Sitting exams in a musical instrument can be a bit of a controversial topic among musicians and music teachers. On the one hand you have teachers who sat exams themselves who advocate for the structured approach that can help develop technique and theory and expose students to a broad range of repertoire. On the other hand, you have teachers who prefer to teach in a more student-led approach, introducing theory, technique and repertoire as it becomes relevant to the students’ specific goals.
There is definitely a case to be made for both approaches and ultimately, like almost everything in music lessons, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In my experience, the decision to exam or not to exam should be made on the basis of the individual student and their reasons for doing exams.
In this blog, I’m going to quickly outline some of the right and not-so-right reasons for doing exams, as well as some alternatives to exams for students who might be on the fence about whether or not exams are right for them. It’s worth noting that my background is in AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) exams, although Trinity, ABRSM and ANZCA exams are all other options, and a lot of the information here can be broadly applied to any exam syllabus. However, anything specific should be checked against your specific exam board’s syllabus to avoid confusion.
You SHOULD do exams if: You are motivated by having a deadline to work towards and a clear path to that goal: One of the biggest benefits in my opin
ion to sitting exams is the fact that there is a very clear goal in mind, a deadline, and a checklist of things that need to be prepared to meet the goal by the deadline. For many students, this sense of structure, order and having a clear goal to work towards can help motivate them to practice and work hard in order to achieve that goal. This extrinsic motivation can work if the student feels an ownership over the goal – that is, if they are not being forced to do the exams against their will by their teacher or parents. Which leads me to… You SHOULDN’T do exams if: you really don’t want to, but someone else said you have to. There is nothing sadder to me as a music teacher than hearing someone say that they used to play an instrument, but they were forced to do exams which stressed them out and then after they did the exam, they quit and never touched the instrument again! Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence. Just as some students respond well to having a clear deadline and goal, other students can find the pressure of having an exam quite overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, and in my opinion it is a teacher’s job to decide which students will and won’t benefit from doing exams based on their personality, other interests and commitments, and goals.
You SHOULD do exams if: you are open to learning a wide range of music from different writers and time periods. Another benefit of doing exams is that students are exposed to a wide range of repertoire from different artists or composers, ranging from baroque through to popular contemporary music, jazz, classical and everything in between. If you are someone who likes a bit of variety and doesn’t mind discovering new things you might never have heard of before, exams can be a great way to discover music. You might also discover strengths that you didn’t know you had!
You SHOULDN’T do exams if: You have a very specific goal in mind… and exams aren’t part of that goal If you are getting music lessons because you want to be able to play a song to surprise your partner at your wedding, or because you are auditioning for a covers band, or because you just really really want to learn the guitar intro to Back In Black to impress your friends, exams might not be all that relevant to you, and that’s fine!
However, if you have a more long-term goal, for example you are about to start high school and think you want to go to a particular conservatorium once you finish school, exams can be a good path to help you develop the skills you need to achieve that goal. Many universities also accept AMEB or Trinity Exams as recognition of prior knowledge and will in some cases not require you to audition for entry into their music programs if you have attained a particular level in these exams.
You SHOULD do exams if: you want or need a recognised qualification in your instrument As mentioned above, some universities or tertiary institutions require exam grades or equivalent for entry into their music programs. If you are dedicated to getting into one of these courses, exams are probably the best way for you to go to ensure you meet those required standards for entry.
You SHOULDN’T do exams if: Your teacher has never taught them before… and isn’t sure how to or doesn’t want to Some teachers are strongly against taking students through exams, other teachers simply have no experience taking students through an exam syllabus. Finding a teacher with experience taking students through exams is important, particularly at higher grades, or if you are just getting started, a teacher who has less experience taking students through grades but has access to a more experienced mentor might also be a good fit for you.
You SHOULD do exams if: You want to make sure your technique, theory, sight reading and aural skills don’t lag behind your playing Another great feature of exams is the inclusion of mandatory technical work (for example, scales, arpeggios, and even short pieces of music designed to help improve an area of technique), aural skills and music theory. Different exam syllabuses will have different requirements, so it can be a good idea to ask your teacher and compare the requirements for each syllabus.
