Five Reasons NOT to Do an Exam

Five Reasons NOT to Do an Exam

There is no question that music exams are a huge part of Australian culture. Recently, the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) published in their newsletter five excellent reasons for doing music exams. In a nutshell, these five were:

1. Have a goal to practice towards

2. Practice a broader range of skills (than repertoire only)

3. Gain performance experience

4. Get constructive feedback

5. Have achievements recognised.

These are all good points and very relevant to budding young musicians.

But what if the music student is not interested in exams? Perhaps he or she has done an exam in the past, but had a negative experience and doesn’t want to go down that path again? Or what if it just doesn’t suit his or her personality? As a teacher I find that it is an uphill battle trying to convince children and parents that learning music without churning through the ‘grades’ is a perfectly valid music education.

So this article is here to acknowledge that exams are not for everyone. It’s absolutely, positively FINE not to do exams, and in many ways can actually enhance musical development. For teachers, parents and students who need convincing, here are five good reasons NOT to do an exam:

1. Pressure-free environment

It is a wonderful thing to be able to enjoy music lessons without the pressure of an upcoming exam. Both teacher and student will be less stressed (and parents too). Goals can still be set to strive towards, such as inter-studio competitions, eisteddfods, concerts and family recitals… but there’s no requirement to have a whole program plus a heap of technical work ready all at once on a certain day.

Practice at home is often less stressful when there is no exam looming. There is no ‘cramming’ of practice in the weeks (or days!) leading up to an exam, followed by a complete lack of practice for weeks afterwards. No exam means that the practice routine can be exactly that – a routine, occurring year-round.

2. No limitations with repertoire choices

Depending on the exam syllabus chosen, at least two thirds of the pieces presented for an exam must be selected from a list of repertoire. If there is nothing on the list that particularly inspires the student, well, that is just too bad. The student is forced to play pieces they don’t really like, and would never choose if it wasn’t for the fact that they were enrolled in an exam.

Not doing exams means that students can focus on their area of interest in music. Sure, we want to create well-rounded musicians and it’s great to experience music from various different centuries and styles, but if a child is really only excited by jazz music then LET THEM PLAY JAZZ ALL THE TIME. In my experience, students may wish to focus on just one genre for a while, but they eventually begin to explore others. Allowing musical tastes to develop naturally is the most vital ingredient when it comes to keeping a child motivated to practice, and ensuring that their love of playing music endures into adulthood.

3. More time to explore creative activities

There are so many essential musical skills that should be part of music lessons but are ignored because they are not part of an exam syllabus. The whole lesson is devoted to the requirements of the exam. Due to the constraints of preparing significant amounts of repertoire and technical work, creative activities such as aural games, composition and chord-chart reading are just not able to be covered in the lesson time. It takes a very talented and organised teacher to be able to incorporate creative activities into the lesson and still prepare students adequately for an exam. Not doing an exam frees up lesson time to explore these wonderful musical experiences.

4. No pigeon-holing of ability

Recently, at my nephew’s school, the music teacher needed someone to accompany the choir. She picked the most advanced pianist in the school – a boy doing 8th grade. However, it turned out that the accompaniment was a chord chart, and he had absolutely no idea what to do with it. In the end, my nephew, who has never done a piano exam in his life, but has attended Australian Music Schools where such skills are taught, accompanied the choir (and did it very well too).

Interestingly, even if the accompaniment had not been a chord chart, there is still no guarantee the boy doing Grade 8 would have handled it. The assumption was that he must be a fantastic pianist. However, he may have only just scraped through all of his previous grades, may be a terrible sight-reader, and in general may not be nearly as a good as a Grade 5 pianist who is extremely polished and who has a conservative teacher that isn’t too worried about getting through exams quickly.

The ‘grade’ system in Australia tends to pigeon-hole children and doesn’t allow for the creative skills mentioned in point no. 3, which are not part of any exam syllabus and cannot be allocated to a ‘grade’. So by not doing exams and not announcing what ‘grade’ one is in, there is no assumption of ability – the proof will be in the actual playing.

