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Talk Trinity: The relevance of the graded music exam today

Does the graded music exam still provide a relevant musical pathway for young people?

Nick Beach

Nick Beach, Academic Director at Trinity College London

‘In many ways, the graded music exam is an extraordinary success story. What other qualification can claim such a long heritage (over 140 years in Trinity’s case), to be recognised in 50 or 60 countries, and to be relatively unchanged over its history?

‘If we were to look at a syllabus from 1890, it features two pieces, two studies, some scales, and some sight reading. It doesn’t look so different to today’s exams. Graded music exams have the benefit of being managed and operated by music educators, and being free from the political interference of successive governments, each of whom of course know best about how to assess musical progress.

Explore the real world relevance of music teaching with Trinity’s Conventions

Shared understanding of graded music exams

‘Another aspect of the graded music exam, which I suspect would be the envy of many qualifications, is the degree to which the levels they award are understood. If I was to say that I was about to introduce you to a Grade 5 flautist I suspect most people in this room – as predominantly UK music educators – would have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

‘That degree of shared understanding of qualifications is pretty rare.

‘Music graded exams have, therefore, given generations of music learners and educators a tool with which to measure progress. But the theme of this section is about how well current musical pathways support the development of young musicians.

‘So we need to ask whether the graded exam still provides a relevant musical pathway at this point in its long history – can a qualification that was developed in an era when playing the piano was considered part of a refined young Victorian lady’s education still be relevant today?

‘At Trinity, we have always asked these questions, but at a time when young people’s engagement with music is changing so fast, challenging the status quo has never been more important.

Core questions for graded music exams

‘How do we recognise the fact that young people need to own their musical experience – that they need to be able to set their own musical agenda, their own musical pathway, and that we need to support them to develop their own musical identity?

‘How do we support the creative process – celebrating musical responses and outputs that are unpredictable and surprising. How do we acknowledge that creativity can be exercised in a variety of ways?

‘What are the implications for assessment of the fact that the majority of musical activity happens in groups?

‘How do we reverse one of the great travesties in music education, that your income and skin colour still impact your access to music education and the support it can provide?

‘How do we respond to the fact that much musical activity now takes place in the digital space?

‘These are tough questions and I am certainly not going to claim we have all the answers.

Graded music exams and the secondary curriculum

‘I would like to talk briefly about a project that I think begins to address some of these issues, and which grew out of the sort of questioning I have described. Last year we initiated a project, with the support of Musical Futures, to embed our Rock & Pop material and exams within the secondary curriculum.

‘One of the idiosyncrasies of the music education system is the lack of connectedness across the various activities we call music education. Young people in school experience classroom music, young people learning an instrument experience instrumental music – and there is often little link between the two.

‘Often, neither of these have much to do with the music young people engage with in their day to day lives.

Bridging the divide between classroom and instrumental music

‘Our Rock & Pop schools project aims to bridge this divide.

‘In the project, young people are encouraged to find the music they want to learn – music that speaks to them and through which they can communicate. They are supported to make creative choices and take risks.

‘Teachers are provided with a means of measuring truly musical progress rather than ticking off a series of isolated skills. And, because this work is taking place in the curriculum, it is accessible to every child, not just the privileged few. These are early steps, but the feedback on the year of activity is very positive. We are going on to test some informal feedback that this work at Key Stage 3 may positively influence the take-up of music at Key Stage 4.

‘At Trinity, we feel that these sorts of projects help us to ensure that an organisation founded 140 years ago can stay relevant, not just today but as the musical needs of young people continue to change into the future.

‘So does the graded music exam still provide a relevant musical pathway for young people? Well, my answer is yes. Just so long as those assessments continue to adapt to meet the changing need of young people.

‘Over the last 140 years, Trinity has built up huge experience in responding to, and leading, change. And, in spite of my reference to the 1890 syllabus, today’s actual exams bear no resemblance to those of that period.

‘We will remain committed to continuing that journey of change, but one thing will be constant – and that is a total commitment to keeping the word “musical” the heart of everything we do.’

Explore the real world relevance of music teaching with Trinity’s Conventions


This is a transcription of the presentation that Nick Beach, Academic Director at Trinity College London, gave at The Westminster Education Forum event on 3 July 2017: The future for music education in England – maintaining standards, music hubs and career pathways

Talk Trinity is a new series exploring the wider thinking, and values that underpin everything we do. We want to hear what you have to say so please use the comments box below to join the conversation.

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