Are grades worth it?! What are your thoughts?

AZMay

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Hello all,

I recently made a video sharing my thoughts and experiences with Graded music exams.
Please feel free to watch it here:
View: https://youtu.be/3GD18LqemHY


What are all of your thoughts on grades, I'd love to hear them, particularly from someone with a teachers' perspective.

Cheers,
Aidan
 

Wade Cornell

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Very interesting video. I did not grow up with graded exams, but have extreme reservations about any attempt to force students through a single hoop when the subject is the arts. Education is needed for technical aspects, learning the history and it would be good if a broad knowledge of music was also imparted. If the student has aspirations to become a performer then assistance in achieving the required level of playing can be sought by the student through a teacher that has skills in that particular type of performance. Does anyone in the arts need a piece of paper to say they can perform? No of course not!

I do respect that having a specific goal can motivate some students. It's questionable though whether a single system in any of the arts can deliver the creativity or individuality that distinguishes those who will become outstanding performers. My observation can be brought down to a simple scientific cause and effect relationship when any of the arts become academically structured. If academic study improves creativity then those who have studied the most should be the most creative. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single well known musician, composer, or artist of any discipline who has studied and earned a PhD. Did none of those students initially have talent?

Can well studied musicians play? Yes of course, but you are what you practice. Being able to play brilliantly does not mean that you can communicate anything as an artist other than to repeat the exercises and style of what you studied. A great teacher will encourage the individual's creativity as well as giving them the technical aspects that can allow them to become an "artist". Academic Institutions that use examinations try to force each student to conform to a specific regimen ultimately means that creativity is not encouraged.

Can a student change once they have gone through "grades"? One would hope so. Does a graded system encourage artistic creativity? As said we are, or become, what we practice. Unless those patterns of playing (that are practiced for years) are intentionally worked to be broken you will continue to play in the manner in which you were "graded".

There is no set rule or time period that can say when a student has enough technical and other aspects and should be encouraged to follow a creative path. We only know for certain that continuing on an academic path leads to a player who is not likely to ever become a successful creative player.

There is a presumption in the above which follows on from what I presume is AZMay's professional intentions. For those who have no intention of becoming a professional player you can choose whatever path you wish. If you need structure and step by step goals, then grades may be for you. If you know a style of playing which doesn't conform to the graded structure, then find a teacher who can help you. However if you wish to achieve success as a performer, then the difference between being just another OK player and an "in demand" performer is individuality and creativity. Being realistic about one's abilities/talent is essential as well as NOT chasing academic approval and a worthless piece of paper. No audience cares how much you studied. You are only as good as what you play.
 

Halfers

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Personally, following a structured Grading system of learning music is the antithesis of the role I want music to play in my life. I'm even (rightly or wrongly) coming to the conclusion that anything other than learning through an unstructured, loose organic process is detrimental to how I feel about learning my instrument and music. Over the Years, when I've had structured lessons on Guitar, Piano or Saxophone, a feeling of stress, overwhelm and low self esteem have followed (I'm not good enough/I don't understand this/I've not practiced enough to please my Teacher etc)

Whenever I allow myself to play, investigate, stumble and test, music makes more sense to me. From a practical, technical perspective, I'm aware that this might not be the most efficient method of learning and it might be very restrictive on how far I can progress. But screw efficiency. For me it's about feeling that excitement of playing and making something fleeting but worthwhile. I've come to the conclusion that an education system designed to instil knowledge within me just doesn't work for me.
 

Jethro

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Interesting video and useful food for thought in my current situation. Having taken up tenor sax very late in life, I’ve achieved grade 3 in the classical syllabus but my real reason for taking up the sax was to become a competent player with a view to playing aspects of trad jazz.

Since I discovered that I have no latent talent, but love the instrument, taking each exam grade was intended as a tick box to confirm that my efforts were moving in the right direction and it gave both the teacher and I a direction.

So the video begins to answer a question I have, which is, whether to 1) continue the classical course, 2) swap to a jazz based syllabus and aim for the next grade exam as a checkbox or 3) back off on the graded exams but use the syllabuses from jazz and classical to build up competence across the genre and maybe take a much higher grade exam at an appropriate juncture.

