A Paradigm Shift for the Music Exam Culture

I have encountered some interesting experiences when asked to prepare students for examinations. A classic example is the case of a student, a 10-year old girl who has been learning the piano since kindergarten, whose parents had wanted her to take the Level 1 Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) exam but that her previous two teachers had apparently refused to prepare her for the examination.

Her mother in her own words insisted that the ‘exam is the only measure to ensure progress.’ I was not appalled by that comment because this has always been a common misconception among many parents and some children. Upon completion of my first consultation lesson, I determined that this young lady was very musical and intelligent.  Usually I do not fast-track students for an exam unless under the following conditions they:

  • Have attained a sound level of technical skills set
  • Achieved a standard musical aesthetic and general musical maturity
  • Are an adept and responsive learner.

This 10-year old girl satisfied the above conditions so I prepared her for the Winter-term examination.  I stated clearly to her parents that fast-tracked student for an examination is outside my professional practice but that an exemption applied for their daughter as she had met the aforementioned conditions.

My concern is that many students and their parents are convinced that it is only through formal music examinations, that a child’s musical potential can be determined.  In reality, formal music examinations are only a snapshot of the performance of the day at a particular time and space when students present the best or the worst of themselves in front of a stranger in high-stress circumstances.  It is as though someone prepares for a job interview, where they anticipate possible interview questions and prepare responses they are expected to impress the interviewer; however, in reality the applicant may not be the type of employee they describe themselves to be.

In other cases, parents may pressure their child into the examination so they are able to brag to their friends and neighbours about it.  A child may want to participate in the examination due to peers’ pressure. Under such circumstances, the motivations are ego-bound and may be a recipe for failure.  No doubt some students may pass the examination in these circumstances but I question whether such success is truly indicative of the learning and the student’s ability.

I have even encountered cases in which some teachers brag on their website that they have prepared a six year old student for a Grade 4 examination after less than three months of instruction or entered an eight year old for the Grade 6 examination with less than six months of instruction, with all passing with a distinction!  I have inherited some of these seemly ‘gifted’ students who, when asked to play some repertoires outside their examination pieces, had difficulty reading the notations, struggled with simple and basic rhythms, and whose proper note values were not observed.

Often time, when a student is pushed to prepare for an examination, so much of the lesson is taught and learned in a panic-driven mode with a high anxiety. Under these circumstances, the student plays scales dutifully but reluctantly, but without smoothness and proper rhythm.  He or she sight-reads poorly and may feel awkward with disorganized rhythms.  This certainly creates fear and anxiety in the student, with little effective learning taking place!  The student may become disinterested and their self-esteem eroded, creating a ‘musical suicide’.

Preparation for the examination should be a positive experience that builds confidence and excitement with the opportunity to showcase the student’s talent and achievement. The proper approach to preparation includes a choice of a few repertoires from each list, opportunities to master them and periodic breaks and a predictable, even pace to the learning leading up to the examination. Breaks from practice allow for a deeper level of understanding and allows the student to consolidate what was learned into long-term memory.

An effective lesson prepares the student for practicing effectively at home and practicing at home prepares the student for the next lesson. The instruction should be meticulous and thorough, with a connection between the material learned and new material building on previous learning. This is a two-way-process leading to a real learning that generates flow. This develops a holistic and wholesome experience, fostering a very healthy positive attitude towards the learning experience.

Effective instruction elicits a student’s response with both pupil and teacher fully engaged,. There is a positive interaction between the student and the teacher. A positive lesson experience should reflect these characteristics:

  • Lessons are never lack-luster; the atmosphere is fun, lively and students are eager and exited to try out what new learning.
  • There is a flow in the lesson as the teacher doesn’t struggle to think what should come next to engage the student.
  • Lessons should not be just all about getting the notations correct (the most basic principal for all but beginners) but should propel the student to new discoveries and experiences.

Unless students are taught to explore, discover and experiment with the music–beyond learning how the instrument operates or how to read notations or to play a  piece from start to finish-they will disengage and find lessons tedious, stressful and dull.  It will just be a matter of time before the student’s interest, confidence and motivation wane and resent the learning experience.

Learning this way prepares student to become an independent thinker and ultimately an independent learner.






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