Grades: really neccesary?

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by MrsDoyle, Sep 13, 2009.

  1. MrsDoyle

    MrsDoyle Supporting Member

    Are grades really neccessary? It seems to me a lot of unneccesary expense when many accomplished and players don't have or need such qualifications.

    I may cause some controversy when I say they're not as essential as some would have you believe.

    Discuss ;-)
  2. jockinafrock

    jockinafrock Active Member

    I enter my pupils for ABRSM exams - if that is what they want. I certainly wouldn't insist a pupil takes a grade. I suppose it's subjective - it's something to aim for and work towards, and hopefully instils a sense of achievement in the pupil. Everyone's different though, and I have a couple of pupils though who absolutely go to bits at the mere thought of an exam, so I don't push the issue with them.

    I think it's great that organisations such as the NYBBGB ask for a playing standard as opposed to wanting to see the certificate; then simply you're either good enough or you're not. I know of several young players (around age 11 - 13) who, although they have gained a grade 8, actually have poor sound quality, attention to detail, intonation probs/poor technique etc. They might be able to talk about form/periods of music etc, but that's about it. Overall they're not necessarily a very good player. How do they get through? :-?

    When I hear somebody has their grade 8 I expect someone pretty decent. I did my gr5 at 12 and got 119/150, but it wasn't good enough for my teacher so I had to do it again, this time gettign 131/150 - I just went along with it. I passed my gr8 a couple of years later and enjoyed the challenge, but it's changed quite a bit now and I'd maybe only just squeeze through on some of the bits :oops:

    Expensive? YES! Worth it? Jury's out, it's still subjective...
  3. Rhonda

    Rhonda Member

    I was asked by a local music teacher to accompany some of her students.
    We don't have this grade system where I come from so I was really curious to get a little insight. Instead of grade exams we have competitions for children aged 5+, called "Jugend musiziert". This is actually more about the teachers competing rather than the pupils. Result is that even the youngest pupils turn up with tiny but perfect concert performances.

    On the day of the exams I went early to listen to some of the students taking grade 2/3/4.
    I found the standard appaling. Honestly I've never ever heard such bad playing before(in a exam/competition situation).

    After the exams I chatted with some of the teachers. General opinion was that their students were really up to the thing. Only few admitted that they would like better performances/quality but most of their pupils would simply not be prepared to practise more than their usual time/amount.

    Having said all of that: No, I don't think grades are necessary/important. A good musician will make his/her way. And might be better of practising for concerts or -in case of brass instruments- competitions rather than being all messed up by some useless exam.
  4. Do grafes aid you getting into a music University and count as a qualification as an A level does?
  5. Getzonica

    Getzonica Active Member

    I think it's worth it. I feel I know what standard I'm at as I do grades and it does give me a good challenge as the music and scales get harder each time. I also feel that it gives you something to work for.

    if you're a beginner and you pass your grade 1 I think it gives you some confidence because you realise you've achieved something.
  6. Getzonica

    Getzonica Active Member

    Yes. I think they do
  7. flugelgal

    flugelgal Active Member

    I'm actually working towards my first grade on bass trom just now. It's mostly to give me something to work towards, and I really don't expect to get distinction in my Grade 6 (first bass trom grade) after playing it for less than a year, but I hope it will help my confidence a lot - and motivate me to work on the right things. I do take lessons, and my teacher thinks I should do this exam (although he wouldn't push me if I didn't want to do it)!

    I'm all for these exams, I think it helps students to see for themselves how they are getting on. Teachers might say "oh that's great" but it's nice to get a second opinion, and it's brilliant to get the experience of performing under duress. Plus I think it should boost a student's confidence when they do well, or better than they themselves expected.

    On the other hand, exams should be a "standard" and the examiners shouldn't be passing people on Grade 8 unless they can actually play ****** well. What jockinafrock is saying about tonal quality, intonation etc, are basics that should really be mastered before reaching that standard imho! (Saying that, I have far from mastered them on the bone, but I'm definitely not going for Grade 8 right now ;)).
  8. Kjata

    Kjata Member

    A grade 8 distiniction is worth a grade C at A2.
    I personally think someone with a grade 8 isn't always a good player, what people don't understand is musicality.
  9. Anno Draconis

    Anno Draconis Well-Known Member

    In terms of defining your ability as a musician? Absolute waste of time. I've known players with Grade 8 who were technically able, but about as musical as a welly - and conversely, superb musicians who've never doen a grade exam in their life.

    However: some universities ask for grades as an admission criteria (when I was applying, Durham and Bristol wanted Grade 8 on your main instrument plus grade 6 on piano) as do some of the services. The process of preparing for the exams is a help IMHO, for those who will face formal auditions later in life. I had to have G8 to get into uni, and it made my NYBBW auditions less stressful!

