Why Working To Exams Is Anti-Piano

Why Working To Exams Is Anti-Piano

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OK, so this might be a bit controversial but hear me out.

I was reading a fabulous article by Kathryn Page in a recent Pianist Magazine (No 67), entitled “Developing and maintaining repertoire”. The article was about how important it is for pianists and students to play lots of music at one level and style before rushing to the next level in order to truly refine and master their skills. Two paragraphs particularly resonated with me:

What happens when you learn more than one piece in a similar style and of similar technical level is interesting – your brain makes connections and links new pieces with patterns and similarities already encountered. This makes the learning process much quicker and ultimately more pleasurable too.

Of course there are those who are impatient and like to jump from one anthology to the more difficult one without pausing for breath. They are very similar to children who are pushed from one grade exam directly into the next by misguided parents and teachers. Ultimately it leaves the player bereft of musical background, understanding and enjoyment

Unfortunately, pushing students from one grade to the next, having learnt only a few pieces at one level, is all too common (in Australia at least).

What does being a “Grade 8 student” actually mean?

Before I go any further, ask yourselves these questions:

1. How long is a reasonable time for a student to learn a new piece of music up to a competent (but not necessarily exam or performance-ready) level?

2. How many of your students are learning more than 10 pieces a year at or close to their “exam” grade level? How many of them are learning 40-pieces or more each year?

3. How many of your students could learn a piece of music at their current exam level in 3-4 weeks?

READ MORE: A student’s perspective on working to piano exams each year

For many students, I believe working to exams is anti-effective music learning and a completely misguided pedagogical approach. 

I consistently encounter students who are learning pieces well above their “real ” level of musicianship in order to fulfil the requirements of an exam. These are students who can’t play an unknown piece at their exam level without months of hard slog.

We are doing them a huge disservice educationally by encouraging this false qualification-ism. Is your Grade 4 student truly able to play a range of repertoire easily at that grade level, or is just getting the exam pieces learnt in one year a big challenge? How confident at Grade 4 level are they really?

I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that most, if not all, students at the upper levels are spending the year learning their 3 – 6 exam pieces.

Is that truly indicative of a student playing at that level? Shouldn’t a student at Grade 8 level be able to play lots of pieces at Grade 8 level in a reasonable space of time? Shouldn’t that be what being a “Grade 8 level student” is all about?

How long should it take to learn a piece?

Back to my first question: what constitutes a reasonable amount of time to learn a piece? I’d say it should be about 3-4 weeks (depending on length) for an average student. How long do many students take to properly learn their exam pieces? 6-8 months+?

The issue is that when you start focusing on an exam at a level that’s beyond your student’s current music reading level, their ability to learn a large number of pieces in a year is severely restricted.

Given how important it is to learn as many pieces as possible in a year in order to develop confidence as a pianist, working to an exam schedule each year is severely counter-productive.

Let me tell you the story of three students to illustrate where my thinking is coming from.

RELATED: The ultimate guide to piano exam syllabuses from across the globe

3 Student Case Studies

I took on a transfer student this year who had previously been pushed through one exam a year and had just done Grade 4 AMEB the year before I took him on. Thankfully, his parents were very supportive of him not doing exams for a year and to just spend the time enjoying his playing.

During the year I realised that the student’s understanding of rhythm and his ability to read music had been severely compromised by his rush to complete exams. He struggled with simple music reading and anything other than the most straightforward rhythms were a huge challenge.

He hadn’t played in many styles, keys or meters and was realistically about a Grade 1/2 level player.

The second student came to me this year after receiving an A for his AMEB Grade 2 Piano for Leisure exam in 2011 but struggled to even read at a preliminary level when we started working. He had no understanding of chords, harmony, patterns, how to read rhythms properly, form, etc. and I found out that he only studied his 3 exam pieces for the whole year in 2011!

How on earth was he expected to become a better piano player on 3 pieces a year?