AZ had achieved grade 8 in clarinet which is a significant basis from which to launch into a saxophone, as a number of people who I’ve spoken with who followed that path will attest. So many of the musical techniques would have already been learnt. Just the enthusiasm was missing that he found in the alto.

So for someone who is enthusiastic but still very much on the technical learning curve could 3 above be a way forwards?
 

Pete Effamy

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This point about age. I don't subscribe to the hysteria we get from an 11 year old grade 8 player. They may not continue to develop at a similar rate, and also, as other have mentioned already, it does not follow that their musical (rather than technical) prowess is well developed. A player that takes up the instrument some time after this person could easily overtake them - and frequently do. So, I'm not overly impressed by a young hot-shot. They may become an older also-ran. Also, why do I want to attend a concert of Young Pianist of the Year aged 17 when Murray Perahia is playing across town?

Okay, got through most of your video now. Were you in shared lessons with the clarinet? To defend (some) teachers for a moment, they are tied by OFSTED a reasonable amount, and are also results driven by the school, and many parents too.

Exams do provide a decent backdrop for learning, especially classically. The dreaded 'piece of paper' is needed in order to be even considered for audition into any conservatoire, at least in the UK, and I suspect most countries. UCAS (for entry to University) points are also awarded over here, which is particularly bad as some students turn up wanting to jump to a grade 8 inside 18 months of learning when they have grade 4 ability or whatever. Merely in order to attain extra points for such-and-such Uni. Merely to attain a piece of paper.

Pieces of paper likely decided your school clarinet teacher over someone possibly vastly superior in every way, but not in pieces of paper. In the teaching system in the UK a pro player with no teaching diploma is considered unqualified. Marvellous eh! Not to say that the best teachers are the best players before anyone goes clicking on the rate button.

The grades are somewhat flawed in how they are set out too, of course, as are all conservatoire courses. You can't make a one size fits all. You take from it what you want/need.

Don't forget that your point about core repertoire and the sax is because few composers liked, or took it seriously until recently. Hence, there is far less repertoire than the other instruments like clarinet. You mention Syrinx - don't forget that is a flute piece, and has been arranged for sax, like much of the other stuff in the syllabus.

My biggest gripe with the exams are that grades 7 and 8 pieces are just too hard. They will only ever be played poorly, at best, by 99% of candidates. Nielsen Clarinet Concerto? Ibert sax? Come on... their challenging enough when 2 or 3 years into a conservatoire course.

A good teacher will guide you through though, and fill in all the other learning and background - if there is time. If you want to perform, there is no simulator, at some point you need to get out there and go for it. I think that they provide a decent grounding in preparing for a performance feeling nerves and dealing with them. They're not too dissimilar to a conservatoire or pro orchestra audition. My experience was that the nerves of a performance/recital/gig were nothing like the nerves of an orchestra audition and I was completely taken by surprise.

For someone wishing to progress to pro player, it's hard to do it outside the system. For those playing for their own goals, 'for fun', then I'm not sure that they hold a lot of merit unless you like to learn in that way. There is no harm either, in following the exam system and having your teacher assess you as if it were an exam. Costs a lot less money!
 

JayeNM

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It is the age-old question of the academicization of what is really an Art Form, or Creative Discipline. A debate which has been going on for centuries, and is particularly apt here in the new millennium, where the veil has dropped and teaching/education in and of itself is clearly an industry.

I cannot add much to the great comments already made above. As a 'yardstick' I can understand grading; it provides a reference point in a conventional sense, whereas the terminology "beginner' 'intermediate' 'advanced' may be more vague (if one chooses to utilize those terms).

Also, as Jethro intimates above, some learners are task-oriented learners; that is how they think and absorb. So to have a structure which provides for some concrete and achievable levels or tasks, may be beneficial to many people wired in a certain way.
There are, of course, a number of valid counter-arguments to this as well...
 

Jazzaferri

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To paraphrase an old saying "Fragile indeed is the talent that cannot withstand a little education" For 4 years I endured jazz education. I think it made me a better player in the long run but it took me a few years to stop jazzifying my solos. It did give me a much better technical understanding of what I was hearing.

