Pros and Cons - Piano Exams

The benefits of music lessons go far beyond the development of performance or music-reading ability, development of rhythm and coordination, or appreciation of musical culture. However, in order to make the most of all possible benefits, students must be emotionally and mentally prepared, committed and appropriately supported.

The pros and cons of piano exams come mostly from intensification of the music learning experience. Particular benefits can be multiplied. However, exams might not be suitable for every student or for every period of a student’s life. Personality, age, goals and other factors influence the exam experience. All should be considered when deciding on whether or not to work towards performance exams.

The Benefits

Pressure Management: Pressure and stress are part of everyday life. They are necessary for any form of growth and development. Pressure can arise when a person cares about the outcome of a situation and their actions directly affect that outcome. Pressure enters many areas of personal, academic and professional life. The individualised aspects of music heighten the experience of pressure – most of the ability to play comes from the student listening and taking care during practice. During music lessons, and especially in preparation for exams, students become familiar with (thus less threatened by) pressure and are taught skills for managing diverse, challenging situations.
Responding to Criticism: Although lessons and reports note the strengths and progress of students, much learning in music is based on identifying and improving areas needing correction or further skill development – sometimes even after a student has worked for many hours on the piece that is being criticised. Learning music helps build students’ ability to receive criticism and to positively respond to and apply advice. Students learn that self-improvement comes from a combination of hard work and applying good advice; they learn to listen to the views of others and consider / test their usefulness.
Perseverance: Music students are often faced with the dilemma of not feeling like working but having to do it anyway, especially during exam preparation. The accumulated practice time piles up. Sometimes they feel inspired and can see their own progress. At other times, it is sheer hard work with apparently little return. Through practice, students learn the value of choosing to work based on principles, goals and commitments.
Appraising Subjectivity: Assessment of music is subjective and students will not always receive fair recognition of their performance – it can be under or over-rated. Formal and informal assessment comes from another person and their opinion, mood and experience, and can therefore be fallible. With experience, students learn to accept that they will not always receive fair judgement, but they can still sift through the criticism they receive to discover anything from which they can learn. They thus learn to fairly criticise themselves.
Bouncing Back after Failure: A student might have numerous positive performance experiences, but there will always be some occasion when things don’t go very well. The student is faced with a challenge after such a disappointing occasion. They must learn to pick themselves up and focus on the next experience. They learn to experience both triumph and disappointment without major fluctuations in confidence.
Project Management Skills: Exams are planned for and studies begun many months in advance, sometimes more than a year. Working towards exams, young people learn to create mini-deadlines, to plan goals within larger goals, to evaluate their own progress, to realise that all their immediate work accumulates towards one larger, more distant goal. They gain experience working with both long-term and looming deadlines.
Attention Allocation: To play any piece of music well, a student must manage attention on numerous aspects of playing and reading at once. Some of the decisions include: what note to play next and for how long, how loud it should be played, what type of hand movement for the right effect, how to recover from a slip, etc. They must be highly self-aware and mentally ‘switched on’. A performance is the sum of many hours spent in this decision mode, as well as the attention management in the present. They also learn when to apply this level of intense thinking and when and how to relax.
Patience with Variability: Improvement does not come at a steady rate. There are some periods during which learning and progress seem to happen quickly and easily. There are also, however, periods during which progress is slow – or even seems backward - no matter how carefully a student works. Over time, students learn that this is all part of the learning process. The sum of all the moments, in the long-term, is progress – they learn to rejoice in and have patience with variability in the short-term. They learn not to give up.
Recognition and Reward: All the benefits of personal development that can be found in the study of music influence other areas of a student’s life. However, passing music exams also carries with it specific recognition and reward. When students’ sit for exams, they receive certification for their efforts – certification that is nationally recognised and can be used as part of an academic portfolio.
Honing of Technical Skills: Exams and performances can be an excellent source of motivation to work on specific technical skills until they are well developed and ingrained.

The Considerations

Breadth of Experience with New Pieces: Successful completion of exams requires more intense and focused work on fewer pieces. This narrowed focus tends to mean fewer pieces are studied and that pieces are studied for longer periods. When students do not manage time as well as possible, this can be seriously limiting.
Individuality: It is not necessary to sit for exams to receive many of the above benefits of music studies. Therefore, it is good to consider whether exams are suitable for the individual student. Some students might choose a different level of commitment. Some might be too young, too prone to perfectionism, or otherwise unable to work through the mental and emotional challenges to gain the positive benefits.