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  • rachaelinwoodmusic

So About Exams

My aim as a piano and flute teacher is to teach the skills and techniques so my students can have a lifelong enjoyment of playing their instrument and in music in general.

If they are appropriate for the student, I will use exams. I don’t always follow the same board, I choose the board and the grade level, depending on the interests of the student. They can do classical, jazz and popular music, it is up to them. But I much rather make sure that all my piano and flute students leave me as competent musicians rather than having a collection of certificates hanging on the wall.

music exams

To help make a student become a competent musician, and able to play their instrument 20 years after their last lesson, more skills are needed to learn then would be taught if the student just followed the graded route. Not following the exam route rigidly, means that more time learning skills can be used in real life. These skills involved playing by ear, improvising, accompanying others and sight-reading.

Following the exam, the system and doing a grade a year, does not teach this. I did all my exams, but I couldn’t play a simple tune like Happy Birthday, without having the music in front of me.

If a student is having to spend a year or more working on the three pieces for their exam, then they are not at that standard for the exam. Ideally, I like to spend no more than 2 terms preparing for an exam, while working on lots of other pieces of music in between exams.

Before reaching grade one standard, the student needs to be able to read reasonably confidently on their own, without having the teacher sitting next to them. If a student is still having the note names written all over their performance piece, to me, this is an indicator that they are not ready to take the exam. Susan Hallam writes; “if assessment is undertaken before the pupil is ready, they are not likely to do well and… this will have effects on their future motivation and self-esteem” [1]. For each grade on the piano, I have a checklist of things the student should be able to do before being entered into the exam.

The piano takes longer to reach a grade one standard then it does in instruments like violin and flute. For all instruments, the level of understanding the music theory is the same. They all have to learn the same number of key signature and the same rhythmic values. The aural ability has to be the same as the other instruments. The big difference with playing the piano is that you have to play two different parts at the same time. This takes a lot of coordination of hands. They also have to learn to read both the bass clef and the treble clef fluently. The other instruments only play one musical line and in one clef.

It can take 2 to 3 years for a beginner piano student to reach grade one as there is so much to learn. A study found that it took on average a learner 450 practice hours to reach grade one standard, and around 3,300 hours of practice to achieve grade 8 [2]. It’s better to spend more time at the beginning of learning to build a strong foundation of technique, musicianship and theory so that a student can advance further. In a later study by Hallam, she that there is a considerable dropout in playing an instrument around grade 3/4, this is probably due to more foundations and not performing repertoire that is interesting for them [3].

Music grades do count as UCAS points [4]. Although they work out at only a small amount of points. You can just get points from grade 6 onwards. There is a tremendous amount of work that is needed to reach grade 6 onwards; it is worth considering whether it is worth sacrificing the time studying for GCSEs and A-levels, just to achieve a few points.

How I measure progress. Since September 2017, I have been using the Piano Framework, which is being devised by the Curious Piano Teachers [6]. This framework has been designed to be like the national curriculum for the piano. It has been created by a group of piano teachers, it is based on the A Common Approach [7], which was designed for all instruments by Music Mark. The Piano Framework goes through all the different concepts and skills that a pianist has to learn to become proficient at the instrument. The level starts before someone is ready to learn an instrument and goes right up to grade 8. It is set out in 8 levels, which do not correlate with the grade levels. Grade 1 is not until the elementary level, and there are 4 other levels before that. This is due to the amount that a student has to learn to reach grade one.

The Piano Framework also offers a tracker that records the progress a student has made. And there are certificates for completing each level.

The Piano Framework, helps me to know what teach at each stage. It is not perfect but is regularly being reviewed an updated by piano teachers. It is a starting to point to help plan for progression and help to evaluate the progress made. There are piano trackers to help track progress for two stages, with more coming out soon. Unfortunately, there isn’t something similar for flute, however, using the Common Approach for Flute and the Piano Framework, I’m am adapting my own one for the flute.


[1] Susan Hallam, Instrumental Teaching (1998). p. 272. Heinemann

[2] Sloboda, J.A., Davidson, J.W., Howe, M.J.A., and Moore, D.G.,1996. The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. The British Journal of Psychology. Vol. 87, issue 2, pages 287-309.

[3] Hallam, S., Rinta, T., Varvarigou, M., Creech, A., Papageorgi, I., Gomes, T., Lanipekun, J., 2012. The development of practising strategies in young people. Psychology of Music, 40 (5), 652 - 680

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