The third student came to me as a transfer having done AMEB Grade 2 last year. He parents wanted him to do another exam this year so I enrolled him in ANZCA which was more suited to his interests.

I doubt now that I’d put a transfer student into an exam until after I’ve worked with them for at least 6 – 12 months to assess their “real” playing ability: as it turns out, this student was also struggling to read and by pushing him into another exam, I’ve broken my own rule by only having time to work only three pieces this year.

Sure, parents will see this as progress, but is his understanding of music any better? His ability to sight-read? His improvisation?

Exams have a specific purpose

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against exams as they have a place in music education and are an important motivator for some students.

My concern is that students do the right level exam for their ability.

If a student is already playing lots of pieces at Grade 2 level, then by all means, put them in a Grade 2 exam. However, if the student only just got through his Preliminary and Grade 1 exams playing the 3-6 exam pieces, and is taking months to learn pieces at the new level, is he or she really ready for the next level?

More to the point, is putting him through the next exam effective teaching?

What do you think about the place of exams?

I’ll leave you with a final comment from Kathryn’s article:

If you’re constantly learning music that is on the threshold of your technical ability, then you will never feel at ease in your practice time.

Leave your comment below.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. Yes as an adult piano student I did my ameb grade 5 exam barely scraping through and I feel that is the exact problem, expecting to improve by only learning a few pieces a year at the very edge of my ability, when I shamefully still have to count up the lines and spaces with “every good boy deserves fruit” etc! Luckily my knowledge of chord changes helped me along with memorising, but I ended up quitting because I just got discouraged by the whole thing. I feel like starting again from scratch with some beginner sight reading books and maybe try learning about thirty pieces from each grade level right from the start might help me get confidence back up again.

  2. So many useful ideas here. I agree that exams are useful, but they mustn’t become the focal point of the musical experience. Collaborating with other musos, recovery after illness, playing for one’s own edification and spreading some soundshine: as an adult, that’s where I find it’s at now.

  3. Teaching towards an exam has been a very negative experience for me. As a retired k12 teacher I looked forward to seeing students blossom through their music lessons with me. Those that are in “exam programs” are learning to lose their love for music due to the enormous pressure to “pass exams”.
    The amount of time needed just to learn the required basics is unrealistic; particularly if no parent has a musical background. Forget about “having fun” ; they are all too busy trying to learn music they do not understand or even like.
    It’s a real tragedy to see a child go through this torture; the only time they celebrate is “when it’s over”.
    To make matters worse, the books offered by these programs are all geared towards at least a 12 yr. old mentality, even in their primer books that are formatted for an older beginner.
    It’s impossible for a 5-6 yr. old to understand these books if there is no musically educated parent at home.

  4. Hi Tim,
    This blog must have taken a lot of courage to write. Bravo! I have taught a lot of adults that wanted to return to playing piano ‘in spite’ of taking piano exams as children. A couple of years ago a neighbours daughter exclaimed after taking her grade 10 piano exam “I will never play the piano again!” The RCM exams in Canada were very beneficial to me as a child but not well rounded. I completed my ARCT in my teens but couldn’t read a lead sheet to save my life. Even though I had perfect pitch and degree level harmony I still didn’t have a clue how to improvise or how chords really expressed our emotions. So, thank you for saying it and encouraging teachers to re-think there approach!

    • Linda, thanks for your comment and sharing your experience about exam-focussed learning. I also visited your site and really liked your article about To Push or not to Push. That was such an interesting vignette about your children’s experiences. Please email me if you’re ever interested in writing for our site. – Emily, content dir.

  5. I have stepped away from exams to have more time to explore lots of music. Just last week I turned away a potential student whose mom has an advanced music degree and didn’t resonate with my philosophy. But I have now taught long enough to see former students playing in bands,composing,playing for worship events—all loving piano into their adult years. That’s my goal!

  6. I completely and utterly agree with you and so does my daughter’s piano teacher. She just passed Grade I, she has recently turned 10 and he wants her to play some 1-2 Grade pieces first before going straight into the pieces for Grade 2 which she’ll sit next year.

