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  • Chris Anderson

To Exam or Not To Exam

My teachers made me do exams. I didn’t have any say in the matter. In this blog I explore whether you should do an exam or not. Ultimately the final decision should be yours, but maybe you don’t have enough information? Here I’ll explain my viewpoint and hopefully give you valuable insight so you can make an informed decision.

Why Do An Exam?

The first question to ask yourself is “Why am I doing an exam?” And be honest! Is it because your parents are making you do it? Is it because your teacher is making you do it? Is it because you want to do GCSE or A-Level music or maybe even degree level? Is it because you want to give yourself a challenge? In my opinion one should only do an exam if one wants to do an exam…not because one is being forced to by another party. Realistically if you want to do qualifications (GCSE, A-Level etc.) you will need to do exams, but one could make the assumption that if you want to take your music to that level, you want to do exams anyway to enable you to do so. Ultimately though think about what you want to get from your music.

Forcing someone to do an exam isn’t really the right way to go about things. If someone takes an interest in learning an instrument they shouldn’t be expected to do an exam. Sometimes parents will make the child do an exam for their own kudos (“My child just passed their grade 6 exam on the bagpipes and they’re only 12”) or perhaps to make up for their own shortcomings. The child’s life is their life, not yours; so before you enforce the “you must take exams” route, think about how that would have made you feel when you were young. If a teacher forces you to do an exam and doesn’t give you the option…maybe they aren’t the right teacher for you? I will always tell a student there is the opportunity to do an exam if they want to. I will also point out the pros and cons of doing so.

Exam Pros

  • It’s great to have a goal. A target to work towards.

  • Knowing what you’ve got to work on can make practise sessions more constructive.

  • You have a specific set of parameters with which to work, so you know exactly what you can do to get the best possible grades.

  • You discover pieces that would perhaps otherwise pass you by.

  • They help focus and develop your technique.

  • You develop new skills.

  • With some boards you can improve your improvising.

  • With some boards you can improve your musical knowledge.

  • Your sight reading improves.

  • Your listening skills improve.

  • Your keyboard geography improves.

  • Your flexibility improves.

  • Your musicality develops.

  • There’s a wonderful sense of achievement when you pass.

  • You get a lovely certificate (to hang up in your downstairs cloakroom).

  • There are now a plethora of options and styles for you…Classical, Jazz, Rock & Pop, Musical Theatre

Exam Cons

  • It can be intimidating performing in front of a stranger you know is grading you. However, since the Pandemic some exam boards now do Digital Submissions. This means that you video record yourself doing everything for your exam (in one continuous take) and upload that.

  • It can be tedious practising the same things week in week out. However, there should be nothing to stop you having some distraction pieces too!

  • Yes, scales can be boring! But there’s lots you can do to make them interesting (I’ll cover this in a later blog). Just remember, without scales (and arpeggios) you don’t have any music!

  • Sight Reading can be scary. However, it’s a great skill to develop (I’ll cover this in a later blog too). It is also worth noting though that the Trinity Board don’t make you do Sight Reading until Grade 6 (they have four options for the first five grades).

  • Aural can make you feel self-conscious. The Associated Board make you sing in your aural tests, for some this can be the worst thing ever. The Trinity Board however, don’t get you to sing at all.

The above lists are by no means exhaustive and nor are they anyone else’s opinion. These are simply my thoughts.

What Next?

Assuming that you’ve decided to do an exam because you want to do an exam and not because someone else is forcing you. The next step is choosing the right board for you. I’ll be discussing this in my next blog.

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