Taking Guitar Exams - Do they help you?

Over the past twenty years of teaching guitar exams and working as an examiner for the RGT in the UK I have often pondered what impact taking guitar examinations has to someone's rate of learning and can it in some way damage a player’s creative approach to playing.

I have become very sceptical in the past about examinations in other areas of education especially when children are subject to the testing torture that the education system in this country uses.

The idea that all things can be measured is moved from the world of business and the time management philosophy of Denning to the classroom as if everything is under scientific scrutiny. Well, from the world of the arts and music we have a message for you; not all things can be measured, welcome to the alternative world of the creative unconscious.

As musicians and artists we will be only too aware of the small things that happen that have profound influence on us; a small idea that literally transforms our lives and our playing. I am reminded of the pre 'enlightenment age' of revelation where something can just suddenly be known. Often in music you will simply ‘know’ what to do and within this I find a problem with the education system because the lasting memories of my education and playing literally are subtle things that are life changing and immeasurable.

So back to the world of examinations and to the experience of the years of teaching and what can be drawn from this. I recently looked at the pupils of mine that did well and in some way great or small became ‘successful’ and I can safely say that all of these took the guitar grades, not all to Grade 8 but certainly to the upper grades and the ones that never took a grade did not fare so well.

The first thing to consider is that to take the grades you need to have a mind-set that is organised and focused on a goal and is dedicated to put in the practice to achieve the standards required and that of course is also the requirement for you to achieve anything in the world of music.

Look deeper into the way that examinations affect people and you might see that a person is acquiring a particular way of thinking which is prescribed because of the context and this is not in my opinion always for the better. However the structure of examinations can give the pupil a goal and maybe this is practical nature of the discipline, the preparation and the organisation to make the journey and not its arrival.

Like many aspects of learning what you actually learn in the early stages may not be relevant as you move on, this is as true for science as it is for music with much of what you learnt pre A level being 'wrong' however the mental approach stays the same. The basic components that you used to play your early rock solos are not the ideas that you will use to play some Jazz fusion solo as you progress but what makes a good solo still remains the same, that of phrasing.

So for my pupils the ‘journey’ remains the most important aspect and grades seem to help with this however when it comes to the diplomas then I am not so sure because at this point the pupil is cutting their own way through the jungle of music armed with the tools that they have picked up along the way, so if the higher exams help with them becoming teachers then so be it but again I am not so sure.

Make sure that if you or your pupils decide not to take examinations then it is not because of laziness but you have something else that drives you on, remember there are lots of people out there playing guitar and you need to be in the top five per cent of them if you want to achieve something with your playing.