Should you take a piano exam as an adult student?
Should you take a piano exam? Find out the reasons why you may (or may not!) want to consider taking an exam as an adult piano student.
Before we dive into talking about why you should or shouldn’t take a piano exam, let’s briefly explore what exams are.
What are piano exams?
A piano exam is a practical exam usually conducted by a recognised exam board. These boards are often charitable organisations that conduct practical and theoretic music tests. They often operate internationally.
In the English-speaking world, particularly the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, taking music exams via these boards is very common.
The practical exams usually consist of performing 3 or more assigned pieces plus technical work such as scales, arpeggios or studies, and additional musicality tests, which may include aural tests, sight-reading, general knowledge and more. Most boards also offer complementary theory exams.
The piano exams are conducted by an examiner trained by the exam board. He or she holds deep knowledge of the competency requirements for each level (or grade, as most exam boards call them).
There are quite a number of exam boards in the world, but the most popular ones are ABRSM, RCM and Trinity College London. In Australia, the AMEB is also a common option. Each exam board sets forth its own exam criteria and submission rules, but most are quite similar.
Now we know a little bit more about these ‘piano exams’, you might be wondering what the point of taking an exam is, particularly as an adult student.
School-going children and teenagers are able to receive school credit for their music exams, but this is of course not the case for adults.
So why would you consider taking a piano exam?
Feeling like you’re progressing in your studies
The first reason to consider participating in exams is that they are a powerful tool to help you establish a sense of progress in your studies.
By taking and passing a grade exam, you get an idea of where you are at on the spectrum of piano-playing competence. By passing multiple grades over the years, you’ll have physical proof (certificates) that you’ve improved and that’s an incredibly powerful motivator.
Knowing your ‘level’ as a pianist
Sometimes adults who have been taking lessons for a while wonder: where am I on the scale from “absolute beginner” to “advanced player”?
Grade exams can provide an answer to this question.
Passing a grade usually means you are playing at a level that corresponds to that grade.
For instance, in ABRSM, Grade 1 I would consider late beginner level*. Grades 2 and 3 are early intermediate. Grades 4 and 5 are intermediate levels. Grade 6 is late intermediate, Grade 7 is early advanced. Grade 8 is advanced.
*Please note grade 1 DOES NOT refer to “year 1”. For most people, it takes 2 years to reach Grade 1 standard, and for busy adults oftentimes more. It depends on how much practice can be accomplished. For this reason, many boards offer ‘pre-grade 1’ exams.
Benchmarking against other pianists across the globe
All exams are scored, which results in a pass, a pass with merit or a pass with distinction (some boards use different terminology).
For instance: a “pass” means you are probably on the lower end of competence for that grade. A “pass with merit” means you’re on par with the average student whereas a distinction means you’ve demonstrated a more than thorough understanding of what is required to play at that grade level
You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment
One of the most powerful aspects of taking an exam is the feeling of accomplishment you get from it.
If you passed your exam, you do not only get a beautiful exam certificate that you can display, but
Having done well on an exam can be an incredibly powerful motivator for further study.
It’s a challenge!
Preparing for an exam is not for the faint of heart.
It’s not enough to be able to play your pieces; you need to OWN them and be able to play them with conviction and superb musicality.
Prepping for an exam is challenging because it requires a lot of dedication, hard work, and detail-oriented practising… all while on a deadline!
Having this kind of challenge can be invigorating, as well as exhausting, so make sure you are ready mentally AND have the support of your family to take on the challenge.
Flexibility to skip grades
The exam boards are lenient when it comes to choosing your exam path. They don’t require you to take a grade before moving on to the next. This means you can start your exam path by taking whatever grade you’re currently playing at (note: there are some additional theory requirements for taking grade 6 and up with most exam boards).
Allowing this kind of flexibility is a valuable decision by the boards. Sometimes you don’t want the hassle of exams and then 2 years later you might change your mind. At that point, your skillset will have developed and you might be able to skip a grade.
