Last weekend I had an experience that reminded me why I don’t teach grade exams in music.
I had a new student. He is musical and curious, with interests in film music, hip hop and (to my delight) Bartok. He had just failed his Grade 6 piano. He had been playing for years, but when asked what pieces he had enjoyed, he could not name one. He had quite liked a Bartok piece he’d started for a grade exam, but it was too hard, so he’d learnt an easier piece. In his words: “I’ve had to pick from the grade book each time, so I’ve never really liked anything.”
So I got to perform the role every teacher who’s ever watched a Hollywood film wants to play: throwing the textbook in the bin, and starting as if from scratch with music he liked. It was great fun, hopefully for both of us.
This experience is one I have had many, many times. In fact, most students I’ve taken on mid-way in their study of music have developed atrocious habits directly from the grade system. This post explains why that happens. I don’t blame teachers for using them; I’ll also talk about what I think drives the popularity of the grades. I’ll mainly discuss the ABRSM grades, but my critiques are about the way grades organise knowledge and so apply to every grade system I’ve come across.
One further caveat: almost all of this is aimed at teachers of average students. There are often much better teaching practices in, say, the junior music colleges. Students with very high levels of natural aptitude are also less likely to be negatively affected by the grade system as they often speed through them. A large proportion of my musician friends probably fall into that camp, so be aware that some of this may not speak to you.
The most obvious problem is the constricted repertoire. ABRSM does try. I knew a teacher who sat on the selection board, who cared passionately about getting a variety of works into the curriculum.
But this is hobbled by the structure of ABRSM grades. Each grade has three “Lists" of repertoire; students choose one piece from each. List A is counterpoint, List B is, broadly, ‘classical’ and List C is ‘misc./modern’. At each grade, you have six choices in each list (except Grade 8, where you have eight choices for A and B and sixteen for C).
A priori, this doesn’t seem terrible. Until you realise that ABRSM has designated eighteen pieces at each Grade standard, every year for longer than I have been alive. Conservatively, there must be hundreds of pieces designated at each standard. Yet each year, you’re forced to choose between eighteen of them. (Why not just play any of the pieces? I presume it would be harder for examiners to be precise with grading, and a precise number is very important for music, of course.)
It gets worse. Almost all parents just buy the book provided by ABRSM, which provides a selection of just nine pieces. Each year, students choose works in three lists of three pieces and will, almost always, end up playing pieces they don’t like.
I cannot, truly I cannot, emphasise enough how absurd this is. THERE IS NO REASON TO PLAY PIECES YOU DON’T LIKE. Really, none at all. Just to emphasise: we’re doing this for fun. Very few of us are going to be professional musicians and, even if you are, even then: you are doing that for fun too (for the fun of others, but the point still stands). Music is entertainment, joy, transcendence. Stop playing pieces you don’t like.
True, certain techniques need to be mastered if you want to progress beyond a certain level. There is a more limited selection when it comes to mastering counterpoint, but there are more than three damn pieces. I have never struggled to find work a student engages with when given a free hand.
(A separate problem sometimes occurs: a student likes the idea of a piece but dislikes it once they get going with it. This is often because they think it’s too hard. Knowing when to quit a piece and when to push on for the sense of achievement is one of the finer arts of teaching and learning.)
The Repertoire’s Limitations
The repertoire ABRSM offers is relatively traditional. Broadly, it falls into three camps: music written in the classical tradition before 1945 (perhaps 80% of the selection), music written in the classical tradition since 1945 (perhaps 10%) and, for some reason, jazz music written between 1920 and 1960.
Now, I am no enemy of musicians achieving expertise within a tradition. I am dramatically opposed to the radically pick-and-mix approach offered by the national curriculum, which offers a taste of everything and knowledge of nothing. And I wouldn’t describe “all music written before 1945” as narrow – it encompasses a huge range of material.
But there are many flaws to ABRSM’s approach.
