Graded music exams – are they really helpful?

Contemplating if it's worth all the stress to take music examinations? Genevieve's guide gives the full overview on whether graded music exams are for you.

Music examination in progress

Graded music exams. To some, these three words might spark fear and despair, but to others, they might spark effective practice, and intense motivation. Which camp are you in?

When I look back on my years completing music exams, I can’t say that I remember them with all that much fondness. I often found the weeks before the exams mainly consisting of practising my favourite exam piece on piano all evening (just to get it perfect), and procrastinating on practising my harder pieces and my scales – perhaps not the most productive strategy.

However, now as an adult learner of another instrument, I have found music exams to be a great help in terms of motivation for my practice. This tells me that managed well, graded music exams can be extremely helpful, but they aren’t necessarily for everyone. All you have to do is work out whether they work for you!

The pros of music exams

Music exams set an end date to your practising. Depending on which instrument you play, you might work on your set pieces for months at a time. This can inevitably become a little boring at points (for you and the people you live with!), and so it is nice to have an end point to work towards. If you know that your pieces need to be up to scratch by a certain date, you can pace yourself towards that, and work consistently to achieve your goal.

Another pro of music exams is that they are high pressure. The examiner standing next to you and writing notes while you play, not letting on that you’re scared… you know the drill. Now, this might not seem like a pro, perhaps more like a con. However, life does tend to bring about many instances where you do need to perform well under intense pressure, be it in the workplace, when driving, or any other scenario. Music exams can be a good way, particularly if you’re young, to help you to practise staying calm and thinking clearly under pressure.

Another pro is for those thinking of either performing in the future, or taking GCSE or ‘A’ Level music. Music exams are excellent preparation for the performing element of curriculum-based qualifications, as they are a very similar set up (just minus those scales and sightreading!). Whether you are intending on performing for qualifications or just casually, graded music exams will introduce you to being aware of your audience, and help you to learn good performance techniques.

Of course, there’s always the obvious pro that you get a qualification – you have evidence that you are a certain capability in your instrument. It can be very fulfilling if you get a certificate saying ‘distinction’, or ‘grade 1’ or ‘grade 8’. No matter your level, the feedback they give can be extremely constructive and useful to your future playing.

The cons of music exams

One con of graded music exams is that sometimes, the dates just aren’t right. Most exam boards only have two or three exam seasons per year, and that might mean that you finish your pieces too early and are at risk of over-practicing, or that it comes too soon and you aren’t ready. This can be frustrating. I have generally overcome that by occasionally skipping grades. If you feel that taking a particular grade, eg. grade 4, would hold you back from speeding ahead like you want to, skipping it is completely fine. It really isn’t too important to have every single certificate: you could always do a mock exam with your teacher so you know you’ve got to the right level.

Another perhaps frustrating part of taking music exams is that there is a restricted syllabus. Unfortunately, you cannot just pick any piece of music you want and be examined on it – it must be one of the selected pieces. However, while this means that you’ll be picking from their choices, it does mean that you know that the pieces are playable, and good for your level of study. So many times I have heard a beautiful piano piece I want to learn, only to find that it would take me years of practice to be able to play half of it. So, while this might limit your choices somewhat, if you pick an exam board that suits your style, you’re sure to be able to find some pieces you like.

Another factor that might come into your choice about whether to take exams or not, may be if you have other exams going on at the same time. In year 11, I decided to skip the grades I would otherwise have taken, since I already had a large number of exams in the summer. Sometimes, adding in an extra exam simply isn’t worth the stress, and so it might be sensible to try and fit them so they aren’t near to any other exams you will be taking.

So – exams, or no exams?

Now, it is clear that exams aren’t for everyone, and the cons just might be enough to make you want to ditch the exams, and just go with the flow when learning an instrument. That’s completely fine – if you feel like you’ll be motivated enough, you don’t necessarily need a certificate to show your ability if you don’t want to study music formally.

However, particularly if you can take a fairly relaxed approach to music exams, skipping some grades when necessary, music exams can be very beneficial to your playing. They offer an opportunity to receive feedback from experts, practice in performance techniques, and of course a deadline to help you to practise.

The decision is over to you, and will depend on the sort of person you are. Discuss it with your tutor, and see what they think, and maybe try working towards a grade to see what it is like. You can always change your mind later!

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Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve

Genevieve is currently working towards her bachelors in English Literature at the University of Warwick.

Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.

She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.

Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!