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  • Writer's pictureemilytully

The Value of Music Exams

Everyone responds to the word “exam”. Some see it as a great challenge they can conquer, others quake in their boots at the dread. How much value do exams and data measurement systems hold when it comes to music? After all, can we really measure creativity?

One person values Mozart while the other values Slipknot; two very different sounds, but both recognised as great artists around the world. If Mozart and Slipknot took grade 8 classical and rock and pop exams, would they score equally on both? And would it really matter what their scores were? If people are listening to their compositions, what do they need an exam for?

When a student enquires about exams, the first thing I ask them is “why do you want to take an exam?”. It’s important to identify the reason an exam needs to take place. After all, it’s an expensive goal requiring commitment and time. This question also helps us identify which grade, genre or syllabus to study.

I completed my grade 8 Rock and Pop exam only two years ago with two main goals in mind. Firstly, I’d been teaching the syllabus for about six years and wanted to put myself in the shoes of my students, and secondly to force myself to learn Alicia Keys’ riffs; it’s always been a difficult skill for me to master.

Exams give us a goal to work towards. In a specific time frame, we want to be ready for a performance at the best possible standard we can achieve. When we aim for high standards, we make improvements in our musical skills and we learn how to practise more regularly and efficiently. Our muscles develop from the practice and we see great improvements in our abilities. Exams can be a great confidence boost and help us realise our true potential.

There are some instances where grading is used as a benchmark for the success of musicians and whether they can take part in further study:

  • Grade 6-8 exams provide UCAS points which can help university entrance.

  • Some music schools and university courses require a number of graded instruments.

  • Music scholarships for secondary placements require music grades.

  • It’s advisory to have grade 5 music knowledge for a music GCSE and grade 8 knowledge for A-Levels.

Exams force us to learn certain techniques, styles or musical shaping. In order to meet a criteria, we practise techniques and embellishments the examiners are looking for. You might need to riff in a pop exam, follow dynamic markings accurately or use a certain voice quality suitable to the genre. These are stylistic qualities a singer or musician would naturally incorporate into a performance, but an exam is testing the execution of various musical qualities and techniques based on difficulty and delivery.

So what is the true value of music exams? Exams have their place, they provide baselines and incremental progress markers, but they don’t establish if you’re a great musician or singer; that all comes down to the listener and what they appreciate. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Music is creativity, if you’re enjoying this outlet of expression then that is the truest accolade of all.

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