Pupils often ask me, ‘What grade do I need to do x, y or z?’ or ‘Do I need to take grades?’

These questions are not straightforward to answer.

Sometimes I get new pupils who tell me what grade they are.  These statements are usually easy to answer but tact requires me to hold my tongue and get on with teaching.


But back to the first question.

Way back in the late 19th Century, some bright sparks decided to offer examinations at different musical levels on various instruments.  As it wasn’t an orchestral instrument or a piano the guitar took a while to get its own exams but today the guitar family is fairly well catered for by a few different exam boards (Will write more about these different bodies in future posts.)

The standard set of exams goes from grade 1 through to grade 8 with grade 1 being ‘beginner’ level and grade 8 being close to university undergraduate level study of the instrument.  In the UK at least the middle brackets are roughly comparable with these qualifications:

Grade 4 – (Grade A Music GCSE)

Grade 6 – (Higher Grade Music A Level)

However here is the first stumbling block in a lot of peoples understanding of how it all works.  Just because you have grade 6, does not mean you are capable of doing A level music.  Music GCSE’s and A levels cover many aspects of music and performance is only a part of them.  If you spend your exam time drawing a nice picture of a 12 string Rickenbacker on your question paper when you should be writing about Mahler Symphony Number 4 you are not going to get an A.

Problem number 2 comes along when a Music teacher comes to me and tells me to get some young urchin through there GCSE.  This usually occurs halfway through their first GCSE year and they have been told they need to get to this magic grade number to pass their exam.  They have no real foundation of knowledge apart from owning and making a sound on the guitar. This usually leads to a course of unsatisfactory lessons where the kid and teacher expect a magic wand to be waved.  After a year or so the day of the performance comes, a piece is stumbled through, the exam is scraped by.  All hail the system.

Each of my pupils I try to treat as an individual case and I use different examination boards and types of qualification for different students.  For most I would say the exam is a good experience for the following reasons;

– You can measure yourself against a fairly robust progression of qualifications.  A good teachers should be able to judge how well you are progressing but its nice to have that confirmed by an independent judge.

– It gives you a deadline to work towards and gentle performance pressure.  Sometimes this is not needed with a self-motivated pupil or one who already performs music in any capacity.  Me? I need a bit of pressure to do stuff and I think a lot of others do to.

– Even if not attempting the examination but working through the material will give an idea of how difficult the academic world considers levels of technique.

– A nice sense of achievement at a job well done. (Assuming you pass :))

Its not all sunshine and roses though.  Bad stuff about exams.

– They are not easy.  ‘Well good’, I hear you cry!  At last some level integrity in the education system that isn’t dumbing down.  However what I mean is more about comparable difficulty.  If you look on the internet for guitar lessons or at the type of songs novices think are in their reach they are often disappointed.  After everyone banging on about how easy Status Quo songs are why can’t I play them after a few lessons?  Grade 1 exams for electric and classical and acoustic guitar all take a good amount of work to get to before they can be attempted. The average 10 or 11 year old with many distractions and only a half hours practise a week can take a year or so to get to this level and the songs they are playing may not be what they dreamed of while playing the tennis racket with a top hat on.  And its not just and age thing.  Many older pupils who for various different reasons aren’t progressing too fast, grade 1 can seem a long time coming.  The good news is after that the learning curve does slacken off a bit.  But still, for the Rock mad teenager who eats dreams and sleeps guitar, there are an alarming number of lessons on the internet labelled beginner or intermediate that really are not and when compared to graded material definitely fall into the middle to higher end of the grade spectrum.  For example, barre chords are quite often labelled as a beginner subject but are not attempted by most exam boards until grade 3-4 levels.  As such I would expect most of my average younger pupils to be playing a few years before seriously attempting them. (But then no one said it was going to be easy.)

– The organisations running these exams are businesses.  Private businesses.  And as such they do like money.  (More on this at a later date.)

– They are not definitive.  I wrote before that exams are fairly robust but as with all exams there are broad spectrums.  I myself was very pleased to have passed my grade 8 classical guitar exam at 16 and I no doubt impressed many with my youthful boasts, however I probably didn’t impress many music teachers.  I passed by a few marks and looking back there were many things I could not do on the guitar that I would expect a grade 8 standard player to be able to do.  There were probably many many grade 7 players who could have shown me a thing or two.  There are many different aspects to playing any instrument and guitar has its own extra layers of styles, types and forms that it appears in.  One twenty minute exam cannot hope to encompass it all.

So all in all exams can be a positive and helpful tool to help in motivation and progression, just don’t take them too seriously.  In the next part I will write about the actual worth of these exams in the real world.