Do students really need more stress in these overly stressed times? Don't they have enough exams at school anyway? ...but on the other hand, wouldn't taking an exam be a great challenge, a clear goal, a wonderful achievement?
After playing the piano for a while, some students and/or parents feel the need to have an objective opinion about the progress they are making. Each country has its systems of exams and assessments and although they differ from one another they have a lot in common. The main boards are RCM for Canada and MTNA for the USA. The big ones in the UK are ABRSM and Trinity. Generally, in all of these, the student prepares the required material, plays for the examiners and gets a grade or assessment.
The international schools in Switzerland work with the ABRSM and it is the system I am most familiar with.
This is the biggest and oldest international examination board and has set standards worldwide for grading music students. ABRSM basically offers a sequince of 8 levels and several diplomas to follow grade 8. Passing an exam level is a bit like achieving a Karate belt with a new color. The exams themselves don't take very long, and the student gets a detailed handwritten (!) paper with remarks on each section, and a number of points that add up to the final result. A fancy certificate is delivered to those who pass, a few weeks later.
When I think it would be a good idea for the student to take an exam, or when approached with the question by a parent, the first inquiry I make is - does the student want to do this. Over the years I learned how important this is. Exams can be a great goal to work towards, an opportunity to stretch and expand beyond the comfort zone and end up on a new and higher level. But if the student is doing this solely to please the parent or teacher, the price is too high.
Exams can be motivation killers. The student has to keep playing the same pieces and scales for quite a while, has to stick with them until they are perfect or as close to perfect as they can get, and then there is the fear of not making it.
When the exam question comes up, it is good if the parent and the teacher have an honest talk regarding how best to go about it. Once it is clear that the student really is keen on taking the exam and understands what it involves, the next question would be which level to aim for.
One option is to take the exam when the student has more or less reached the required level so they have a paper confirming it. This is the less stressful option and is often a good approach for the first exam the student is taking. The second option is to choose the next level up, that would challenge the student and require a lot more work. The final decision on this too, should be made with the student. It is the student who will have to spend all those hours practicing the pieces and scales, drilling them over and over, and they are the ones who will be the proudest when they achieve the goal they set for themselves.
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