Ready for a Music Examination? Practical, specific indicators
Originally published by European Piano Association (UK) Piano Professional Magazine, January 2021.
By Amy Boyes
Amy Boyes is a private music teacher in Ottawa, Canada. Her time is split between teaching, examining, writing and speaking. Her music-related writing has been featured in American Music Teacher Magazine, the Piano Magazine (Formerly Clavier Companion), the Canadian Music Teacher Magazine and Piano Professional. Other writing has been published by CBC, The Globe and Mail, and others. Amy holds a B Mus from Brandon University, M Mus from the University of Alberta and associate and licentiate diplomas in piano performance and teaching from the Royal Conservatory and Trinity College, London.
A music examination is a third-party assessment of a student’s progress. In the best-case scenario, the examination grade level is appropriate, the student is well-prepared, and the examination is an affirmation of the learning process. But this is only the best-case scenario, and several questions should be asked by teachers and parents when considering music examinations.
What is the motivation for taking the examination?
Examination preparation can, in itself, be a powerful motivator for music students. Having a deadline often encourages diligent practicing. However, some music students lose interest if they are only taught the material required for an examination. This kind of focused teaching might be called “Teaching to the Test.”
Academic, Richard Phelps, an advocate for standardized testing in American schools, identifies two potential pitfalls in “Teaching to the Test”: “[1.] Excessive preparation that focuses more on the format of the test and test-taking techniques than on the subject matter, and [2.] the reallocation of classroom time from subjects on which the students are not tested to those on which they are tested.”
While it is nearly impossible for a music student to perform well without a thorough understanding of “the subject matter,” it is easy for a music teacher to devote instruction time to teaching only the skills needed for an examination. For example, because practical music examinations usually test interval identification but not improvisation or harmonization skills, music teachers might avoid teaching the latter to save lesson time. This tendency is not necessarily the fault of examination requirements but, instead, is a symptom of “Teaching to the Test.”
Also, if a student is only taught repertoire necessary for examinations, only performs those pieces, or only explores the theoretical and musical concepts required for a specific examination, the student might conclude that the purpose of music lessons is to complete examinations. Worse still, if that student falters because of nervous anxiety, he or she may decide that examinations are the problem, the cause of the pressure. They may assume they are “bad” musicians or “not serious” students if they don’t excel or choose to forgo examinations in the future.
Unfortunately, I’ve had students quit music lessons after high-level examinations because they don’t have time to practice the next level, and they didn’t see the point in continuing lessons if not preparing for an examination. Examinations for them had become their motivation, not the love of music, a desire to learn, or a passion for sharing music with others. They just needed a box to tick, an achievement to celebrate.
Instead of treating examinations as the singular motivation for music lessons, a teacher might recommend examinations as objective third-party assessments, intended as “check-ups” throughout a student’s musical journey. If the student learns much more repertoire than the examination requires, applies musicianship skills in more ways than the examination tests, and has many positive performances unrelated to the examination, the student can be confident in their overall musical development. Their self-worth as a musician will not be tied to examination results and their understanding of concepts and skills will be much stronger than if they had only prepared for a single event.
As a colleague put it, “As teachers, we should be teaching music, not examinations. If examinations serve the purpose of teaching music, then let us pursue them, but not for any other reason.”
Is an examination acting as a “cover” for what a student hasn’t learned?
Occasionally, students are missing fundamental skills necessary for proficiency at their assumed grade level. For example, by the time a student completes an elementary music examination (perhaps Grade 1 or 2), they should be able to read individual notes on the grand staff, perform simple rhythms involving several note values, and maintain a consistent pulse. They may not be able to do all these things correctly in every circumstance, but their understanding of these elements should be well in place. Establishing these fundamental skills takes time, sometimes more time than I, as a teacher, realize.
However, I might assume a student is ready for their first examination if they’ve taken music lessons for a few years. I may be wrong though and, in my haste to produce results, I may push a student to complete an examination that is too challenging for them. If the student passes, with even modest results, they may then falsely believe they are ready to complete the next grade level when, in fact, they are still not grounded in the fundamentals.
