Why you should do a music exam:
- Opportunity to practice performing
- Overcome stage fright
- Figure out exactly how good you are
- Develop good practice habits
- Achieve excellence on your instrument
- Get an internationally recognised qualification
- Develop a thorough range of skills
I’m not going to lie, doing music exams can be an extremely nerve racking experience! When I sat my first piano exam I couldn’t stop my leg shaking on the pedal. But it doesn’t always have to be like that. An exam is just a performance, and the more you perform, the less scary it becomes. You might still get nervous before going on stage, but once you’re up there, the fun takes over. You’ve learnt the piece, just let it out!
A lot of what we do when we are performing or doing an exam relies on muscle memory. You spend months preparing, teaching your fingers to move in a certain way. Then you find that on the day you perform, you’re not actually thinking about what you’re doing. You just do it.
Figure out how good you actually are
Sitting an exam gives you a realistic idea of how good you actually are. If you haven’t spent the time making sure that you have excellent technique, it will show up in your result, regardless of how accurately or passionately you played.
Develop good practice habits
Practice for your exam is important, however some people spend all their time working on their exam material and forget to actually apply the skills they are learning in the real world. An exam gives you a summary of your skills in a certain area, but you still have to get out there and apply them in a range of contexts. Are you enjoying learning the John Mayer style piece Rollin’ from the Rockschool Grade 5 guitar book? Then jump on Ultimate Guitar and look up some of his other pieces. Then grab some friends and play them as band! Music should be fun. Practicing the tricky stuff and doing exams can be hard work, but you are really just setting yourself up to have more fun with your new-found skills later.
Achieve excellence on your instrument
You get a sense of achievement from doing an exam that you don’t really get anywhere else doing music. You’re able to say, ‘I achieved this level of excellence on my instrument.’ And if someone ever wants to know how good you are, you can let them know with a sense of pride that, ‘I got distinction in Grade 8’.
Internationally recognised qualification
Many exams like the Rockschool syllabus are internationally recognised and are conducted all over the world. They are carefully created by a team of professionals, so you can feel confident that, once you have completed your Grade 8 exam, you are playing at a Grade 8 level.
Develop a thorough range of skills
Being an awesome musician involves being good at a whole range of skills relating to music and your instrument. When you practice for an exam, you can’t afford to just practice your favourite thing, or the stuff you already know. Preparing for your exam will make you practice effectively, and make you practice the whole range of skills you need to be an excellent musician.
Grade 8 is just the beginning
I had a rather humbling realisation after I completed my Grade 8 guitar exam. I realised I still didn’t know very much. There was so much more to learn. When you’re in the middle of working through the grades, it seems like grade 8 is the light at the end of the tunnel. You tell yourself that when you complete Grade 8, you’ll be a pro player. And to an extent it’s true; you’ll definitely be a very good player, but you’ll also suddenly realise that you have a long long way to go. The best musicians understand that you can never stop learning. You’ve never really mastered your instrument, which is exciting! There are always new things to discover every time you sit down to play.
Music exams as a metaphor
Check out this song called ‘Grade 8’ by Ed Sheeran. He uses the idea of a music exam as a metaphor for love, with the lyrics in the chorus singing, ‘You’re strumming on my heartstrings like you were a Grade 8.’ Grade 8 is the highest grade you can achieve on most instruments, and you have to be very good to do that. Ed Sheeran’s song is describing someone who is very good at love by comparing them to a musician who is good enough to have done Grade 8. As a musician who has done a Grade 8 guitar exam, I enjoyed hearing it appear in a song like that.
Should you sit an exam? Definitely! Should you sit every single one? Probably not. When I was learning guitar, I only sat the Grade 5 and Grade 8 exams. I wanted to do the Grade 8 exam and thought it would be a good idea to do Grade 5 as a sort of a trial run, to see how it worked, and help me better prepare for sitting Grade 8. Doing guitar exams gave me confidence as a musician, and I then went on to study guitar at university. Since then I have had the privilege to teach using the Rockschool exam syllabus and prepare my students to achieve excellence as a musician by doing their own exams.