As a beginner musician, should I take grades?

The question: Should I take grades?

Should I Take Grades? – Picture by Ronnie Tucker

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.

Piano Lessons George Goodwin Kilburne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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 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?

About clivemusic

I have taught music, enabling musicians to be confident about performing for over 20 years. I also train teachers and trainers to be confident in the classroom. Keyboard, piano and composing, arranging and singing are my musical loves. I love performing and play Jazz with a Quartet and also sing and direct my own Barbershop Quartet called The Sherlock Combs. I used to be an incredibly nervous performer, suffering from stage fright and through teaching music and learning many mind training techniques, come with me on a journey to confident performing.
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3 Responses to As a beginner musician, should I take grades?

  1. dlpeugene says:

    Interesting topic and take Clive. We created dlp music books to include a grade-like area because some students really embrace and enjoy the challenge. Parents also like to see evidence of a student making progress so our “Learn” section of the process allows those folks to gauge conceptual understanding of the material introduced in the “Discover” section. But there’s more to it than that.

    I believe music (education) is closer to golf than say…math. Golf has done a terrific job of marketing over the years. It has become mainstream and inclusive and most of all – financially healthy for its teachers, players at the pro level and for all of those involved in its wake like apparel, gear, club & ball manufacturers etc. Golf has also been great at ‘teaching” – I have no misconceptions about being able to join the PGA our (or even the senior tour for that matter!) but that doesn’t stop me from buying new equipment, reading journals about Golf, practicing weekly or aspiring to be the best I can at whatever level I play. More importantly, I know that I can play for years to come and be successful on my terms.

    Music education on the other hand has failed to make that sort of transition but all the pieces are in place. If music educators would stop putting all of their eggs in the El-Hi basket and work together with instrument manufacturers, music retailers, and publishers to reach a more inclusive demographic, we all might benefit by creating a financially healthy profession for teachers in school and out.

    Your statement about lifelong learning is spot on (We should never stop learning and lifelong learning is a good example to set our students).The ‘exam’ part of the equation is but a narrow slice of a huge pie.


    • clivemusic says:

      That is such a good point. The sports manufacturers have it all sorted. The idea that musicians only want to be famous is really silly indeed isn’t it?
      We have to sing the praises of music and its benefits. It is so important and just a small number of lessons will enable somebody to be really effective in a band. I have arranged songs for windbands where there is such a wide range of ability and yet it is possible to stretch each person at their own level. As far as I know, you cannot do that with golf! The best players do not want to play with people who cannot complete a round of golf within a couple of hours ( I do not play so I am guessing!) thank you for your comments! What do you mean by EL-HI?


      • dlpeugene says:

        El-Hi is elementary through high school aged kids. This is the sole focus of training for future music educators. It’s the equivalent of golf coaches being trained only to work with kids between the ages of 8 and 17…. and having courses and practice ranges open only for people of school age. It’s ridiculous!


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