Music exams can be limitations instead of goals

Here’s the real stuff Venezuela’s el Sistema can teach us.

The vast majority of Canadians who take regular music lessons at some point end up in a rigorous curriculum of prescribed, graduated goals validated by exams — most often the tried, tested and true system developed by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Our world is built on objective standards to measure progress, but is this the best way to foster true engagement with an instrument and music itself?

Three incidents have been bugging me for weeks:

I’ve spent the last six months subbing for a piano teacher on maternity leave. Because the 12 youngsters in my charge are not really my own, I’ve tried not to intervene too much, but I’ve repeatedly found myself wanting to halt their quest for the next RCM exam so we can focus on specific issues and, most importantly, make these kids actually care about what they’re doing.

One student, who did well on his Grade 7 exam in January, has really bad technique — and doesn’t enjoy playing the piano. I figured we can’t work on the first without addressing the second issue, so I tried really hard to connect him with something he enjoys.

One day, I gave him a book of songs by Coldplay, his favourite band.

He put his foot down and said this wasn’t going to work because he wanted to get all of his RCM stuff out of the way before regular school became too demanding (he just finished Grade 9). He would only learn the exact number of pieces required for the next exam, and then move on. Period.

(How do you argue with a stone-faced teenager?)

The second incident involved a prosperous, middle-aged couple who were looking for someone to buy their fine, European grand piano. Two years ago, their daughter had completed her ARCT, the final diploma awarded by the RCM’s community examination system, and had not touched the piano since.

The couple said the piano was crowding their living room, so there was no point in holding on to it.

Anyone who takes the ARCT exam is supposed to be a fine musician, able to tackle pretty much anything in the repertoire. Shouldn’t something — anything — have left enough of an impression on this young woman to compel her to occasionally caress the keyboard?

Perhaps, later in life, she’ll return to her childhood companion. But I can’t help being haunted by the hours this person spent through at least a dozen years of prime childhood learning something that did not make a deeper connection with her soul.

The third incident was on Monday. As I walked towards my practice studio, I heard some very fine playing coming through the door. I opened it to find my pre-teen student sitting at the piano. As soon as she saw me, she stopped playing.

I asked her to please re-play the piece of music I’d heard. it was a song she’d heard on YouTube and figured out to play, with surprising ease and completely correct fingering, during her free time. She played with commitment and a lot of expression.

It bowled me over because she plays her assigned music with all the gusto of a recalcitrant 4-year-old being told to eat their broccoli. I have come close to suggesting to her that piano may not be her ideal creative outlet.

I was proved wrong — without any thanks to the dedicated people who set up music curricula for kids.

The examinations and prescribed curriculum are efficient from a teaching point of view. They help students and teachers measure and compare progress.

They may not help foster a love of music itself, at least not consciously, but they are a help for would-be professionals, right? Well, according to several Faculty of Music professors I’ve spoken to who sit on admissions juries, the quality of auditions varies widely.

They complain that their incoming students need remedial work, much the same way English profs say their new arrivals aren’t able to write a proper essay.

Is this the way is ever was, or could it be different?

In a new blog post today, The Independent‘s always insightful Jessica Duchen has, I believe hit the nail on the head.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivár orchestra are currently in the U.K., inspiring Duchen to ask what this magical, ineffable extra something is that these musicians have that her country’s incredibly talented youth orchestras don’t.

Duchen spoke to people who have taught in Venezuela and discovered that part of the success there comes from not limiting what music each student has access to.

Duchen writes:

In a recent interview for The Strad, I asked Levon Chilingirian, leader of the Chilingirian String Quartet, what he thought about this. He and his three colleagues visit Caracas regularly to coach the students of El Sistema in chamber music. “One aspect which is very different from here,” he says, “is that they don’t have any limits set for them.” Many children learning music in the UK work their way through the Associated Board grade exams system by hook or by crook. “Mostly by crook as far as I can see,” Chilingirian adds. “It can be a case of: ‘You do your Grade V this year and next year I’ll give you a nice present when you do Grade VI’. And if you suggest to someone that they might learn a particular piece, they’ll say ‘No, no, that’s Grade VII and I’m only Grade IV.”
That doesn’t happen in Caracas. Chilingirian met a young violinist who’d been learning for only a year, but brought the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 to a lesson and was determined to perform it with an orchestra soon afterwards. The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi driver who, bored with his job, met some youngsters from El Sistema, heard about their work and decided to become a cellist, having never touched an instrument before. “Nobody said ‘You can’t’ – so he did it,” says Chilingirian. “He’s a very accomplished player.”