Furthermore, parents may well expect tangible results from their child’s music lessons. Yearly examinations fulfill that expectation and provide parents with evidence their child is progressing. However, if the grade level of an examination is not appropriate to the student’s ability, the student’s performance will suffer and the results will be modest at best. What could have been a success will feel like a failure.
The only failure in this hypothetical situation, though, is my failure as a teacher to address the student’s technical and theoretical deficiencies without succumbing to pressure (real or imagined) to prepare them for an unrealistic examination. I need to honestly explain to parents if more study is required before the first (or next) examination is attempted. Although this conversation might dishearten parents, the student will be a better musician in the long run, and the eventual examination result will be stronger.
It is too easy when a student isn’t progressing well, to congratulate oneself that at least the student completed an examination; at least there are tangible results for their music study. However, it would be better to help the student solve their technical or musical issues, regardless of the amount of time required than to push them through an examination with unsatisfactory results.
The pursuit of tangible results, like music examination assessments, is not the fault of any examination system, but rather a symptom of poorly communicated expectations between the teacher, the student, and the parents.
When is a student ready to take a music examination?
To ensure a satisfactory examination experience, teachers might consider the following:
- The student should be confident in many styles of repertoire.
The total mastery of many pieces may not be possible at all grade levels, but a familiarity with a variety of styles is essential for well-rounded artistry. Within historical eras, there are many styles of compositions. For example, an intermediate-level pianist might relish the quick figures of a Baroque toccata but struggle with the voicing of a Baroque aria. Yes, both pieces fulfill the same repertoire requirement for an examination, but their technical challenges are very different.
Twentieth-century music offers an even greater range of styles. The demands of a graceful waltz, impressionist piece, or tango will vary widely. Some styles will suit the student better than others, so a student must learn many pieces before selecting examination repertoire.
- The student should regularly perform, leading up to an examination.
Researchers found, unsurprisingly, that symptoms of performance anxiety were more prevalent when participating musicians performed in front of an audience, versus when they practiced alone or played for only one person. The reverse is also true: if a student performs many times for an audience before an examination, the prospect of performing for one or two examiners will feel less daunting.
Researchers also discovered that students who were familiar with their performance space and/or repeated concerts felt less performance anxiety than those who did not have those experiences. Although it may not be possible for a student to perform in the examination centre before an examination, teachers should conduct “mock” examinations repeatedly so the student gains experience and confidence.
Also, musicians such as pianists who perform on a variety of instruments are better able to adapt their playing to the caprices of an unfamiliar instrument on examination day. The flexibility of their approach and adaptability of their technique is key to their success in an examination.
- Technical exercises and musicianship skills should be practiced regularly and mastered well-in-advance of an examination.
In my teaching studio, piano students must complete all technical exercises at least twice before we consider a final review in preparation for an examination. The first time through, we focus on perfect notes, fingering and hand position. At this stage, I’m not concerned that the student completes the exercises at the required tempo as I know we will circle back. Instead, we focus on the logic and memory behind each component.
No matter how logically and methodically technical exercises are taught, though, the thrill of practicing them is felt only minimally by many students. The creative teacher might initiate milestone awards or other incentives to be sure the material is learned promptly.
If the student is unable to attain these specific indicators satisfactorily, then perhaps the student is not ready to complete an examination. A student can be discouraged after attempting an examination prematurely. That negative experience can colour their entire musical education, causing them to give up, not just examinations, but music lessons altogether.
However, if a student is well-prepared, performs confidently and receives an encouraging critique, then an examination affirms that the learning process is going well, that the teacher is communicating expectations clearly, and the student is rising to challenges. The experience will be rewarding for everyone, but more than that, the student has become a better musician.
What more could we ask for as teachers?
 Phelps, R. (2011). Teach to the Test? The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 35(4), 38-42.
 LeBlanc, A., Jin, Y., Obert, M., & Siivola, C. (1997). Effect of Audience on Music Performance Anxiety. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(3), 480-496.
 Boucher, H., & Ryan, C. (2011). Performance Stress and the Very Young Musician. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(4), 329-345.