Taking Music Exams
There are many benefits to taking music exams. For example, they show the level the student has attained as well as tracking progress as the student moves from one grade to the next. In addition, taking music exams can act as an incentive for the student by providing a clear goal to work towards, and receiving a certificate after passing can be very gratifying, especially if reinforced by praise from family and friends.
The key to doing well when taking music exams is being prepared. This means spending a lot of time practising the required pieces. However, for any student there is a point beyond which further practice produces no perceptible improvement, and there is a danger of boredom setting in. Pushing beyond this point is likely to result in a lacklustre exam performance and low marks.
Being prepared also includes preparing for other parts of the exam such as scales and arpeggios, aural tests, and sight-reading. The study of these should be an on-going process. It’s a mistake to delay spending time on them until close to the exam as this is likely to significantly reduce the chances of getting a good pass mark.
Less obvious but equally important is the fact that taking music exams offers a valuable platform to practise performance skills. For many this will include controlling nerves, getting used to playing on a different instrument (if you play the piano or organ), and adjusting – both mentally and physically – to a different acoustic environment.
Nervousness and tension can severely impede a student’s ability to play well. To help overcome nerves it’s important to get as much experience as possible playing in front of others long before the exam. Part of being a musician is learning to overcome nerves, or at least being able to control them.
Are there any negative points about taking music exams? Well, there can be. Focusing only on taking music exams is detrimental to overall musical development. After a student has passed an exam the worst thing a teacher can do is to start the student learning the set pieces for the next exam. This approach might result in a student taking a higher level exam by an earlier age, but at the expense of having only a shallow depth of understanding, a limited repertoire, and below average technical ability.
A good teacher will be sensitive to the needs of the student. Taking music exams should be presented as a fun challenge, and an opportunity to enjoy playing in a different environment, but if the student is of a particularly nervous disposition then adding the stress of taking music exams might not be in the student’s best interest.
There are a number of exam boards in the UK such as the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Music teachers will have their individual preference but each is well respected.