  7. Exactly.
    A leading musician said –
    “Perople do music exams because theyre there”.
    Everest? And a further observation ; what of WAM and LvB ?
    My experience in primary schools was heads and hods used them to give credence
    to the school`s league tables generally and filled a musical vacuum that
    parents then assumed was effective instrumental teaching witout extra time being allocated for it to be that in most cases.Applied out of the appropriate context they can easily cast an uneasy penumbra over music making for the rest of the immediate school or familys` music making.
    Sounds passee but the one positive aspect of them is the value of the list of scales arpeggi and aural tests that need preparation -exams notwithstanding. And sight reading ;?Young people learn in different ways on different instruments voices and musical circumstances from chamber to orchestal solos and rank and file to accompaniment and transposition ?
    What actually does a few minutes blanket test assess and do AB recommend any pedagogy ?

  8. Totally agree. My own piano studies involved usually learning about 75% of the material in the (RCM) Royal Conservatory of Music before proceeding on to the next grade, and I didn’t do exams for every grade level. I follow that same pattern with my students, wanting to make sure they can play a good variety of music at a grade level before preparing them for an exam, and I do not push for exams every year by any means. In fact, if I have parents come to me with the expectation that we’re going to fly through exams every year, I tell them my goal is for their kids to have a thorough understanding of music and appreciation of what they’re learning, and that I will not rush kids through grade levels faster than they can comfortably progress. What’s most important to me is that my students are making connections, seeing how this melody is outlining an E minor chord, or how that piece is in ABA form, and getting the bigger picture of the music they’re learning.

    • Sounds like a good approach, Julie. Thanks for your comment. All those musicality-related things are so important for students to know about and understand clearly.

  9. Hmm… I’m finding this more and more of an interesting issue. Out of 58 students, I only have 8 of them doing AMEB. – Many are just not at Preliminary stage yet but others just don’t want to because their lives are too busy with school exams and other activities and I choose not to overload them so they find piano yet another chore! I was brought up with AMEB and I don’t think I would have got very far without it because it was an incentive and a goal for me to work towards. Some of my students are like me. But many are not and I can’t expect them to be. I also loved theory! But most students switch off as soon as I talk too much about it. So I always get them to PLAY their theory and not just complete a page and mark it.

    I guess it comes down to – who, personally (not parent-pushed) will happily work towards the exams and HOW are you going to help them work towards them. I believe they are worthwhile if the student loves music in all its facets and is inspired about learning how music works. I learned AMEB scales but was always confused by the relative minor key signatures not including the raised 7th I was never taught natural minors or modes!! Not until Uni!! So I learned only what the syllabus required. I now see there is a MUCH better way to teach towards exams and include “off-syllabus” topics.

    And, I completely agree that only playing three pieces really stifled my playing at whatever level I was at – I struggle to play the current grade 5 pieces even though I went to 8th level. And I’m not a good sight reader either because it was always left until last and not studied – it’s only through my piano teaching that I can now sight read at grade 1 (not very high!!).

    So I have to say, I enjoyed doing exams because I loved music and everything about it. It is who I am. But I wasn’t taught WELL. I DO believe, however, that I am a good teacher. I let myself be guided by each individual student and never put them into “little boxes”, one being “AMEB”. I encourage exams but don’t push them just because I believe they are worthwhile. And if a student doesn’t choose the exam path, I teach them scales and circle of 5ths anyway! One AMEB student is enjoying making up her own music so I’m recording her and helping her to notate it properly – so she’s learning theory that way.

    It is a never-ending topic but that is my approach. And I have to gloat that my last exam student received a Distinction! – something I never received for practical exams, hence why I’m not a great performer but I must be doing alright as a teacher 🙂

    • Sounds good Kim. Thanks for sharing your approach. Interestingly, one of my students recently *asked* to do an exam and is really thriving on the challenge and focus. So you’re right: for some students, it’s a great experience.

