Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Comparing different music testing systems

I am inspired to write this blog entry after reading Valerie Kampmeier’s great post “Music Exams – What do you think?

I have always believed in the benefits of assessment opportunities for students. They can be called exams, tests, auditions, festivals, or other names, but basically involve students playing for a judge or examiner and receiving feedback on their performance. In my previous blog article Benefits of Music Auditions I listed the many benefits for both students and teachers. I am further inspired and feel the need to write more on this subject, after reading the comments on Joy Morin’s Q&A Forum about standardized music testing on her wonderful blog Color in My Piano; it seems many teachers are reluctant to participate in testing programs.

I feel strongly that we as music teachers need to understand the differences and requirements of various exam/testing systems, before deciding in general that testing is not “healthy” for our students. While it is true that some systems have strict syllabus requirements, there are many programs available in the US that are quite flexible. I would like to give my personal opinion about the different music audition/festival/exam systems I am aware of.

1. MTNA Studio Festival Program
If you are intimidated by the word exam or test, but do agree that some sort of assessment opportunity is beneficial for your students, then the MTNA Studio Festival Program is for you! There are no set rules, and you can tailor the event to suit your needs. You can choose to include or not include scales, sight reading, aural tests, theory; indeed you decide what you want your students to do! So what is the point? Well, students get the opportunity to perform in front of another musician other than yourself, and receive a written report. By being part of a nationally sponsored program with minimal cost involvement makes this the ideal starter program for teachers that are new to the world of music auditions and do not yet want to subject their students to being compared with those of other teachers.

2. Your local Music Teachers Association sponsored festivals
One of the reasons many teachers are reluctant to send students to music exams is the heavy syllabus requirements on technique, sight reading, and aural skills. Well, there are many events sponsored by your local music teachers groups that are repertoire based. For example, I currently live in Murrieta and belong to both the MTAC-Music Teachers Association of California and CAPMT-California Association of Professional Music Teachers. Both groups have a local branch called the Temecula Valley branch, and they organize many events where students are evaluated by outside judges and receive written reports. These events are often based solely on repertoire, for example MTAC Sonata/Sonatina festival, Temecula Spring Music Festival and CAPMT Piano Solo and Ensemble Auditions. High scorers receive special recognition such as trophy or medal, and get invited to perform at special Honors recitals. These festivals are perfect for students to gain experience playing for judges. They learn to polish a small number of pieces without having to worry about other requirements.

3. Statewide standardized testing programs
Many states have their own testing programs. In New York there is the popular NYSSMA audition. In California there exist the Certificate of Merit (run by MTAC) and Student Evaluations (run by CAPMT). These usually involve more than just repertoire. For NYSSMA there are scale and sight reading requirements as well, while in California theory and aural skills are tested along with technical skills (including scales, arpeggios, chords, cadences) and sight reading. Although the repertoire selected for audition/testing usually need to be chosen from the official list, the list is so long and extensive that you CAN find something that suits a particular student’s strength and taste. The word ‘standardized’ refers only to the theory and technical part of the test; students and teachers still have great freedom in choosing what repertoire to learn.

4. National Guild of Piano Teachers Piano Auditions
The National Guild of Piano Teachers offers wonderful programs designed for both the absolute beginner as well as the most accomplished and talented students. The system is so flexible, yet structured, that teachers can choose whether or not to include things like sight reading, aural skills, arpeggios, and many other “Musicianship Phases,” while the IMMT-Irreducible Minimum Musicianship Test- ensures that students can play the scales and cadences associated with their chosen repertoire. This is such a great idea! If a student loves playing scales, you can have him or her learn them all, but for students who do not thrive on the technical side of things, they only have to do the ones that are actually relevant – found in their pieces. Also, you can decide to play anywhere from one to twenty pieces, and there are many Special Medal Programs available, such as Sonatina, Sonata, Early Bach, Advanced Bach, and High School Diploma. Students receive a detailed evaluation report, certificate and pin, and can apply for various scholarships. There is no theory requirement, and students can play anything they want, as long as they perform at least one piece from each of the four major stylistic periods (for intermediate levels and beyond). The registration fee is so affordable that I feel you get the “biggest bang for your buck” with this system!

