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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.