Making the grade; why graded music exams could be damaging for our learners, and our teaching.

My goal with this article is to explain to you my reasons for my passionate belief in why we should at first discourage our learners from entering for graded instrument examinations, especially in their formative stages of learning. Warning, this is going to be a very candid account – please do not read on if you are faint hearted.

The Story

As a beginner guitar player, I myself was the product of the guitar grades, and as a result became what I’ve coined a grade player (more on this later) for a number of years. When I was learning, I enjoyed the fact that I could tell my mates that I was studying whatever level grade that I was studying at the time. I liked the way that my progress was given a number, and the higher that number became, the ‘better’ I was as a ‘musician’. No doubt, my guitar teacher at the time also enjoyed the fact that my grades reflected on him positively, showing ‘progress’ in his practise along with providing tangible evidence that he was doing his job correctly. Seemingly, win-win.

Personally, I liked the feeling of mastering the pieces, and I developed a somewhat tunnel vision towards this. As a child, I didn’t feel that I was very good at anything at all, and encouragement at home was few and far between. When I began playing guitar, however, something clicked within me, and I became obsessed; for me, everything became about the numbers, and the numbers provided me with a lot of esteem. Tempo markings, beats per bar, the grade I was on all became benchmarks for my purpose and the standards that I gauged my self worth and ‘ability’ on; the higher the number, the better I thought I was. However, the numbers were also an Achilles heel, damaging my musicianship in ways that I couldn’t possibly realise at the time, and would only realise as an adult. Crucially, the numbers distracted me from critical points about being a musician that I had never been encouraged to see with any real conviction. This then became the foundation of my practise as a teacher when I decided to begin my teaching business, which was born in Swinton, Manchester, 2012. Not long after starting my business, for reasons unknown to me at the time, I started to feel very frustrated about my teaching and the results I wasn’t getting (at this point in my life, I was still very focussed on numbers). I spent a long time unpicking my practise and educating myself, and after many years of self development and reflection came the harsh reality of my findings. However, no one finding was as harsh as the feeling that I had spent my first number of years as a teacher failing my students. I then continued, when I could, to critique my teaching practise and learn from student and parental feedback. I read, gathered opinions from some of my trusted peers, teachers in my circle, and also from students and parents of students that had experienced questionable, grade focussed lessons before reaching out to me, often as a last resort.

Disclaimer

I want to be very clear before I continue; the whole point of this article is to articulate that there is a better way to cater for our learning musicians, this is not an attempt to shame any individual approach, or to insinuate that my approach is ultimately the best. I’ve already been very truthful about my shortcomings in this area, and crucially what you are about to read is the learning that has taken place as a result of those shortcomings. This article is designed to serve as an appeal for a drastic development in our provision to our learners; no person is an island, and, whilst we are living and breathing, no individual is a finished product. Beneath are the lessons I learned.


Lesson 1 – Instrument Grades ARE NOT Schemes of Work.

Time to be candid again – back in the day, I used to treat my guitar grade books like a curriculum. I used to select a piece for my learner, and base each lesson around being able to play that piece. My teaching method was then to correct the mistakes my learner was making, then repeat each piece over and over again expecting enjoyment and progress to come to fruition. I’d then experience sheer wonderment once I’d evaluated the finished lesson and wondered why my learner wasn’t progressing. Perhaps most worryingly, I used to then come up with all sorts of reasons in my head to justify how and why my student was failing, and how they perhaps ‘didn’t get it’ or ‘didn’t love the guitar as much as I do’. Of course, I now know that it was indeed my past approach that was failing, not the student. I also know that the stories I used to tell myself were essential for defending my judgement, and ego.

Lesson 2 – Grades are the cake.

Eventually, my learning and realisations led me to the understanding that the grades are the cake. This might sound whacky, but hear me out. Imagine you are looking at a cake, in a shop; as adults, we can of course recognise the fact that the cake didn’t just appear out of nowhere. We are experienced enough to work out that the cake started out as a variety of individual ingredients that were masterfully sourced, prepared, combined, then baked in order for the final product to rise and be enjoyed. Italics, much. Although we might not be experienced enough to actually bake the cake.

My point? How many of us at times have – metaphorically speaking – tried to teach a learner how to bake a cake without first acknowledging their prior experience? How many of us take the time to carefully introduce, enjoy and explore the ingredients, and then, only when the ingredients are adequately combined, the method that enables the cake to rise when it is baked?

Lesson 3 – Even the Initial/Debut grade is hard for a beginner.

It is all too easy for us to make subconscious connections between a beginner guitarists and the beginner grades. This connection must never be made. If we consider the previous cakey point, it is easy to understand the reasons why beginner grades are not suitable to beginner guitarists. Even the most basic of the core skills take time to develop.

Unfortunately, most of us are long detached from the memories of learning to speak and walk. So, for perspective, I implore you to take a ‘beginners’ language course. Then bear in mind there are no physical co-ordination skills to learn as well as the language. This could provide a valuable perspective of how our beginner learners feel in their first few instrumental lessons. I started learning Spanish a few years ago, initially for fun, and very quickly gained perspective on my own practise! I now consider every Spanish lesson CPD for my teaching practise, too.

Lesson 4 – Result lead instrument education stifles creativity.

Grades are supposed to be fun, enlightening, engaging, inspiring and challenging. These are coincidentally the things that I – and I’m sure countless other musicians – love most about music. Music learning should be focussed on the journey leading to the destination. In other words the focus should be on the music before the qualification. Studying and consequently playing music this way can teach us so many things about not just the music itself, but ourselves, our instrument, other people, the world, history, culture and language to name a few. These learning experiences are positive and based within growth mindset. Music learning in general should be about developing the whole musician, a love for music and a love for the instrument, as well a resilience to failures whilst enabling positive self reflection. A graded examination should be a celebration of this learning experience.

But, the grades themselves don’t, and never should justify a musician of any age, because we all do what we do for different reasons. As far as I’m concerned, if an individual doesn’t want to learn grades, fine. If an individual only aspires to achieve Grade 2 and wants to progress no further with grades, but wants to instead play for fun, so what? If they had an amazing time learning up to Grade 2, and can reflect on the importance of the widely transferable lessons they have learned along the way to help guide their future journey, musical or otherwise, then nothing else matters. Given the freedom to choose, they may naturally come back to grades at a later date. Either way, it helps enrich the lives of our musicians.

Now, lets for one moment consider an environment that is results led. The focus is on the destination, not the journey. In other words, the focus is on the qualification before the music. Like my younger self, the individual engaged in results led learning will likely value tangible, numerical growth over more fun, enriching, and at times uncertain musical growth. This becomes the benchmark by which the individual will identify themselves. But the damage doesn’t stop there. When a learner focussed on numerical growth comes up against uncertainty, they are likely to avoid it in favour of more certain, structured experiences. Creativity is uncertainty, as is improvisation. Creativity and improvisation are two key problem solving skills in life, not just music.

The outcome of this is a lack of confidence, lack of self esteem, an obscured view of musical self proficiency, and often a void of creative potential. What good is Grade 8 – or any grade for that matter – if the learner has just learned all they need to know for the exam and connected that knowledge to nothing more than a fear of getting it wrong on exam day? This is a grade player, not a musician.

Lesson 5 – Our students are individuals.

When most learners pick up the guitar for the first time, they don’t have a clue about grades. What they often do have a clue about is their identity, and specifically what made them want to play guitar. This should always be the vehicle by which we begin navigating and experiencing the journey of music learning with our learners. Nothing drives me bonkers quite like taking on students who have arrived at my doorstep from another teacher, who has been hanging on to a clearly tired repertoire of classical music resources by tooth and nail for the last 20 years. Sure, I accept some learners may want to learn classical music (and you should always have variety in your curriculum), but most individuals are inspired by what they hear on the radio, on YouTube or on TV ads. Flippin’ heck…I was inspired to play guitar by the theme tune to Knight Rider!! Begin the learning journey with what makes your student tick, first. If this journey with your student leads to grades organically, that is amazing. If the journey doesn’t lead to grades, but to a realisation and actualisation of the music that they love, that is also amazing.

Lesson 6 – Proper instrument provision encourages mindfulness.

My final point is the most pertinent. In today’s age of apps, downloads, streaming and instant gratification, distractions are everywhere at the expense of our minds. Social media seems to be all about exploiting our weaknesses, much like one huge and sustained advertising campaign. Today, young people and adults alike are loosing their potential resilience, and are in danger of giving up their precious time and energy to app/game developers and large corporations that want us to be distracted by their products to make us ‘happy’ and ‘worthy’. Approaching the grades, or just simply our teaching, compassionately is one way we can positively contribute towards the growth mindsets of our learners, resilience, and willpower. This will not only to strengthen them as individuals and keep them from loosing their time to these often addictive distractions, but to actually give them a powerful set of transferable skills, and maybe even an internationally recognised qualification. THAT, is something to be proud about.

The question I extend to you as a peripatetic teacher is, how do we make a change for the benefit of every student?

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