Piano Exams: To Examine or Not To Examine

Here in Ireland, most piano students take exams as standard. In other parts of the world, such as the USA, taking music exams is much less common.

Why is that? Are children’s learning styles different in different countries?


Pros and cons of piano examinations.

I doubt it. I’d say it’s time for all of us to reassess, exams shouldn’t be prescribed for every student, or no student in a whole studio. It should be on a case-by-case basis, just like our teaching methods and styles.

One of the amazing benefits of teaching private lessons is that we can adapt to the student’s needs. We don’t need to teach an entire classroom full of diverse personality types and learning needs.

So, how about we wipe the slate clean, and think about the student sitting in front of us?

Which students and why

Let’s consider a couple of cases.

George loves piano. He takes any and all opportunities to play his pieces for others, he looks forward to the recital at the end of every year. He is quite competitive and responds well to challenges that have definite goals to be achieved, such as timed flashcard games or the 40 piece challenge.

However, it can be tricky to get him to practice scales, technique and sight reading, or do his theory assignments. He just doesn’t see the value when in something no one gets to hear. Exams could be an excellent motivator for George. The challenge of getting a good result could be just the focus he needs.

Fred loves piano too. He spends hours every week practicing, and really enjoys the feeling of completing an assignment. Recitals are a tough time of year for Fred, he’s happy when it’s over, but he gets very nervous performing for others.

I would not recommend exams for Fred, they would simply add an unnecessary level of stress for an already diligent student. Other goals would be much more appropriate, ones that allow him to feel safe and supported in his music making.

How to prepare

So you have a George, how do you make sure the exam is a success? First pick the right level. To me, the right level is one that I know George can be prepared for within about three months.

If it’s going to take 6-9 months for him to successfully play the pieces for that grade, then you should pick a lower grade. A bored student is not a motivated student.

Plan smaller goals along the way. I like to include the student in the planning process. Have an empty calendar ready and fill in objectives together.

For example:

  • Being able to play all the scales at 120bpm one month before the exam.
  • Performing your pieces at a family concert 3 weeks before.
  • Knowing the notes well enough to play the pieces at half the performance tempo 2 months before.

For more on effective piano exam preparation, read this post.

Alternatives to exams

So what about Fred? What should we do for students when exams cause nothing but unnecessary stress?

There are so many other ways to motivate an eager student! I’ve just chosen a few ideas here.

Book of Compositions

fishy fables composing bookThis would be a great project for Fred! He would learn so much theory along the way, and the sense of accomplishment at the end is fantastic. Most students need some parameters to work within for composition.

Just saying “compose something this week!” is overwhelming. Help him to choose a theme for his compositions and/or what style of music he would like to create (for beginning students, my book ‘Fishy Fables‘ is a great way to get students started).

Depending on the students age these ideas could vary greatly, just make sure he feels supported in the endeavor. Getting the finished book professionally bound at the end would make the achievement feel that much sweeter.

YouTube Playlist

40 piece challenge cardI do this with my students who are working on the 40 piece challenge. A piece is considered “complete” (and gets a stamp on their sheet) when we have recorded a video of the student performing it that we are both happy with. We upload these videos to a YouTube playlist as we go.

It’s fantastic to be able to look back over all the performances and see how far the student has come!

YouTube playlists can be made private so that they can’t be found by anyone that’s not invited. This is an excellent option if you have concerned parents or students who might be embarrassed if their friends saw their videos.

Movie Soundtracks

For a film buff, a great target could be to learn the complete soundtrack of a favourite movie. You can find sheet music for most reasonably well known films arranged for lots of different levels.

You could record audio for all of the pieces at the end and burn them to a CD, so the student has something tangible to show for his efforts. Just check that you won’t be breaking any copyrights by doing this.

So, do you have any Freds or Georges?

Has your studio opted entirely in, or out of exams? Or do you consider them on a case by case basis like me? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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