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Should My Child Take Piano Exams?

Piano exams can be a part of a well-rounded musical education. However, they are not the best for all students. When determining if your child should take piano exams, consider their musical goals, the time commitment involved, and their personality.

My Personal Experience With Piano Exams

As a youth, my piano teacher enrolled me in three judged festivals each year, one in the Fall, one in early Spring, and a larger comprehensive exam held at the end of the Spring. These adjudicated non-competitive events shaped my musical education, providing me with performance experience, and outside critiques of my skills. They formed the foundation for my well-rounded musical education and provided scaffolding for my musical development.

I am thankful for these experiences as they helped me become the musician and piano teacher I am today.

As a teacher, I offer similar opportunities to my students through the Royal Conservatory of Music Exams with this one exception; I do not require these exams as my teacher did.

Though highly effective in the musical development of the student, piano exams don't best serve all my students. For some, piano exams will be the experience to help them fall in love with music. For others, it is not.

This article will examine the pros and cons of taking piano exams and will answer the question “Should my child take piano exams?”

What Are the Royal Conservatory Music Piano Exams?

The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) Exams are a comprehensive set of musical examinations that evaluate students’ proficiency on a musical instrument and in music related fields (music theory, music history, and music harmony). These exams are highly regarded around the world as being a gold standard to measure a student’s musical growth and abilities.

What Benefits Do Piano Exams Offer Students?

1. Piano Exams Provide a Scaffolded Approach to a Musical Education.

The RCM piano exams are scaffolded, making them accessible to students of varying abilities. Robust syllabi provide the teacher with a framework to lead the student through appropriately paced levels of repertoire, technique, and music theory. Due to the comprehensive nature of the exams, a student is guaranteed a complete classical musical education when participating, especially if they progress through multiple levels.

2. Piano Exams Offer Students Long-Term Goals

Piano exams keep students motivated to achieve this long-term goal. Students feel a sense of accomplishment for meeting the exam's requirements and receiving encouraging marks from the judges.

3. Piano Exams Provide Students Performance Opportunities.

Piano exams provide students with the opportunity to perform under pressure, a critical skill for a pianist. The more often students perform under watchful eyes, the more confident the student's public performances become.

4. Piano Exams Offer Outside Critique from Trained Adjudicators.

Students benefit from the outside critiques offered by adjudicators. Judges provide constructive comments on students’ performances out of a desire to inspire, encourage, and support the budding musician.

5. Piano Exams Test a Wide Range of Piano Skills.

The RCM Exams test students on memorized repertoire representing different musical time periods, prepared etudes featuring different pianist techniques, robust technical skills (scales, arpeggios, chords, etc.), sight-reading, and aural music theory.

What Are the Drawbacks of Taking Piano Exams?

1. Piano exams require a long-term commitment from the student.

Due to their intensive nature, exam preparations consume the majority of the students' lessons and practice time. As a result, non-exam material and goals won’t receive as much attention during the lessons ramping up for the piano exams. Students need to commit to consistent practice time on these particular skills in order to be prepared for the exams.

2. There is a financial cost to participating in piano exams, especially at the higher levels.

There’s no way around it. Piano exams offered by any organization include associated fees to pay the judges who provide feedback, support the organization providing the examination, and to purchase the materials required to prepare for the exam. The RCM Exams currently range in price between $65(Prep A) and $480 (Level 10), depending on the level of adjudication.

3. Preparing for and participating in piano exams can be anxiety producing.

Piano exams can be anxious-filled events for students. If your student is prone to debilitating anxiety, piano exams are not the best choice for them.

What Type of Student SHOULD Take Piano Exams?

1. Students who thrive on goal-oriented tasks

Some students need specific goals and excel when given a checklist of material to learn. Piano Exams provide students with a target to aim for and a sense of accomplishment when that goal is achieved.

2. Students who enjoy receiving feedback from others (positive and negative)

Hearing positive glowing comments from trained professionals builds confidence in a student musician. When receptive to insights from the judges’ critiques, students learn the skills of resilience while also learning to approach their playing from a fresh perspective.

3. Students who take their musical studies seriously and want to be tested on their skills

For the serious student, I believe Piano Exams, like the RCH Exams, are an essential part of a student’s musical education. Providing a structured and testable approach to learning pianist skills and repertoire guarantees that the students gain all the skills they need to be successful long-term pianists.

What Type of Student Should NOT Take Piano Exams?

1. Students without the time to commit to practicing.

Preparing for piano exams requires focused attention and the ability to tackle a large project over a long period of time. Consistent daily practice will be required to prepare adequately for exams of this nature.

2. Students who can be overwhelmed easily or struggle with anxiety.

Preparing for piano exams requires focused attention and the ability to tackle a large project over a long period of time. Piano exams can be anxious-filled events for students. If your student is prone to debilitating anxiety, piano exams are not the best choice for them.

3. Students who are not interested in learning piano from a classical piano

There is no one “right” way to learn the piano. Some students thrive on focusing on one piece of repertoire at a time, learning by ear, or focusing on non-classical music. These exams are for the more serious dedicated classically-trained piano student.

Should My Child Take Piano Exams ?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself while determining if piano exams are best for your child.

  • Would the RCM exams help my child reach their goals?

  • How does my child work under pressure?

  • Does my child want to learn how to perform for others?

  • Does my child have the attention span to work on a multi-month project?

Tips To Help Your Child Prepare For Piano Exams

If you believe piano exams are in the best interest of your child, keep these tips in mind while they prepare for the exams.

1. Provide your child with encouragement and support.

Preparing for exams of this nature is a big undertaking. Help them create consistent practice habits. Provide them with words of affirmation. Quiz them on their requirements.

2. Consider providing your child with a “trial run” performance before their piano exam date.

Provide your child with practice performances by finding or creating local performance opportunities. Look for local talent shows or set up a time to give a mini-recital at a local assisted living center.

3. Not all judges are as verbose with their thoughts as others.

Sadly, some judges never seem satisfied and won't give a “perfect” score despite a brilliant performance. For these reasons, occasionally judges' comments can be found wanting or discouraging. However, this usually isn't the case. Before reading the judges' marks and comments, prepare your child to receive the comments with grace. Remember, adjudication is subjective as the art of playing the piano.

My Primary Goal As A Teacher

My primary goal as a piano teacher is to cultivate an interest in and love for music through learning the art and craft of playing the piano.

With or without piano exams, I am committed to providing all my students with strong technical foundations, music appreciation skills, and music theory knowledge that will stay with them their entire lives. When I follow my student’s lead in their interests and goals, I more positively shape and encourage the hearts of tomorrow’s musicians.

If you aren’t sure if Piano Exams are best for your child (or yourself) talk with your teacher. They will have insights that will guide you in this decision.

If you don't have a piano teacher or are looking for a teacher with experience preparing students for Piano Exams, contact me to learn more about how I can help you reach your goals.


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