Whether all that fuss and bother is worth the money is such a personal decision. Certainly now if you want to seriously get into the music education business one likely needs a Masters level degree. Creativity is such a subjective personal matter the only way that one can "judge" music is by grades. How many correct notes can you play kinda thing. Bird reportedly said "learn it all and then forget what you learned"
 

jbtsax

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It is unfortunate that the student making the video fails to realize that at any time during the course of the study of the clarinet he could have taken it upon himself to seek other resources and materials to add to his interest and enjoyment in playing the clarinet. In this day and age with the internet and recordings there is more material than one could ever have imagined having grown up in the '50's and '60's as I did. Instead he chooses to place all of the blame upon the teachers he had and the grading system itself.

He also makes the claim that going through the levels on clarinet was a waste of his time without any benefit now that he is studying to play the saxophone. I would ask where did you learn to read music, count rhythms, have the tone production and fingering skill required to play a woodwind instrument that made it possible to learn to play the saxophone well enough in one summer to participate in a band. I just hope he watches the video he made twenty years from now to see it from a more mature and experienced perspective.
 

sizzzzler

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I think grades are useful. They provide structured training and practice in the knowledge, skills and techniques of the art, and a program of measurable improvement. However sight reading is not performance. Learn all your pieces to liberate your talent.
 

JayeNM

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It is unfortunate that the student making the video fails to realize that at any time during the course of the study of the clarinet he could have taken it upon himself to seek other resources and materials to add to his interest and enjoyment in playing the clarinet. In this day and age with the internet and recordings there is more material than one could ever have imagined having grown up in the '50's and '60's as I did. Instead he chooses to place all of the blame upon the teachers he had and the grading system itself.

He also makes the claim that going through the levels on clarinet was a waste of his time without any benefit now that he is studying to play the saxophone. I would ask where did you learn to read music, count rhythms, have the tone production and fingering skill required to play a woodwind instrument that made it possible to learn to play the saxophone well enough in one summer to participate in a band. I just hope he watches the video he made twenty years from now to see it from a more mature and experienced perspective.
A bit unnecessarily harsh in its semantics, quite honestly...perhaps to be expected from a former school band/music teacher (?) ...although the point is ultimately a valid one. Indeed any studies on any instrument will ultimately prove to be of significant benefit to the musician.

I believe that the spirit/position of the OP's vid and post has to do in part with other things, however.... path and passion.... inspiration and enjoyment....a feeding of the spirit, etc.

I am certain everyone here knows of a musician/individual who has spoken of an experience similar to this:

"oh yeah, I took piano (clarinet/cello/trumpet) lessons from age 7 to 12 from Mrs. Smith. (Jones/Martin)...I hate the piano (/clarinet/cello) !!...don't put me near one !" ....or the like....

It should not simply be DISMISSED that the particular path provided or available to that particular budding musician was a poor one...despite the fact that they may have learned some things musically....

Many methodologies and paths may ultimately PROVIDE one with the tools....but are each of those paths the best way for an individual to get/achieve what they want/hope for ?......is part of the question/debate, as I see it....
 
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AZMay

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Whoa, I've not had wifi for a few days but it's great to see so much healthy discussion here. I'm happy to see some people agree with me in terms of grades not being the be-all and end-all but also agreeing that grades can be a great way to add structure to what can often become quite a free learning curve. As I mention in the video, it does seem to depend on context. @jbtsax , there are some valid points in your argument for grades (although in that harsh toned post itcould be construed as a dig at me, I'm sure this wasn't the intention), you are correct that I could have explored the internet to find my inspiration but I was only playing the clarinet from ages 8-14 and as is often the case at that age I wasn't terribly interested in TRYING to find inspiration in an instrument that I didn't enjoy. That's where the teaching I experienced with sax was totally different: no pressure to do grades and a focus on playing music for enjoyment. I also didn't say the clarinet was a waste of my time, I did call it a waste and although this could be misunderstood as a waste of time, when filming I was thinking more of it as a wasted opportunity to learn an instrument that I was more passionate about. I also think some context is needed here, I was a full-time chorister at a cathedral from 8 to 13 so although in most cases the clarinet would help with learning notes, rhythms and general musicality: my time singing daily in services as part of the choir has had an infinitely larger influence on my musical understanding than the clarinet ever did, hence why my evaluation may come across as a bit brash/naive because I failed to add context. What I do find interesting is the idea that @Pete Effamy mentioned, of teachers being tied in by OFSTED evaluations and the focus on "pieces of paper" to show their work is effective. I think there is an element of "classical" music that lends itself to a technical and academic approach, but perhaps shifting the focus away from those dreaded pieces of paper is what we need to keep more of us youngsters involved in the art. Of course, if a student really wants the piece of paper, as I did slightly later in my playing career, then grades are an available and valuable tool.
 

