Strad Article: Should music tuition revolve around exams?

July 10, 2017, 8:29 AM ·

I think exams have merit and should not be done away with entirely. They are a good way to measure a student's ability, and passing an exam or achieving a certain grade is a good goal to set. Certainly, if a student enters a conservatory, playing exams will be unavoidable. But no one thing - quitting the instrument, attending a summer program, lessons, etc. - should revolve around passing an exam. Exams are not auditions. Perhaps a compromise could be exam listeners giving comments instead of number grades and grading it as a pass/fail. That may be a whole discussion in itself.

Well, that is what I think. Please read the article, and then I want to hear what you think.

Replies (21)

Edited: July 10, 2017, 10:07 AM · Such an argument as presented by the author of the Strad article is neither new nor confined to music education. Similar arguments may be made to other subjects.

However, just as in the Industrial Revolution, the standardization is a key ingredient in overall improvement of quality. Graded exams are the cheapest means to measure the overall proficiency of students. It may not suit all, as the author's own experience and another anecdote illustrate. On the other hand, it works for the central two-standard deviations either way of the population.

July 10, 2017, 11:19 AM · It's all about demographics.
Edited: July 10, 2017, 12:43 PM · I'd say either scrap them, or make them very optional. When these exams take over entire communities, the instructional environment seems becomes very bureaucratic, rigid, and impersonal.

I had a chamber coach once tell me the horrors of the French examination system with which he grew up. He attributed it to one reason there has been a sharp decline in child prodigies coming from Europe. Students weren't allowed to skip levels, and could only take the exams when they were offered rather infrequently. If they wanted to go quicker, they had to take multiple exams the same year. You had to study only the exam pieces. He also said that the system made it very difficult to play more than one instrument, and that he eventually had to choose between piano and violin.

In my experience with juries, the whole system is very arbitrary. At my university, repertoire studied with the private instructor was dictated by the arbitrary jury requirements for your year. Teachers had little say in what was best for their individual students. Just my two cents.

July 10, 2017, 1:44 PM · Is the US the only major Western country without a music exam system?
July 10, 2017, 4:29 PM · Lydia, that sounds about right. NY has NYSSMA, where students play every year for one judge and get a grade. It is not mandatory, and there are tons who do not do it. The scores are used for All-State, things like that. I am pretty sure most states have something along those lines, but we do not have anything like what the UK or other countries have.
Edited: July 10, 2017, 4:47 PM · Mainly a personal anecdotal response:

My first cello teacher did not teach for exams; in fact, he maintained that he wanted to produce musicians and not examination fodder. He was quite a character in his way, for example, shortly after the War turning down the offer of a chair in the first desk of cellos in the BBC Symphony Orchestra because he didn't want to be regimented in a big orchestra and preferred to work as a freelance musician, which he did very successfully for the rest of his long life. He was a multi-instrumentalist at a professional level, playing viola and cello freelance in pro orchestras, running his own dance and jazz bands (sax and clarinet respectively), teaching and conducting.

As the final year of my schooldays approached, my parents thought it would be useful if I got a grade in the cello, and so transferred me to another well-known and good teacher who took pupils through the grades and local music competitions. After an appraisal lesson I was accepted immediately into the grade 8 syllabus, together with the required grade 5 in theory, and passed the following year with very satisfactory marks (my one and only formal music qualification!). This shows that my first teacher had taken me up to grade 8 standard over a 6-year period without any examinations being involved whatsoever; that says something.

Decades later, my violin teacher, like my first cello teacher, also taught me with no reference to exams or grades. She was a graduate of Suzuki in Japan. That teaching has worked very well for me.

Sad to say, a formal examination and grade system seems now to have invaded the folk music tradition in Ireland. Regimentation and bureaucracy in folk music, of all things!

July 10, 2017, 9:59 PM · I have never heard about a music exam system in Germany. From what I know it is possible to join the British one. But no teacher ever recommended taking exams to me.
July 11, 2017, 2:48 AM · From my experience it all depends on the relationship between teacher and students working, and if it does it might or might not include exams.

My daughter started violin at 4 with a Suzuki teacher. Exams were never part of the motivation - that came from the individual and group lessons and later residential workshops - until she had the technique to join an orchestra. The local Youth Orchestra has Grade 5 (UK) as an audition requirement, and one day the teacher said she had just noticed the closing date for that term's exams was the following Friday, what about having a go. So that exam happened as a six week diversion from normal lessons based on Suzuki pieces and wider repertoire. She will in due course do Grade 8 since that is the standard UK "currency" of instrumental competence when applying to University.

A few years later she started flute, which was offered through the schools music service. The teacher wanted her to take an exam six months later, since when there has been a regular cycle of doing an exam a year. My daughter bonds well with the teacher and had no problem with doing that, plus lots of other repertoire, all on the 20 minute lessons scheduled in state schools.

She also does piano - I know, it is one instrument too many, it was flute which got added because she wanted lessons at school like her friends. The piano teacher also works on an annual exam, but in this case the teacher herself got stressed by the pressure and there was very little additional repertoire. Somehow between the two of them they have now agreed to put exams "on hold" and suddenly the instrument has become much more fun and progress is actually better.

From our limited evidence it isn't the exams that are the problem, it is whether teachers can use them constructively while developing instrumental skills and musicianship. They can act either as motivations or obstacles.

