One question I get all the time as a guitar and bass tutor is whether or not to take instrumental grades. This is an interesting topic and their relevance to you a player is determined by your unique musical goal.
Pre-lesson Rant (feel free to skip!) – If you are of the opinion that grades are pointless because [insert musical legend here] doesn’t have them, then this article may not be for you. People are only great in spite of a lack knowledge, never because of it (Antony Cull 2016).
Before we dive into the pros and cons I should state that I’m not personally affiliated with any exam board although I regularly teach and have studied the material in the RGT, Rochschool and ABRSM syllabi. Also, I haven’t taken any guitar grades and since earning GCSE, A-Level, B-TEC and BA Hons level qualifications in music I doubt think I will ever need to take them.
The main purpose of any graded learning system is to create a linear and logical path that if followed assures you cover everything that you will need to be proficient at your instrument. As a teacher I tend to follow a similar path to the most grade systems. As each exam board revises their exams I’ve noted they now share a lot of similar ideas, despite their unique quirks.
For many younger students I have the parents, rather then the students, ask about taking grades. For younger students and beginners I would recommend getting comfortable with the basics before deciding on grades. It is a large commitment in energy and time and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The most common time for people to take instrumental grades is during their time in formal education. In fact many institutions insist that all music students take grades alongside there main qualification and upon entering new qualifications you may be required to be a specific grade. A good musical educator is able discern a players ability in an interview so it isn’t always necessary.
For many of you who are self taught one of the biggest concerns is finding a tutor. I would argue that whilst a tutor would make learning the material easier, most grade books are self explanatory so you could tackle them alone. To bring the arguments together lets take a look at a few considerations.
Reasons to take Guitar Grades:
- Grades offer a structured, linear way to learn the instrument and required theory whilst creating clear milestones in your progress.
- UK based students can obtain extra UCA’s points through most exam boards for grades 6-8.
- Graded studies help you choice appropriate level pieces for exams, recitals, interviews and auditions.
- Grades are beneficial when applying for jobs in music education as they serve as an excellent representation of your skill set.
Reasons not to take Guitar Grades:
- If you suffer from above average levels of stress or anxiety from exams you may want to weigh up the benefits against this.
- Within the wider musical circles after education people are less concerned about your grades. Instead they need to see the knowledge in practice and performance.
- Depending on your financial position it is worth considering the cost of the resources, lessons and the exams themselves.
Thankfully the available syllabi have improved dramatically over the last decade and the number of options available to student is constantly growing. I’ve seen courses in classical, electric, acoustic, rock, jazz and pop so finding one with a syllabus that interesting to you is vital. If you can talk to your tutors and friends who have had experience in the exam board you’re considering then quiz them on their experiences.
Hopefully this has helped you decide on whether or not to take graded guitars exams. They definitely offer a focused, challenging and rewarding path of progression. If after reading this and exploring your options you decide not to take then I understand your choice. Perhaps after research they seem to constrictive, expensive or straight up dull to you then look elsewhere to spend your practice time. That being said I would argue that even players with years of experience would benefit from working through a course of some description, even just to make sure they don’t have any gaps in their musical knowledge and vocabulary.
Personally I think anything that improves you playing is always worth investigating. When I first started playing grades were less academically valuable and the syllabus was pretty limited. Thankfully it’s gotten a lot better and improves every year.
If you’ve had any personal experience with this topic or are currently contemplating it please leave a comment below? Anything I’ve missed, perhaps you disagree?