Firstly, it is legitimate to seek expertise in a non-classical tradition. Pop and rock music is a rich and challenging and there is no good reason to exclude it from education. Transcriptions of songs are already included in the jazz music section: it seems mad to me that we’re not also putting in more contemporary songs.
Secondly, the benefits of focusing on a specific tradition tend to accrue later in a musicians development. For the first couple of grades, perhaps up to Grade 5, which is as far as most students get, the focus is mastering reading, basic dexterity, aural skills and touch. This can be just as well developed through transcriptions of pop music as through anything else. Even later on in one’s specialisation, maintaining a modicum of skill in other traditions is possible and well-advised.
Finally, plenty of students only listen to pop music. Now, I am extremely in favour of introducing students to new music, it’s half the bloody point. But there needs to be a link between listening and playing. Many students I have met view the thing they do on the Tube with their headphones to be a completely separate species than the thing they do in their practice. To become a full musician requires joining listening to performance and that will often mean playing a variety of pieces.
The Limitations of ‘A Repertoire’
Beyond the specific problems with the selection, a deeper issue lies. I hope all my students will play music all their lives. But they’re all going to stop playing grades sooner or later. When they stop, typically at the end of school, they are often adrift, without the skills needed to make music as an independent adult.
One of these skills is work selection. Find repertoire, picking skill-appropriate pieces, working out what they sound like, and determining for yourself when you have mastered them enough for performance, or just for personal satisfaction. Grade chasing robs students of these skills.
Repertoire as Repetition
ABRSM is very keen to avoid ‘grade skipping’ and many students and teachers follow their lead. Fo many learners, the regular schedule of music is to take a grade every year. This means focusing on three pieces a year, every year, regardless of the natural pace of your learning. You may get to play more pieces, but many don’t. (Many students also end up being overextended as they move up the grades, being advanced by ambitious parents beyond their skill. As their exam marks dwindle, they are discouraged and eventually stop.)
Even if well-managed, this process is boring. If the most common complaint I hear from students is that they don’t like their pieces, the second most common is that they liked them enough at first, but that learning them for the exam has sucked all the fun out of them.
A non-Baroque bit of contrapuntal repertoire.
I have a salient memory of my teenage years. I was 17 and post-Grade 8 standard. I was very well-taught, with a Grade 8 in theory and lots of experience in choirs, ensembles and as a composer. I was the very model of a modern music generalist.
A band at school had misplaced their keyboardist. They were playing some easy stuff (Coldplay, perhaps?) and asked me to step in. And while I could whack out the chords – Gm7, Cm7 etc. – I could not make the damn thing sound like music. I sucked, and I didn’t know why. I would guess that this experience would be common to the vast majority of grade-oriented music students in the same situation.
The grades also suck at building practical musical skills. ABRSM officially recognises this. These practical skills are so important that they’re stuck separate grade system of their own, called ‘Practical Musicianship’. (I mean, what the hell are the rest of the grades for then? I’m tempted to start a petition to rename them ‘Impractical Musicianship’…) While the Practical Musician grades exist, they not required to advance through the performance grades, so no one does them. The kids are already over-burdened with exams, so bolting on even more is unlikely to go down well.
Chords and improvisation
Following my sudden conversion on the road to Chris Martin, I developed my chord skills. I began to realise what I hadn’t understood before: this was crucial to playing music, not just pop music. Harmonising melodies on sight, filling out written chord sequences, improvising melodies over chords or a bass line: these are skills that are important in basically every genre of western music.
I now integrate these skills from day one of learning. The funny thing is, it’s pretty much the easiest thing the kids learn, early on. Playing a four-chord song in root position with a bass line can usually be achieved in the first lesson, even for kids as young as five. I can then sing the melody and, hey presto, it’s lesson one and they’re playing their favourite song. (As they develop, they sing the melody themselves, we learn the other inversions and they learn how to move between inversions.)
It’s enormously important students learn these skills if they’re to keep playing. So many musical environments – playing in a band, performing for a theatre show, doing piano karaoke at a party – rely on the swift and confident executions of chords.
