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When to take an exam.

Exams have been a feature of private music lessons since 1877 when Trinity College started issuing certificates to external students using a gauge of 1 to 8. There are now multiple boards but the recognised standard remains concurrent between them. Grades 1 to 5 are the elementary stages where you learn the individual skills, knowledge and technical requirements. The most important here is the Grade 5 as this marks the end of the formative musical development and is the gateway to the advanced grades. To access these you will require Grade 5 theory, this used to be a written exam but now is a drag and drop online exam.


Grades 6, 7 and 8 carry UCAS points which are accepted at universities, there are points for performance grades and theory (written) grades. Full details can be found on the LCM, Trinity, Rockschool, MBA and ABRSM websites.


If a student wishes to take an exam through Stalybridge Music Academy they will require the purchase of examination materials which can be ordered from reception. Usually this is a book or two, although theory exams may require an additional lesson a week.


Tim Topham of TopMusic in Australia interviewed the Executive Director of the ABRSM, Tim Arnold, who said


“…an exam is only part of your toolkit and if you were to only learn three exam pieces a year, you would only have scratched the surface of music over an 8-9 year period”.

Kathryn Page, who hosts the Piano Teacher Help Desk in the Pianist magazine, discusses three piece syndrome. This is the term used when a student's repertoire may be limited to three exam pieces and they are unable to play, practice or perform anything else. This effects self-confidence, enjoyment, the perception of music, the different styles of music available and the art of making music in general.


The teachers at Stalybridge Music Academy guide students in how to explore music of all styles from around the world. We explore the background stories to the music and how the music is constructed.


In short, we teach you

  • how to enjoy playing the pieces

  • how to find new music

  • how to understanding the score


It is our job to ensure that you can take the skills you learn in your lesson into your future. You cannot achieve all this through only learning three or four pieces from the exam syllabus every time you take an exam, and then move on to the next set of exam music at the next lesson. Yes, you may be an advanced player at the end, but you know little to nothing about the music you have not played or how to find and play it without your teacher. It is like looking at an ocean and saying you are an advanced swimmer by paddling in the shallows. To quote Tim from TopMusic


  1. Students shouldn’t sit an exam until they are already playing a number of pieces (minimum of 10) comfortably at that level. That way, the exam becomes a true assessment of ability rather than a hurdle that students can only just get over (before they just do it again).

  2. Students need to explore, be creative and improvise as well as learning written pieces and this takes time.

  3. Students should be playing lots of music at all different levels of difficulty while they prepare for exams

  4. Different exam boards will suit different students, one board does not suit everyone.


In the end it comes down to one question.


Do you want to pass all the exams and be able to play only exam music or do you want to love playing, experiencing and understanding music and play for a lifetime because you choose to?


The ability to read the music, the translation of rhythms, the comprehension of the chord base, the musical form, and the ability to play in a variety of keys is compromised by rushing through exams.


In the end, an exam is proof of ability and the pieces should not be started unless the student can already play a range of music at that level. By working on exam music too early, a student cannot learn a wide variety of pieces within a year.


A Grade 3 student who can play a dozen pieces of the required standard before starting the exam prep will complete the process quicker, and enjoy it much more than a student who has to struggle for months and months on the same elementary piece; which is exactly what happened on the piece before that. (It is acknowledged that intermediate and advanced pieces take longer.)


All an exam means is that on this day, at this time, this student can play these three pieces to the required standard. It also has to be considered that examination nerves effect a lot of students and being taken to a strange place to be judged by an unknown person may be counterproductive to the students mental health and well being.


Working to an exam for the exams sake, before the student is ready, could put a student off playing for life. You can read more about this in the article "Why Working to Exams is Anti-Piano" on TopMusic.co .


In short, the music was there before the exams and the music will be there when the push for Academic success has passed. Therefore, before starting the route to an exam ask yourself


  • Why you are taking the exam?

  • Can you already play to this standard already?

  • Are you already making time to practise?

  • If you were not taking the exam would you still practise?

  • If you were learning in 1850 there would be no exams, would you still learn?


An exam should be enjoyable, for a reason, a mark of progress already achieved and the sign that you have completed the Grade 3 episode and are ready to move onto the journey through the Grade 4 episode.


Stalybridge Music Academy is not anti exam but we are against the misuse of the exam system and an illogical exam drive demotivating an otherwise engaged student. There will always be another potential exam, but this is the only year you will experience making music at this age. Make it a good one by loving the music and collecting the exam result at the right time.


Should you require a list of your current technical skills or to view your lesson records please do not hesitate to let us know.

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