One of the most common questions I'm asked in my line of work is 'what do you think about exams?' and at the risk of sounding controversial and un-teacherly I can honestly say I'm not a fan. My own experience with exams was one of stress and mild terror, and that was just the preparation. The exams themselves were conducted by a mysterious man or woman, seated at the back of the room who would listen to me play, ask me blunt, brusque questions and then dismiss me, to emerge shaking from the room with little memory of how I had played or what I had said. It was not a happy time.
Growing older, I dismissed these memories as childish exaggerations but talking to other musicians I discovered they too shared negative feelings regarding their rise through the graded system. I was curious to see if, like the rest of the education system, the musical exam experience had changed over time. Questioning current young students the vast majority confessed to disliking their exam pieces once they'd played them over and over to perfection, dreading scales practice and desperately trying to memorise the definitive difference between ritenuto and ritardando just in case they were asked. When asked if they enjoyed exams the answer was a resounding 'NO'.
This isn't to say that exams don't have their benefits. Some students thrive under a structured, disciplined learning regime, enter exams feeling confident and earn grades that give them a positive sense of accomplishment. This can encourage a love of piano, performance and learning in general and I wholeheartedly approve - having seen several students through just such an experience. However, and I say this with feeling, exams are not for everyone, and that's okay!
I've had adult learners tell me they played as children, went through the exam process and promptly decided piano was not for them. I've had young students practice their hearts out and perform fantastically for me only to crumble under the understandable pressure of performing for someone they've never met. I have been outraged to read follow-up reports informing me that though my 10 year old student played their pieces well the 'colour of their tone was not varied enough' and that this somehow warranted a low grade. In what way can this possibly encourage a young student to want to continue?
I'm ranting, I'm sorry, but this is something I've always felt very strongly about. Sometimes exams can be exactly what you need to focus your learning, sometimes they can be limiting. I teach students songs I think they can play, regardless of the grade. 13 year old C has in the past two months learned five different pieces ranging from grade 3 to grade 8 - because she likes them. We talked about exams and she said she would rather spend the preparation time learning more than three songs of the same grade. I said fair enough. I've had parents worry that their 5 year old hasn't started exams yet, because they assume that's what is required.
What I find is required is an interest and dedication to the exam material, a joy in performance and the ability to judge for yourself what you've done well and what needs improving. This can develop at any age but I don't recommend exams unless the student meets these requirements. An examiner may be fair and positive or they may have already seen 20 people that day and are no longer impressed by anything. Only when you can judge your performance yourself in a open-minded way should you feel ready to subject yourself to a stranger's opinion - so that regardless of the opinion you still actually enjoy performing.
If you're interested in exams, or if you're interested in your child doing exams, just have a think about why. Talk to your child, talk to their teacher - are they learning to become a professional pianist or is this just a fun extra-curricular activity? Do you play just to relax or are you interested in pushing for a graded performance? There's more than one type of exam, chat to your teacher about which style would be the best for you - which syllabus suits your style or has the most engaging pieces. Learn as much as you can about what is expected and then you can decide for yourself if exams are for you or not.