Updated: Nov 26, 2020
As a teacher at WePlay Music, I’ve found that many parents and students tend to shy away as soon as they hear the word “exam,” and this is a completely understandable reaction! In fact, I had the exact same hesitation myself when I was a beginning music student. Just like most young aspiring musicians, I didn’t decide to start taking music lessons because it looked great on paper—I wanted to learn music because I knew I would enjoy it and that would allow me to express myself.
However, there are so many myths and misconceptions about what a music certificate/exam program actually entails. If you’re hesitant about participating in a certificate program such as Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) or Rockschool (RSL), I’m here to show you the multitude of ways in which it can strengthen your musicianship and enjoyment!
Here are the five most common myths I’ve heard about taking music exams and explanations why they simply aren’t true:
1. “Music exams will take the fun out of learning my instrument”
For the vast majority of students, the most enjoyable and motivating part of learning an instrument is feeling like you can really see your own growth and progress. Music certificate programs provide a structured curriculum so that you can be sure that you are progressing on your instrument in a comprehensive way. You’ll learn all the knowledge, skills, and techniques that will develop you into a well-rounded player. The expertly-structured curriculum of these programs will not only help you develop your playing skills and musical knowledge but also the critical thinking and listening skills needed to become a truly expressive musician.
2. “There’s no real benefit to taking music exams”
Exams such as RCM and RSL are internationally recognized. Many high schools allow high marks in these exams to count as a credit towards graduation, and many colleges and universities recognize them as a credential for prospective students. Achievement in one of these certificate programs is an impressive addition to any resume—it proves not just your musical achievements, but also your willingness to learn, self-motivation, creativity, and dedication to achieving difficult tasks. In addition to this, taking music exams will help you develop both long and short-term goals to overcome in your studies, helping you to develop good practice habits and stay motivated on your track to long-term musical success.
3. “If I take music exams, I’ll only get to play classical music”
Some programs such as RCM do expect students to learn classical repertoire. Other programs like RSL, however, are popular music focused, developing skills such as improvisation and ensemble playing that are vital to playing contemporary repertoire. For any of these programs, they allow for “student choice” pieces, in which your teacher can help you select other songs outside the program’s list that suit your level, so you’re free to explore any of the styles that interest you.
4. “I’m too old/young to take music exams”
The skills and knowledge that these programs help you to develop are vital for all musicians—regardless of age or prior experience. The programs are designed so that you choose how quickly you will progress, ensuring you won’t be overwhelmed and can take things at the pace that is right for you. In addition to this, there is no written portion on performance (practical) exams, so even young beginners can take advantage of this great curriculum. Lastly, aside from the well-rounded curriculum and music selections, taking music exams is a great performance opportunity as well as a chance to get feedback from highly qualified examiners.
5. “Taking music exams is too scary”
Taking a practical exam usually takes only 15 minutes—often less. The philosophy behind taking a music exam is that it’s just like performing. As any experienced musician will tell you, the more you perform, the less intimidating it becomes! Feeling nervous is a natural part of the process.
Now take a listen to this Ed Sheeran song “Grade 8.” In this song, he uses music exams as a metaphor for love, singing “you’re strumming on my heartstrings like you were a grade eight.” In most certificate programs such as RSL, Grade 8 (or Level 8) is the highest certificate of achievement. So essentially, Sheeran is describing the person he sings about as being very good at love, just like a “Grade 8” guitarist would be very good at the guitar. It’s so fascinating to see a famous artist like Ed Sheeran acknowledge the value of these music certificate programs in such a unique and creative way!
Even with such a well-structured, holistic curriculum and so many other benefits, these music exams are certainly not the “end all be all” of learning music. Completing the highest level of any of these programs will ensure that you are a well-rounded and skilled musician, but any certificate program graduate will tell you that even after finishing the highest level, there’s still so much more to learn! However, don’t feel discouraged by this. Even the most advanced professional musicians know that there are endless ways to grow and improve as a musician. Realizing that there’s always something new to learn is what makes learning music so enjoyable.