    If you're planning on a career in music, e.g, teaching or pro musician, grade exams are a useful step on the ladder and good practice for later, more important exams and auditions. If you're just looking to improve as a player and develop as a band member, they're not much use IMO.
  10. trumpetmike

    trumpetmike Well-Known Member

    Ooh, a pet hate subject of mine, lol

    I am sorry, but I find the obsession with grades in this country one of the most annoying aspects of teaching. I have taken on students who have had bits of paper saying that they have passed exams, yet when asked to play any scale, any piece or even a pleasant sounding long note, they have been unable to do so.
    On the other hand, I have met people who have no grades to their name and yet are superb players.

    Are they a necessity - not by most places who know what they are doing (with the possible exceptions of certain universities - although a lot of them say "of the standard" rather than requiring a bit of paper).
    Are they useful - possibly
    Are they the reason for learning - NO!
    Do I enjoy putting students through the expense (and let's be fair, it is expensive) of an exam - NO
    Do I think most students gain musicality from exams - NO!
    Do I think that many parents think that exams are an important part of learning an instrument - very sadly, yes.

    For me, I find that the majority of students I put in for exams have very little interest in doing them - they want to play, they want to learn, many of them will even learn scales when they can see the usefulness of them, HOWEVER, their parents like to see exams ticked off.
    I have had a parent withdraw their son from my lessons because he hadn't done his Grade 1 as fast as his twin brother had done on saxophone. The fact that my ex-student was something of a muppet, in a pair lesson with a student who had learning issues (ADHD) wasn't something they were willing to even talk about - he will now go for private lessons (individually, obviously, at a much higher cost) and will be put through exams, because that is what Mummy & Daddy want for their little darling.
    I have had a similar experience before - a Mmother thought that I wasn't putting her daughter through exams fast enough, so asked around a number of teachers until she found one that said (without actually hearing the daughter play) "yes, we will do Grade x next term." The daughter has been pushed through exam after exam and has managed to learn a couple of pieces and a study each time (with a few of the scales). She has a HUGE embouchure problem which NEEDS fixing, but that is not something that her Mother (nor the teacher, obviously) is worried about, just as long as they get their certificates on the wall.

    If a student is GENUINELY interested in doing exams (as opposed to being pushed into it by parents) and they are of the right standard, then we will take an exam when they are ready.

    Another problem with a huge number of exams is that the examiners are in no way specialiasts. I have had a number of incidents where the comments on the paper have shown that the examiners have had no knowledge of the instrument the exam was being performed on, nor the repertoire for that instrument.

    As a performer, looking to work with other performers, I really don't care what bit of paper someone has, if they can't play then they won't get a gig - if they can play, they might.
    As a teacher, I really don't care what bit of paper someone has - if they can or can't play then we will structure the lesson based upon that state.
    When auditioning people for various groups, the words I HATE hearing are "I have done Grade x" because you frequently then get an unmusical rendition of one of the exam pieces (usually from the syllabus of the exam list two ahead of their actual playing standard) that might get something from an examiner but has no place in the real world of music.

    As you might be able to tell, this is a rant that I can keep going on for some time, lol
    I look at the ABRSM and frequently find myself thinking that they are responsible for much of what I consider wrong about the way we teach instrumentally in this country. In much the same way that school teachers often get accused of teaching to exams (SATS, GCSEs, A levels etc) I would suggest that there are MANY teachers throughout the country who are teaching NOTHING about how to be a musician, nor about the "correct" way of playing an instrument - but they get students through exams, especially at the beginning.

    Oh, as a final thought - much as Grade 6, 7 & 8 do have a certain amount of UCAS points attached to them, most universities are now ignoring this way of achieving points and looking at the further developed student - those students who play regularly with bands/orchestras/ensembles, those who actively participate in other extra-curricular activities - they are looking for a broader spectrum of interests, not just the bits of paper from ABRSM and others.
  11. Getzonica

    Getzonica Active Member

    That's quite shocking! How a on earth could you even pass an exam if you can't play a scale or a piece etc!?
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 14, 2009
  12. chrisgs

    chrisgs Member

    I think grades can be good to give something to work towards and to provide motivation to improve, but shouldn't be the main goal - and as many others have said, they are a poor indicator of general ability.

    After I switched from Bb cornet to soprano, my teacher recommended that I carried on with the Bb at school as it would be easier to get grade 8 on. I was rather surprised and found it a bit worrying that she thought I was more interested in getting a bit of paper than developing musically on my main instrument....!

