7 Reasons Why Teachers Use Graded Exams by Sally Cathcart

Published: Jan 1, 2017  |   Category: Uncategorized


What memories do YOU have of your very first piano exam?

Can you still visualise the waiting room, the exam room, the front cover of your exam book? Can you remember what sort of day it was? What do you remember about the examiner? And how did your music-making experience go? You maybe still have the report form and dog-eared exam book!

Here are our first piano exam memories!


It was a wet December morning in 1991. I remember clutching my grade 1 book and running up the tarmac drive to a house in rural Ireland. The place where I would do all my future graded piano exams.

I remember the candidate before me coming out of the exam room, slightly giddy with the feeling of relief. I waited. When the bell rang, indicating that it was my turn, my heart thudded inside my chest. I stepped out into the small hallway and made my way to a door with a poster stuck to it. In austere capital letters it said: EXAM ROOM. (Surely these posters should say something that sounds way more fun than that?)

Tentatively, I opened the door to find the examiner sitting at a small desk beside a shiny wooden-effect piano. Even now, I think I can see and feel the keys on that piano. The same piano that I would play six years later when being examined for my grade 8 piano exam.

Oddly, I don’t remember much else about my very first piano exam experience, except for the fact that the male examiner had an earring in one ear. (Which I remember thinking was pretty cool: not at all what I’d expected!)


It was snowing! All the buses had stopped running and Mum and I had to somehow get to the Methodist Hall in the centre of Coventry for my piano exam.

Mum had already walked three miles to pick me up from school bringing with her my wellies, hat, scarf and the all important gloves for keeping my hands warm. Together we set off into the twilight, my music safely stored in my satchel. It was still snowing and I am sure the snow was really quite deep so it took us some time to walk the 2.5 miles.

I remember clearly the sense of relief when we arrived and the feeling of being enveloped by the warmth of the waiting room. Like Sharon (and probably most of us I think) the actual details of the exam are long gone in the midst of time, but I have a feeling that afterwards we might have gone for a hot chocolate, before starting the long walk home!


It can be a curious thing, as a piano teacher, to bring to the surface our own memories of taking graded music exams. Take a moment now to think back (and share any flashbacks that you have in the comments below). To what extent did you have a positive or negative experience. And what accounted for that experience? Indeed, what were the longer-term implications?

Professor Susan Hallam in her book Instrumental Teaching: a practical guide to better teaching and learning [1] argues that:

“if assessment is undertaken before the pupil is ready, they are not likely to do well and… this will have effects on their future motivation and self-esteem.”

Did you ever take a piano exam for which you weren’t fully prepared?


So today, you’re a piano teacher. (Whether or not you ever imagined being one when you were a piano pupil). The question is: Do you enter pupils for exams?

According to Sally’s PhD research, [2] 75% of all (UK-based) respondents agreed that grade examinations were a regular part of their teaching. By comparison, 45% agreed that pupil played regularly in teacher-organised concerts, whilst 37% agreed that pupils played regularly in concerts and festivals.

One piano teacher, who participated in Sally’s research, gave the following reason to support why she used graded exams:

“I tend to follow the exam route with most pupils because it does give them a standard to aspire to.” [Respondent: 167]

Another piano teacher said:

“I find examinations a useful measure of progress, and success breeds an element of confidence. Also, I find parents often expect examination entry.” [Respondent: 84]


If you enter pupils for exams, what are your reasons for doing so?

We’ve listed 7. How many of them resonate with you?

#1 That’s how I was taught

As human beings we’re good at modelling behaviour and actions. When I started teaching the piano, I remember being conscious that I didn’t want to teach as I was taught. Yet when I started studying for a post-graduate qualification in music education five years later I realised that, essentially, I’d been teaching as I taught.

So here’s the question: do you find yourself entering pupils for exams because it’s a routine you’re familiar with – because it was your routine as a learner? And to what extent do you use the same exam board that you used when you were a pupil?

#2 The repertoire is chosen for me

“How many published grade 1 piano pieces exist in the world today?”

That, for sure, is a curious question. I reckon that the answer is many thousands. Yet if 100 piano teachers sat in the same room, and wrote down the names of all the grade 1 pieces known to each of us, I wonder how many we’d come up with? And I wonder how many responses would come from past/current examination syllabuses?

We know from the research that, although we love having a choice, choice overload can overwhelm us to the point where we disengage. So when it comes to selecting the repertoire we present to our pupils, you may actually *like* the fact that there is only a limited selection of pieces from which to choose in a graded exam syllabus. (If you’re interested in watching the researcher Sheena Iyengar give a 16-minute TED Talk on ‘How to make choosing easier’ click here).

#3 The different levels aready exist

“What IS a grade 1 piece?”

That’s another pretty curious question. It challenges us to think. Let’s imagine you were to compile a list of criteria to define what makes a grade 1 piece a grade 1 piece. Which musical skills and concepts would you include? And just how would you differentiate a grade 1 piece from a pre-grade 1 piece, or a grade 2 piece? Again, it often tends to be the people who compile the syllabus repertoire lists who do that type of thinking for us.

#4 You get feedback from experts

Our egos can be susceptible to concrete things – like that handwritten statement, that exam mark. It’s easy to mentally regard a very high mark, given to a pupil in an exam, as a highly-polished trophy. Even if we know that that pupil can play only three exam pieces. (Which is why we love the concept of Elissa Milne’s 40 Piece Challenge). And even if that pupil is inept at the skills that aren’t a compulsory area of assessment in a piano exam, such as improvising or playing by ear.

#5 Shows I’m an ‘ok’ teacher

All my pupils get merits or distinctions.”

And if an expert thinks that they’re worthy of that, then I rest assured that I’m doing a good job. Yet just how many people have certificates but can’t really play music musically? (That’s another curious question).

#6 The parents expect it

Parent: “When DO you plan to enter Vanessa for her grade 1 piano exam? My sister’s son – who’s a whole year younger than Vanessa and who started lessons after her – took his grade 1 a few months ago.”

It may be a hypothetical statement, but I’ll wager that you’ve encountered *that* parent at some point during your time as a piano teacher. In that situation, what do you do?

#7 I don’t know how else to create a sense of progression

Let’s imagine that, this time next year, graded music exams will no longer exist. And that all paper and online copies of syllabuses vanish. How will you create a sense of progression for your pupils?


How much lesson time do you spend preparing pupils to take exams? How much do you think in compartmentalised boxes that reflect the structure that’s common to exam syllabuses (e.g. aural tests, sight-reading, scales and arpeggios).

Exams can be part of the picture yet a heavy reliance on the system indicates a profession that is very unconfident of its own abilities. Too often we start by teaching the end goal – the exam grade – rather than thinking in a broader context about what has to be learnt by the pupil.

A heavy reliance on the exam system indicates a profession that is very underconfident of its own abilities - Sally Cathcart
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We encourage you to be conscious of the ‘answers’ that are given to you in the form of an exam syllabus. Don’t allow these ‘answers’ to deprive you of important thought processes.

Because it’s not enough that someone else has engaged in the thought process. You won’t get clarity and understanding until you’ve engaged in the thought process too. You might start by answering the question that we posed above: What IS a grade 1 piece? (TIP: Don’t feel under pressure to come up with a set of ‘right’ answers. This is not about ‘right’ answers. The whole point is the process of thinking about it).

Let’s aspire to being a profession that is renowned for its curious thinkers. Because when we’re curious, when we think – we will teach differently. We will teach with a greater sense of meaning and purpose. With more passion, more energy, more confidence. That way, we will leave behind a far superior legacy than if we passively prepare pupils to take piano exams. (Because merely ‘deciphering those little black dots’ is a world apart from ‘creating music’ that is not just heard, but felt.)

If you feel stuck on the exam treadmill – maybe even too scared to get off it for fear of losing your balance and falling – we invite you to come and join The Community this week. Find out more below and download our Spring Enrolment Brochure.

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