Classical guitar graded exams – to take or not to take?

This is a question that often pops up – should I take graded exams on the guitar? It’s a good question. For some the answer will be yes, for others no – it all depends on what it is you want and where you’re headed.

So, before we explore that question a little further, what are graded exams?

Here in Australia we have the Australian Music Examination Board (AMEB) system starting with First Grade, requiring a couple of scales, handful of simple technical exercises and three relatively simple little pieces (plus a couple of other extra study pieces to show that you’ve been working on and learnt some other stuff and not just those three for the exam).

The grades then work through to Eighth Grade, which as you may expect is much more advanced in nature, requiring presentation of a number of scales played with various techniques, technical studies demonstrating mastery of further technical aspects as well as a developing musical sense, and presentation of four more substantial and/ or technically challenging pieces. The UK also has a similar system with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) (which I did my own early studies on the piano and clarinet through) and Trinity Guildhall.

Each grade is intended to represent a milestone in your progress on the guitar. Having successfully passed a certain grade exam gives you a well-recognised “nod of approval” from a highly experienced professional, backed by a well-respected professional body, that you’re competent on your instrument to a certain level. They will also give you some constructive feedback for taking your playing to the next level.

So what’s the point of taking these exams?

Well, for some there is no point and that’s absolutely fine. Graded exams aren’t for everyone – heck, the very first graded exam I ever took on the guitar was my eighth grade! But at that point I’d already been through the grading system for piano and clarinet and my teacher (and myself) agreed at the time that it may in fact have stymied my development to focus on exams. For some exams may just not be important, they just want to play and learn and grow and develop in their own way. For some they don’t want the pressure of an exam situation.

For others, however, they do like to that nice certificate to frame and hang on the wall, a lasting, visible testament to their hard work, dedication and their journey. Some also appreciate the opportunity to test themselves out under a little pressure. Some are looking to seek that “nod of approval” from a respected authority. Some are looking for that feedback from a source that they may not otherwise have access to. Some are looking to tick off the milestones in their development.

I do think that the focussed, methodical learning that preparing for graded exams can bring is good for some students development – and some need that little extra incentive of a looming exam date to do their study. However, one doesn’t need to be faced with an examination to carry out this type of learning.

If you’re pursuing a higher qualification in music, or wishing to study music at university or a conservatoire then a graded exam to a specified level may be required, so that will somewhat dictate that you need to do that if you wish to pursue that path.

It really is “horses for courses” with respect to taking graded exams – just ask yourself (and your teacher) why am working towards this exam or why am I not? Find out the real answer for yourself and your own motivations for taking – or not taking – graded exams.


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