  10. Totally agree. Nothing is more boring than ‘teaching’ a test. For the student AND the teacher.

    • Here! Here!

  11. Totally agree!! If exams are the desired route, I require my students to learn 4 pieces per list, plus 4-5 recital pieces outside of the syllabus, plus about 20 quick study pieces.

    • Good approach, Linda. I remember Elissa Milne saying that students should be able to play at least 10 pieces at an exam level (maybe it was even 20!) before they sit for an exam at that level. A very different approach to the kids just learning the 3-6 exam pieces and barely managing!

  12. This is why I delay pupils beginning the exams ‘treadmill’. I want them to love playing lots of different pieces and wait until the first exam is going to feel easy – and not rush into the next grade. There is a place for exams but not as a substitute for becoming a musician.

    • Sandy, I have my students do level 2 or 3, and then level 5 or 6. Students are expected to get First Class Honours — and they do! But only a small % ofmy students do exams

    • That’s my thinking! Making exams “easy” by having students playing LOTS of music at their exam level is crucial to success.

  13. Thank you for speaking the truth! Your article put into words my own observations and feelings. We are teaching people to become musicians, not to master one piano exam!

    • Right! Exams can be important and can be great for some students, but it’s not the goal. It’s just part of the process.

  14. Totally agree. Students need to learn repertoire other than the exam syllabus.

    I wrote a post, last year, because I was having to struggle, to get a few parents to understand this, plus some other issues https://anitaelise.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/why-the-iit-approach-holds-back-piano-students/

    I love the idea of 40 pieces a year, however, I don’t know if the average Mumbai piano student would have the time, to learn so much repertoire. Especially once they reach beyond the 7th standard in school. They have a full day of school, coaching classes (which are very necessary – the cut off percentages to get into college are really high) and homework from school and classes, plus piano practise and usually 1 other ‘activity’ hobby if they don’t have place to play near their homes.

    Having said that, Mumbai students work well with deadlines, and enjoy exams. Teacher’s can use the goal of an exam to get students to learn repertoire, so that the exam pieces get done quick when they start them.

    Study schedules for college work if it’s any science specialisation and post-graduation degrees and diplomas don’t got well with exams, so often students who are really interested in playing the piano use this time to learn repertoire later. There’s the fact music students often want a post-graduate qualification in another field, even if they choose to make a career of music.

    Mumbai piano teachers need to help the student achieve his/her goals in piano, and still get time to do well academically and we need to be flexible with goals to do this.

  15. Couldn’t agree more with this article. I put one student on to G2 way too soon and they are still struggling, put another at a similar level onto G1 and they finished the whole Series 16 AMEB anthology in 5 weeks, all to a performable standard. We do sometimes forget that there is more to a musical life than Exams!

    • Here Here Christobel!

  16. In the US as you know we have the NMTNA. ( National music Teachers Association). But each state also has a variety of music organizations you can become a part of. There is not a nationally mandated exam or system that dictates a particular grade level , however what is expected at a university level or college scholarships will determine the direction you take with your students as you develop them. Most highs schools have what we call solo ensembles or state competitions which many of my students participate and the struggle is the same for exams that you face. Your article addresses the concepts that I believe most teachers face in any form as we prepare students for performing, exams or competitions. I so want my students to love music the rest of their lives, not be Mozart or Beehoven. Some of our composers of the past had deep emotional problems and I hope we aren’t perpetrating a belief to drive students to a giftedness that may come from a place they can never attain or a place we wouldn’t want them to attain. I want them to have skills that last them a lifetime to love and enjoy. If that means passing an exam awesome! If a competition, wonderful, or to just play a a simple recital for the joy of it, the best! We are building people and individuals with souls and hearts. I would love for our world systems to see the bigger picture.