5. ABRSM Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Graded Exams
I believe the ABRSM is one of the most superior of all exam systems. Based in England, it is widely popular in Asia and all Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand. In my student years, I sat through Grade 5 Theory, Grade 8 Piano, Advanced Certificate (now called Diploma) and Licentiate. Another similar British system is the Trinity College of London, which is unfortunately even less well known in the states. Apart from the fact that there are already so many other programs available to students in the US, the main reason I feel the ABRSM is not as popular here is the relatively hefty exam registration fee and lack of local exam centers. However, I do feel it is one of the most well structured, and that their high fees are justified. Every grade includes technical skills such as scales and arpeggios, three pieces from different styles, and aural skills. The technical skills are appropriate for each grade, neither too extensive nor too simple. The aural skills require melodic and rhythmic memory, as well as listening to music played live by the examiner and answering questions relating to the piece, instead of frivolous skills such as being able to identify a perfect 4th interval or what inversion a particular chord is in. In terms of repertoire, there are only a select few to choose from in each stylistic period. Although more limiting, this actually means the examiners really know the pieces well, and can give meaningful and specific comments and suggestions for improvement. There is no Theory requirement for Grades 1-5, but for anyone wanting to sit Grade 6 and beyond, they must have previously passed Theory Grade 5, which actually requires extensive preparation. This “quality control” ensures that students have the necessary musical understanding of what they are playing at the higher levels. Also, unlike many local and even state run programs in the US which are aimed at encouraging students to continue studying music and providing “humanistic” and positive feedback, the ABRSM has a more uniform and “strict” standard. Another thing I like about the ABRSM is that memory playing is optional.

Before I moved to the US, I had prepared numerous students through ABRSM as well as Trinity College exams. My student exam records with these two internationally recognized exam bodies helped me to earn my NCTM status with MTNA. I do hope they will gain more popularity here in the US. I also plan to get to know the Royal Conservatory Music Development Program exams from Canada – they seem to have similar high standards as ABRSM, with convenient online registrations and many US exam centers.

In conclusion, I just want to say that there are so many programs available to students, whether they are called auditions, tests, exams, or festivals, that there is something for every student and every level. Students gain so much more than just receiving a piece of paper with their name on it. Obviously sitting exams should not be the ultimate goal for any music student, but is often a means to an end! Students do work harder when they have a specific goal. If you have never entered your students in any form of assessment opportunities, it is not too late to start! If you know of any other testing systems, please share in the comments below as I would love to hear about them!

About the Author

Yiyi Ku
Yiyi Ku is a pianist and teacher. Born in Taiwan, she grew up in New Zealand and obtained her Master of Music degree with Distinction in Composition and Piano Performance from the University of Canterbury. Yiyi also holds a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano from Music Teachers National As... [Read more]


  1. Sonal

    Hi Yiyi. can you comment on trinity school exams as well vs ABRSM vs RCM Canada please

  2. Yiyi Ku

    Hi Sonal,

    I had a lot of experience entering students for Trinity exams before I moved to the US in 2005, but since then I have not entered students for Trinity, so I do not feel I can give you useful comments, as their syllabus may have changed. But I can say that they are fairly comparable to the ABRSM, in terms of standards and reputation. Good luck!

  3. Alka Athanikar

    Hi Yiyi,
    My daughter is taking piano lessons for the past one year and took her NYSSMA Level I test early this year and scored pretty well too. We will be moving to Texas in November this year and I wanted to know what would be the equivalent to NYSSMA in Texas. I really do want her to continue testing at the next levels. Would greatly appreciate if you could point me in the right direction.
    Thank you,

  4. Yiyi

    I do not know what the equivalent of NYSSMA would be in Texas. I think the first step would be to find a teacher in Texas, and when you interview prospective teachers, ask what testing programs they offer their students. Any good teacher should be somewhat familiar with Piano Guild, RCM, or other MTNA affiliated programs. Good luck to you and your daughter!

  5. Neha

    Hi Yiyi,
    Your article is really helpful. Is there anyway to contact you for music lessons?

  6. Rinku Shah

    Hi Yiyi,

    Your Article is very informative! My son is 9 years old and taking piano lessons since last one year. His piano teacher is recommending National Piano guild and Certificate of Merit both for my son. Can you please advise from your experience which one is better for 9 years old? My son is very good with piano and he enjoys to play !

  7. Joe Zillow

    Hi, thanks a lot for a nice article! I am also interested in RCM Canada, would be happy if you will write about it too… thanks)

  8. Susan S

    I did National Piano Guild as a child, and my son did 10 years of National Guild and did 2 Social Diplomas, and finished with the High School Diploma. He worked his butt off. That diploma required 10 high level pieces and 5 musicianship phases. I feel that it more than prepared him for music school. His teacher also has all her students do duet festivals, theory tests and world of music exams. (We are in Texas.) Many years ago, I thought I wanted to have my kids do level 8 in ABRSM, so I had them sit for the level 5 theory exam. I was disappointed in the way the test was administered – too may kids in a room shoved tightly together. The proctor was awful and told students when some of their answers were wrong (!!!!). My daughter was so disgusted that we never participated in another ABRSM anything. This was sad, because she went into it with the goal of getting her level 8 in flute, but felt based on her experience that it would be meaningless if that is how they ran things. (Honesty is very important to her.) I think Piano Guild works no matter what level the student is ….I just wish there was Flute Guild. Please note – ABRSM only requires 3 pieces, while a diploma through Guild requires 10. Both require musicianship phases, and both require that you pass ALL sections.

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