Pete Effamy

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Whoa, I've not had wifi for a few days but it's great to see so much healthy discussion here. I'm happy to see some people agree with me in terms of grades not being the be-all and end-all but also agreeing that grades can be a great way to add structure to what can often become quite a free learning curve. As I mention in the video, it does seem to depend on context. @jbtsax , there are some valid points in your argument for grades (although in that harsh toned post itcould be construed as a dig at me, I'm sure this wasn't the intention), you are correct that I could have explored the internet to find my inspiration but I was only playing the clarinet from ages 8-14 and as is often the case at that age I wasn't terribly interested in TRYING to find inspiration in an instrument that I didn't enjoy. That's where the teaching I experienced with sax was totally different: no pressure to do grades and a focus on playing music for enjoyment. I also didn't say the clarinet was a waste of my time, I did call it a waste and although this could be misunderstood as a waste of time, when filming I was thinking more of it as a wasted opportunity to learn an instrument that I was more passionate about. I also think some context is needed here, I was a full-time chorister at a cathedral from 8 to 13 so although in most cases the clarinet would help with learning notes, rhythms and general musicality: my time singing daily in services as part of the choir has had an infinitely larger influence on my musical understanding than the clarinet ever did, hence why my evaluation may come across as a bit brash/naive because I failed to add context. What I do find interesting is the idea that @Pete Effamy mentioned, of teachers being tied in by OFSTED evaluations and the focus on "pieces of paper" to show their work is effective. I think there is an element of "classical" music that lends itself to a technical and academic approach, but perhaps shifting the focus away from those dreaded pieces of paper is what we need to keep more of us youngsters involved in the art. Of course, if a student really wants the piece of paper, as I did slightly later in my playing career, then grades are an available and valuable tool.
Well said mate.
 

JayeNM

Formerly JayePDX
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840
Location
New Mexico, US
Whoa, I've not had wifi for a few days but it's great to see so much healthy discussion here. I'm happy to see some people agree with me in terms of grades not being the be-all and end-all but also agreeing that grades can be a great way to add structure to what can often become quite a free learning curve. As I mention in the video, it does seem to depend on context. @jbtsax , there are some valid points in your argument for grades (although in that harsh toned post itcould be construed as a dig at me, I'm sure this wasn't the intention), you are correct that I could have explored the internet to find my inspiration but I was only playing the clarinet from ages 8-14 and as is often the case at that age I wasn't terribly interested in TRYING to find inspiration in an instrument that I didn't enjoy. That's where the teaching I experienced with sax was totally different: no pressure to do grades and a focus on playing music for enjoyment. I also didn't say the clarinet was a waste of my time, I did call it a waste and although this could be misunderstood as a waste of time, when filming I was thinking more of it as a wasted opportunity to learn an instrument that I was more passionate about. I also think some context is needed here, I was a full-time chorister at a cathedral from 8 to 13 so although in most cases the clarinet would help with learning notes, rhythms and general musicality: my time singing daily in services as part of the choir has had an infinitely larger influence on my musical understanding than the clarinet ever did, hence why my evaluation may come across as a bit brash/naive because I failed to add context. What I do find interesting is the idea that @Pete Effamy mentioned, of teachers being tied in by OFSTED evaluations and the focus on "pieces of paper" to show their work is effective. I think there is an element of "classical" music that lends itself to a technical and academic approach, but perhaps shifting the focus away from those dreaded pieces of paper is what we need to keep more of us youngsters involved in the art. Of course, if a student really wants the piece of paper, as I did slightly later in my playing career, then grades are an available and valuable tool.
Yes, excellent reply with some valid clarifications of your experiences, at that.
 
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