Do Your Students Need to Do Exams?

May 3, 2017

George Bevan examines the pros and cons of exams as a private teacher.

The pros and cons of music exams are, I should hope, fairly obvious. They offer a ready-made syllabus, a target for students to aim for, and more often that not a great sense of achievement once we’re through the other side. On the minus side, one hears horror stories of children spending a year or more learning the same three pieces in order to pass the exam — or in some cases failing — but either way immediately beginning work on the pieces for the next grade. A painful cycle of struggle, for pupil and teacher alike, and to what end?

Personally, I like exams but in weighing things up I still find myself with a much longer list of negatives than positives, the main source of these being the misuse of exams by pupils, parents and teachers.

An examination is a test, a thorough check that everything is working well. What wouldn’t be good about this? Well, I guess it’s not so good if you have something to hide. I remember going to my piano lessons as a teenager, sometimes with the specific intent of trying to get through a tricky passage without my teacher realising that I was far from mastering it. That’s madness!

Our teacher, like a sports coach, is the one who needs to know all of our weaknesses; it is only in performance that we need to be able to pull the wool over our audience’s eyes (and ears) and persuade them that all is well.

Nothing frustrates me more than the approach that ignores thorough preparation. Music exams are designed (albeit some better than others) to encourage the development of specific skills, but there are all too many who sidestep this in favour of their single aim: to ‘get’ the exam.

With all of the exam boards, it is entirely possible to pass the exam by working hard at the repertoire, having a stab at the technical work, and doing your best in the sight-reading and aural tests.

In one respect, this is all fair and good. But surely with this approach, we have lost sight of the goal? For me, the goal in our teaching should be to equip our students with everything that they need to become self-sufficient musicians, and if we are entering them for an exam that includes repertoire, technical work, sight-reading and aural tests, then we should be preparing them for all of those things.

What message is it giving our students about the value of these things if we are encouraging them to use diversionary tactics?

A better approach

Not so long ago, I went to a talk given by a senior examiner, who shared with us what it was like to be on ‘the other side of the desk’.

Included in her anecdotes was the case of a piano pupil of hers who couldn’t sing, and she proceeded to give us a variety of tactics for how to cope with the aural tests for such a pupil. Amongst the many creative solutions, the one which she didn’t suggest was to teach her pupil to sing. Too difficult? Too time-consuming? Not relevant for a pianist? She didn’t say, but needless to say, I was less than impressed.

You can pass the Grade 8 piano exam without singing, but if singing is a skill which is going to help you to be a better musician (it is, by the way!) then you should include that in your teaching too. You can pass Grade 8 singing without being able to sight-read, but sight-reading is a great skill to have, so why not teach that too?

A couple of years ago, I took on a piano pupil and in due course prepared her for Grade 3 ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) exam. She passed all of the tests with full marks, which is no mean feat, but the comments about her pieces and the corresponding marks highlighted what I already knew (I could have written the entire comment sheet myself) — her playing was a little bland across the board.

For the next year, we explored a wide variety of repertoire, and my teaching focus was purely on how to draw out character in her playing. She is a very shy but obedient student, and it was not an easy task. But come Grade 4, our hard work was evident — a distinction, and more importantly, a delightfully characterful playing of her pieces.

I include this last example to show how I think exams are best used. As a teacher, I value process above outcome; in other words, the quality of the learning, and ultimately the empowerment of the pupil, is much more important that any snapshot assessment.

These assessments are useful, undoubtedly, but they in themselves are just a small part of an ongoing process which should guide both teacher and pupil in their overall technical and musical development.

George Bevan is director of music at Monkton Senior School near Bath, UK.

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