Is it a good idea to take piano exams?

When signing up for piano classes, whether with a private teacher or with a school, a choice is usually offered to take graded examinations through one of the many examining boards which offer such service.

Entities such as the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), Trinity College London (TCL), London College of Music (LCM) to name a few, all have their syllabi for every instrument and other musical disciplines such as composition and music theory.

There are a variety of advantages in undertaking such learning path:

  • all those syllabi are carefully designed in order to be as progressive as possible, meaning that each step is perceived by the learner as an effortless transition from the previous level to the next.
  • technical aspects and requirements (scales, arpeggios, broken chords, etc.) are set in relation to the keys and tonalities of the repertoire pieces, i.e. the pieces to be practiced are in the keys of the scales and arpeggios to be studied, which gives students an aural awareness of the sense of tonality of the pieces they are practicing.
  • having exam day as a goal to work towards involves the student into the planning process and motivates towards consistent practice.
  • the sense of achievement of receiving an official certificate further motivates the student.

With such a detailed plan laid out in a syllabus it should be only a matter of course that people manage to achieve their desired level of mastery at a musical instrument of choice, so that they play any tune they like, at will, with technical facility and full musical expression.

We all know reality is slightly different.

There is the small matter of daily practice, for example, which not every student abides by, the reasons of which falling outside the scope of this article. We could also say that, while we all deserve equal opportunities and access to a musical education, not everyone possesses equal musical disposition: some people learn music better than others, the reasons of which also fall outside the scope of this article.

But let’s assume for a moment: let’s take someone who did their piano exams, as most do, through childhood through their teens, working diligently and achieving somewhere between grade 5 to 7, maybe 8, even enjoying the process up to a point. This hypothetical student is lucky enough to have a teacher who is bright, knowledgeable and motivating, living in a home environment which is encouraging and stimulating, and having an instrument at his or her disposal which is of good quality, and the repertoire being mostly pleasant. A perfect scenario. Why is it that the vast majority of these students do not continue playing their instrument after achieving the “Grade” that they agreed with their parents they would manage to get?

As a piano teacher for the past 10 years, the number one complain from students returning to music is the following:

“I got bored of only practicing the three pieces for the exam”

Let’s now do some maths:

From total beginner to Grade 8 there are, of course, eight grades plus the preparatory grades before Grade 1 which vary from board to board; let’s assume there are two preparatory grades for the sake of argument.

The norm is that three repertoire pieces are learnt for each grade, which means by the time Grade 8 is reached the student will have learnt 30 pieces; piano lessons usually start at age 7 or 8 and continue through to middle to late teens, let’s say seven years worth of piano lessons.

That makes an average of four pieces each year, rounded down, with only the material contained in the higher grades being of such nature that it can be retained as “Useful” repertoire i.e. music that can be performed for any reason outside of the scope of a practical music examination.

In this scenario, expectations are not met: the parent who hoped to instil a love for music in the child, and the child who has been practicing diligently are both equally disappointed. Images of house parties, birthdays and Christmases enriched by the sound of a piano are shattered.

So, what went wrong? The child was practicing, passed all exams all the way to Grade 8 with some distinctions and few merits along the way.

I will try to answer that question and offer a solution; here is a simple concept:

“What you do in the practice room gets you more and more of… what you do in the practice room”

In other words: if practice time is devoted entirely to learning a graded exam repertoire, and the technical requirements for it, that is what you will be able to play. Nothing else.

Therefore, a graded exam syllabus becomes useful only when it is part of a wholesome plan for the complete growth of the student as a musician; such plan must include the following aspects:

  • listening, active and critical, to a variety of pieces of music chosen between various styles, eras and genres.
  • harmony in relation to the repertoire
  • musicianship, which is a broad term for what I like to refer to as “Musical intelligence”
  • sight reading
  • rhythm reading
  • sight singing
  • quick studies
  • improvisation
  • ensemble playing, duets, etc.
  • composition
  • proper technical training
  • effective practice strategies

If all these aspects are addressed in the course of planning the musical growth of an individual, there are very good chances that the student will become empowered with the necessary tools to walk his / her own musical journey, and practice will be deliberate and fruitful. In such framework, a graded syllabus becomes integral part of the journey, providing structure and progressive learning of repertoire, technique, etc.

In short: music grades are good, as long as they don’t become the only goal of your music practice. Make sure you get yourself a good teacher who will look after you by empowering you with all the tools and knowledge to become the musician you can be.