Exams: to take or not to take?

Many students who begin learning the piano eventually turn their thoughts to graded exams.  Exams can be a great motivator for students of all ages and provide a well -recognised measure of achievement.   However a musical education that focuses solely on the passing of formal examinations does not necessarily provide the all-round musicianship skills that I aim to give my students, so that they can develop a true understanding and enjoyment of music. Piano-Exam

I speak from direct experience.  I started learning the piano at the age of four and was promptly put on an ‘exam treadmill’ – passing my Grade 8 at the age of fourteen.  However there were many aspects of my early musical education that were lacking – I was never taught to play by ear, improvise or compose, and the pieces that I learnt were almost entirely for exam (or festival) requirements.   As a teenager I was only able to play pop songs if I had sheet music in front of me – I was not able to pick these out by ear and harmonise with a few simple chord progressions.  When I returned to music and piano study later in life, there were many gaps that needed to be filled.

I now teach the way I wish I had been taught; I want my students to be able to pick out tunes by ear, understand how they can be harmonised and not always have to rely on sheet music to play songs they love.  I want them to be comfortable improvising at the piano and possibly composing their own pieces too.   I want them to experience a wide variety of repertoire of different styles and periods and not be limited by an exam syllabus in their choice of music to learn.  I also want them to have the opportunity to study for formal examinations – but only if they want to,  and only when they have developed firm musical foundations which will allow them to succeed with confidence.

Pros and Cons

When I started teaching I studied for the Certificate of Piano Teaching run by EPTA-UK (European Piano Teachers’ Association).   This is a highly regarded professional qualification for piano teachers. As part of this course we explored the role of formal graded exams in musical education and their pros and cons which I summarise below:


  • Motivation
  • Formal, well-recognised certification
  • Measurement of achievement
  • Some structure for learning


  • Following a syllabus rather than a curriculum, meaning some skills are developed to the exclusion of others.  (For a comprehensive piano curriculum please follow this link)
  • If entered too soon, unnecessary pressure can be felt by pupils who may not have developed secure musical foundations
  • The risk that taking exams can lead to a narrow and / or rushed teaching approach where new concepts are introduced too quickly and focus is solely on exam requirements rather than wider musicianship and enjoyment.

For the right pupils, there is a lot to be gained from taking exams.  However in the UK it is too common for music education to be narrowly focused on exams and often students are entered too early.   Many UK method books are sold with the objective of getting the students to grade 1 quickly and can take as little as 18 months to cover – often having only 1 or 2 volumes in the series.   However, I believe that they often introduce new concepts far too quickly with little re-enforcement before moving onto the next.  Further, they often omit wider skills such as composition, improvisation, playing by ear and chord harmonisation.  (These skills are not pre-requisites for passing graded exams which maybe why they are omitted from these approaches).  Therefore, rather than following a strict method I use a wide variety of materials and activities and tailor these to the particular strengths and interests of the individual student.

To sum up….

Talking to teaching colleagues, and in my own experience, too many students are rushed through the exam system only to give up after the first few grades.  I have many adult students who are returning to the piano later in life, having taken a few grades when they were younger.   Then they gave up – either they lost interest in the narrow approach solely focused on exams or they had not established sufficiently secure skills to be able to cope with the intermediate and higher grades.   They always regret this.  I believe that – had they a more well-rounded education of which exams formed only a part (if at all) – then they may have continued throughout their childhood and teenage years.

I want each and every one of my students to continue to play the piano throughout their lives, continuing to develop a real love for music and the endless possibilities that playing the piano can bring.  And whilst many of them do take exams as part of this, I will never sacrifice their all-round musical enjoyment in favour of an exam certificate.

(If you are interested in reading about this subject further, here is a link to a review that I co-wrote with a colleague contrasting two methods currently available in the UK). 



9 thoughts on “Exams: to take or not to take?

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  4. Interesting article with many valid points, and this whole notion of the pro’s and cons of music exams have recently intrigued me. Being a music school owner and educator, and seeing a vast majority of non exam students progress and love their instrument more than the average exam student has changed my mind on this whole issue. I have my reservations about putting all students through exams as all students come with different personalities, and for many of them the exam system just can’t inspire them to learn and be creative with their learning. We must not forget that music is a creative outlet, and once we put constraints on what can be learnt, and what must be taught… the whole notion of music being creative is lost, and becomes akin to mathematics. Many parents in particular think it is the only correct method to learn and progress with an instrument and get too caught up with the piece of paper, rather than learning musicianship. There are many drawbacks such as learning for exams rather than musicianship, and I have written a recent blog about this. Please feel free to check it out at http://jumbonote.com.au/why-taking-music-exams-is-not-always-the-best-option/

  5. I totally agree in every way. I was on the treadmill up to Grade 8 and at the end of it all I could do was read books and pass exams! Perhaps most teachers only know how to read from books themselves and don’t have the other skills? I had to go back to the drawing board and learn how to be a musician in the real world. Finally I joined a band and have been on the road ever since. I teach piano and other instruments and don’t teach an exam route to anyone. I have done hundreds and hundreds of gigs all over several countries in various bands and have never been asked about what grade I am. In reality, people want to know how well you can play. So refreshing to see this side of things, thank you.

    • Thank you! I know what you mean – so much that I learnt about musicianship was after I passed my Grade 8! I now try to give my students the sort of education that I wish I had received – much more well-rounded. For some of them exams can be a good thing but certainly not for all. Thanks again!

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