July 18, 2017, 1:29 AM · How do you grade art? The field is completely subjective. This is just preposterous.
July 18, 2017, 5:46 AM · And yet figure skating is an Olympic sport.
Edited: July 18, 2017, 6:51 AM · We need exams and compteitions for admissions, to justify the expense of our lessons to our parents, to be able to give of our best under stress, or to show off to our peers.

This has little to do with Art. Music moves me, and I want it to move others. So I must play and teach it as well as possible.

July 18, 2017, 7:42 AM · "How do you grade art? The field is completely subjective. This is just preposterous."

Music has objective components. As one teacher said to me, "if you're not in tune and not time, you're not going to work." In juries and auditions, you can certainly identify musicians who play out of tune, out of time, or exhibit poor technique. If someone can't vibrate or gets too nervous to control the bow or has persistent memory or focus slips, these can all be figured into an objective assessment of their prospects.

July 18, 2017, 7:56 AM · What Mr. Cole said. 10 different people will play the same Bach sonata 10 completely different ways, but all will either play in tune or out of tune. Music is both objective and subjective.
Edited: July 18, 2017, 8:34 AM · Thanks, OP - I agree with you.
I think exams have their place, but they shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. More important is to give pupils the experience of playing with other musicians, playing solo in friendly settings, and introducing different types of music that will allow pupils to develop their own taste.

It is more likely, then, that a child will gain a love of music and even if they give the violin up, they may return to it later (like me) or else choose another instrument. Exams on their own probably won't have the same inspiring effect.

I never did exams as a child, but we did religiously work through Eta Cohen's (admirable) tutor book. When I came back in retirement, my primary interest was in playing folk fiddle, but by way of sharpening myself up, I decided to take exams, beginning with grade 3, which I passed with a distinction. My teacher, quite rightly, had the idea that he wouldn't just push me straight on to grade 4, so he gave me new techniques and tunes to get my head round every week, and that was when I started to think that it wasn't worth it - it just took too much time away from my fiddle practice, and a lot of the classical tunes on the practice list I didn't like much -as a result of Eta Cohen, Book 2, if it isn't folk, then for me it has to be baroque! I bowed out of the exam teacher's lessons and went back to my original teacher, a baroque professional who also plays & loves folk music.

But - I am really glad that I did that sole music exam. It made me work and listen, and in conquering my nerves & managing to do well, it gave me a lot of much-needed confidence. I went from being a woman who shook as she climbed into the car to go to lessons and always had to stop at a loo en route to being someone who actually enjoys lessons!

July 19, 2017, 10:19 AM · Exalms are fine if they are treated as a consecration of what has been already acheived, rather than as a barrier to overcome.
July 19, 2017, 11:06 AM · The short answer is No, but what is more important is how a teacher can use exams as a tool to motivate and set achievable goals for the students.
The situation gets very tricky when expectations (peers, parents, society) come in, and that might derail the purpose of learning music in the first place.
July 19, 2017, 11:14 AM · Even what we would consider objective things ( intonation, rhythm, setup ), can end up being more subjective and prone to bias than one would think, though for the most part we kind of know what's clearly bad when we see it. I do think instrumental performance lends itself to a little bit more objectivity than, say, composition, or painting.

For instance, I have seen teachers who just can't live with a somewhat unconventional bow hold ( e.g. Russian ), or who are against a certain type of chinrest or posture across the board. One judge may think an certain unaccompanied piece should be completely metronomic, while another may think it should contain a lot of rubato, or should emphasize beats in a idiosyncratic way, and see anything else as "bad" rhythm. Intonation wise, two judges may interpret harmony in a slightly different way ( e.g. is that a leading tone? ) or may be thrown off by the instrument being tuned a few Hz higher or lower. A good judge should be able to see past this, but we all know that there are always a few bad apples hiding everywhere.

I do remember an intense argument with my great aunt over a Lilian Fuchs recording of a Bach cello suite, because I had been especially bothered and distracted by how high the tuning was.

July 19, 2017, 1:25 PM · Lieschen, that is very interesting. Thank you.
July 19, 2017, 1:34 PM · But I think if you are in a situation where your judges are parsing your leading tones according to their individual taste, rather than counting the number of times they wince at obvious clinkers, maybe you've left the general jurisdiction of the school exam anyway?
July 19, 2017, 10:24 PM · Subjectivity and all that it entails simply goes hand-in-hand with the profession. People win and lose auditions on very picky subjective things.

However, bad playing is like bad porn: I know it when I hear it.

July 20, 2017, 9:46 AM · I think the idea and motivation behind the article is great and I tend to agree. The problem with the article, it's arguments and those that make them is that the only other paths presented are nebulous at best. Vague, shadowy and murky connections to ideals that have meaning only in the "pursuit of music for it's own sake" thought processes.

When you begin this line of inquiry though inevitably the proponents of this idealistic methodology of teaching will tell you that it must then be "individually" tailored. Thus, this methodology never really seems to gain traction.

Part of the problem is that for such a methodology to be meaningful you need a genuinely good teacher. And we know that such teachers will always be high in demand (due to scarcity as well) and generally paid for their value. Which would naturally eliminate them from the circulation where they might be most useful in cementing the musical love and pursuit of music for it's own ends in students.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Violin Finder
Yamaha Violin Finder

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Warchal Strings
Warchal Strings

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Anne Akiko Meyers' Mirror in Mirror
Anne Akiko Meyers' Mirror in Mirror

Dimitri Musafia
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Metzler Violin Shop

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pluhar Violins

Potter Violins

Pro-Am Strings Ltd

Violin Lab

Violin Pros

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop