28 July 2015

Graded Music Exams - A British Eccentricity?


At the age of six, my daughter unilaterally announced she was going to learn the violin.  There had been no parental pressure, and while she had been exposed to much music around the house and a great many live concerts, she had shown no real desire actually to play an instrument, occasionally mentioning that she liked the harp and the cello, but very conscious that these were very big instruments for a small girl to handle.  Yet out of the blue the violin wish was expressed to the extent that a quick trip into town to buy a cheap second-hand one became unavoidable.  She took to that like a duck to water and, knowing of a highly-regarded violinist in the locality who ran beginner violin classes, we had my daughter assessed and accepted.  Two years on and she is still loving it; pony club and horse riding apart, it is the activity she most looks forward to each week.

The class runs for two years during which it performs two concerts annually, after which those who wish to carry on have individual lessons and continue to perform at these concerts as well as a third during the year.  I was overseas on an examining tour when the last of my daughter’s violin class concerts was held, but my wife sent me a video and I spent many lonely evenings in my hotel watching and admiring these enthusiastic young violinists.  After days – weeks – of indifferent early grade violinists gloomily scraping their ways through grades 1,2,3,4 and 5, it was refreshing to see so much talent and so much obvious enjoyment from young violinists playing in concert.  Any one of these (my daughter included) could easily have sailed through a grade 3 and got a high distinction, such was the quality of their tone, intonation, posture and rhythmic security.   On my return we discussed my daughter's progress and future direction with the teacher asking about exams; “I don’t do those”, was her dismissive reply, and we left it at that.

That was when I realised that the reason these students were playing so well was because they were not saddled with the burden of a graded music exam.  Most teachers will spend at least six months in any year with a student preparing them for the next exam.  Everyone knows the student who, having done grade three turns up at the very next lesson expecting to start work on grade four; parents are usually blamed for pushing this on the teacher, but teachers themselves are to blame for not being professional enough to put their educational ethics above pressure from their paymasters.  It is a sad consequence of the graded music exam system that a student who can rightfully claim a phenomenal distinction mark at grade 8 may well have a total repertoire of 24 pieces (three from each graded exam) and a complete ignorance of any kind of musical activity beyond lessons and exams.

The fact is, graded music exams have become a self-propelling machine, driving a whole industry on the engine of a system which assumes a legitimacy which few ever think to question.  The major examination boards, all British-based, may only employ a few hundred (largely young and musically unqualified) administrators in their prestigious London headquarters, but they support thousands of examiners, local agents, advisors and all their support staff around the world, not to mention the huge numbers of teachers who derive their entire income from preparing students for graded music examinations.  Add to this the huge publishing business created to support the exams (in-house for ABRSM, through commercial linkage for Trinity and the others) and, if nothing else, one can look at the graded music examination industry as a major employer.  With the ABRSM raking in vast amounts through entry fees in such places as Hong Kong and Singapore, while Trinity rakes in the dollars hand over fist from Indian and Malaysian candidates, it is also a significant earner of foreign currency and plays a key role in maintaining the UK’s position as a leading player in worldwide education.  As one who has benefitted financially and professionally from over half-a-century's association with the graded music examination industry, I am the last person who should be complaining about it.  It’s done me well, and for my part I have always done all I can to promote it and encourage its growth.  My policy has always been that it is a flawed system, but is the best we have, and rather than sit outside and criticise, it is better for me to sit inside and do my bit to improve it.

But now I’m not so sure.  I accept it is the best system of assessing the early progress of music students we have, but I am beginning to wonder whether we need to have any system at all.  When my daughter is progressing far better in her music by NOT doing exams, are, perhaps, we barking totally up the wrong tree in promoting the exam as an essential part of musical training?  After all, it is a peculiarly British thing; possibly seen by many as typifying that British eccentricity which insists on placing every conceivable thing into clearly-defined categories. German, French, Russian and Hungarian friends, all of whom are musicians, are amazed at the graded exam system which, in their eyes, is totally misguided on placing testing and assessment above delivery and appreciation of musical performance.

Graded music exams came into being at the height of the British Colonial era.  They were designed to ensure music students in colonial territories were on a par with those back home and were thus equally equipped to apply for places in the London music colleges and academies.  That link with the London colleges today exists largely in name only - ABRSM (founded 1889) and Trinity (exams started in 1877) have to hand a chunk of their earnings (we can’t call them profits since both are charitable organisations which are not permitted for tax reasons to show a profit) to the Royal schools and Trinity College London respectively – and while a few scholarships are awarded periodically to candidates through graded exams, these are too rare and geographically inconsistent to make it worth anybody working really hard at their grade 8 in the hope of finding a place at the RAM.  There is a handful of (mostly) Malaysian ABRSM scholars who have made it on to the professional circuit (one thinks most recently of Bobby Chen), but the vast majority of professional performers not only never went through the graded music examination system but have never even heard of it.  Its function has evolved into more an assessment of a teacher’s ability to teach than a student’s ability to make music:  if proof were needed to support this idea, take a stroll through any Hong Kong shopping mall and look at the music schools which promote themselves wholly through their successes in graded music examinations.

Teachers have become so absorbed in preparing students for exams that they forget the purpose of music, and it has become almost the de facto duty of exam board local reps to fill the cavity left by these teachers and prepare concerts which give, at last, the opportunity to perform in public to those students who otherwise spend the entirety of their musical training alone with a teacher and, once a year, an examiner.  The trouble is, these so-called High Achievers’ concerts are as much concerned with promoting the exam boards as showcasing potential musical talent.  Too often we witness the cringe-making juxtaposition of, say, a solo grade 1 violin painfully scraping through a dismal grade 1 test piece and a wanabe pop singer, amplified beyond all human endurance, which does neither of them any good yet impresses us all with the extent of what can be assessed in a graded music exam.

Indeed, so central are ABRSM exams to teachers that they now regard the syllabus as a curriculum defining the bounds of their teaching requirements at each year of a student’s training.  Thus, when Trinity decided to make sight-reading optional and did away with the idea of forcing candidates to play pieces from three different periods of musical history in a single exam, many teachers were horrified.  To this day I still get teachers telling me that this is wrong; “Sight reading is important”, they tell me; “Students have to be exposed to different musical styles”.  And they are right.  But it is not the job of the music exam to do this, it is the job of the teacher, and if the teacher is not good enough to teach beyond what is required in a music exam, then they should not be teaching at all.

The graded music examination system, designed to improve standards in the unregulated world of instrumental music teaching, could be seen as a victim of its own success for, while it has become the accepted standard for many teachers and has certainly expanded and improved the level of instrumental teaching generally, it now has turned to promoting, albeit inadvertently, lazy - if not downright bad - teaching practices. My daughter is by no means alone in benefitting musical from not doing a graded music exam; at a rough guess, I would be very surprised if more than 0.1% of the professional musicians on the world stage had ever done a graded music examination. Perhaps the time has now come for us to rethink the purpose and value of this bloated and self-serving system of musical education and concentrate on producing good players rather than successful examination candidates.