With the autumn edition of arco’ out (vol 44 no 4), it was interesting to see the article ‘2020 ABRSM string syllabus – development in progress’. In it, five of the string consultants for the new examination syllabus outlined their views on the enormous task set for them to suggest new music. This is quite obviously no easy task as choices are limited very much by duration, technical demands, the feasibility of the accompaniments and the availability of the music. But what an experience to help set the music for a set of examinations that are used across the entire world. I understand that another major examination board, Trinity, are also currently going through a very similar process. Such an investment in time and resources for a system that has become very much the backbone of instrumental teaching here in the UK and holds varying degrees of importance elsewhere leads me to the questions of how and why do we use examinations within our teaching?

What are graded examinations?

Graded examinations are a well-grounded tradition of music education in the UK. Trinity College London was the first organiser of examinations for external students in 1877, with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music forming with the purpose of offering examinations in 1889 and the first syllabus being published in 1890. The present structure of grades 1-8 was introduced in 1933. Exams are now set by a multitude of boards that offer between them a huge variety of practical instrument and theoretical subjects. Many are now also accredited to many countries National Qualifications Frameworks.

Most of the graded instrumental examinations take a similar structure – three contrasting pieces, scales, sight-reading and aural; with some boards offering a wider scope of variation in options to choose from. They all offer a benchmark measurement of a student’s learning and a guide to other people as to the standard of a player.  

Why use examinations?

It strikes me that there is a multitude of reasons that teachers may choose to make use of an examination system in their individual teaching practices. Here are some possibilities:

  • A formal recognition of the level a student has achieved in their playing skills
  • A motivation for students who need obvious targets for their learning
  • A useful tool around which a teacher can build their own teaching curriculum
  • A measure of their own success as a teacher
  • A system of learning and curriculum in its own right, basing all their teaching on the examination syllabus
  • To comply with the needs of ensembles and music colleges for a guide as to the ability of the students seeking to attend them
  • Succumbing to the pressures for qualifications imposed by educational establishments, parents and similar, those pressures being reinforced by the accreditation of such examinations within a national formal qualification structure

Exams and motivation

There is no getting away from it, for some learners examinations can be a highly motivational tool. They appeal to many players competitive characters and give many of those that take them a real sense of achievement. They can also be great for giving focus to a learner when they reach plateaux within their playing, the consolidatory process of working for and taking the exam being a positive and highly motivational tool for many.

The Negatives

Not all learners are suited to the rigours of the examination system, and why should they be? For many, learning an instrument is a purely recreational activity. Why spoil a pleasurable experience by imposing the stress the process of working towards and actually taking an examination can cause? The exam system can also cause limitations to a teacher’s creativity and the development of instrumental learning around the style and musical tastes of the individuals being taught.

Using exams in the right way

To my mind, the examination system has been established not for the purpose of providing a curriculum for the instrumental teacher, but as a series of benchmarks to by which an individual’s learning can be measured. I may be completely wrong, but from my experiences, as a string teacher, the majority of learners need a fair deal of sideways development both technically and musically between the linear structures of an examination syllabus. The exams are there to measure success at a given point, facilitating and guiding rather than providing a system of learning and development.  

Exam publications

This leads me on to the exam publications provided for the most popular instruments by most boards. Are they a good thing, or do they encourage a culture whereby after one exam has been taken the next book is bought immediately by enthusiastic parents so that the next step can be embarked upon straight away? It takes a very strong minded and confident teacher to stand up against such pressures. In many ways, teachers of the less popular instruments without such publications at their disposal can perhaps develop a more holistic approach. The books are expensive to buy and most teachers choose the publications carefully for a wide variety of pedagogical reasons rather than just the need to obtain one specific exam piece. This can lead to a breadth of learning that is far more enriching to the development of a budding musician.

Using exams with discretion

Of course, graded exams have their role in learning and an important one at that! They can be a marvellous tool if used in the best interests of the learner, but conversely, they can be demoralising and a thoroughly negative resource if used badly, with little thought as to why and how they are being used. This bi-product of the examination system is not the fault of any of the boards that present syllabi for graded examinations. Rather such outcomes are caused by teachers who have not given enough thought as to how they use this particular resource within the sphere of instrumental teaching.   

Thinking teachers

How much thought do you, as a teacher, give to the way that you use examinations? The topic of examinations is a contentious one, with many teachers holding very strong opinions about their usage. The subject is ripe for debate. There are many online forums and publications such as ESTA’s very own ‘arco’ that provide an ideal vehicle for such discussion. The European String Teachers Association promotes thinking and debate amongst its membership. Why not contribute to some of those discussions by contributing to the online discussion or writing your thoughts for the magazine (all contributions emailed to editor@estastrings.org.uk ?

Many examination boards can be used in the teaching of stringed instruments, and ESTA has a membership that encompasses each of these without bias. For more information about string teaching in general and ideas of your own career development, why not see what the European String Teachers Association can offer you by visiting our websites www.estastrings.org.uk and www.estaeducation.co.uk