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.
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
I have recently completed 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:
- 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).
Which Method do I use?
Having studied many of the method books available on the market, my choice for students age 7 and over is the Alfred Premier Piano course*. This is very popular with my pupils as it contains a wide variety of engaging pieces. Many have beautiful duet accompaniments which are great fun to play, and also help in developing performance skills. What I really like about this method is the thorough approach to introducing new concepts and ensuring they are re-enforced before moving onto the next.
Of course, my teaching approach is not limited to one method but using this as a framework for my lessons allows me to be confident that my pupils are covering the right concepts in a logical, structured order, and in sufficient depth. Using this approach I know that if and when I do enter my students for exams it will only be when they have developed firm foundations in their musicianship and developed a wide range of skills.
How long does it take before exams can be entered?
This approach may take longer than others. There are 4 – 5 volumes of the Alfred course to cover before reaching an approximate Grade 1 standard (Levels 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 3 – a student should be ready to start preparing for Grade 1 during Book 3). The amount of time students take to get through each book will vary considerably and depend on many factors including:
- Age of student
- Extent of musical experience prior to starting piano
- Regularity of practice (daily practice will always lead to faster progress)
- Extent to which parents are musical and able to support practice at home
Although it is very difficult to give an average timescale, in my experience a student will take between 6-9 months to cover each level (slightly longer for the earlier levels) as long as regular practice is undertaken. Therefore a reasonable timescale for entering Grade 1 would be roughly 3 years after starting the piano if no musical experience is in place at the outset. Some students will be ready much earlier – recently one of my students took Grade 1 after just 14 months of study, but she was already an accomplished musician, playing another instrument, and could read music fluently at the outset.
(The exam boards also offer “prep tests” for students who want to experience an exam earlier in their study; they are not graded but a certificate and feedback is given. Whilst these are not a pre-requisite for taking further exams, they can be a useful experience. They could be taken approx 12-18 months after beginning the piano).
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).
*For younger children I use the Dogs and Birds approach which I describe on my Early Years page. At the completion of this approach students would typically graduate to Book 1B or 2A of the Alfred Premier Course.