5. Experience the true joy of performing

Exams certainly provide performance experience – of a sort. It is a very stressful kind of performance, where there is only one audience member, who does not clap after each piece, who may even cut the performance short, and who is there for the sole purpose of giving a grade (as well as comments). These experiences can be so stressful that students end up shying away from other performance opportunities.

This is a shame – because the true joy of performing is playing for an audience who listens for enjoyment. Parents and grandparents, neighbours, friends and extended family are all likely to burst into applause at the end, regardless of whether the child has played their very best or very worst (and if the latter, has hopefully faked it to make it look like they played their very best J).

Students can take advantage of this by organising concerts at home, playing in school assemblies, contributing to the music in church services, playing at the local nursing home – anything to play for others in a relaxed and non-competitive environment, where the sole purpose is to give enjoyment to the listener.

In conclusion: it can be difficult to resist the temptation of exams, especially here in Australia where there is such a strong examination culture. Most of the time, the way children assess each other’s abilities is to ask ‘what grade are you?’. If they don’t have an answer to this question (because they are not doing exams), children find that their friends don’t understand their level of competence on the instrument, and they often feel that their music learning is somehow not valid.

Teachers must help students and parents understand that the examination system in Australia is just one aspect of a music education, and it does not necessarily suit every student. Conversely, students and parents should feel comfortable opting out of exams, and there should be no undue pressure from the teacher. There are many other ways to experience musical achievement and recognition, and a musical education outside of the exam system is still a perfectly valid – and wonderful – thing.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

12 thoughts on “Five Reasons NOT to Do an Exam

  1. Geok says:

    Thank you for your post about five reason not to do an exam. I got a parent and student who got so discourage after doing one exam each year over three years, they were so discourage after reading the report from examiner, student claimed that they put a lots of hard work in exam preparation, result is not what they expected- A,they decided to take a break next year. On the other hand, most parents feel like they are not learning anything if they do not set goals for their child to do exam, just like paying for gym memberships without doing a marathon, no goals to achieve with money invest on lesson. Perhaps a workshop presentation for parents and candidates to understand what to look for in examination and how the examiner mark the exam will help to educate parents and candidates about their expectation in exam.

  2. Audrey says:

    AMEB is really nothing but a cash grab that restricts students musicality. You don’t even get a certificate for your money and the prices continue to rise at a rate that restricts music examinations to the most economically advantaged families only. We went through grades P-2 for piano with my son’s teacher “assessing” him when she deemed him ready. Then we ditched teaching him to play exactly what he sees and taught him how to make a piece his own which turned him into a real artist.

  3. Heidi says:

    I am very glad to have read this article. You have listed the reasons so well, and I totally agree. I grew up learning piano but only to tackle exam after exam, that in the end, it completely put me off playing and I quit.
    I now have a musically talented son, who simply LOVES to play, and is learning multiple instruments (drum kit first, then guitar, and now piano also, and loves to sing) all driven by his love for music as a whole, and I don’t want to crush that love and desire for him by choking him with countless grade exams. I truly agree and found comfort with your reasons and philosophy. I especially love your little story example of your nephew! My son would be able to do that, and he hasn’t done any exams~
    Thanks for writing this, and for all your good work!

  4. Helen says:

    I hear where you are coming from!I think it a) depends on the student b) the teacher c) the parent. I taught for some time in South East Asia – big emphasis on doing exams ( a lot of ABRSM) So BORING – most kids were learning only 3 pieces a year( and some teachers were only teaching 3 pieces per grade), examiners from London were certainly out of touch. Part of my ‘brief’ was to work with students working through a wide variety of music ( including duets, trios, improv etc) – many parents were still wanted EXAMS ( part of the culture) so we used quite a bit of Australian Guild – which allowed far more flexibility ( including own choice options) – parents were happy( and realistically they pay the bills!), kids learnt more ( both quantity and quality). On the other side it is important to develop performance skills ( which MAY include exams as PART of the story) and for many students back here they are able to use a formal certificate ( any approved syllabus – they all count) to either count as credit points or even towards a better year 12 result ( 2 quite different things). I can see both sides – short story – had a student did a preparatory exam ( seriously through my blood sweat and tears)..he got an A – ( parents delighted “he’s never had an A in anything”) never going to go too far in his music – but that A – improved all his school work dramatically – worth even cent of it! The ones who need the exams the least are the good students!

