Practicing the piano

Beginning the Exam Experience: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Regular assessments are an important part of the learning process and central to The Royal Conservatory’s structured curriculum of music study. We recommend that parents work in consultation with their child’s music teacher to determine the best time to begin regular examinations. In our latest blog post, Royal Conservatory examiner Sara Ernst, Assistant Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of South Carolina, offers insights into the benefits of examinations, and advice to parents and teachers on recognizing if and when a child is ready for the challenge of their first exam. 

What are the benefits of examinations for students at the early stages of music study?

There are important benefits to beginning exams early for students, teachers, and parents. The Royal Conservatory curriculum integrates a comprehensive array of musical skills, and through it, students progressively grow their musical abilities from year to year. Level by level, children expand their abilities in performance, technical patterns, and musicianship, all beginning at the Elementary levels.

The Preparatory examination welcomes the young student into The Royal Conservatory Certificate Program; the balanced Preparatory curriculum is manageable for most children in the first year of study. The examination thus becomes a benchmark and celebration of accomplishment for the student. It is a culminating experience that provides parents and teachers with an incremental measure of growth.

As part of a yearly routine, music students may leave the exam room excited and ready for the next challenge: I’m done with Level 1! When can I do my Level 2? This type of motivation is tremendously valuable for spurring continued study. Furthermore, taking exams less regularly or delaying the start of exams can actually increase pressure on students; suddenly the examination is a big, weighty measurement of many years of work, rather than a familiar experience that feels easy and natural.

As a teacher, how do you determine when a student is ready to take his/her first examination?

It is a goal of The Royal Conservatory for the examination to be a positive experience, as well as an insightful, instructive assessment of an individual's musical skills. It is therefore important for both teachers and parents to carefully consider when a child is ready for his/her first formal examination experience. There are three key factors to consider:

  1. Can the child stay focused and follow verbal instructions easily?  If a child can readily maintain attention through his/her music lesson and follow instructions such as: play sight reading example A, s/he will be ready for the exam process. For some young children, the exam may be difficult simply because they have not developed this type of focus. In this situation, delaying exams for a semester or a year can allow time for the child to mature and increase the potential for a positive experience.
  2. Has the child successfully performed solos in formal situations? While an examination is not the same as a recital, the performance demands are similar. If a child has played in public (e.g., through a recital, music festival, or other formal situation), this will help establish the “performer’s mindset” needed for an exam. With a performer’s mindset, the child will play from start to finish, fluidly, without stopping, while listening for musical goals. If the young musician has demonstrated this ability, s/he is ready for a positive exam experience. I would not recommend an examination as a first performance.
  3. Can the child understand and perform basic musicianship skills and technical tests? At first glance, it might seem unnecessary to prepare for the technical tests or musicianship skills assessed at the elementary level (e.g., clapback and sight reading). Certainly, with well-rounded and comprehensive instruction, these skills are a natural outgrowth of music study. Before attempting an exam, however, every child should work with a teacher to learn the specific Royal Conservatory requirements and processes for assessing musicianship and technical patterns. It is through frequent and regular exposure that these drills become automatic, which will allow for the child to truly demonstrate his/her abilities during an examination.

To learn more about the benefits of structured music education, consult our white paper on the subject. To find a music teacher near you, visit our National Teacher Directory