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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. I will dedicate a later post on some of the differences between the 3 most common exam boards found in Australia: ABRSM, Trinity and AMEB.

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 skill spectrum from “absolute beginner” to “advanced player”.

Grade exams can provide a answer to this question.

Passing a grade usually means you are playing at a level that corresponds to that grade.

For instance, Grade 1 and 2 I would consider beginner level. Grade 3 is late beginner. Grade 4 is early intermediate level.  Grade 5 is intermediate level. Grade 6 is late intermediate, Grade 7 is early advanced. Grade 8 is advanced. 

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).

By passing your exam and getting a particular score, you not only know you are at a certain level of competence (beginner or intermediate). You also get a good indication of how well you match other players at that level.

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 thorough understanding of what it is required to play 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 not only get a beautiful exam certificate that you can display but with it come bragging rights and a well-deserved sense of pride.

Having done well at 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, 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 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. 

Feedback

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).

It’s good to get some third party feedback, even if they only hear you once and are therefore only commenting on the things they hear on the day. Still, getting that expert opinion is valuable and can 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.

Misconception one : 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 progress measure, 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 an exam. This is never an exhaustive list of every necessary musical skill a good piano player ought to possess.

If a student only ever learns what’s on the exam syllabus, they will miss out on an enormous amount of musical experiences and learning. 

Misconception two: the faster I go through the grades, the better I am at playing 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. Certainly there are students who deserve this. Think of amazing musicians like Tiffany Poon who have been obsessed with the piano since they were 2.5 years old and probably practised their bums off. But a lot of those young “grade 8s” are actually limited musicians who have only ever played some exam repertoire and did virtually nothing else in their lessons.

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 (though to whom, I’m never sure).

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.

Skills take time to ‘mature’ and become engrained, and it is not something that can be sped up.

In fact, I have seen first-hand how detrimental this attitude is, both to the mental health of the student, the teacher and the continued enjoyment of piano lessons for both.

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 gades, 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 work up to a certain level, and once you’re there, THEN you register for an exam. Not the other way around. 


There are other misconceptions out there, but these are the typical ones I encounter.

If you do want to take exams, make sure you inform your teacher asap. It may mean a slight change in focus in your lessons, and it will undoubtedly help them with their lesson planning!

Next time I will dig into more details on how to prepare for exams, and what you can expect on the day. I’ll also highlight some differences between the exam boards, and some non-conventional options.

Stay tuned!

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