Practical Examinations In Music Aren't Really That Practical

Why I believe being assessed and graded in music, whether it be the Royal Conservatory of Music or any other form takes away from the main focus and main goal of music.

Ultimate Guitar

For many of us here, music is something we enjoy and have had as an important part of our lives since we were very young. I am no different in this regard. I've played piano, clarinet, trumpet, bass clarinet, and guitar (my main focus now) since I was a little boy and my Itunes library is constantly blaring out any and all tracks all day long. Music has always been something I love, but I believe there is a critical flaw in learning modern music today.

I started playing musical instruments around 7 years old and I started on none other than the piano. At the time I was just so eager to learn that everything seemed so fantastic. I was placed in the Royal Conservatory Of Music for classical music and as a young boy this meant nothing to me other than playing the black dots on the page after my teacher would show me readily what to do. I did later on find out that completing the RCM up to grade 7 and 8 would benefit me with 2 high school credits from my mother but even knowing this, I lost more than I gained in my experience on piano.

My piano experience has always left me conflicted even up until this day. As I stated, I loved it at first, but after getting through the early grades where every pupil learning an instrument is rewarded with extremely high "practical" playing exam marks that make them feel they are extremely talented, reality for most begins to set in, and it takes it's toll quickly.

It actually took me over 6 years to come to the realization that I did not enjoy playing piano and that my talent was much less than I thought. However, as contradictory as it sounds, I did not stop enjoying piano because of piano itself. I stopped enjoying it because of the fact that I would be investing a full year, sometimes more, in learning a select few songs as best as I can to only have my sense of accomplishment dashed by a hardcore piano examiner telling me I did not play half or more of the pieces particularly well. It started off as a few marks off here and there with a few suggestions, all the way up until the point where I stopped caring to practice and as a result received some songs I would "fail" on when I played them at an exam.

I quit playing piano a year and a half ago, halfway through RCM 9 and to be honest, I never really have gone back to it since even recreationally. I had my credits, and I was sick of playing to impress a judge instead of playing for myself. I didn't need anyone to tell me how to play the instrument of my choice and I definitely did not feel I needed to put up with practicing songs with the end goal of getting a numerical grade that was deemed worthy of "Honours" or "First Class Honors".

Don't get me wrong, the piano is a fabulous instrument and classical music and all that are great. I love listening to it, but I love playing my guitar now. Not because of the guitar itself, but because with guitar, I made sure I was going into it playing for me, and I've found much pleasure in approaching music this way since. I probably will go back to piano later on in life, but for now, that instrument is something I will always love to listen to from time to time, but not something I really feel compelled to touch anymore. The musical passion for the instrument has been literally sucked out for me since for so long I was feeling the constant pressure of being tested and not playing songs I particularly enjoyed or cared for after a while because of this.

This may all sound like story, but I will wrap this up with a concise view of my point if my life experience described here has had little impact. Being tested on how music "should be played" and having these so called practical examinations takes music in the wrong direction. It teaches many (not all) people to play music for some sort of credit or some sort of approval, instead of just playing music for fun with people around singing along and whatnot, ignoring any minor mistakes being made (and even major ones if people sing loud enough!). Music is more enjoyable and always more "practical" when the only examiner of your musical ability, is yourself.

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Fair points, I think all the grading stuff is devised for upper class elitsts, where it's very sterile and standardized. It's about being the best you can be, but not to think "yes I'm proud of myself for doing that" and more that you're just jumping through the hoops to impress judges who don't really have a feel for music, they just want you to conform and have a souless performance. Music should be about having fun, being yourself and bringing people together in something they love.
    Dee Ay
    I like your point of view, I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. Thanks for reading. Cheers!
    I understand your frustration, it's this way with many aspects of life. School, sports, instruments, and other hobbies even. But I do see the point of it. Think of music as a foreign language. Reading it and underanding is the theory, speaking it is the process of playing. The whole point is to master it so you can speak on your own. Sure, they could say youre great and send you on your way, but then think foreign language and now instead of asking where the bathroom is, you're now asking the guy to join you in the bathroom. I know it's a drastic point, but then take the people who understand "real" music verses the mainstream crowd. In this case the teachers want you to understand all of it, not just enough to get by. Even though it's art and music, it should still be treated like any other class. Im just playing devils advocate here, so don't take this as a personal attack.
    Dee Ay
    I do understand where you are coming from here as well. No I do not see this as a personal attack, you have fair points to consider. I guess one must not forget that the teachers and examiners who excel so much are the ones who have the greater understanding in music and want to breed pupils who have the same understanding regardless of how harsh they critique the musical students. At the same time however, you can understand something inside and out and all around and in the end if you take out the enjoyment from the formula that creates understanding then I still believe one is missing out. Musical talent and musical enjoyment are different things that seem to be weighted at various importances for every musician. I think the whole concept of being 'good' at music is taken out of context because in reality the importance of skill vs enjoyment vs understanding is different for everybody. There is no universal standard of what makes a musician 'good', its all exclusive to the musician. To say we are all equally skilled at an instrument would be delusional, but in the balance of it all, the other factors such as enjoyment and pride in one's own ability definitely need to be considered just as much. Great points you do have Partyboy. Music is so universal and so diverse for everyone that really, every point of view is valid.