    • Hi Sue – thanks for sharing that as I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be to my US readers. I’m glad (in some ways) to hear we all have similar issues although hope that we can start changing opinions (especially parental) with articles and comments like this. Thanks 🙂

  17. Hi Tim,

    This article has been haunting me as I’ve been teaching my students this week (some of them about to sit exams!) and I wanted to make a couple of other quick points that are worth taking into account.

    One is that I do find that students who learn other instruments, do singing, play in orchestras or rock bands or choirs etc, often do quite well in terms of gaining broad musical education, play at quite a sophisticated level, are decent sight readers etc, despite focusing on an exam program and not learning a great deal of other piano music throughout the year.

    A related point is that when I was a student (back in the dark ages), I pretty much only learned my exam program each year with my teacher. Nonetheless, I played heaps of other music – not just through school jazz and rock bands, church, and high school music class – but also because I was such a big pop music fan that I bought heaps of sheet music and played it myself, worked out the chords for songs on the radio all the time etc etc. This meant that I developed a lot of skills on my own – such as reading from a chord chart, improvisation, not to mention drawing connections between classical theory and contemporary chord progressions etc etc. Obviously lots of piano students won’t do these things on their own (and teachers should be doing all I can to encourage them to – as I do), but I thought it was relevant to the discussion.

    Finally, I wanted to say that I have a few students who I think would barely improve at all without the pressure of exams. They learn pretty much three to six pieces a year, and get them to a good or great standard when the exam date starts to loom. Please don’t think that I am saying that this is an ideal situation or that I don’t encourage these students to play many more pieces. But I’m speaking about my reality not my dream. Many of these students do heaps of other things – sports, dancing, other instruments, debating, chess and goodness knows what. They like learning piano, but if it wasn’t for the exam at the end of the year, I think they would rock along most weeks saying “I haven’t had much time to practise” on their lips. And learn maybe a piece or two each term, little technical work and never get the pieces to a good standard.

    Just wanted to throw that in.

    • Hey Paul. I also struggle to know how to approach the kids that only perform when an exam is looming! It’s so frustrating. Does this mean that exams are good for them? Well, I guess so, as long as they realise that their education will be severely limited.

      But then I wonder, would it actually be better if they didn’t even do those exam pieces and instead just enjoyed doing things like you did in your own time, but during lessons: lead sheets, improv, composing etc.

      Tough questions!

      I also get what you’re saying about multi instrumentalists – they are some of the few kids that can make good progress with a limited program, but I would never encourage it for piano-only kids.

  18. Outstanding information … thank you. Having, in my youth been put through the “exam system” I fully agree with the above article. Every student needs an all encompassing musical education. Learn not only peices, technical exercises, and theory, but also play around with history and learn somthing about the instruments of the orchestra. The last 2 need not be too in-depth for early pupils…go to the interest and ability of the pupil. This all takes time; so an exam every year? No, exams when and if the pupil is ready and willing.

    • Agreed! Learning about instruments of the orchestra becomes vital as students get more advanced.

  19. Your post is timely considering it is exam season. Transfer students are difficult. I don’t I have ever had a transfer student who has lived up to the last ‘grade exam’ level in terms of their ability.

    Our education system is very assessment-based and it the dominant yardstick for measuring achievement. Not that there is anything wrong with that system, but there is something definitely amiss as many (parents/students) seem to think it is the only way to measure success. This assessment philosophy permeats our entire education system so we have to deal with it creatively.

    Our job as music teachers is to broaden the perception of what a full and rich ‘music education’ should entail. We should also stand firmly against parents who push their students (and teachers) to do exams every year when the student is clearly not at the level to achieve a commendable result. For me it is a clash at the fundamental level. In these cases I have ‘let the student go’ or suggested alternative lesson arragements.

    Having a clear goal is important but so is having the right process in place to achieve it. That process should include a broad scope of repertoire and music enrichment activities to facilitate and enhance the learning process and ultimately the end goal for them – exams.

    However, for some the result and grade climbing quickly is all that matters. A poor result will reflect on you, so it may be worthwhile moving them on. It could also be one of the underlying reasons the student ‘transfered’ in the first place. Who knows.