Finally, a benefit to taking exams is the feedback you’ll receive from the examiner. They take notes on the day and you will receive a copy of them after you’ve passed.
These notes will contain all sorts of useful feedback on your performance that day. It may tell you they loved how you brought out the melody line, or they may tell the opposite (and you can deduct that’s why you lost some points).
Getting third-party feedback is valuable, even if they only hear you once and can therefore only comment on the things they hear on the day. Still, getting that expert opinion help you work out what you might need to practise more.
As you can see, taking a piano exam can provide many benefits to students. But I also want to issue a warning to anyone who is considering exams.
Remember that piano exams are only part of a successful journey. Here’s why:
They are only snapshots in time and do not always accurately reflect ability and wider musicianship.
On average, exams are pretty good indicators of skill and competence. But we must also keep in mind that they are only a snapshot. You get 1 chance to prove yourself. It has happened that otherwise competent, well-prepared students completely fall apart during the test, resulting in a lower score or even a fail.
Particularly adult students are prone to this, due to the pressure they put themselves under to perform well and their inability to give themselves a break (you know it’s true!).
There are also some common misunderstandings as to the role exams ought to play in your musical journey that I want to address.
e: thinking the exams will lead to full musicianship
A common complication (and this is particularly prominent with certain piano parents) exists when people believe that the grade exams are THE goal to strive for when taking piano lessons. They believe that the exams are the sum of all piano playing.
This is false.
Exams are a complementary tool in the toolkit of the teacher. They should be used as a motivator and as a benchmarking tool. They MUST NEVER EVER completely dictate the teaching.
An exam syllabus is NOT a curriculum. It is a syllabus! In other words, a collection of skills that need to be evidenced as ‘existing’ in order to pass a
If a student only ever learns what’s on the exam syllabus, they will miss out on a
Misconception two: the faster I go through the grades, the better I am at playing the piano
It’s the disease of our time – trying to find shortcuts to mastery. (hint: doesn’t work people)
First of all, the grades are not necessarily evenly spaced. It can take 2 or 3 years to work up to Grade 1. Between grade 5 and 6 can easily take 2 years, and the same for later grades.
You will have heard stories of 12-year-olds who have acquired grade 8.
There are also adults who seem determined to get to the magical grade 8 in as little time as possible. I’ve heard people claim they did it in 5 years. Possible? Sure. Recommended? Absolutely not.
This kind of thinking stems from a deep misunderstanding of the complexity of artistic skill development. It usually comes from a place of competitiveness and a need to ‘prove’ themselves.
By trying to go as fast as possible through harder and harder repertoire, you are more likely to get injured, you’ll skip important developmental learning stages and miss out on a lot of experience. All while single-mindedly pursuing a number on a piece of paper.
That’s not what music is about. And it’s not what the exams are for.
Misconception three: You must go for a grade that’s higher than your current skillset
This one is related to the previous pitfall I highlighted.
Adult students who want to progress fast sometimes mistakenly think that by taking an exam each year, or even 2 exams a year, they will “fast track” their skill level.
In reality, this is very unlikely to happen.
Piano playing skills take time to ‘mature’, it is not something that can be sped up.
Fast-track students seem to misunderstand the exam purpose: they believe they need to apply for a grade AND THEN work to get there. The result is the confirmation of having achieved the “next level”.
But exams are not games. Trying to “level up” by taking an exam may work in the early grades, and will usually fall apart as a strategy in the higher grades where repertoire and supporting tests are a lot more complicated.
That means concretely that you should take your grade x when you’re already confidently playing at x level.
That way, the exam preparation will be more pleasant, faster and you’ll get a much better result.
That doesn’t mean you can’t plan to take an exam in the future.
It means you first wor
All in all, exams can be an enriching part of your piano journey, but they are in no way a necessity. When used correctly, they can offer an invigorating challenge, if used incorrectly, they are often the main reason students quit piano lessons.
If you want to take exams, make sure you inform your teacher. It may mean a slight change in focus in your lessons, and it will undoubtedly help them with their lesson planning!