Theory, but only theoretically
Theory skills, unlike Practical Musicianship, are compulsory knowledge: you have to sit Grade 5 theory to advance beyond Grade 5 performance exams.
This is a disaster.
First, many students don’t get this far, so never learn any theory ever.
Second, it encourages cramming. Theory is seen as an unfortunate appendage to the real work of climbing the performance exam ladder. Cramming schools and tutors all over London welcome in students and pump them up to that crucial 66% pass mark. Relieved, they rapidly forget everything they learnt.
Third, it’s quite hard. Learning theory as a separate discipline is an odd and artificial way to understand it and many students struggle with both comprehension and motivation.
Theory is not separate from practice. It should be worked into learning from the first lesson. One of the easiest ways to do so is through learning chord sheets and improvisation: ideas like cadences, transposition, scale degrees, major and minor, etc., are all easily learnt through absorption when learning songs using chords.
It should also, however, be taught when learning pieces and technique. This might slow things down a little, but if you don’t have the pressure of an incoming exam, that’s not a problem. Students absorb huge amounts of your language: if you tell them to ‘go from the recapitulation’ or ‘let’s take it from just before the perfect cadence’, they’ll quickly work out what’s going on. If you learn your scales and arpeggios in circles of fifths order, that sequence will likely be ingrained in you without even thinking about it.
I’d rather my students were playing a slightly easier piece that they understood than a harder piece that was a just a series of mechanical movements.
Sight-reading and Aural
Both sight-reading and aural skills are part of the grade exam – they make up 14% and 12% of the mark, respectively. As a result, they’re often de-prioritised relative to learning the pieces.
I have seldom met a student who isn’t concerned about the aural section. Very few teachers work this into every lesson, because it simply isn’t a large enough percentage of the exam for it to merit weekly focus.
Ideally, all students would be singing in choirs. But with our etiolated public realm, teachers must take this on themselves. Sight-singing, in particular, is a brilliant way to learn aural skills but is not integrated into the standard curriculum.
Again, the problem here is partly a matter of the separation of aural skills into a separate module, unrelated to the pieces the student is learning. There are several ways to change this. For example, many pop songs are not available on sheet music, so you have to work out the tune or chords yourself, building valuable transcription skills.
Sight-reading tends to get a fairer shake, perhaps in part because all pieces begin as sight-reading. But the narrow range of repertoire learned for each grade means that many students learn each one as muscle memory and forget how to read them altogether. (To test this: ask a student to begin a piece in an unfamiliar spot.) This style of learning has a devastating effect on learning. I have genuine encountered Grade 8 students who can barely read a note of music (but also, remember, don’t have any aural, improvisation or chord-reading skills).
Ensemble playing is another musical essential that, while official recognised by ABRSM as part of their ‘Group Assessments’ module, is realistically often sidelined due to a focus on exams. At the moment, this problem is harder for the individual teacher to solve. But, for pianists, playing duets or performing with the teacher singing should be a regular part of learning.
Composing and creating
Composing is not hard and every musician can do it. Not every musician can, or should, try to create amazing pieces in an individual style. But coming up with simple, stylistic pieces is not difficult. In my experience, children love this. Being taught to make a basic, four-chord pop song is often a revelation for an eight-year-old. (For many, it’s also a revelation that makes them think “wait, is this all there is? What if I just…”) Many are also capable of more than that. I’ve heard some lovely, inventive pieces from kids. And they often really enjoy playing them, as they’re written so precisely for their skills.
As they develop, it’s good to work on further skills, like composing for other instruments or using software to record music or set it to video. These are the skills that will encourage a student to continue playing as an adult by, say, writing music from a friend’s YouTube channel, or making radio mixes of game soundtracks. All of this stuff gets crowded out by exams.
Being put off
Exams are off-putting for many students. Some don’t perform well under such pressure, many are so over-examined that they are exhausted by the very idea. It’s not revolutionary to suggest that exams might make music less fun. Perhaps it’s slightly more revolutionary to insist that fun matters. This is mainly intrinsic (fun is almost the only point of music, see above), but also instrumental: if kids aren’t engaged, they will quit or stagnate.
