Are music exams problematic?

Most people take exams for a number of reasons: to have a goal, something to focus and motivate them, notwithstanding a sense of achievement at the end of it all. Indeed, having taken up the cello in recent years, I identify with all of these reasons and find them very valid. When I learned the piano as a child and violin as a teenager, however, exams were just part of the process, even though at that time exams for me were a source of much stress. And it would seem to me that today, exams continue to be automatically part of the process in a lot of our music making, where using exams as a goal or motivational tool could sometimes be interpreted as the only thing to make a student practice for set periods in the year. As examiner and teacher in various contexts, which has often included decision making regarding exams, course content, and structure, I’d like to share my perspective on exams, in particular as I have returned to them in recent years myself.

Music exams

When exams are used in a way that they are intended – to assess your progress and to provide feedback to help you develop – they can be wonderful. Like everything though, how something is intended does not always mean it will be used solely in that manner, in which case exams can promote a way of learning, teaching, and thinking about a subject that can often detract from what it is we initially set out to do. Music is not the only subject to suffer from this of course and I acknowledge that there is no such thing as the perfect exam system either.

Though there are different types of music exams, the most popular is the graded exam where you work through different levels, generally 1 to 8. Depending on the examining body, grades tend to consist of 3 pieces, scales, aural tests, sight-reading, and theory. The majority of marks go to the three pieces, the rest are divided out among the supporting tests. How marks are allocated is partly due to time restrictions, while separating tests into different categories is one way to offer feedback on different areas of the student’s musical development. Moreover, it is assumed that in preparation for the exam all components will be linked together. For example, when working on a piece you will draw on a number of skills: theoretical knowledge, sight-reading, aural work, and technical work from scales. For many reasons – pressure on teachers to put students through exams and get results, students’ eagerness to acquire certificates and work their way through grades, the misguided perception that music is only about talent rather than work – the marks allocated to a specific task often dictates what gets priority in the lesson or for the student practising at home.

Get your priorities straight

I was taken aback the first time I heard that there is a tendency for some teachers to work on pieces more than the supporting tests because of the marks allocated to them. This is something I can neither confirm nor deny because I haven’t seen the research to back it up but on reflection there may well be truth in it. When you say it out loud it seems to make perfect sense, and it’s something you hear a lot when it comes to the Leaving Certificate – question 1, say, is worth more marks than question 2 so it gets more attention. At third-level, I have often been asked by students if the content we are working on is going to be on an assignment or the exam and if so how much will it be worth. I have also inherited piano students in the past where supporting tests don’t seem to have got much attention previously.

The reason I was taken aback was partly because for me the exam is not the overall objective, it is but one way of measuring knowledge; the point of taking music lessons or a module at university is surely to acquire skills and learn about a subject matter. Although I still believe this, it’s been many years since I have expected that people should think about the exam system in this way; if the exam result is what matters in the end, of course people will keep it in focus, but there has to be a way of preparing for an exam and covering the subject fully at the same time. Just because something might not appear on the exam, shouldn’t necessarily mean that it has no worth, or doesn’t contribute to understanding a part that is on the exam.

In my music lessons, developing musicianship is important. If you are to think of this in terms of percentages though, I am prioritising 40% of the exam whereas teachers who prioritise pieces are thinking of 60%. Why do I do this? For me, the marks are not a guiding tool i.e. I don’t see sections with more marks as more valuable, but simply it requires more time in the exam, while putting effort into what would appear as 40% is really putting effort into 100%. For example, by working on musicianship, a student who looks at a piece for the first time, can draw on their sight-reading, theory, and aural work, which makes the process of learning pieces and scales much quicker, while also preparing for the exam.

To put this in context, let’s consider a child starting primary school. A book becomes the medium through which they can apply their skills and demonstrate literacy. Before this, the child will first start by matching the sounds of a letter they already know to what it looks like, and indeed, thinking of it as a letter. They will learn how to write it, words that start with it, and gradually build up to different letter combinations and spellings, before reading actual books. If the book were the focus at the start with the letter names, sounds, and how to write them only given lip service towards the end of the school year, the child may experience difficulty reading other books. Yet, this trend is quite common in music. Categorising each section in the lesson, even though admittedly the result sheet is a series of categories, runs the risk of not connecting knowledge and experience, while also overlooking the relationship between each part of the process. The end result might be a student who has difficultly reading pieces of music not in the graded exam book.

Syllabus or curriculum

When we choose exams, we agree to follow a syllabus. A music syllabus consists of a list of pieces that will be accepted for examination, as well as scales to be learned, a specified level of aural work, sight-reading, and theory that should be achieved. Essentially, a syllabus reveals the goal, but it does not describe how to attain that goal. Too often, it would appear that the syllabus is used as a curriculum, by which I mean, there is a tendency to teach what is in the syllabus as the specified course work for the year. This often results in pieces getting priority and the supporting tests only being covered coming up to the exam. This method is not unusual, but it means that there is now limited time to prepare for the supporting tests. At this point, sample tests are worked on, which can be very useful in that they prepare the student for what to expect on the day, including the structure of that part of the exam. Similar to the syllabus though they contain examples of what you should be able to achieve rather than how to gradually build towards achieving it. For some students, this could be a big jump from one exam to the next if it hasn’t been introduced or worked on somewhere in between.

In the exam room, there are indicators that certain components have been regarded as separate entities. For example, when it comes to theory, it is not uncommon for students to list off answers hesitatingly and by rote in relation to the pieces performed. This is evident when a student might mix up keys and tonality of pieces or might play a section of a piece quietly when there is p (piano) meaning quiet, but not be able to explain what p means in their own words. They do not reflect on what they have done in the piece to help them with the answer and don’t seem to connect their knowledge with their experience. Of course, nerves are always a contributing factor and does funny things to even the most prepared student.

