20 April 2016

The end of the line for the Graded Music Examination?

Having just completed a university course which covered the issue of music education in Singapore, I was surprised by the amount of hostility and opposition the students showed to the concept of graded music examinations.  Considering Singapore is one of the growth areas for the exam boards and that virtually every Singaporean has had some connection, albeit peripherally, with graded music exams, I was expecting at least a general acceptance that, even if they had some evil about them, graded music examinations were seen as a necessary evil.  Not a bit of it.  Perhaps three out of 80 students registered a measure of support, but by far and away the majority view was that they were positively detrimental to music.

More than one student was willing to stand up and recount how being “forced” to do graded exams had led them away from a love of music, how the pressure to do exams had stifled their interest in music, and, most seriously, how the extended period spent learning examination repertory had prevented them broadening their own musical horizons by learning other pieces.

We know that a majority of piano (and it is mostly piano) teachers in Singapore work on the exam syllabus as a complete teaching curriculum, and regard the exam as such a fundamental in music training that all efforts are focused solely on the exam and achieving a distinction mark in it.  However, quite how damaging that has been to Singapore’s musical environment has not seriously been considered.  Yet here were students, many still having piano lessons, who could show that those of them with a love of music, of jazz, of improvisation, of experimentation , of ensemble playing, even of accompanying were being denied a musical education because of this wholly false elevation of the graded exam into a measure of total musical ability.

As an examiner of many years’ standing and one who has, at various times, argued passionately about the benefits of graded music exams while recognizing the dangers they pose, I was not prepared for quite such uniform opposition to them from students themselves.  Students, it should be said, who are every bit as signed up to the Singaporean concept of exam culture as anyone, but who recognize the failings of the graded examination system within the context both of other academic examinations and of the musical health of the nation.

The problem is, of course, largely down to teachers and parents.  The latter, mostly from a background where music is alien, can only understand progress through physical evidence such as examination reports and results.  Unable to identify skill and ability over paper qualifications, these parents naturally press teachers to elevate the exam above and beyond its role as a yardstick of progress.  Since parents are the teachers’ paymasters, it is equally natural for the teachers to accede to their demands.

But the teachers must take the lion’s share of the blame if graded music examinations are, as seems likely, being discredited by their extensive misuse.  If a teacher is a professional, the parents must be persuaded to accept the professional’s opinion.  The trouble is, too many piano teachers are not, psychologically speaking, professional.  They neither understand nor practice their art in a professional manner, even if they earn their income from it and devote their lives to it.  The teacher who has neither the courage nor the conviction to show professionalism in the face of parental pressure, has no moral right to offer guidance to a pupil.  The recurrent theme from the students has been that the teachers were too exam-orientated; and whether the teachers really were that or were simply doing the bidding of their paymasters does not come into the equation.

They are familiar stories, especially (but not exclusively) in Singapore: The student who obtains distinction at grade 8 but who knows nothing about music, playing the piano or communicating to listeners.  The student who, after a decade of intensive study, knows just two dozen pieces of music.  The student who does not know what improvisation is, has never heard of most major composers, thinks of Bach merely as the composer of a Prelude and Fugue or Beethoven as the composer of a Sonata or two.  All of these are symptomatic of having passed through the graded music examination system and come out with a paper chain of distinctions.

There is nothing inherently wrong with graded music exams, but there is everything wrong with the way they are perceived.  And as perception in Singapore is a much stronger currency than truth, perhaps the time has come for a new generation of teachers to abandon graded music examinations altogether.  If the nation is to grow musically, it has to eradicate the cancerous spread of the graded musical examination, otherwise it will forever see music as a competitive sport rather than an artistically enriching experience.

It is a very sad fact that too many musical organizations offering higher education musical courses, competitions or even teaching/performing jobs expect of their applicants some evidence of achievement in graded music examinations.  Clearly, there is a need to persuade them away from this policy; in many respects, such certificates are worth less than the paper on which they are printed.  But while it seems self-evident that some kind of certification is needed to demonstrate a musician’s worth, we should ask whether that really is the case.  Ask any German, French or American musician about graded music examinations, and they will have no idea what you are talking about; yet these countries are as musically distinguished (possibly more so) than those who place the Graded Music Examination system at the heart of their educational plan.  

There is a growing groundswell among music students in Singapore that the graded music examination system is not just inappropriate but detrimental to the musical environment here.  When I asked them to suggest an alternative, it is interesting that they seemed to feel that no alternative was necessary, that the graded examination far from filling a hole in the educational environment, simply added an extra and unnecessary layer to it.  

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