To grade, or not to grade, that is the question:
A beginners guide to music grade exams.
Personally I am a big fan of graded music exams. I believe they can give the pupil a sense of direction, a purpose to practice (if needed) and a real sense of achievement when (if) they pass. That said whilst I do encourage my pupils to consider graded exams I certainly do not pressure them into entering.
Firstly, exams are not for everyone. Some pupils learn/play music for the simple pleasure and enjoyment that it brings, which is exactly as it should be! Also, the very thought of an examination would strike fear into the hearts of some of my pupils. Secondly, and more importantly, there is a cost…..and it’s not cheap! Currently the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) have a sliding charge for practical exams which, at the time of writing, starts at £43 for Grade 1 rising incrementally up to £99 for Grade 8. This does not include the cost of buying the music book that contains the performance pieces for your exam. You may also have to hire a piano accompanist as not all woodwind teachers are proficient on the piano and it is a requirement of the ABRSM that 2 of your 3 performance pieces are accompanied on piano (backing tracks are not allowed).
As you can see, graded music exams are not for the faint of wallet!
That said, if a pupil is studying music at school (for example GCSE’s here in the U.K.), then studying for and entering grade exams really is worth considering. Also, if a pupil is considering studying music in higher education then it is a requirement of some (not all) colleges and universities to have achieved Grade 8 on your principle instrument.
It is also worth noting that it is not necessary to start at Grade 1 and enter every exam right up to Grade 8. You can choose to enter an exam at any level that you feel capable of (for ABRSM practical examinations it is only possible to enter up to Grade 5. To go above this the pupil must have passed either Grade 5 theory or Grade 5 practical from one of the other ABRSM syllabus’ i.e. Jazz).
How do grade exams work ?
Once entered (by a registered teacher) the candidate must select three performance pieces from the syllabus. There are three lists to choose from A, B and C. Lists A and B are pieces that must be accompanied on piano. List C is a solo study piece. There are then 4 aspects to the exam:
- Performance skills: this is where the candidate will be expected to perform the 3 chosen pieces
- Technical skills: the candidate will be expected to play, from memory, a selection of scales appropriate to the grade
- Notation skills: the candidate will be presented with a short piece of music to sight-read
- Listening skills: the examiner will play several short parts on the piano and the candidate will be asked questions relating to these.
This may seem a lot, and indeed it is, but if the pupil is properly prepared and practiced then whilst challenging, the exam should not be too much of a problem. Indeed, I encourage my pupils to enjoy the experience. Generally they are nervous before their very first examination but always come out with a big smile! And don’t forget that if you pass you get a brilliant certificate to hang up!
All things considered, whilst graded music examinations can be a costly endeavor and should certainly not be taken lightly they can be very motivating, rewarding and, if done correctly….FUN!!
(All examples used above are from the ABRSM which is the main examining board that I personally use. There are of course other examining boards. I am not recommending ABRSM above any other. I have simply used them for a lot of years and found them to be reliable, easy to deal with and well respected within academia)