15 February 2011

Who needs Graded Music Exams?

Doing some background reading for my book – a work which has been in progress, it seems, since the day I was born and still shows no signs of significant progress – I came across three different musicians who proudly boasted that they had never done a graded music examination in their lives.  "So what?" was my immediate reaction.  There is no obligation on anyone to do graded music exams and whether or not you do them has no bearing on your subsequent musical career.  A phrase I commonly trot out when talking to teachers and parents is that Mozart didn't do graded music exams and it didn't seem to stifle his development as a composer.

Of course, that's daft. Graded music exams didn't exist in Mozart's day and who's to say whether he might not have benefitted from them.  It's very easy to suggest Mozart was a dazzling genius and assume that's enough, but in fact he was not without his faults.  I am always vaguely amused by those private music schools in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore who call themselves "Little Mozarts" or "Mozart Kids" (sometimes with a z in place of an s to emphasise the fact they are interested in the musical rather than the orthographic development of their students); I'd never send my child there simply because, if they are training the children to become like Mozart, they are in effect training them to become social misfits.

I can think of two or three successful concert pianists who did go through the mill of graded music exams, but the vast majority of successful musicians around today have never been near one.  I recall explaining to incredulous musicians from the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra exactly what graded music exams were; most of them originally came from Eastern Europe or North America where such things are largely unheard-of, and it certainly hadn't hampered their musical development.  And, if graded music exams really are important, how come they never came into being until some wise guy at Trinity College London devised them in 1877?  (A full 12 years before the ABRSM, the two London-based boards to this day dominating graded music exams around the world.)

The fact is, graded music exams came into being because there was a need for such things then and, from the vast numbers of candidates sitting the exams, there is a clearly a need for such things now.  The trouble is the innumerable students, teachers and parents who are actively associated with them, don't fully understand what they are all about; and that mass ignorance seriously diminishes their value in the eyes of the musical world.  For many people, graded music exams are an irrelevance and should be left alone, but for many others, they serve as a useful and essential role in musical development.

The original and continuing force generating the need for graded music exams is the unregulated approach to musical instrument teaching which exists in the majority of countries worldwide.  Anyone can set up business as a piano teacher and nobody knows whether they are any good or not.  Parents, keen that their child should experience the many and real benefits that accrue from learning a musical instrument, have no means of judging how good a teacher is (unless, of course, those parents are themselves professional musicians and, therefore, would know how to bypass the whole system anyway).  On top of that, conscientious teachers, anxious not to damage the development of their students, have no means of knowing whether or not their teaching methods are correct.  And students, failing to grasp the long-term objectives of frequent lessons, quickly lose interest if there is no short-term goal in sight. 

All of these issues are neatly addressed by the graded exam system. It offers an independent annual assessment (which is what it is intended to be, carried out over the eight years perceived to be the standard length between first taking up an instrument and achieving real proficiency at it) using well structured criteria which are in the public domain.  From these graded exam results parents can develop an informed opinion as to a teacher's ability, the teachers can see whether or not their teaching methods are on a par with those of their peers around the world, and students have a clear goal to work for.  On top of that, the assessors are well trained professionals who will hear in a year countless more students on countless more instruments than any single teacher will in a lifetime, so are able to give a global perspective on a single teacher's work.  If a teacher's students are getting distinctions at grade five, they're not being measured just against their neighbours but against every student at grade five across the entire world.  And, speaking for both Trinity and ABRSM, the examiners are impartial and disinterested observers who are trained to a level whereby it is just about impossible for personal issues to cloud ultimate judgements.  

All well and good, so far. Why, then, would anyone denigrate this educational nirvana? 

The problem lies largely in perceptions.  Parents, teachers and students too often perceive that the graded music exam is the ultimate goal in music education.  In southeast Asia it has long since become a competitive sport:  Who can get the highest marks, who can get the highest grade at the youngest age, and who can get through the highest number of exams in a year.  All this leads, in turn, to the exam assuming disproportionate importance.  Too many students are put off music for life because a teacher pushes them too hard – a bad result could affect their professional standing – or because a parent is over-ambitious on their child's behalf – Emma got 140 at her Grade 8, you've got to do better than her.  Fear and anxiety come into play when these should have no place in a child's musical education; the result becomes the guiding principle of doing the exam rather than the skills that are accumulated in its preparation.  Nothing in the system is designed to prevent this, and so the system itself is blamed for the mis-perceptions of its adherents. 

Of course, despite the fact that they are officially charities, both Trinity and ABRSM have a strong commercial incentive for their exams to be taken, and while the examiners and the academic administrators may rail against such mis-perceptions of the system, one is always conscious of a lack of real desire to have it changed from those mythical people ultimately "in charge" of the organisations which administer the exams.  Both boards have moved their business away from merely providing exam assessments to capitalising on the desire teachers have for professional support – I attended one meeting in which one of the boards claimed that, in a few years, graded exams would no longer be their "core business" – but that philanthropic headline only masks the very real commercial need for students to keep doing graded music exams.  They are now big business, and while ABRSM has long been a monolithic, impersonal body where everyone involved has the feeling of just being a cog in mighty wheels, Trinity is rapidly following suit, the charming (and very important) local autonomy given to dedicated representatives, rapidly being swept aside in a growing centralisation driven by ever-increasing candidate numbers.

For a great many teachers, students and parents, graded music exams are necessary and hugely beneficial.  I've been an examiner for 30 years – 20 with ABRSM, 10 with Trinity – and I am passionate about its value and importance.  Recognising its shortcomings doesn't diminish my dedication as an examiner, and while most of my examiner colleagues prefer to maintain a wisely discreet silence, keeping their opinions on the matter close to their chests, I am proud to stand up and say that, while it's a flawed system, until anyone devises a better one, I support it one hundred percent.


  1. well said.this article(or gossip) will be a good reference material for some of my school students parents who have always bugged me with which board is better or have bugged me with what grade did u finish?

  2. Well said. If only we could get all those zillions of music students (and their teachers) into the concert halls to attend concerts, buy CDs, and truly love music (rather than the music equivalent scout badges they acquire), then the "system" would be perfect!

  3. Thank you for the insight. It is definitely useful. Helps parents understand the true purpose and shortfall of piano exams.

  4. I agree with you that graded music exams are necessary and hugely beneficial, even though it is a flawed system. We hope we can find better system soon. Thank you for sharing.