Piano exams: good or bad? What the students think…

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tim topham piano teaching tipsAs part of my 3v40: making the most of exams presentation at this year’s Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, I interviewed three of my students regarding their experience of piano exams and edited it into a short 5-minute video, which you can watch below.

Why the focus on exams?

Those of you not teaching in Australia may not realise that Australia has a very exam-centered approach to music teaching. Many students will sit one exam per year for the 8-10 years it takes them to go from Preliminary to Grade 8. Some may go on to complete Diploma exams but many will simply stop because they have “finished learning piano”.

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There are still plenty of parents who believe doing exams is the only way to show that their child has progressed each year and will push teachers to get through grade exams as fast as possible. This means that students only have time to learn a very limited number of pieces each year and, while this suits some students, many get thoroughly bored and give up after 4-5 years of being on this “exam express” because their depth of knowledge and experience is so lacking that they still can’t really play anything without instruction.

In interviewing my students, I particularly wanted to find out what effect they thought being restricted to only learning a limited number of exam pieces each year had on their learning and, for this reason, whether they believed exams in general were a good or bad thing.

The outcome

Overall, while they all believed that exams were a good experience for piano students, they also were clear that the way in which exams are used by a teacher is vital to whether the outcome is positive or negative for the student.

Clearly, if a teacher is basing their entire year’s work solely on an exam syllabus and teaching students only 3-6 “exam pieces” each year (as it seems some are still doing), they are falling well-short of what would be considered a holistic pedagogical approach. More importantly, the students themselves articulate how boring this approach is and how much more they gain from learning a large number of pieces a year.

I think this video demonstrates that preparing students for exams is perfectly reasonable and positive as long as it’s not the sole raison-d’etre for lessons. Well-prepared students are quite happy to sit exams and realise their benefits. If exams are only a small part of a student’s experience each year or even every couple of years, it is much more likely to be positive for all involved.

For more information about exams, check out my previous posts:

  • Why working to exams is anti-piano (check out the comments from other readers)
  • Trinity College Exams – first impressions
  • 75 pieces in one year? How Ben went from beginner to Grade 2 in 10 months!

For those of you teaching lots of pieces, make sure you check out the 40PieceChallenge website for tips, suggestions and ideas from other teachers about teaching 40+ pieces each year.

Do your students sit exams? Do they do one a year or just when you feel they’re ready? How important is being on the “exam express” for your parents? Let me know what you think.