Friday, 30 January 2015

Music Examination Boards

One of the issues that surrounds music tuition, students, teachers and parents are the different examination boards for music that are on offer in the market.  This article aims to discuss the various examination boards and why it is important as a parent and as a student to have an awareness of the choice.  This choice should be discussed in conjunction with your teacher.  Just as important is for you to look at the options yourself to make a balanced decision before taking an exam.

There are a number of exam boards and the student and parent should see themselves as a 'customer' that is shopping around for the most suitable exam.  Some students would prefer an examination board that offers more practical elements.  Some would rather go down a more classical, traditional route with scales and aural tests.  Some want all out modern, pop and rock type music.

Some examination boards will offer Ofqual accreditation.  What does this mean?  Put simply, it means that the examination board has jumped through a number of hoops and ticked a number of boxes to offer their exams.  When an exam board goes for Ofqual accreditation, it does limit the flexibility of the exam syllabus slightly and as such can remove some of the elements of fun and options of other exam boards.  However, this does mean that Grades 6-8 will offer UCAS points for those looking to go to University.  This can be important to teenage students in particular, more especially if they are looking to study music.

However, if music isn't on the radar, the small amount of extra UCAS points are unlikely to make all the difference in university entry and should be considered carefully.  If the student picks an exam board purely on the basis of UCAS points, it may be they never pass the grade if the student dislikes the syllabus.  In my opinion, it is best to pick a syllabus and therefore examination board that offers the best options to the individual.  The enjoyment of music is the most important aspect.  Everything else is a bonus.

Non Ofqual exam boards do tend to be smaller.  However, they also have more freedom.  It means that some of the smaller exam boards can have fantastic syllabus requirements that encourage the students in a way that the bigger boards do not.  Victoria College of Music and MTB exams are both examples of this.  Victoria College has some fantastic syllabus requirements, in particular for the likes of ukulele, keyboard and piano.  VCM was in fact the first exam board to offer keyboard based exams and are the only exam board other than Trinity to offer true Electronic Keyboard examinations for all grades.  Furthermore, VCM offer four grades prior to grade 1 which really encourage a beginner or younger student.  MTB exams are a new exam board and offer a unique way of taking music exams where the teacher can examine the student.  This takes an element of stress away from the student and allows exams to be taken all year round.  A number of exams are moderated as an exam has to be recorded.  This ensures standards from the teacher when they conduct the exam.  Both these exam boards have their pros and cons.  London College of Music is another exam board worth considering.  Again, the centres are more limited in certain areas but the syllabuses may suit certain students.  There is also ICMA UK that offer a number of interesting syllabus requirements.  They are also more flexible in terms of the number of students required to run an exam sitting.

Sadly, the smaller exam boards are also limited in terms of staff and this can cause admin problems.  They may not have a manned phone line and exam results can take longer than the bigger exam boards.  It all comes down to choice and understanding when deciding on the examination board.

The bigger examination boards are the likes of Trinity, Trinity Pop and Rock and ABRSM.  These have much larger staff numbers and the benefit of Ofqual regulations and UCAS points.  However, some of the syllabuses are quite 'hard work' for the child wanting to enjoy music and tend to be less modern.  Some students don't mind this and actually quite enjoy this route, but it does need to be considered against the greater freedom and flexibility of the smaller board.  Ultimately, 'what is the best for my child?'  Yes, Trinity will email your results very quickly.  Yes, they will allow you to book online.  The admin side is fantastic from our experience.  But is it the best exam syllabus for your child, on their chosen instrument?

Trinity Pop and Rock is much more modern and is obviously connected to Trinity.  It does offer a very modern way of taking exams with students expected to play as if in a band with a backing track.  However, this in itself isn't for everyone.  Some students are not suited to playing from memory and also feel they are missing out on other elements from music such as composition, theory and even the dreaded scales.  For the right candidate, we think this a fantastic new offering from Trinity and had success with a Grade 8 student in 2014 with this.  It isn't for everyone though and we find the choice of music rather limited.

There is an undoubted 'snobbery' towards ABRSM as the supposed best of all the exam boards.  It is certainly the most well known and traditional board with a well established syllabus.  However, we find that many students can get turned off music with ABRSM.  It isn't an exam board that works for all students.  The most important thing is progress in learning and development.  It can be the case that a student gives up on their instrument if they take an exam board route that does not fir their needs.  Surely it is better than get to Grade 8 with a smaller board than give up with music all together at Grade 1 with ABRSM?

All these things need considering.  Learning music is a long journey, spanning many years.  Decisions should be made in conjunction with the student, parent and teacher.  All pros and cons should be discussed and considered, in particular when heading towards the higher grades.  The wrong move can lead to the student wanting to give up.  To get all the way to Grade 6-8 and for this to happen can be heartbreaking.

At Primavolta, it is my professional opinion as lead teacher that we do not support any particular exam board.  The teacher, student and parent should be free to make considered decisions on exams, if indeed they decide to take exams at all.  The priority at all times should be the individual student and their development.

We no longer offer examination centres at Primavolta as we believe that this takes away our flexibility to decide on individual exam boards for individual students.  I firmly believe this is in the best interest of our students.  Teachers will prepare students for their chosen exam and when they are ready ask the parent to find out the next available date for entry that they would be happy to attend.  Some exam boards such as Trinity will allow parents to book online at this stage rather than through the teachers.  Other exam boards require a form to be filled out in conjunction with the teacher.

It would be perfectly possible for Primavolta to set up it's own music exams and aim for Ofqual accreditation of our own.  We have looked into this as an option.  However, I believe that our priority should be teaching and being teachers for our students.  I firmly believe there are enough options out there for us not to 'muddy the water' by offering exams as well.

Remember, at Primavolta we want every individual student to succeed, develop and enjoy their musical career.  We are all different and we think that choice and flexibility is important.