  5. Eric Mitchell OAM says:

    There is a very simple reason why music exams of any kind are detrimental to learning to play the piano. Most students stop after Grade 4 – the sight reading tests are approximately the level of hard Grade 1 or easy Grade 2 exam pieces – few can play these with any musical understanding which leads on to this question – who wants to spend the rest of one’s life exploring music of Grades 1 and 2 level! The answer is very simple – no-one – simply because sight reading and musical understanding skills have had no chance to develop. Playing stops. This situation is common in all countries with A.M.E.B or equivalent systems. I write this on the basis of having taught the piano at all levels for 60 years – having examined thousands of students – having resigned in protest – and having researched piano teaching for children in many countries on many occasions as well as teaching children in other countries which also gave me the opportunity to speak with parents and the teachers. Teachers in Germany – Finland – and France -to quote just three countries – looked at the A.M.E.B.Manual with disbelief. I found in Hungary that there were examinations, but they had no relationship to what we have. 30 pieces were required for every exam from Grade 1 – all had to be by memory – the Examiner could choose any 3 – there were no technical requirements – no ear tests – no sight-reading – there were no Theory exams – there were no Grade books – students would meet in small groups once a month for informal sight rewarding competitions – Music Education was very strong in schools. I also found in Hungary that students learnt pieces quickly and efficiently for a very important reason – they did far more practising than what we experience in Australia. Teachers told me that it was common for students to practice at least one hour daily for 6 days. Schools finished much earlier but they operated 6 days per week. Teachers also told me that they did not like the Government policy of examinations. They wanted complete freedom.

    Teachers here need to strongly resist parents insistence on examinations – in a friendly manner – to explain logically the point I have made regarding the necessity for strong reading skills by the time tuition stops. It is a very simple truth – and some parents will not accept it. In my early years of teaching I lost potential income because I refused to compromise my position regarding sound reading ability.

    As a guide to what level of sight-reading one should have by the time students stop learning – approximately the age of 15 or 16 – I have found the following to be practical – Mozart – 6 Viennese Sonatinas – Beethoven 15 Waltzes – early Haydn Sonata movements – Kabalevsky 6 Sonatinas – Bartok 32 Pieces for Children – wonderful music – easiest Chopin Preludes and Mazurkas etc. There is so much to choose. I expected my students to be able to play these at sight – with some wrong notes and timing but with musical understanding regarding balance of hands – dynamics – and musical style. Fast tempi could be taken at a reduced speed. This has been possible through hundreds of pieces having been explored over years of study. Those who practised the most obviously learnt the most. Some went on to Conservatorium study and performing careers without having taken one A.M.E.B. exam – the majority left me with the confidence and understanding of how to practise efficiently and with a reasonable degree of musical understanding. One pupil came to see me forty years after lessons had stopped and she said -‘ I was not one of your best pupils – I could have practised more – but you taught me to sight read. I have used my musical knowledge teaching at a Primary school – and I have never stopped playing.for my own pleasure. It is sad that not many ex students in Australia can say that.

  6. Eric Mitchell OAM says:

    It has taken two years to reply due to medical issues combined with the composing of 24 Preludes and Fugues and much chamber music. I have studied the piano requirements and – as for the AMEB and other approaches – I am totally unconvinced. I refer you again to my observations re Hungary – particularly 30 pieces required. You have 4! With reference to my statement about what type of music can be explored with musical understanding by students stopping at the age of 15 or 16 – are your students able to do this? If so – I congratulate you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *