Confessions 6: Are Exams helpful?

Guest Author: Simon Reich “Confessions Series

Following on from his warmly received guest post “Confessions of a Piano Student“, Simon Reich invited teachers from around the world to answer 8 Questions.
In this series he shares their answers…

Question 6

This controversial question needed to be asked.

“Do you feel the current system of testing and grading of students is helpful to budding creative musicians? If not, what would you consider as an alternative?”

Ioana Andreea Boancă : I’m not sure we share the same testing and grading systems. In Romania, that is not the problem.

Nikolas Sideris : Oh boy… I do NOT like it at all.

I’m Greek and I was raised with a more… open system. Yes, we had some kind of a grading system (largely lacking in comparison to the UK systems), but at least we were by and large free to choose our own works from a very large pot of repertoire!

In comparison the idea that a VERY large percentage of students (piano students in my case)  JUST get the current syllabus and never get to meet anything outside of that is rather… ahem.

Then we have the theory tests and the aural tests. Maybe it’s my training, but I find both quite limited and lacking. Specifically for the aural part of the exams I find that I’d really hope to have written dictation in! Something that is available in France (for example).

Ioana Andreea Boancă : Oh, sorry, I thought we were only talking piano. In Romania we have dictation, theory and solfege separately, it’s a complete system.

Jenny Walker : There are those who enjoy and feel the need for something but not all of my students wish to sit examinations and we have fun exploring pieces they want to play. I’m glad we have a choice of exam boards and we can omit grades.

Joanne Snowden : I disagree with testing and grading of children altogether. They don’t need to be judged by or compared to others. I would rather help them find their own enjoyment in learning a challenging piece. This is where true satisfaction lies, where you learn for your own pleasure.

I’ve recently been having this discussion with a mum of a 9 year old, and it has helped me realise that I don’t want to put kids through exams.

On the other hand, I’m very happy for adults to make their own choices and if they want to sit exams, then that’s fine and I’ll help and support them in that.

Donal Gormley : I don’t feel they help in any way. Not that there’s no place for something like this. The culture of exams though sucks the life out of music and motivation to learn.

Rather than wanting to learn music for self expression, learning to learn or simply for the pleasure of making music, they are focused on getting an exam result. This can impact self esteem, leave students with very limited repertoire and following a narrow syllabus. Students end up wearing blinkers, only being able to focus on exams, seeing exam rep as more important that other rep.

Maybe more rigorous exams like in Canada so that they wouldn’t be entered so often and might make people think more before entering.

What I’d really like to see is a culture shift to more group playing, whether bands, chamber groups, or duets etc. I think this would do so much more for student motivation and future development than exams.

Naomi Craddock : I find it helps to have a goal occasionally.

There is room for improvement in all the exam systems I have used and looked into.

I recommend that my students take 2 or 3 years between exams so that they develop other aspects of their playing including a broad repertoire. More opportunities for ensemble playing would be wonderful.

Alison Mathews : The current system seems to be dominated by ABRSM which is not remotely helpful. I use Trinity as it is more flexible, but even so it’s not ideal. Although there are different exams out there, I think the system is generally too narrow and very out-dated.

No matter where you stand on grading/exams for musicians it is an inherent part of our educational system and here to stay!

I agree with much of what has already been said but would add some things I think should be part of the system:

  • Chord skills which should be an everyday skill for a pianist
  • More ensemble playing
  • Removing the artificial way sight-reading is approached – giving it as a quick study with prep time before an exam for example
  • Larger repertoire lists

Perhaps a modular testing system, instead of keeping theory/musicianship/aural in different “boxes”. Or perhaps a set of adaptable tests, that can be interlinked with the repertoire chosen.

Frances Magdalene Wilson : I’m very ambivalent about graded music exams and similar tests. They can provide useful benchmarks of progress but a good teacher knows when a student is making progress without the need for testing (this is my view of testing young children in particular in UK schools too).

I don’t think exams per se help develop creative musicians, though some aspects of the exam syllabus may assist in this. The pressure to succeed can have a negative impact on creativity. As for an alternative, things like performance assessments are perhaps a less formal way of assessing developing musicianship


I was particularly touched by Donal Gormley’s response, where he suggested a culture shift to more group playing. He thought this would help student motivation and future development and I heartely agree.

I know in my own experience, not meeting various benchmarks of exams, caused a feeling of failure in me and self doubt.

Competitions were also something my teacher entered me into and apart from the education and exposure to live performance, it also was a crushing blow to my budding young musical ego, as I never won anything, across my whole piano eistedford career of six years.

Having said that it was also positive for Naomi Craddock to mention it helps to have a goal occasionally. It would be marvellous to have a middle ground between goal focused and skill enhancing points in the students education and the potential for humiliation and stress through exams.

I’d love to think that the music boards of various countries, could read these teachers responses and adopt some forward thinking strategies for the future.

Next: in the penultimate episode of this series, Simon asks the teachers, “how wide is your job description?”

Simon Reich

Simon is a pianist and award winning composer from Victoria, Australia.
Further information : Simon Reich Music
Simon is a regular contributor to Pianodao.

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