Why Shouldn’t You Do an Exam?
(Or Why Exams are Bad for You)
I guess I need to start this blog post with an apology. This post might start sounding a bit ranty, but it really is something that needs saying and I really don’t mean it to sound negative. I have written many posts about the importance of exams (and will write more soon!) and I do teach students with exam focus in mind. Personally I really enjoy them (except the nerves on the day) – only last month I did my grade 1 cello exam (and somehow got a distinction). And I’m even training to be an examiner – I love music exams that much! But over the last few weeks I’ve been chatting to some parents and other tutors online and face to face and I really do wonder if as a culture we’re starting to miss the point about exams.
Exam’s are brilliant for focusing your practising and they’re a brilliant thing for a personal sense of achievement. For those looking for a career in music in any shape or form they’re invaluable. But I do wonder if parents are just seeing exams as extra credit boost for secondary schools (well, I know some are!) and whether people have forgotten why music is important.
There’s been so much in the news recently about music and arts in general at schools. Some students having to pay to take GCSE music, other schools are reporting an amazing turn around in general levels on all subjects across the school because they’re focusing on arts and music. I do worry about the future for the arts and also the future for children that aren’t given the opportunity to take part and make music – either because the schools are under too much pressure for maths and literacy levels, the government have decided that this year’s focus will be English or that parents just can’t see the point of paying out for lessons when they don’t see the reward…. Which apparently just seems to be having a shiny exam certificate.
I’m not going to quote those countless studies that show the importance of music, no matter what your age. It’s got health benefits for all ages, especially those who are older, both mentally and physically. Creativity is key for self expression, self being and self worth. Also creativity is the key for engineering, maths and physics. How can we create new things is no one has the creativity to think about something new.
As a parent I also know the difficulties many are facing over spiralling costs of living, lower wages, longer hours, pesky bills as well as the physical cost of paying for lessons.
But if a parents is to say that they think a student isn’t progressing fast enough get to the first exam, or that the time taken between exams is too long and that they ‘should’ be on the next grade by now… should they stop lessons? No.
Why is there a specific time frame to get to grade one…. Or from grade one to the next one. Do people have to have a specific numbers of driving lessons to pass their test….
What difference does an exam make?
As a teacher I’ve found that the difference an exam makes is actually what happens after the exam. Students suddenly have that little bit more self confidence. They’ve practised that little bit harder. They’ve looked at their scales a bit more… so really it’s not actually the piece of paper that makes the difference.
I’ve taught many students who don’t do exams – either through not being interested at all or just looking at other things. Does this mean they’re not as good? No! It means they might not see that sudden spike in knowledge and performance that you get after exams, but instead they have a more gentle learning curve. But the end result is the same.
If you only did exams you would only learn 24 pieces of music. That’s it. Three for each grade and you’d be all the way up to grade eight. Ta da? Don’t think so! Learning fast and being taught by rote means that you just copy and regurgitate someone else’s approach to the pieces. Learn slower, enjoy yourself and explore other styles and you get a better sense of how that piece should feel when you perform it.
The best analogy I’ve come across recently was after chatting to a colleague - Lynne Phillips - (and friend!) on twitter about parents seeming way pushier about students doing exams and ‘it taking too long’. She compares playing pieces to reading books. (Her lovely blog post about repertoire is here). If your child only read 24 books would that teach them to read? Would you expect decent SATs results from 24 Captain Underpants books. Or if you got them to memorise an encyclopaedia (which grade eight can feel like!) would they understand the concepts in it?
So why is there such a push for students (children especially) to take exams in a predetermined time frame? Yes it would be lovely if they were all naturally gifted and going to the worlds greatest pianist of all time… but the odds are they’ll just be great at it. Or if they’re not the greatest should that mean they should stop? If they enjoy it and are progressing – surely that’s the most important thing? I love painting but I’m terrible at it. Do I stop? Nope. Do I expect them to be exhibited anywhere…. Only if it’s in a room with the lights off maybe…
I must also add that piano is difficult! There’s two hands doing different things at different time but at the same time trying to work together to make one thing sound beautiful. The piano takes longer to get up to a good grade standard. If you want to get your children up to a grade to tick the box to get into the decent secondary school – choose something else! Recorder is easy and accessible and you can get up to speed reasonably quickly.
But why do you want that?
Why just get them to do something when all you want is the end result?
As a teacher I love to teach. Students love to learn.
Could we please take the pressure off students (and the teachers) by just remembering.
Exams are not everything.