Here is part of her conclusion:

It’s worth reflecting that in a target-oriented, achievement-focused society blighted by the class-ridden nature of the education system, children have to be very lucky to find themselves making music for the sake of enjoying it. Oftener than not they do so to please their parents, to win a music scholarship (few parents realise the hard work involved in that), to pass exams that will allow them to go on and pass more exams. It’s all about measurement and competition. But for El Sistema, it’s about personal and social transformation.

I heartily recommend her entire blog post, found here.

I was fortunate enough to grow up and have piano lessons on both sides of the Atlantic — graduated exams here and free choice to play whatever I pleased under the guidance of a very demanding composer-pianist in France.

I never realised in France that I was playing music supposedly beyond my abilities, and I’ll be forever glad it never would have occurred to her to tell me any such thing.


I’ve never played video games, but plenty of music students do, so why not combine both pleasures, once in a while?

Some games come with sountracks that lend themselves nicely to a variety of instruments, like Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros:

John Terauds

8 thoughts on “Music exams can be limitations instead of goals

  1. Thank you John for this great post and quote. One thing that has shocked and disturbed me since returning to Canada is that emerging artists aim to fit into the applications for funds rather than plan their careers. They aren’t thinking of making music as much as the next deadline. Ann Summers Dossena

  2. John – thanks for your thought provoking article, read as I begin my day preparing to do a full day of voice exams in B.C. I am Elizabeth Loewen Andrews father. Check out her husband’s youtube site, “rigormortis999”. Mark Andrews has done hundreds of piano transcriptions from great game scores. His piano students love him because he will throw simplified transcriptions, based on their level, into the mix of his teaching.

  3. Pingback: Music exams can be limitations instead of goals | Musical Toronto | Learn Piano Lessons

  4. Any curriculum can be seen as either limiting or enabling/motivating. Any program with defined, articulated levels can be viewed by a teacher or student as an end unto itself or as one tool among many for organizing and inspiring learning. A measurement against a consistent national standard that attempts to be somewhat comprehensive is absolutely of value in my opinion, but it never can and never should be the whole picture. It’s something that teachers need to remind themselves of regularly, and help both students and parents to view exams/assessments within a bigger context of musical and life skills.

  5. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful article. I recently switched all my students from ABRSM exams to Trinity Guildhall, because I found ABRSM to rigid and old-fashioned, with its emphasis on learning 100s of scales and sight-reading from Grade 1 (which terrifies most young students). Trinity places far more emphasis on performing and musicality, and instead of 100s of scales, students learn 3 technical exercises which have a relevance to the pieces in the syllabus. The repertoire is more interesting and enjoyable, for students and for teacher. As a result, all my students who took Trinity exams this season passed with good marks (3 merits, 1 good pass).

    I don’t have a problem with graded music exams per se, as they do serve a purpose, and many students, their parents and teachers like the benchmarking exams provide. But if they are putting kids off music for life, then they are not useful. My main motivation for teaching is sharing the joy and pleasure of music, rather than encouraging note-bashing and rote-learning. I want my students to remember their lessons with me because they had fun, had a laugh, played music they wanted to play (I regularly adapt film scores and pop songs for my students), and caught some of my enthusiasm and passion. My piano lessons as a child were very dull and I was determined when I started teaching that I would not replicate that experience with my students.

  6. I know, and know of, lots and lots of people now in their 20s and 30s who went through the RCM system and then dropped the piano (and music-making in general) like a hot potato the moment they were “done”. In that sense, the story about the grand piano owned by the parents of an ARCT-level former pianist is very familiar to me. These people didn’t study piano for the love of it: they did so because their parents expected them to.

    We need to re-orient music education toward the joy of it, not the pain of endless rote repetition of scales (leave that to the very talented and fantastically driven). It should be about both playing and singing, jazz, pop and folk music as well as classical, music-making in groups as well as solo, etc.

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