    However I did take my grade 8 on soprano before I left and felt well prepared. My playing was awful on the day though (stamina let me down majorly...) and there was no way it was worthy of a pass. Learning afterwards that I'd got a distinction made me question what a grade 8 is worth.... Knowing how poorly I'd played and still come away with a good mark, I'm afraid to say that knowing someone has grade 8 means very little to me any more.
  13. Leyfy

    Leyfy Active Member

    I would agree with you there. I am not a cornet player by origins, but clarinet. My degree and university place etc was set by my clarinet playing - of which I have grade 8. Anyway, a couple of years ago I decided to do grade 6 cornet just to have a bit of paper to write on job applications.

    So I bowl up for the ABRSM exam, and the examiner had a CRIB sheet to tell her what to look out for! (Incidentally - there were 3 people in the room other than myself and my accompanist??). So anyway, I get to the end of the exam, and the examiner asks me to do the transposition test which is compulsory for trumpet exams, but not for cornet?! I then had to point out I was playing a cornet, not a trumpet?! (I did offer to do the transposition test as I was used to doing it - switching between Bb/A and Eb Clarinet at uni). Fills you with confidence when the examiner is not even sure what instrument you are playing OR what the requirements are for that instrument.....

    I think one of the problems is that if the exam is one of the higher ABRSM grades then the examiner has to be a pretty decent pianist for the aural tests. So, I guess that would bias the examiners 'specialism'?

    I am talking about ABRSM here as I have no experience of the others.
  14. chrisgs

    chrisgs Member

    I was asked to do that on cornet too! When I pointed out that I didn't have to, the examiner told me just to try it anyway. I had to insist that they went and checked in the syllabus! :-?
  15. trumpetmike

    trumpetmike Well-Known Member

    A very good question - I assume that their previous teacher had them learn the pieces in a parrot fashion which they could then recall for the day and then forget.
    My most memorable example of this was a students who couldn't name ANY note on the stave, couldn't tell me what the fingering was for a C (any of them), couldn't say whether there were any sharps or flats in C major and couldn't recall which pieces he played for his exam when asked (even when he had the books in front of him).
    I actually asked to see the certificate and mark sheet - he had passed, nearly achiving Merit - when I wrote his report he had an estimated Grade of B+ (beginner, Pre-Grade 1) - he had already got his Grade 2 certificate!
  16. Getzonica

    Getzonica Active Member

    Those are instances when grade exams are not really a good idea. I agree that they shouldn't be the only goal - my music teacher knows what my goal as a musician is so he is helping me reach the goal.

    I personally think that exams have helped me a bit although it is through brass banding that my sight reading has become so good!
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2009
  17. Bryan_sop

    Bryan_sop Active Member

    As a relatively new teacher, ie I've been teaching the odd person privately since I was about 16, but for a year or so now, I've been taking on as many students as I can.

    In my experience, the parents aren't the problem. Previous teachers are. Those that are just interested in results. I've got a few students that don't want to do exams at the moment, because they've been forced into them before. I consider students results as much as a reflection of my teaching, as their ability, so I enter them for exams when they are ready.

    Equally, music schools. I was forced to teach a young lad to get through his grade 5 Jazz Trumpet. I'm no improviser and I told the head of the music school that I am really not qualified to teach what he was asking. As it turned out, my minimal improvisational skills got him a merit....more luck than judgement I think!

    I personally have never put any student through the lower grades, I think they're a waste of time and money. I am putting 2 very promising young cornet players in for grade 4, after teaching them for a year from beginners.

    Grades are a good as something to work towards, but not essential. If a child wants to get good, they'll practice and get good without having to do exams. If and when the people I'm teaching get to the standard where it matters for UCAS points, I will push it slightly!
  18. Andrew Norman

    Andrew Norman Active Member

    No - Grades are NOT necessary but they can be useful tools when you are teaching.
    Many pupils work best when they have something to aim for and the exam system provides a good starting point.
    Not all pupils can be gifted musically but most can attain a decent Grade..
  19. Getzonica

    Getzonica Active Member

    The exam bored I am using at the moment (one nobodys ever heard of!). When I did my grade 5 with them, they actually gave me some advice as to how to improve.
  20. Aidan

    Aidan Active Member

    I totally agree Andrew.
    Over here they dont have the grade system but the kulturskule (LEA music service equivalent) works on a 3 tier scale for each school/youthband there is out there, they have aspirants (beginners) > juniors > main band.
    This system keeps them pushing to improve on the premise that they will be promoted into the next ensemble. Although in this respect, it's a bit annoying to keep having to remind them that they need to practise to be promoted, so something like grades to keep them working on their own is decent.
    Having said that, I do look on them simply as a learning tool and they arn't taken seriously at all past around A level standard.
    Although I'm pretty much a youngster myself, I did my last grade exams 11 years ago getting grade 6 dist horn/piano and 7 dist violin.
    Since gaining entrance to a music college (and I did a music A level anyway), my grades as pieces of paper are fairly useless and I just look back on them as a learning aid. And they did their job, although they didn't come cheap back then, I'm sure they are worse now!