Traditionally, music exams take place in June, and this is the time of year that most music teachers start making sure that their students will be well-prepared.  It is a lot of work and, for some students, the process can be quite stressful.  I am often asked, “Why should I send my child to a music exam”.  Also, I periodically have parents who request that their child simply “learn to play for fun” without having to take formal exams.

As an educator, I am a firm believer in “tests”.  As a music teacher I don’t consider the exams to be optional.

Preparing for a music exam has a number of benefits that go beyond learning to play a few songs very well:

  • It helps a child learn to set goals
  • It helps a child learn to organize their time and activities in order to be able to work towards those goals
  • It can motivate a child to complete the work required to achieve those goals
  • It allows the child to assess his/her own achievement in relation to the amount of work dedicated to achieving the goals
  • Pride in their accomplishments can have a positive impact on a child’s self-esteem

There are also a number of long-term benefits to taking music exams that aren’t readily apparent when your child is just starting out.  Having completed a number of musical levels can open many doors and give your child access to a wider variety of opportunities:

  • When your child is looking for a job, they need something on their resume that makes them stand out from all the others.  The addition of “I have completed grade (?)” …   tells a prospective employer many things about your child, including long-term commitment to a goal which is difficult to achieve, ability to focus on a task, and willingness to learn.
  • As parents we want to open as many doors as possible for our children.  If it turns out that our children have a great love of music and want to pursue it as a career, then there are a number of curriculum requirements that they will have to have achieved in order to gain admittance into a school of music, either at the high school or university level.  We do not want to get to the end of a decade of lesson fees and hard work and find that they do not meet those requirements.

There are many situations in a child’s life where the concept of “testing” is not questioned.  In school, we would not expect a teacher to introduce a unit, in math for example, by saying that the material will be covered but that there will be no test at the end of the unit.  The chances are very high that the majority of students would not endeavour to learn the material.  In a similar manner, we would not send our children for lessons in swimming or martial arts without expecting that they would achieve the next badge or belt, for which a test is required.  Music lessons can be viewed the same way… there are a number of levels or units with a set of curriculum goals in each.   At the end of each of these levels, there is a certificate of achievement that can be earned.

Which set of exams to send a child to is also a difficult choice.  There are a number of options available, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.  As parents, we may not have the background knowledge required to make an informed decision.   Personally, I am a firm believer in the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM).  We are fortunate in Canada to have a National standard in music achievement, which is Internationally recognized and provided by an institution that has had over a century and a quarter of experience.

There are two major criticisms that I receive regarding the choice of the RCM curriculum, but I feel that they are both easily addressed.  The first is that by studying through the RCM we are only including Classical Music.  However, a well-rounded education in music needs to include examples from all time periods, especially classical which is the foundation of the music we listen to.  The opportunity to play both jazz and popular music does exist within the RCM framework, and it is then up to the teacher to ensure that other aspects of musical training, such as playing by ear and improvisation are included in your child’s lessons.

The second criticism is that the RCM exams are too hard.  While it is true that some students will put in their greatest efforts and will just manage a “pass”, music exams aren’t the only place where that is true.  As educators we know that we need to set the bar high enough to allow our students to soar.

Playing for fun is an extremely important aspect of our children’s musical experience.  As teachers we need to remember to include “songs for fun” in our students’ repertoire and to provide opportunities for our students to be creative.  As parents we need to find opportunities for our children to make music in a social setting, not only “for” but also “with” family and friends.  Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that “playing for fun” only happens when a child has reached a certain level of proficiency on their instrument, and that that only occurs after many years of dedicated practise and instruction.