Are music exams reflective of the historical method of music instruction?
Historically, the measure of a musician's ability was judged by not only the technical facility of their instrumental ability but also their overall musical creativity. Areas in which this creativity would have shown themselves would have been in performance (virtuosity in improvisation) or by the excellence of their compositions.
In the Galant or "Classical" era, virtuosos were expected to extemporize (now/also called “improvise“) with technical mastery and would ornament written music in highly personal and individualized ways. Listen to my interviews with the great classical improvisers of today. They state that the idea of playing a repeat the exact same way would have been unheard of in the Galant era (Mozart's time).
It is very intriguing that there are many historical anecdotes of the great composers (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin) being able to improvise in addition to their compositional skill. There are many clues that they might have been taught music in a different manner.
With the rise of music examinations in commonwealth countries, it would be interesting to contrast the current method of music instruction with historical models.
Music Grades display technical ability but a lack of improvisation/creativity
At present, the idea of achieving a graded certificate from a board of examiners has become the measure of skill in a musician.
We find that students with advanced grades are often have difficulty performing creative tasks in music. They would struggle to perform the musical tasks that students in the classical era could do without blinking. They often struggle to improvise and compose. This would have been shocking to someone like Mozart.
Please don't misconstrue the purpose of this article. Testing is a vital element of learning. Music teachers simply must test their students but it must involve real musical tasks such as improvisation or composition. Rote memorization of large pieces of music and basic music materials, which dominate music exam culture, is not the mark of a skilled musician, but of the student who’s only learned how to play specific pieces of repertoire only.
Not applying Scales & Arpeggios to anything
Music exams, depending on their grade, require a certain number of scales, arpeggios.
Playing a scale or arpeggio alone is just the very beginning of being creative in music. Unless there is a concerted application of these basic musical materials, you are only left with just that: basic music materials.
A learned music teacher should be showing a student example upon example of what to do with these basic music materials, growing their musical vocabulary over the years. A good music teacher should be exposing a student to more and more ideas in music for them to soak up.
Without context, a scale or arpeggio has no musical purpose. Without context, a scale just exists. It needs to be applied.
Instead of playing a C major scale up and down at 120 beats per minute, a real musical test could perhaps involve the realization of a partimenti in the key of C, using the notes of the C major scale or perhaps expanding on a sequence of Galant schema, or improvising in a different style of music completely using the scale.
Key takeaway: In music exams, scales and arpeggios are learned with no eye toward creative application. To learn scales and arpeggios is vital, but without application, the student is left with tools but no woodshed.
Imagine an apprentice carpenter preparing stacks and stacks of cut wood from trees, but not actually making any furniture with them. That's learning lots of scales, without application. It's very important to know these things, but without application you are stuck at the beginning of your creative journey.
Prepared pieces as an end, not as a reference for music making
Perhaps one of the most pernicious side effects of preparing for a music exam is that it grinds to a halt the study of music in favor of rote memorization, for many months at a time.
A young child's most plastic years of musical development are closed shut in favor of rote memorization. I believe this constant memorization of pieces puts children off music.
The performance category of the Grade holds a large percentage of the final mark. Students put out all the stops to memorize and perfect repertoire. Many quit playing the instrument because the culture surrounding music has told them that this conception of musical excellence is what matters.
Playing repertoire is not the goal in music education. It is the beginning. The purpose of playing the great repertoire is to learn excellent examples of many small musical ideas from highly rated composers. A true musician is able to analyze the musical content of a piece of repertoire, break it up and rearrange the components for their own use.
Again, playing a piece of music is not the end, it's the beginning. For music exams, it's very much the end. Also, it's not surprising most students quit their instrument permanently after acquiring their 8th Grade. They assume there's nothing left to do in music. Many don't even make it that far.
Are you saying memorization is a bad thing?
Not at all. Memorization is vital but not in the way you might think. Instead of memorizing a large piece of music, it would preferable that a student memorizes a hundred different small ideas that they can manipulate and piece together.
Memorizing large chunks of music without a conception of how to use them in different situations is just rote memorization and thus has no purpose. To learn music, you have to apply the ideas that you see in the repertoire. It’s more fun too!
Music exams distort ideas about music
Culturally, music exams distort our perception of musical ability.
The first begins with the idea that virtuosity and difficulty equate quality in music. This is has led to the rise of grueling and bruising classical music competitions.
The second is that the great composers are mystical, supernatural beings who cannot be understood and only copied. Also, you shouldn’t learning to compose because it's a skill reserved only for older talents. This is a problematic idea to place into children's minds, that they shouldn't be creative in music. Children are incredibly creative, and we should foster that by teaching them how express themselves in composition and improvisation.
The third might be that someone at Grade 8 must to be better than someone at Grade 1 or no Grade at all, which is simply not true when you consider many of the great musicians were self taught. I would even posit the humorous reality that many of these great musicians would actually fail these strange music exams. I invite you to listen to my archive of interviews with great musicians and judge for yourself if any of them learned music the way we subject our children today.
The fourth is that improvisation is to be learned in an undergraduate class, or for "advanced" students.
Graded music exams have been in place for years and seem to deflate the enjoyment of many eager music students hoping to experience the joy and fun of learning music. In order to learn music, one has to embrace musical creativity through learning the craft of improvisation and composition right from the beginning. Save your child's most plastic years of musical development from this method of dry rote memorization.
Let me end this article with a quote by a great musician, Dr. Joseph Curiale:
Rote memorization and exams are not what come to mind when I think of music and creativity, and were certainly not a part of my deep creative experience and success in any genre of music, past or present. They are too fear-based and require too much mental strain, which inhibits the learning process. Guided listening, trying, experimenting, improvising and being allowed creative freedom was the best education for me.
My greatest mentor never “tested” me with exams nor required rote memorization. I was encouraged to create spontaneously and express my individuality within a given framework. Years later, after having enjoyed a very successful career in both Hollywood and concert music, I called my mentor and told him, “I learned so much from you,” and his reply was, “but I didn’t teach you anything.” This is the classic “guru-disciple” relationship established in ancient times: “The Master does not teach, but the student learns.” Instead of imposing his style and will upon me, he just brought out the best in me that was already there.
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.” – Galileo
That’s real education.