Piano exams. As there are SO many opinions around this topic and whether piano exams are good or bad for our students, we wanted to outline a few thoughts and invite you to share yours.
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Those of you not teaching in Australia or the UK may not realize that in certain countries there’s a very exam-centered approach to music teaching.
Many students will sit one exam per year for the 8-10 years it takes them to go from Preliminary to Grade 8. Some may even go on to complete Diploma exams.
If you’re an advocate for piano exams, no doubt you’ll have even more points to add to this list! And if you’re anti-exams, you’ll likely argue each of these thoughts!
Both of these are absolutely fine – as I said, there are many differing opinions on exams!
Sure, you can tell them how amazing they play their pieces until you’re blue in the face, and their parents can compliment them ‘til the cows come home. But students will always feel you and their parents are biased.
However, if a stranger whose opinion is highly respected in the world of music says they play their pieces very well, they’ll believe them and feel they’ve achieved something!
Certain students always like to ask, “Am I getting better?” or “Am I better now than I was this time last summer?”
You tell them a million times that you’re so impressed with their musical development.
But for some students, until they see the numbers on their piano exam books and certificates getting higher, they don’t feel the progression.
Related: Improve Your Piano Teaching Through Self Assessment
For some students, simply playing for their own enjoyment is enough to keep them practicing. For others, an upcoming recital or performance encourages a boost in their practice. But for others, motivation to practice only appears when they’ve given a deadline of when their playing is going to be assessed and marked.
Sometimes a student gets stuck in the cycle of “start a piece – learn it for a week – ask for a new piece – start a new piece – learn it for a week – ask for a new piece…”
Exam preparation can wake a student up and challenge them.
They’ve now got the challenge of sticking with certain pieces and exercises for a longer period of time, making sure they practice them enough so they can play them to the best of their ability.
They’ve also got the challenge of playing the piece as written. No more skipping certain notes in chords because “it’s too hard and I didn’t like how it sounded” – if things are hard, they’ve got to work on them.
If you push them out of their comfort zone will see them become better musicians (and they’ll thank you for it one day!)
Related: 75 Pieces In One Year – How Ben Went From Beginner to Grade 2 in 10 Months
If you have a student who only plays songs and pieces they know, they’re highly likely to pass up your offer of a Baroque piece because they don’t recognize it.
But when you play them their exam piece choices, chances are they won’t know any of them.
They then start listening to these new pieces. discover that they actually can enjoy music that they’ve not heard on TikTok. They’re introduced to a new world of music (that you’ve tried to introduce to them so many times before, but we won’t mention that) and it makes them feel like they’re part of an exclusive music club and you overhear them telling their sister, “Oh, you won’t know it. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of Tchaikovsky. I know who he is, I’m a pianist.”
Again, if you’re an advocate for exams there’s a chance you’ll disagree with these points. And if you’re anti-exam, you’d probably want to make this list even longer.
These are a few negative opinions we’ve seen shared by several teachers over the years:
When a student first starts lessons, non-musical (and sometimes musical) parents believe that doing exams is the only way to show their child has progressed each year.
They’ll then push the teacher to get through grade exams as fast as possible so the student can “finish” and move on. On rare occasions this process works. Some students actually enjoys the pressure of getting through exams quickly as it motivates them to work harder.
More often than not, the outcome of this is that the student gets bored and frustrated and quits lessons.
Related: An Open Letter To Parents of Piano Students
If a student is on the “exam express” they’re learning a very limited number of pieces a year, as each piece takes time in being ‘perfected’ and becoming exam ready. This can result in students missing out on a more holistic pedagogical approach. Which again, can lead to a student becoming bored and frustrated and eventually quitting lessons.
With the focus of lessons being purely on exam content, the student misses out on a more in-depth look at music as a whole. This results in their inability to play anything without instruction.
They’re never taught how to do things like…
These are all skills students (especially teenagers) find enjoyable and can carry on with them throughout their life.
Students can sometimes feel as though the teacher has taken the ‘easy’ route. By following an exam syllabus they don’t have to source new music or discover new and innovative ways of teaching. They can simply teach the same pieces in the same way over and over (until the syllabus runs out!)
Kids and teenagers have enough stress from school. They can look at their extracurricular activities as a way to relieve that stress and have fun.
Some students thrive on exam pressure and having that goal. Others, however, see it as an extra pressure they didn’t particularly need. Practicing the piano used to be a reward after homework because they could get lost in the world of music.
Now they’ve got to stay focused, making sure they’re getting everything right in every piece, exercise, scale… But their cousin is preparing for Grade 7, so they’ve got to work just as hard. After all, they don’t let their piano teacher or their parents down.
Ohh the pressure!
If a student starts sitting exams at preliminary they can get into the mindset that grade 8 is the end goal. So when they reach that goal, they feel they’ve “finished” piano. Students have even been known to set their own goals. Saying things like, “Grade 8 means you’re a serious pianist, but I don’t want to be a fully serious pianist so I’ll get to grade 4 and then stop so I’m a half serious pianist.”
I sat down and interviewed a selection of my students to find out how they feel about exams. I asked them about the effect they thought being restricted to only learning a limited number of exam pieces each year had on their learning, and whether they believed exams in general were a good or bad thing.
Overall, while they all believed that exams were a good experience for piano students, they were also clear that the way in which exams are used by a teacher is vital to whether the outcome is positive or negative for the student.
If a teacher is basing their entire year’s work solely on an exam syllabus and teaching students only 3-6 “exam pieces” each year, they are falling well short of what would be considered a holistic pedagogical approach. More importantly, the students themselves articulate how boring this approach is and how much more they gain from learning a large number of pieces a year.
I think this video demonstrates that preparing students for exams is perfectly reasonable and positive. Just make sure it’s not the sole raison-d’etre for lessons. Well-prepared students are quite happy to sit exams and realize their benefits. This shows, if exams are only a small part of a student’s experience each year or even every couple of years, it is much more likely to be positive for all involved.
|Piano Exams: The Good||Piano Exams: The Bad|
|Sense of achievement||Pushy parents|
|Evidence of progression||Limits the number of pieces a student learns|
|Motivation||Students lack musical knowledge and experience|
|Pushes the student out of their comfort zone||Can be stressful|
|Introduces new pieces and genres||Students feel Grade 8 is ‘the end’|
Exams are always a big topic for discussion. But I believe that we all grow and learn from discussing our experiences, so I’ll kick us off with some questions…
Let us know your answers in the comments.