    • Some great ‘thinking out loud’ and I don’t have all the answers. I think goals are important however, while at the same time being relevant to the student (not you or the parents). Perhaps that’s an exam, but perhaps it’s printing out a copy of their composition or having a family recital. It doesn’t have to be about exams.

  20. Great post… I have been saying similar things to students and parents for years. The exam treadmill can be toxic for student’s motivation and musical development. I like your time-frame of 3 or 4 weeks to learn a piece….. If a student can’t do that, then they’re most likely trying to learn pieces above their current ability (or they’re not practising enough!)

    • Thanks Helen 🙂

  21. I too agree with the article and everything Tim and the others have said. I have found myself in the same situation with transfer students and am often cursing myself the week before the exam. For me personally, it seems that 3rd grade is sometimes a hurdle and I am lucky enough to have parents who understand that it’s not important to complete one grade per year. I’ve had parents in the past who have tried to push me to enrol their child in exam they’re not ready for. This is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog and I refuse to allow it. If they don’t like it they can take their business elsewhere and a couple have.

    Thank you Tim for posting this. It’s comforting to know that there are other teachers in the same situation.

    • I think we’re all in this situation! I love your comment “parents who understand that it’s not important to complete one grade per year.” That is SO important and a part of the teaching we have to do (ie. teaching the parents as much as the kids).

  22. Absolutely spot on! I would say not just anti-piano, but anti-music in most cases where an exam system is abused!

    Having battled similar situations with transfer students, the damage that can be done through grade pushing and skipping is, in the worst cases, practically irreversible. Trying to re-shape parents’ attitudes can also be tricky to say the least once they have been accustomed to the perennial exam per year schedule with little else in between. Measuring students’ playing levels is almost (unfortunately) always predicated with the usual “What grade is that piece?” or “What grade are you doing?” by both parents and teachers alike. I sometimes say “I’m pretty sure Mozart didn’t write with such a system as AMEB in mind” (!), but many (including too many teachers) are very quick to classify repertoire into the all-too-familiar examination syllabus and don’t see a composition for its merits in what it can teach and develop, but instead something that can be pigeon-holed into a grade and which ‘List’ it will fit. What of duet work or chamber music also to fulfil this needed dimension of piano study? Also, students need time to emotionally and spiritually develop, not just technically. It is rare the selection of repertoire is given with this in mind. Rather than “What grade is this”, perhaps we need to think more along the lines of “What does this student need to develop in this or that particular phase of their development as part of a well-balanced and sequenced programme?” Sometimes students do need to sit with a certain skill level for some time before it really solidifies and have further experience applying them to similar levelled repertoire. Learning a single study or one contrapuntal piece for instance per year is really not going to give enough apprehension and revision of newly acquired skills, let alone build up a repertoire base.

    I completely agree with the article quoted that exams, when handled without consideration and proper preparation, can leave a student “bereft of musical background, understanding and enjoyment.” In the haste to get to Grade 8, which is seen as some sort of benchmark of attainment as it is the last of the numbered grades of the AMEB and hence usually a terminating point with many students, I often marvel at the notion that piano has now been “done” upon the achievement of that level, when usually the reality is that the student has no lasting skills which can be called upon in the future. Around 4 weeks after they stop playing, the old exam pieces (despite being slaved over for who knows how long) can no longer be retrieved from the mind or fingers, and since sight reading has never been developed, it is normally the case they never play again as it is always a struggle to learn or read anything and little enjoyment or fulfilment is left as the exam has been the only thing which kept them going – an extrinsic motivator. Surely this is the worst result; much worse than any poor exam mark that may have been given along the way. All those years of tuition, financial outlay, with basically zero return. They never mastered the language of Music, but have some certificates from having completed exams!