What grade are you on?

The extent to which we rely on graded exams in Ireland was immediately apparent to a friend of mine from the States who resided in Dublin for some years. Recalling the first time he tried to join an amateur orchestra, he was asked, ‘what grade are you on? Or have you got grade 8?’. He was lost, they didn’t have the graded exam system in the States. My friend explained that he could tell them what repertoire he played, but even then, he was asked what grade he thought he might be. Out of curiosity, he found a syllabus, checked the repertoire on different lists and discovered he definitely was of grade 8 standard and above.

Where grades are concerned, it is very common for students not to think of repertoire as their focus is three pieces from a graded book most years. I have had students where working on repertoire beyond the syllabus was almost considered a set-back, and indeed, in these instances, they became restless because they just wanted to get through the grades. I’ve encountered other students who don’t mind how well they do in the exam, ‘finishing’ is their goal. In all of this, we make assumptions that if you have passed grade 8 you have reached ‘the top’ and you are now qualified to teach; grades are not a qualification. Furthermore, most exam systems don’t require that you pass an exam to move on to the next grade, nor do they require you to take each grade consecutively.

Grades can be misleading and can create a catch 22 situation. Results or grades are sought, where perhaps it is assumed the skill will directly correlate; in theory it should, but this is not always the case. Teachers can feel under pressure to put students through exams even if they are not ready for them. This can mean finding other ways to get students through the exams. Sample tests closer to the exam replace aural training and sight-reading throughout the year, theory becomes a list you learn off by rote, while scales might be seen as a standalone series of patterns. In order to demonstrate that students in a school are doing well, and to tie in with marketing and exam systems, schools are almost expected to inform the public through social media or on their website what percentage of their students obtained honours and distinctions in exams. Should schools instead be encouraged to list the skills their students achieved at the end of the year?

Snapshot in time

Though exams may be motivational, they don’t always accurately measure progress more than they measure how a student performed in an exam for a specific duration of time on a given day. In other words, it can often be a better indicator of how you handle nerves rather than a skill acquired. Of course, part of performing and being a musician is about playing in front of people and having the nerve for it, so its place is not redundant. But should we place the outcome of learning over a year on such a short period of time, if there is no real need to do so?

In the lessons coming up to my students’ exams, we have a chat about their work throughout the year. In most cases the students will have made progress, they are more than ready for all parts of the exam, and I am happy with how far they have come along. I make clear to them that while it will be nice to have a certificate and to get feedback from the examiner, they shouldn’t feel that they need the result sheet to tell them something they don’t already know. And should nerves get in their way on the day, or something not go to plan, not to worry because their level won’t suddenly drop or their hard work from the year disappear if they lose a few marks. I’m not suggesting that students shouldn’t strive to do their best, but rather realising that the exam is not the deciding factor when it comes to learning music takes pressure off the students. They have put in the work, they have achieved what they set out to achieve, the exam is merely a nice outing and a chance to perform for someone different.

What’s the point of taking music exams?

Music exams provide structure, are motivational, give a sense of achievement, help students cope with nerves, encourage students to manage tasks in a given timeframe, help students get used to exams, students get feedback from an external body, and are able to benchmark their progress. Students learn that patience, commitment, and time are important to learning a skill. They learn how to juggle tasks.

The problem arises when we lose sight of the exam’s function and the exam itself becomes the focus. In the Leaving Cert., the marks you get dictate what path you take to third-level, should you choose that path – even then I don’t necessarily agree with the point system in the Leaving Cert. – but graded exams, unless applying for a scholarship etc., don’t require you to get a specific mark to move on to the next level and it doesn’t stop you from engaging with music. Yet, students and parents often place a lot of emphasis on the actual result, not the feedback. They may look at the grade as a measure of progress, not whether they have acquired skills. Moving outside of the exam might be considered time wasting when you could be working through the grades. It seems to be about what level you reached rather than whether or not you will ever play music again.

Are music exams problematic? I have two perspectives. First, now that I have returned to exams on the cello, I see their value. If I truly want to master the scales and the technique needed to perform a piece, I need patience, and I need to practice. Due to work commitments, this is not always possible, but I never let the exam dictate the pace of my lessons. I fully appreciate that to be able to achieve all the syllabus requirements, there is so much to think about. Even though my background in music means I don’t have to work on certain things with my teacher, such as musicianship, I’m fully aware of its place and its necessity in helping me progress quickly and explore lots of repertoire. I couldn’t imagine going from one grade to the next and working only on 3 pieces without any work on musicianship if I were completely new to music.

My second perspective is as an examiner: the exam tends to take priority and often this is because it’s just what happens in music tuition. The syllabus is used as a curriculum, the exam is the end point. Instead of the exam being an aid to help you focus, it becomes the sole objective. I’m not suggesting we abolish exams, but rather we need to change our perception about exams, what they stand for, and what music lessons signify. We need to trust our music teachers before the graded exam system. We need to have more discussions about music education. So, are music exams problematic? As long as the exam is the focus and not the music, yes; when used as only one part of the learning experience, no.

2 Replies to “Are music exams problematic?”

  1. Excellent article! I have encountered some of the same mindsets in regards to parents/students wanting to do exam after exam, and it can take some convincing that the student needs more time to develop the necessary skills before carrying on to the next grade.

  2. Many thanks for your comment Kaeylea. It’s a difficult to get a balance. Even if students only ever worked with exams, it would be beneficial if they worked on all the components of the exam consistently. All we can do for now is keep having conversations with parents and students as it does boil down to understanding expectations from both the teach and the student & parent at the end of the day.

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