piano exams - are they necessary?piano exams - are they necessary?Thinking about sitting a piano/keyboard exam? Whether you are considering piano/keyboard exams for kids or adults, for beginners or advanced grades, many parents, teachers and piano/keyboard students have the mistaken view that sitting piano/keyboard exams is more important and beneficial than it really is.

At the extreme end of the scale, back in the days when I used to provide piano/keyboard examining services to ANZCA, I was once asked by an Indian lady – the mother of a 7 year old boy who had just sat for a Preparatory Piano exam (the very first beginner’s exam) in which I was the examiner – whether the results of this exam would count towards his points for university! (I kid you not).

Among piano and keyboard teachers, this all-hallowed view of exams is so pervasive that year in year out, many piano / keyboard teachers structure their entire year’s teaching around preparing their students for the annual piano / keyboard exams in November.

So in effect, all some piano and keyboard students do is prepare to sit their next piano / keyboard exam. That is to say, they only ever learn piano / keyboard pieces from the syllabus for their forthcoming exam, which of course often results in students becoming bored with the lack of variety in the pieces they learn.

The idea of doing an occasional exam is not a bad thing as the experience can be quite character building (more about that later).

But, let me be clear, if you do choose to sit some exams for the experience of doing them, you do NOT have to sit every exam from Preparatory (beginners) to Grade 8 / diploma. It is fine to do a given exam one year (e.g. Grade 2), then skip a few exams and sit another exam (e.g. Grade 5) in the next year or so, whenever you feel ready.

For your general information, the entire sequence of exams may vary slightly between different examining bodies and countries but it is generally something like this:

  • Preparatory
  • Preliminary
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 6
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 8
  • Diploma

The basic premise behind piano and keyboard exams is that they offer students a goal to aim for, something to work towards. And up to a point, this can be true. But as entries for exams generally close two to three months prior to the examining period (e.g. for Oct/Nov ANZCA exams, the closing date for entries is usually around 29 July), and as teachers usually like to know a student is ready for an exam before entering them, this often leads to student being prepared for an Oct/Nov exam by the end of July.

Then, rather than learning new material (which would be far more beneficial to the students) their learning basically ‘stagnates’ as they are forced to go over and over the same pieces and scales for months on end until their exam is scheduled to take place. This can be nothing short of soul-destroying for the student.

Further, the examining experience is not always a positive one for the student. Despite what examining bodies may claim to the contrary, many examiners have a manner that is gruff and does little to put nervous students at their ease (present company excluded).

And when the scheduled exam date finally arrives, if you are unable to attend for some legitimate reason such as your child’s school has arranged a school camp that week, ANZCA (as an example) will not re-schedule the exam or refund the exam fee (which is quite a hefty fee for a 10-15 minute exam).

Additionally, a number of examining bodies require their examiners to apply what they call a “betterment factor” (a boost of about 15%) to the scores students receive when they sit for any of the first three exams (Preparatory, Preliminary and Grade 1) but usually not to the more advanced exams.

The official line is that this is intended to encourage beginner students because, if they receive a good score, they are more likely to come back and sit more exams in the future – which of course means more dollars for the examining body (and these examining bodies often claim to be not-for-profit).

But none of this is publicly disclosed e.g. on the examining body’s website, or in any of the documentation that is sent to parents or piano teachers. Only examiners would be aware that the “betterment factor” exists.

So what this means is if a piano/keyboard student scores 100% in one of their early exams, you don’t really know whether they scored 100, or whether it was actually as little as 85% that has been boosted to 100% so they can feel good about themselves.

While it is of course lovely to feel good about ones self, if this is based upon a delusion, one has to question its value.

This practice of molly coddling beginner students, and more broadly children in general, means children grow into the sort of adults we see everywhere these days — people who expect to be praised and told how wonderful they are, even if the job they did was, to be honest, not that great.

Praise is always much more meaningful and rewarding when it has genuinely been earned.

So, on balance, I personally recommend that you do NOT sit for exams at all (shock, horror — many piano teachers would be aghast at such a thought), unless you have a particular reason for doing so.

If you need a goal to work towards, why not play (or if you are a parent of a piano/keyboard student ask your kids to play) for visitors when they call in to your house.

Let’s say you have a few guests coming over next Saturday night — that’s a perfect opportunity to prepare a few pieces to perform for your visitors in an informal setting.

Entering for a local talent competition or participating in community performances at church halls, retirement homes, etc. is also a great way to gain performing experience, if that is something you would like to achieve.

And of course, the Musiah online piano lesson software provides plenty of goals to work towards with the virtual performances that take place at the end of each of the 13 Levels.

Many students often comment on how true-to-life the experience of playing in a Musiah virtual performance feels in terms of the nervousness they experience while doing the virtual performances and then the elation they subsequently feel when they succeed in passing the performance challenge.

And of course, if you do happen to make a mistake or (gasp) fail a performance challenge, there are no real-life consequences of embarrassment or shame. You can simply try again until you succeed.

For those of you who may be considering sitting a piano/keyboard exam at some stage, I hope the above information will help guide you towards the right decision for you.

If you’d like to experience the joy of learning how to play piano / keyboard online for yourself — including a wide variety of virtual performance challenges, you can of course take our Musiah Online Piano Lessons 14 Day FREE Trial right now.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment.

Til next time,

Brendan Hogan L.Mus.A, A.Mus.A.
Piano Teacher & Musiah Inventor

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