But the exams are also off-putting because they are quantifiers. You are a certain grade and a certain mark. If you’re Grade 8, you’re the best. If you’re not, you’re not. Pretty much the first thing two child musicians will ask one another is what grade they are at – how else would they establish a hierarchy?
Now, most students aren’t going to get that far. Few people get to Grade 8. So many adults have told me they were never any good because the ‘only’ got to Grade 5. But that’s fine! There are loads of great pieces at that standard! Enough for a lifetime of playing. And yet, they all give up. I can’t think why…
The gradual erosion of the soul
Music exams are truly disastrous. I’ve listed a wide array of problems above but they all stem from the same place: a lack of freedom. If you have to do exams every year, what do you do when your student suddenly turns up thrilled by some new monomania? What do you do when they’re sad, and they’ve written a song about that? Students, particularly kids, are weird, tempestuous and opinionated.
Music should be a perfect outlet for that. It must be. This is both because of the nature of the subject – artistic, creative, abstract – but also because of the pedagogical tradition. Music has managed to maintain a one-on-one format, which makes a more flexible teaching style possible.
I hope my focus on skills has mitigated any sense that I am opposed to rigour. If anything, my problem with grades is the deep lack of rigour, the incredible shallowness of their demands. If you remain to be convinced, I urge you to consider the following thought experiment.
Take an art form that, currently, is not taught using grades. Let’s say, poetry, or painting. Would you press a button that would instantly ensure that all child-poets or child-painters took part in a grade system? Why not? Not because these arts don’t require skills or rigour, I expect, but because of an instinctive recoil at the idea that a self-expressive art would be so reduced in freedom.
So how did we get here? If music exams are so disastrous, why do we do them?
Training and habit
Most music teachers don’t train. While a Certificate for Music Educators is available, few take it. It is also, as it happens, provided by the grade examiners, so I have little interest in it.
For those of us without training, the structure granted by ABRSM is a life-saver. It takes time to develop your own curriculum, your own set of preferred pieces and books, and skill to steer students through the choices. For stretched music teachers in schools, with too much to do and too little time to do it, pre-made courses are a godsend.
Moreover, most musicians were put through the grade-mill themselves. As teachers tend to come from the top 5% of music learners, they often can’t see how damaging the system is for those without such aptitude. For many, it is just the way things are.
We have a deeply qualification-focused education system. To steal an example, think to yourself: Is it better that I get an A* in A level French and forget it all the next day, or better that I get a C and remember every bit of it?
Exams are tokens that prove your ability. They are cashed in for access to the next level of education, which itself is a token that is cashed in, either for further education or for a better-paying job. Music has got sucked into this vortex. As music teachers, it is our job to try and drag it back out. Doing so is, ironically, going to be better for your students’ education (it might even get them more tokens!), but it is also better for their life.
Here’s a follow up to the earlier thought experiment.
Would you rather: (A) your student gets Grade 8 and it got them into a university one place higher on their preference list, but they don’t enjoy it and never play again; or (B) your student has a great time, has a life-long hobby in music, and goes to a university one place lower than in option (A).
Even this artificially extreme contrast ought to be a no-brainer. The difference between going to a slightly less-preferred university is likely to be fairly slight. The difference between having an active artist hobby as an adult and not having one is enormous.
In the real world, we don’t need to make such dramatic decisions. I’d encourage allowing children to do a single exam, at a comfortable standard, in both theory and practical music, in Year 12, to give them their token.
If you’re teaching at a school, you may not be allowed to make this choice. I wasn’t. It was horrible, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I don’t know what to do about the whole damn mess. I’m honestly surprised that the insufficiency of music curricula is so little discussed. We get some fraff about the GCSE and A-Level curriculums (I’ll write about the Stormzy vs Mozart nonsense in the future) but little equivalent concern about the ABRSM Grades, which are sat by a much larger number of students.
I’d love to hear of organisations that are trying to make changes in this area, do let me know if you know of any.
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