Grading Exams, Are They Worth It?
As a musician, the most stressful times I had were undergoing grading exams. Now, as a teacher who encourages enjoyment in playing an instrument, I often get asked the question 'are grades worth doing?'. Here's my honest opinion.
First of all, I want to briefly explain the way I teach. My goal in teaching has always been to help the tutee learn and achieve what they want to. I don't have any checkboxes; I use my own experiences as a musician and the best bits in the way all my previous teachers approached learning an instrument. I have been able to take these aspects and create both a flexible and knowledgeable approach, allowing me to recommend songs and styles of music a tutee might like based on their interests.
For a complete beginner, I will always encourage them to purchase a particular book to learn from as it teaches one how to use the instrument as well as learn to read music. Once finished with that book, it's up to the tutee where they want to go from there, since they've now mastered the basics.
At some point in their learning, the majority of my students have asked 'should I be thinking about grades?'. The answer I give is 'it depends on why you think you should do them and what you believe you'll get from it'. For a lot of people, they believe they should do grades as that's what they've seen other people do, or have come across friends with children who have gone through the grading system.
Grades are useful mostly for the reason that, if you want to apply for things like university, an orchestra, teaching, etc., they are a great form of 'proof of skill' that can be added to a CV. For a musician, or someone applying for any university degree (a grade can count as UCAS points much like an ordinary subject mark does), it's super useful. For a hobbiest who isn't planning to go to university or join any ensembles, not so much.
Having listed those things above, the grade on the CV is only your foot in the door since you'll always need to audition to get into the more advanced ensembles or onto the performance course at university. A lot of the time, when asked what grade you are, you are also given the option of putting down 'grade 8 standard'. This is a way of saying 'no, I haven't taken any grades but if I had to assess my ability, this is the standard at which I play', which is great for the musician who hasn't, for whatever reason, taken any grades.
THE BEST TIME TO GRADE
I've mentioned above those ideal scenarios for grading, and honestly I would say the best time to grade is while you're at school. The fact that grade results can be used as UCAS points when applying for university is a huge boon. I myself, would never have got into the university of my choice with just my academic results since they weren't the best. The fact that I already had my grade 7 clarinet, grade 5 theory, and grade 4 singing helped a lot. I had also made the promise that in my gap year, I would take my grade 8 clarinet and saxophone exams, so that provision helped get me the place at university as well.
SO THERE'S NO POINT DOING THEM LATER?
Yes and no. There's no point if, as I mentioned above, you won't be doing anything with them and just enjoy having fun learning an instrument at your own pace. Having said that, if you're someone who likes to work towards goals or simply likes having proof of your skill then by all means, go for it. Keep in mind, though, each exam costs money and the higher it is, the more expensive it is.
The advice I give to all my students who decide they want to grade is this. If your goal is to become a very skilled player and you're in this for the long-term, continue learning as you are but, in the back of your mind, keep the idea of going for grade 8 at some point in the future. During my lessons, as the tutee progresses, I begin to gradually add grade 8 based things to work on. Scales come first, then sight-reading and aural tests, before I finally give them a selection of songs to choose from that are both within the grade 8 syllabus and in styles/genres they enjoy playing. This approach can start as early or late as the tutee chooses, and they decide how subtle they want these aspects added in.
A FINAL POINT
As someone who went to university to study music and later became a peripatetic teacher, grades were very useful in getting me to where I am today. They were, however, the most stressful moments of my education, to the point where I hated practising and began to resent the instrument. My experience was unique and different to what yours might have been or will be if you're thinking about grades. Be mindful, this isn't a walk in the park. If you want to maintain enjoyment of playing, keep a balance to your practice. Arrange your practices so that after you've worked on the grading stuff, reward yourself by playing fun unrelated stuff. Equally, if you can find a way to make a game out of learning your scales and theory, even better.
Grades aren't the be-all and end-all of what being a musician is about. With music being something we show, perform, and hear, we are able to prove our skill simply by playing our instrument. Having a piece of paper doesn't change how good we are but for anyone who wants to take their grades, I'm not about to tell you not to. Instead, I wish you luck and hope that you're able to keep having fun while you work hard to achieve your goal.
What do you think about grades? What was your experience? Let me know your thoughts.