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Music exams- what do you think?

It was at the age of seven, when I came to the United Kingdom, that I first encountered the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) music examination system.  “What grade are you?” the other children would ask when I told them that I played the piano.  It was not a question I had encountered in the United States, and I didn’t know what to tell them. However, soon enough, my new piano teacher decided that it was time for me to take one of these examinations, and I began to learn all about the system.

The ABRSM is an organization set up to be able to establish a set of educational standards for instrumental and vocal performance. The Royal Schools consist of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.  Each year over 620,000 people take its examinations in 90 countries.  The exams run from Grade 1 for those who have learned for a year or so, up to Grade 8 for advanced students. There is also a diploma exam for those who wish to take their playing even further. The exams can be taken at any age and are for any classical instrument or voice.

As an example, a Grade 1 piano candidate would be expected to play three pieces from a prescribed list:– a short Baroque piece, a Classical or Romantic piece, and a 20th century piece. For example, to quote from this year’s syllabus, J. C. F. Bach: Schwaebisch in D., Schumann: Soldatenmarsch (Soldiers’ March) and Bartók: Quasi adagio: No. 3 from For Children, Vol. 1.  They would also be expected to play two-octave scales and broken chords in the simplest keys with separate hands, to sight-read a short phrase in a five-finger position and take part in basic aural tests.

On the other hand, a candidate for the Grade 8 piano exam would need to have prepared over 100 (mostly four-octave) staccato and legato scales and arpeggios, including scales in double thirds, a third or a sixth apart, chromatic scales, even the whole-tone scale, arpeggios, dominant and diminished sevenths. The pieces for this grade follow a similar pattern to that of Grade 1: three pieces from different periods taken from a prescribed list, examples here being J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in Bb, # 21 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven: Allegro , 4th movement from Grand Sonata in Ab op 26, and Liszt: Au lac de Wallenstadt: No. 2 from Années de Pèlerinage: Première année – Suisse. Over thirty years ago, the second piece had to be an entire three-movement sonata, so I regard these candidates as having escaped lightly, but it’s still an impressive feat to pass this exam. Besides advanced sight-reading and aural tests, the candidates also must have passed the Grade 5 theory exam set by the same board before they are eligible to sit the practical exam.

So why bother? What are the advantages of putting your students through such a rigorous experience?

I have often pondered this question myself. It is certainly not necessary for all students to follow this path, and some certainly do not thrive when under such pressure. However, here are some of the benefits I’ve observed during my many years teaching piano in London.

Firstly, it is a way for teachers to ensure that their students get a good, methodical education, learning pieces of different styles and periods, memorizing all the scales and arpeggios they will ever need in a structured fashion, improving their sight reading, and their aural skills. It can be easy, without this kind of structure in place, to omit to teach a student a certain scale, or to work on their sight-reading regularly. It also obliges teachers to work on theory with their students as well as practical musicianship. The educational publications of the ABRSM are an invaluable asset in this regard, being consistently well thought-out, with high editorial standards. Although I now live in the United States, I have not found better theory workbooks anywhere and still use them with my students here.

Secondly, it gives students an opportunity to perform a mini recital in exam conditions, which is extremely useful for students who intend later to enter a conservatoire, and an achievement for any student, although admittedly a bit of an endurance test!  As I said earlier, not all students thrive in these conditions, and so it is up to the teacher and student to decide whether they wish to proceed. I did not oblige all students to take exams, and always organized student recitals in addition to examinations, so that performance was not inevitably linked in their minds with examination.

Thirdly, the exam structure and standards are extremely familiar to all teachers in the United Kingdom, and many other countries around the globe, so that it is easy to clarify what level a student has reached, and is a useful shorthand amongst teachers. Grade 8 has been considered a prerequisite to conservatoire entrance for many years, although as the standards continue to rise from one generation to the next, this may change. When I took Grade 8 at 15, back in the 1970’s, I was considered precocious. Now, children as young as ten years old are taking it.

And what about the disadvantages? Some teachers see the structure as restrictive, leading students to pick pieces within a narrower range than they might otherwise choose. Looking at this year’s syllabus, however, I already see a wider range than before, including pieces in a jazz or contemporary style. There is even a jazz syllabus now for certain instruments. Some teachers regard the system as potentially holding back gifted children. If they are busy learning pieces for each exam, they may not tackle more challenging works at a younger age. My teacher solved this dilemma by skipping many of the exams–I took grades 4, 7, and 8 only.

I do not regret the exams I took, or the exams my students have taken. I see it as having been a great educational opportunity. Yet having taught in the States now for nine years, I am not teaching using the exam structure, as it is so little known out here.  I’d love to hear of any experiences you have had with the ABRSM exam structure, or any other system of examinations, such as the Canadian system, and also invite your questions.

About the Author

Valerie Kampmeier
Valerie Kampmeier, M.A., brings decades of performance experience as a successful classical pianist in Europe to her piano teaching and her life coaching practice for musicians. She also writes about living a creative life on her blog.
A gifted p... [Read more]

7 Comments

  1. Julian

    This is an excellent and very well balanced description of the ABRSM exams and their advantages and disadvantages. As an adult learner, I took grade 3 piano and skipped the earlier grades. It helped me by providing a focus and a goal, although I spent months working on nothing but the exam pieces. Also, I know that the mark I got did not represent my true ability on the instrument, which was a slight disappointment.

    I have two daughters. One has reached grade 8 on piano and cello and missed getting a cello diploma, despite having worked towards it for a year. The other has grade 8 on recorder and is working on grade 8 piano and violin. There is an interesting contrast between them and between the instruments. The younger girl, although she is working hard for the grade 8 piano, plays other pieces either to practise, or by sight, probably more than she practises the exam pieces. She obviously loves the piano and just wants to play all the time. With the violin, she spends a lot less time and is just working on the exam pieces, although being at this level enables her to play in a county orchestra.

    The older girl, although she has always enjoyed her instruments, has never ventured far from the exam pieces. Her work for the diploma was mostly in working up the pieces for the performance, although she also played in the county orchestra. Perhaps this lack of breadth contributed to her failure to get the diploma.

    One aspect which you only touch on, which the grade system doesn’t really help with, is sight reading. It seems fairly universal with my daughters and their contemporaries that sight reading is the hardest part of the exams and the least liked. It is also not really taught. They are expected to pick it up as they go along, yet it is the single thing that would make the most difference to the rest of their playing. I can see this now with my younger daughter, who is able to sight read well enough that she can get immediate benefit from playing a new piece without having to struggle through it first. She has done this largely by playing through a hymnbook of 400+ hymns a few times. You can tell, listening to her practise, that she is now practising the playing rather than trying to work out what the notes are.

    It strikes me that if children (adults too) could be ahead of their grade with sight reading rather than, as seems to be the case, behind, it would propel them forward far more quickly. They would be able to develop a repertoire and play more pieces outside their exam work. It seems to me that no one knows how to teach sight reading and it is always just an afterthought. At best the child is encouraged to buy the ABRSM book of (very few) sight reading pieces for their exam grade.

    One place I’ve seen this done well is “The Modern Method for Guitar” by William Leavitt. This a well structured and progressive set of pieces that keep sight reading, playing and musical education moving together as the learner progresses. Ironically, the guitar is one instrument where few teachers see the need for grade exams.

    I’d be interested to hear how you, as a teacher, tackle sight reading.

  2. Bee

    Hi Valerie,

    The examination system is well entrenched in Australia, with several different systems (including ABRSM) available to choose from. Most of my students sit for piano and theory/musicianship exams through the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB). I think exams are great for giving students a goal to work towards and as a measure of their progress, but teachers can fall into the trap of trying to push students through from one grade to the next as quickly as possible by teaching the barest minimum number of pieces etc. at each level.

    I differ from this approach in that I don’t ‘teach to the exam’ – I make sure my students get to learn lots of repertoire at each grade level (helps with their sight reading as well) and I take time to develop their general musicianship skills on top of the exam exam requirements. My aim is to produce students who can continue to make music on their own long after they cease lessons with me. Unfortunately one hears all too often of students who rush through one grade after another and finally give up at around fourth or fifth grade because their technique has not been fully developed by learning so few pieces and it all seems too hard, and they never touch the piano again. How awful!

    Julian, sight reading can and should be taught, although I have to agree with your comment that many teachers don’t do much more than provide a few exam samples to try out a few weeks before an exam.

    The ABRSM recently brought out a brilliant series of sight reading books called ‘Joining the Dots.’ You can read about them at http://www.abrsm.org/regions/fileadmin/user_upload/libretto/libretto0110.pdf (scroll down to page 6).

    If you are in Australia, Samantha Coates has a wonderful series of books called ‘How to Blitz Sight Reading,’ which I use with all my students with excellent results. See Samantha’s blog http://www.blitzbooks.com.au/Blog/EntryId/23/The-Essential-Skills-of-Sight-Reading-and-Aural.aspx for more details. Most of my students are able to sight read pieces two or even three grades above the sight reading level expected for their AMEB exams, thanks to using these books. It certainly enables them to learn new repertoire much more quickly and they love the books.

    Regards
    Bee

  3. Yiyi Ku

    I am a big fan of ABRSM; this post reminds me of how much I miss enrolling students in their exams. I do believe their exam system is more ‘superior’ than most exam/audition/test systems available in the US, with the exception of perhaps the RCM in Canada and it’s equivalent here. Your post has inspired me to write a blog entry to compare different testing systems that I am aware of.

  4. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks, everyone for your comments- I’m glad to have started a meaty discussion.

    Julian- Thanks for the kind words. I appreciated your comments about your experience and that of your daughters. Everyone’s experience is so personal, which is why I don’t recommend exams for everyone. I’m glad your daughters’ music-making is flourishing.
    You make a good point about your younger daughter’s sight-reading ability- she really has worked at it. So many students don’t realize the amount of sight-reading it takes to become fluent, just as in reading literature.

    In terms of sight-reading, I heartily endorse Bee’s recommendations- the new series of books from the ABRSM looks appetizing, unlike the older ones, where even if you could play the piece, it really wasn’t worthwhile musically! Thanks Bee- I will also check out the Australian books also. And I agree- the point is to love music and love your instrument, not just to race through exams.

    Yiyi- I look forward to your post with interest!

  5. elizdaavis

    ABRSM exams is very well explained here..Thanks

  6. Innesa

    I am from former USSR and music exams were a must. I totally agree with all the points in the post about why music exams should take place. It is a great way to evaluate the progress of your students and help the students to excel and exceed. Also help them to have a goal to work toward.

  7. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks for commenting, Inessa. I would be very interested to hear about what exams were like in the USSR.