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So you want to play a musical instrument?

How important are music exams? Do you HAVE to take them? What are they for? We tell you everything you need to know

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Music Exams

There are some teachers, and some parents, who think that learning to play an instrument is simply a matter of moving from one Grade examination to the next, and that if you don't do this you can't be making any progress. This is quite wrong.
Certainly the aim of taking an examination is to indicate that you are making progress. It also gives you something to aim for, a focus for your work, and experience of playing in front of someone who isn't your teacher or your parents. And sometimes it's handy to have some way of measuring your ability - if you're trying to get into the local youth orchestra, for instance, it will help them gauge your standard if you can tell them that you have passed Grade 5 or whatever.
But the average instrumental examination consists, mainly, of playing three pieces of music and some scales. It means that you could go all the way up to Grade 8 (the highest) which takes most people about 9 or 10 years, and only have learnt 24 pieces, many of them quite short. A funny sort of progress!
There are also a number of vital skills that examinations don't test. One of the most important parts of being a musician is playing with other people. Keeping in time with others, playing with the same bowing and articulation or tonguing and in the same style as others, playing in tune with others, watching and obeying the conductor, being able to perform with confidence and panache in front of an audience - these are all essential skills for a musician, and none of them are tested by examinations.
So don't allow yourself to get bogged down with examinations. Use them for what they are - simple tests that give you a target to meet so that you have to work within a given timescale, and that will reassure you that you are moving forward in some skills at least. And do them when you feel the need - not religiously every year.
One thing to bear in mind, especially if you are getting quite proficient on your instrument or are old enough to be thinking about your Sixth Form career, is that grade examinations are now part of the National Qualifications Framework and are of equal merit to all other qualifications. The grades are seen as being broadly equivalent to GCSEs and A-levels as follows: Grades 1, 2 and 3 equivalent to GCSE grades D to G, Grades 4 and 5 equivalent to GCSE grades A* to C, and Grades 6, 7 and 8 equivalent to A-level. You should talk to your school Head of Music about what this means to your subject choices and, eventually, your college applications.
There are a number of different examining boards, each with a slightly different syllabus and different marking methods. The best-known are The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (Associated Board for short), Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. There's little to choose between them, and usually your teacher will have a favourite board.
One thing to think about is that when you enter an instrumental examination on anything except the organ, piano, guitar or drums you have to provide your own piano accompanist. If you're lucky your teacher will be able to play for you, or will help you find someone else to do it. If you're very lucky you may find that you can do the exams of your local LEA music service and that they provide the accompanists free of charge! The entry fees for most instrumental examinations are quite high. The Associated Board charge £24 for Grade 1, and £43 for Grade 6 for instance (2004 prices). Grade 8 is a whopping £55.50 - for an exam that only lasts 30 minutes!
The Associated Board publishes a very informative little book about taking music exams. You can get it (free) in .pdf format by clicking here.

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Copyright © David Bramhall 2001