The Importance of Grade Exams

ABRSM and Trinity College London are the two biggest music education bodies that provide Music Grade Exams in the UK. These exam boards offer assessments from Grade 1 – 8, as well as Diploma, Licentiate and Fellowship Certificates.

It is probably because I have never come across this way of standardizing musicians in other countries I have lived in, I find the concept of Grade exams quite perplexing.
The necessity of preparing three pieces for long enough to be able to eventually play them, or practising scales by heart without understanding their purpose, makes me question the pedagogical value of the system.

From experience I can say that students who care too much about passing Grade exams are missing the main goal of playing an instrument. They are preocupied with collecting Certificates for different reasons, but at the end of the day they are not capable of reading repertoire and interpreting any piece that they come across. This is mainly caused by their lack of basic technical skills that have delayed their progress for a long time because they had been too busy practising exam pieces. Not to mention that most of these students get completely bored with playing the same pieces because it takes them so long to learn.

Playing an instrument involves certain meticulous coordination of the brain, either to move a bow – for string players – or to blow into an instrument – for wind players.
If we focus on a wind instrument such as the clarinet we can notice that basic concepts like breathing, blowing, embouchure, posture and articulation – among others – must be under control before getting into high standards of performance.

So why is it that important for musicians to get Grade exams done? Wouldn’t it be much more enjoyable to play diverse music and learn without the ‘pressure’ of exams? As a teacher, I give lessons to a variety of students, some of them very interested in doing exams and others prefer to just enjoy playing the clarinet. It is proved to me that students doing Grades tend to develop a very limited understanding of music.

I am aware that some orchestras and secondary schools require a certain ‘Grade standard’ to be able to join them. In this case, it would be more likely that they do auditions to listen to students than actually demand to be shown a Certificate.

In my opinion, the process of learning an instrument would be much more productive if the teacher sets some goals for the student, involving technique but also repertoire from the instrument’s literature. Then, joining an orchestra or ensemble would complement one-to-one lessons, in order to develop performance skills.

Personally, I still get some people asking me questions like ‘How many Grades have you done?’ ‘What Grade are you?’ etc. After achieving a Masters level degree in music I can’t help but feeling a bit vexed about people’s definition of a musician.

This article embraces merely my opinion about this subject. I invite you to reflect: what do you consider more relevant, passing Grades or actually knowing how to play an instrument?
The clarinet (or any other instrument’s) literature is extremely wide. Let’s try to acquaint ourselves with as much of it as we possibly can.

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2 comments

  1. While I agree with you that following the Grade syllabus alone does not give a student a rounded education or exposure to repertoire, I feel I must clarify one point. Grades are intended cataphonically, i.e. to show progress which has already been made. If the exams are used as the only guide and input then of course the student will not become a fully rounded musician. With my teacher I was encouraged to discover and attempt ALL the pieces on the syllabus plus other repertoire too. Only at the end of a ‘phase’ were pieces from the lists chosen as exam pieces to reflect progress that had already been made.

    I live in a country that doesn’t offer grades in any form. While I agree that it can be a little annoying when one is frequently asked what grade one is, I feel the benefits of having the system far outweigh this minor annoyance. Instead one should take the opportunity and the little time required to explain.

    • Hi Sue, thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment my article. I completely understand your point with your comment but reality tends to be a bit different in most cases. While I agree with you that this system could potentially develop good players if Grades would be taken from that perspective, there are some facts that we need to bear in mind:

      As far as I know, there is no qualification required to teach instrumental lessons in the UK. Therefore when people begin teaching they tend to think back to what they learnt – exams – and find that there’s a list of material to teach and then they just get stuck in that system. Most teachers are unaware of other teaching techniques because they have never experienced that in their studies. There are qualifications available in the UK from a number of sources, but because you don’t need them nobody tends to have them.

      The primary point of my article is as much about parental pressure to validate their child’s progress. Parents tend to become obsessed with the exams because they cannot identify/understand the progress their child is making themselves.

      In my opinion, people learning music in UK become fixated on “what grade are you?” because they are not really taught to listen to themselves when they play, and in the same way to be able to judge when they are listening to someone else playing.

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