It is a question which comes up regularly in my work as a music teacher and lecturer. In the popular music world of guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards and drums, taking grades almost seems irrelevant to many musicians.
The idea of practicing some un-trendy custom-written piece is alien to many musicians just starting out. Until The Rock School grades and curriculum were introduced in 1992, to my knowledge, there was no recognised programme of study for non-classical musicians. For many of these musicians, grades are still a no go area.
Some tutors believe that the only way to keep pupils motivated is to stick to a grades system which has a certain set of pieces, scales and other exercises associated with it. Having taught piano (and guitar for my sins… ) I realised the merits of following a set curriculum. Pupils would lose motivation if there was no longer term plan or goals in mind. Many students arrived to their lessons not wanting to take grades and had an initial burst of enthusiasm at the start of their lessons. They then began to lose focus and momentum as the path became bereft of landmarks and hard work became apparent.
There are many tutors who balance the need for exams and fun content, maintaining motivation and achievement. Often by organising gigs and opportunities to play, teachers such as Richard Perkins and Rachel Kerry
I had many years of piano lessons from various teachers and never studied grades. Then I needed to obtain grade 8 piano to go to university. Having taken only a single piano exam in my life, it made things quite difficult for me when I started to teach piano. I had no in-built DNA to take other students through a series of learning stages. Having these set stages in my earlier years of teaching would have been gold dust. I watched other piano teachers who had traveled dutifully through the grades system, establish an instrumental teaching career very quickly.
I remember on my PGCE music course, George Odam indicated that teachers tended to teach their students in the way that they had learned. Rightly or wrongly, it is a system which can have massive benefits for the journey of a learner.I have also seen in my life time, the stifling effect on students of sticking rigidly to a set programme of study. Some accomplished teachers are fearful of treading off the well-beaten path of the grades system into the unknown. Letting a student choose a piece or style which is outside one’s experience as a teacher, can be scary. For me, working with musicians from so many disciplines, I find it exciting when a music student wants to explore something new. It makes life interesting and the journey is fun for both teacher and student. We should never stop learning and lifelong learning is a good example to set our students.
What are your experiences as a student and/or a teacher? Do you stay on the grades path?
There are plenty more tips to help beginners here in the free Top Ten Tips book at www.confidentperformer.co.uk and a more comprehensive manual available too
I do tend to answer some questions with more questions but I guess that is the teacher in me! So in short:
- What is your goal or intention as a musician?
- Are you motivated by exams and grades?
- Will you need them to go and study further?
- Are you motivated by a much more free approach?
- Do you like to lead your own learning?
- Are you good at finding ways to stay motivated?
- Do you gain a real sense of achievement if you pass exams?
- Are you around people who need some measure of how good you are?