Imagine for a moment that you are starting out on the journey of learning the piano. You find yourself a quality instrument, you find an excellent teacher, you buy your first book or two, and you begin going to your lessons.
You enjoy your lessons and you get on well with your teacher. You both feel that you are progressing well; you feel confident, you have fun practising, you look forward to polishing your current pieces and beginning something new.
After a year or so, you have a growing selection of (mostly) completed books on your bookshelves; you sometimes go through them and play the pieces you never got around to learning in lessons; you sometimes pick them up and play through some music you learnt and finished a few months previous, sometimes you pick up a piece, and with your burgeoning knowledge of the keyboard and your skill with scales, arpeggios, keys, and rhythms, you mess about with the notes and the rhythm a little, changing bits here and there. Sometimes you do this to unwind after a long day at school or at work, and sometimes you do this after practising your set works. Whilst all this is going on, your teacher is asking you to buy music by composers you have heard of (Mozart, Shostakovich, Haydn, Bach) and ones you haven’t (Kabalevsky, Turk, Norton, Köhler). You begin to understand the difference between different playing styles, and you learn to adapt your music to the composer’s period and genre.
A few more years pass. You play in a few concerts, you learn some Chopin, Bernstein, Grieg, and Telemann. You chat to your friends or your colleagues about music; they ask you what pieces you are learning, you ask them what composers they enjoy playing. You discover a love for the romantic era, you buy a book of Chopin Waltzes and play through them by yourself, knowing that some help from your teacher would be useful, but that it’s also enjoyable to sight read music at home. You tell your teacher that you don’t particularly like playing jazz, and through that conversation you discuss styles of music that you have yet to discover. Your teacher suggests that you buy a compilation of compositions by contemporary composers. You begin working on these; you are fascinated by some of the sounds that you never knew you could obtain from the piano (forearm cluster chords?). You play music that is so easy that you learn it in three days flat, and music that is extremely demanding and takes you months to master. You have fun and you enjoy the repertoire. For you, learning the piano is about discovering new music, and about delving into that grey area between what the composer is requiring of you, and how you are interpreting it.
This is a world without exams. Are you as intrigued as I am by the possibilities here? Are you as excited as I am to have learning new music, discovering composers, and enjoying the piano as musical goals?
Graded music exams are not a bad thing; I work with many children and adults who enjoy taking exams, and I enjoy working with students towards exams. But I do believe that they are generally both overused and misused, and that the need to take too many exams too frequently means that too much gets sacrificed in the push to gain more and more certificates; an enjoyment of music itself, the learning of new skills and sound colours, and an excitement for learning new pieces.
Exams are not suitable for everybody, and the scenario above illustrates how a student will progress without the need for graded exams along the way. But if you do wish to take exams, or your child wishes to take them, please take the idea of this blog post away with you, and have a think about the possibilities of finding a middle ground between lots of exams and none. Progression can be measured in many different ways, and graded exams are only one of them.