For example, the AMEB offers 3 main syllabuses for each instrument – ‘Classical’ (this is just referred to by the instrument name, for example, Singing or Piano), ‘For Leisure’ and Rockschool.
The classical syllabus requires technical work, between 3-4 list pieces from the syllabus list (one from each list of A, B, C and in higher Grades, list D, which are usually divided by time period), up to 2 extra pieces of your own choice, aural drills, sight reading, and general knowledge (this can include the meaning of musical signs and symbols, and at a higher level, a knowledge of the composer, time period, context of the work, analysis of the harmonic structure of the piece etc).
The Leisure Syllabus, by comparison, requires fewer technical work requirements, only 3 pieces from the syllabus which are not divided into lists, a choice of either aural or sight reading, and general knowledge. The repertoire is also generally a mix of classical, contemporary, jazz and other popular, well known repertoire.
Finally, the Rockschool Syllabus includes Technical work, 3 pieces (2 of which can be own choice) from the book or suggested song list that includes all contemporary music from the fifties through to present day, general knowledge about your instrument, quick learn pieces, and improvisation. This syllabus is designed to give students some practical skills if they wish to go into contemporary music as a career in the future as well as theory and general knowledge.
You also have the option to do repertoire only exams, which do not include anything other than a performance of the repertoire from the syllabus and own choice repertoire. These are a good option if you don’t want to take on all the extra technical work and theory required to sit a comprehensive exam, but still find a deadline of an exam motivating to practice.
Many exam boards also include a theory exam prerequisite for higher grades. For example, the AMEB specifies that to receive your Grade 6 exam certificate in your instrument, you also have to pass a grade 2 theory/musicianship/music craft exam. This doesn’t apply to leisure exams however.
This means there are lots of options to find an exam syllabus that works for you, and dispels the myth that students who do exams never learn things like improvisation or composition, or that they are never allowed to choose their own songs.
You SHOULDN’T do exams if: You don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to music As you can probably tell from the last point, exams can be a lot of work. This work can be incredibly rewarding and can help build well rounded musicians over time, but if you or your child is really only pursuing music as a fun hobby, an outlet for their emotions, or you simply have other priorities that take up more of your time like work, school, sports etc., exams might not be the best path for you.
As I mentioned in my second point, some students can find exams to be extremely stressful and anxiety inducing. In my experience this is often because they feel they are inadequately prepared because they don’t have enough time to practice and study with other school and co-curricular commitments. Students like this can absolutely benefit from moving at a more relaxed pace, and don’t need to do exams to still develop good technique, learn interesting repertoire, and develop a lifelong passion for music.
You SHOULD do exams if: you find them fun, motivating and exciting! I was definitely one of these students and exams can be fun, motivating, exciting and can foster a lifelong passion for music in some students. There’s really no better indication of whether or not you should do exams than if you find them fun and inspiring. You SHOULDN’T do exams if: you find yourself getting bored, anxious or you dread having to practice At the end of the day, almost every good music teacher just wants their students to have the gift of music with them for life. We all get a huge amount of joy and excitement out of getting to practice and perform music, and if our students are not getting that from exams then exams are probably not for them.
To finish up this blog, I have a few quick tips for students who aren’t sure if they want to do exams, or to help compromise between parents who want their children to do exams and students who may need more convincing:
Try a Rockschool exam to help engage students with repertoire they are more familiar with and that is more contemporary
Work through some repertoire and technical work for an exam level without the intention of sitting an exam. This can help parents know that their child is getting a great structured, graded approach to their technique and repertoire, but without the pressure of having to sit a specific exam
Try a repertoire only exam
Try a ‘for leisure’ exam
Discuss with your teacher some other goals you might work towards – for example, performance opportunities, recitals, eisteddfods, auditions, open mics etc.
Sit an exam every second year rather than every year – Nicola Cantan of Vibrant Music Teaching has an excellent podcast where she makes a case for this approach
Regardless of whether or not you choose to do exams, the most important thing is always having a great teacher who can motivate, inspire and guide you to achieving your goals as a musician!