Mark Batten, Head of Music at St Nicholas Preparatory School
considers the merit of graded music exams in a child’s education.
Parents are often surprised when I tell them that I only took two graded music exams during my time at school. All things considered, I don’t think my musical education was harmed; I learnt several instruments and took part in my school’s music groups. When I was 16, I was offered a place to study at the Junior Department of one of the London schools of music and later I auditioned successfully to study at a top music college, picking up a scholarship along the way.
Music exams never really played a significant part in my musical upbringing – of course I took GCSE and A level Music during my time at Senior School, but neither my teachers, nor my parents, ever suggested I take practical graded music exams, until I was well into my teens. Looking back, I’m very grateful for this approach. My teachers guided me into learning pieces that they thought would interest me and I learnt that music was about communicating with an audience, rather than being judged by an examiner. Now I’m a music teacher (the best job in the world in my opinion), I find myself reflecting on the place of music exams in a child’s education and I would like to offer some thoughts on this.
Firstly, when deciding to prepare for an exam it is important to consider the question of what exactly does the exam facilitate? For example, the 11+, Common Entrance, GCSEs and A levels all facilitate entry into the next level of education. One example of where music exams do facilitate a young person’s education, is that students with ABRSM qualifications at Grades 6 to 8 benefit from UCAS points, which can be used as part of a university or college application in the UK. Additionally, a number of universities accept ABRSM Grade 8 Theory as a substitute for A level Music.
Beyond these two examples, music exams do not directly facilitate progression in education. For example, the various London schools of music, such as the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, offer Junior Departments, where young musicians have the opportunity to take part in an exciting programme of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, classes and other activities. Entry to these courses is by competitive audition. Whilst institutions may use the levels of graded music exams as a guideline to indicate the standard required in the audition, there is no formal requirement that children should have actually taken any exams.
Many Senior Schools offer a programme of Music Awards, or Music Scholarships, where a reduction in fees is offered to children who show a genuine interest in music, coupled with an appropriate standard. Again, music exam grades are usually given as a guideline to the audition requirements. There is no formal requirement that children should have taken any particular exam. Schools will generally tell prospective parents that they primarily look for potential, when offering scholarships or awards.
For children who are not aiming for a music award when applying to a Senior School, extracurricular interests undoubtedly enhance their application. But crucially, extracurricular interests should be just that – interests. They should be something that a young person is genuinely interested in. Not simply a check list of activities that they have completed. Speaking as a Head of Music at St Nicholas, I would much rather meet a child who plays an instrument, but despite not having taken any music exams, can speak enthusiastically about the school music groups they’ve taken part in and the concerts they’ve heard, rather than a child who may have passed several music exams but can’t remember the composer of their exam pieces!
So, if music exams have less facilitating value than formal school exams, how should they be used? The first factor to consider is that graded music exams are not intended to provide a complete music curriculum, with each grade being worked through progressively for each year of tuition. Secondly, to become an all-round musician, students need to develop a range of skills, in performance, technique, notation, and listening and musical perception, as well as knowledge, understanding and creativity. Just like language acquisition, these skills are developed incrementally over time. There are no short cuts.
A situation I often encounter is that a month or so before an exam, a parent will ask me to teach their son or daughter to sight read or cover the aural test requirements, because they have spent so much time learning the exam pieces, which are at the very limit of their current technical ability. The result is that children often do not fulfil their potential in the exam and are left disheartened.
In my view, music exams are best seen as musical health checks. Rather than a target that is well beyond their current standard, which children aim for, a graded music exam is something they might be encouraged to take every few years, when they have progressed well beyond that standard. It is a recognition of what has already been completed, not the end point of a race to the finish line.
When we listen to musicians performing, most of us would not really care about what exams they have passed, or competitions they have won. All that we care about is whether the music speaks to us personally. A quote, often attributed to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is that, “a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic”. Whilst his statement may not be entirely factually correct today, I often like to adapt it for my pupils to, “a statue has never been set up in honour of an examiner”.
St. Nicholas Preparatory School is a happy, vibrant independent school . Located in Kensington, London, St. Nicholas provides a demanding and balanced education for children aged 3 to 11 years.