There are many factors in how teachers assess readiness for piano exams. But one of the biggest ones has no place in the process, and that’s pressure from parents, students or ourselves.
So let’s give this question a fresh look.
When is a student ready for a piano exam?
Is it when we know they’re capable of passing the exam? Is it when they have already learned some pieces at the same level as the exam repertoire?
Is it just when it’s been a year since their last exam?
When I put it like that, surely not. But that is essentially how many parents and many of us teachers (myself included in the past) act.
It’s assumed that a student will do grade 2 this May if they sat grade 1 last May.
But should they? And are they really ready?
That’s the number 1 readiness assessor. Please, please, trust it.
Now when your gut isn’t sure (or needs bolstering) here’s some questions you can ask yourself:
- Has the student successfully learnt any pieces at around this level of technical difficulty?
- Can the student sight read fluently at about two levels below this exam level?
- Does the student know all (or at least most) of the scales required for the exam?
- Can the student name or explain most of the theory terms that would come up at this level?
- Could the student get about 80% of the aural tests right without your help or preparation?
That’s a tough list, and it’s really just a starting point. But for me over the years, it has all come to boil down to one question:
- Can I see this student realistically getting a great result in this exam with 3 months preparation time?
If the answer is “probably not” then they are not ready. It’s really as simple (and as complicated) as that.
I’ll talk more about that 3 month benchmark in next week’s article.
For now, just start asking yourself that question about your own students. The answers might surprise you.
The Broader Picture
Let’s zoom back out. You’ve looked at the details of this particular exam and how ready your student is for each component – but how does it fit into the big picture?
Saying yes to something is saying no to something else.
In the case of an exam, saying yes means saying no to other skills you could teach them during that time and other pieces they could have learnt.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the exam brings you closer to achieving what you want to achieve for your students, then fantastic!
But does it?
To think about that question, you need to first know what you want for your students. If you’re not sure about your big “why” behind your teaching, you might like to read this post.
When you know where you’re headed, you should be able to think through whether this exam will bring your student further down the path, or whether you could get there faster without it.
This ties into both the considerations above.
What is this experience going to be like for the student? If it’s too easy it’s not going to be enriching – nor will it if it’s too hard.
And there’s something extremely enriching that is missing from many exam-led educations: exposure to enough repertoire.
My goal is for my students to get through about 35 pieces, at varying levels, in between two exam grades. Before that has happened I don’t want to entertain the idea of the next exam – because their experience is simply too narrow, and an exam will make it narrower.
If they have learnt that amount of repertoire then it can be beneficial and musically enriching to slow down. Whether that’s to prepare a special recital piece, work on an in-depth composition, or to sit an exam.
What’s your mark of readiness for piano exams?
Did any of the factors I mentioned surprise you? Do you disagree with where I’ve put exams in the planning process?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments or in the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers group on Facebook.