important are music exams? Do you HAVE to take them? What are they for?
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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
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