• Sandra Howe

Music Exams: What are they all about?

With exams fast approaching we answer the most common exam questions:

Playing Saxophone

Are Music exams necessary?

Music exams are not necessary to learn an instrument. We can, and often do teach our own syllabus to students who prefer not to take exams.

If you are considering a music career or future music qualifications, music exams can be very helpful.

They can provide necessary performance experience and introduce students to broader musical skills such as sight reading, ear training and technique as well as providing the qualifications required for further study opportunities.

What is involved in a music exam?

Different exam boards have different exam requirements. Generally, the student will need to prepare 3 pieces of music of different styles which they are to perform, sometimes with an accompanist or backing track.

They will then have additional tests which test their knowledge, technique and instrument proficiency. There is usually a technical test which involves playing scales, arpeggios and chord voicings from memory. Ear tests contain a series of listening, singing and rhythm tests and there are sometimes musicianship tests where examiners ask questions about the student’s pieces or instrument.

The student’s pieces are assessed on their playing fluency, accuracy, expression and character. The examiner will listen for note/rhythm accuracy, dynamic accuracy and the general style and character of the piece as well as looking for originality and flair in the student's performance. The technical tests are assessed on their accuracy, reaction times and musicality.

How long do exams take?

Looking at the QCF framework Grade 5 practical is the equivalent level to a GCSE exam. Grade 8 is equivalent to A-Level exams. This gives us an idea of the average age for exam completion. If your child has completed grade 5 before their GCSE’s they are doing very well.

On average, an exam will take around a year to complete from the time the student begins studying the exam until the exam has been taken. This varies from student to student depending on their age and the number of hours practice they commit to.

This also varies throughout the grades – some grades will be quicker, others slower. Students sometimes skip grades or have a study gap where they can pursue their own musical goals. This all affects the time it takes for grades to be completed.

Is a pass guaranteed?

An exam result is not guaranteed, however, with preparation most students will secure a pass at least. The pass marks depend on the exam board. A pass is usually around 60% of the marks awarded sometimes more. Merit is around 70 - 80% and Distinction is usually 85 - 90%. No matter what mark your child has achieved they have earned over 60% of their marks and have done well.

We only enter students when they are ready for the exam, not before, to prevent unnecessary pressure and stress. Practical exams are a pressure in themselves – students have to perform in a strange place, to a strange person and sometimes on a strange instrument.

The marks they get will depend on what happens on the day and how well they deal with nerves and stress. It is important to praise and encourage a student no matter what result they achieve and try not to compare results as the comparison will never be fair or accurate.

My child doesn’t want to do exams but needs the qualifications. Is there anything we can do?

Yes, there is! The important question is why your child doesn’t want to do exams.

If they don’t like the music there are lots of exam boards to choose from now with many different styles of music. Many colleges accept these alternative exams too.

If they don’t like the additional tests and would prefer just to perform pieces there are many performance based exams a student can do; they avoid the technical tests and concentrate on performance. Some exams even have own choice pieces or own compositions as part of the exam.

There are also assessment exams where the student performs their own choice pieces and receives feedback on their performance. There is no pass or fail mark. This is very helpful if your child doesn’t feel brave enough for an exam, or wants to experience an exam without the risk.

There are many options to choose from and if all else fails you can simply wait until your child feels ready. They may be able to start at a higher grade if the foundation work has been done. Make sure you communicate your needs to your teacher so they can make sure this foundation work has been done for the exam board you are considering by the time your child is ready to start taking exams.

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