good knowledge of scales and arpeggios begets an understanding of key structures and harmonies – things which are the very building blocks of how music is put together – and enables a musician to play with more feeling. Musicianship, after all, is about understanding, rather than simply playing ‘by rote’; you cannot truly understand what you play until you know what it is made up of – scales, chords, rhythmic motifs, etc.

The supporting tests, too, are designed to help develop all-round musical skill and understanding. Sight-reading, an essential skill for any serious musician, encourages quick-thinking appraisal of a piece of music; aural tests develop the musical ear; improvisation exercises stretch creativity and also knowledge and understanding of different styles and genres.

Not only that, but preparing for an exam isn’t just about learning your pieces to a high level. When I am entering students for their grade exams, I am always keen to stress that this is ‘a performance’ – playing in your exam is not about simply about how well you play, but how well you, as a musician, come across to the examiner.

A performance situation is very different from practising on your own at home – or just playing to your teacher in your lesson, or to your family, or your friends at school. It makes you think differently, and it makes you play differently. As well as simply being able to play, you have the responsibility to communicate this music, and what you’re trying to say with it, effectively to your audience. How many other opportunities are there for someone who’s only been learning their instrument for a year (or even less!) to experience this kind of performance scenario, and the challenges which go with it?

Finally, as I’ve mentioned, the examiners are highly trained professionals who rarely make mistakes – but in the end, yes, their comments are still subjective. Is that really such a bad thing, though?

If you believe, as I do, that the overall aim of music education is to prepare your students to survive in the real world of music (just as any education is designed to equip those being educated with the skills they will need out in ‘the real world’ – whatever and wherever that is!), it is important to get used to subjective comments about your playing.

If exams have relatively little worth because of the inherently subjective nature of ‘judging’ an artistic performance, then so too do critics’ reviews of performances and new recorded releases in newspapers and on music blogs and websites. But such things are a reality for all musicians today, and there is no harm in students experiencing this also.

You might just as well say that you don’t care whether the audience at your shows boos you offstage – because music is art, after all, and it’s all subjective… But no one I’ve ever met in the music world truly believes they’d be able to just shrug that off. Ultimately, what other people think does matter; we are foolish to kid ourselves otherwise.

It is my belief – and something which I feel has been conclusively demonstrated in my eight years as a professional musician and music educator – that music exams are not just a great way to motivate students to work harder, practise more, progress quicker and feel a great sense of accomplishment which spurs them on to take on the next challenge, but also a fantastic tool to help develop all the aspects of being a musician; exposure to different styles, composers and techniques, experience of performing in front of a critical audience, overcoming nerves, gaining an understanding of the ‘building blocks’ of music, and honing essential musical skills.

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Kit Marsden // Musician