    The motivation to have piano lessons is ill-conceived when it all comes down to pushing a student through grades and not seeing their use as merely an aid within a broader scope of pedagogy. I never even mention exams for quite some time, and only then to those who are curious about them, see a point to them, and who have already accomplished a secure base of skills to work from – none of which can be properly established if the looming exam becomes the sole focus from the start. Isn’t it also funny how when an exam report is opened, everyone goes straight for the box with the result! Natural enough perhaps, but the comments are almost never really taken in account or reflected upon. It is all about the mark, not the appraisal of the musician marking it. As long as that little box yields an ‘acceptable’ mark, then mission accomplished it seems!

    Examining bodies have become very much business minded with the huge numbers of candidates enrolling and increasing each year. The cure-all that exams have become in that they conveniently provide a graded syllabus for teachers who use it as their only teaching tool rather than devise their own, and encourage using music as a commodity that can be measured, compared, graded, marked, i.e. everything becomes result driven rather than being about all the beautifully unique qualities that can be experienced. The dominance of exams in studios is not allowing the most important aspects of music study to flourish, and frankly is grotesque. The poster above also points out the pressure parents can apply to undertake exams. Indeed many schools also push for exams as a way of supplying an assessment for them as a readymade way of satisfying parents that something is “happening” with their Music study, and many students think this is routine to do an AMEB exam as THE way of learning music and that there is no other point to learning if one does not sit an exam. These views need to be changed and we need to defend against pushy parents as it is detrimental to the student if we allow them to find themselves in situations as the first poster here explains.

    Tim is right saying that exams can be useful and when done well do give a real sense of achievement. I would like to look at a more global way of thinking at all this though, and I hope the comments above provoke something to that end!

    Thanks Tim for sharing your thoughts generously as usual. It is good to see some other people who also relate in their comments above.

    • Hi David. Many thanks for your detailed reply. It’s great to hear how other people feel about this important issue but it’s also sad that so many students are being short-changed in their education. Your reference to exams as extrinsic motivation reminds me of the article I wrote on this topic some time ago. Funnily enough, I have a student who says he needs the pressure of exams to force him to practice (having done the exam-a-year for three years). What of the enjoyment of playing?!

      Let’s hope we can spread the word to other teachers: think before you enrol and don’t let parents pressure you to rush students into exams. Exams should test your current level of skill, not one that is 2-3 years ahead of your playing.

  23. Hi Tim, I completely agree – and often face this challenge, especially with transfer students where there is parental pressure to do an exam each year (with no thought to broad musical development, theoretical understanding, or, heaven forbid, enjoying playing and learning!). I’m going to show this article to a number of my students and/or their parents – hopefully someone else echoing these thoughts will help them to take me seriously.
    Thanks, Paul

    • I hope it’s helpful with your students and parents – let me know.

  24. I agree wholeheartedly with everything discussed in this article. For me teaching piano here in the UK it’s even worse, as students only have to learn 3 pieces with no extra lists. I also have had transfer students who’ve in theory passed the previous grade level but simply are not equipped to cope with the next level. I’ve had to take them backwards rather than forwards which has certainly challenged their motivation to continue learning. Thanks for posting this article.

    • Thanks Christina – I was wondering whether it was the same overseas. I’ve also had to take students “backwards” (more correctly, “back to basics” perhaps) and thankfully, most have been open to it as they can see their improvement much faster, as long as the repertoire I choose keeps them interested.

      I know that the US doesn’t have such an exam-focussed approach given there isn’t one huge exam board like the AMEB…does anyone have experience there?

      • Tim, sadly not the same overseas. The AMEB system(ironically originally modelled on the ABRSM system) is a far more conclusive examination. Also students can enter the exam with their exam book covered in pencil markings pertaining to the actual piece and any other relevant general musical knowledge information. All this contributes to a much easier passage through the exam system. At the same time, as discussed in the article, without a general rounded approach to each grade level there can result a lack of exposure to relevant stylistic and technical aspects, often necessitating re-learning material/techniques before being able to progress naturally to the next level.

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