What Does an Exam Result MEAN?!

What does the result a student gets in an AMEB exam actually mean? It’s a letter (sometimes with a + attached) and it’s easy to think that this result relates to the A/B/C/fail system we know from general education. But is it so?

Just this last week my mum, Anita, and I were organising entries of our piano students for AMEB exams. Not all our students sit exams, and not all the students who sit exams do so every year; the decision to take an exam is not one made on automatic pilot. It’s not just about whether the student is ready for the next grade, it’s about how an exam will impact on their other (pianistic, musical, educational, experiential) goals and plans for the year.

One of the considerations we take into account is the likelihood of a pleasant to exciting experience and an excellent result in the assessment. This seems somewhat obvious, and one would think that any and every teacher would have these considerations at the forefront of their minds before entering any one of their students.

But often students are entered for exams for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with the possibility of a great result (either in the performance or in the assessment mark) or a happy life (more generally).

For starters there is the widespread notion that students will not practice without an examination looming. Equally widespread, but certainly less widely acknowledged, is the problem that many teachers (even some very good ones) don’t quite know how to structure a curriculum outside of the examination syllabus, and entering students for examinations creates a well-defined series of tasks to accomplished within the academic year: no need for the teacher to justify to the student any activity if they are all required by the syllabus!

In addition there is the issue of parental expectation: many parents equate the purpose of piano lessons with the acquisition of examination results and certificates, and not entering their child for an examination would require some serious negotiating. Students themselves then operate in a world where it is simply expected that if you sat Grade 4 last year you will certainly be sitting Grade 5 this year, irrespective of your skill set or level of dedication.

On the whole, students who take piano exams in Australia tend to be doing so in a manner unrelated to their efforts or achievements in the months prior. And this has meant over the past 30 (40? more?) years that students have taken examinations with no real chance of ever doing better than a B grading, some a C+.

So what does it mean when someone ‘passes’ an exam? Let’s start with the best results: ‘A’ gradings.

To achieve an ‘A’ the student will need to play their three or four pieces fluently and expressively, at a tempo suitable for each work.

That’s actually not all that outrageous a goal, when you think about it!

A ‘B’ result will be given to students who are mostly fluent and intermittently expressive, playing at or somewhat near to a tempo that is suitable for each work. Stumbles may have occurred, but there is evidence that the student has of vision of sorts at to what the work might be about, and has sufficient skill to realise some part of that vision.

A ‘C’ result usually indicates that the student succeeded in playing all the notes. And not terribly much more than that. Dynamics may or may not have been observed, but the performance was either so ill prepared or so unfortunate in its execution that it was difficult for any real communication to take place via the performance.

Now there is more to it than that, for students are also required to perform set scales and arpeggios at a specified minimum tempo, to answer questions about their music, to respond to a battery of aural tests and to play a short, specially-written-for-the-grade piece of music at sight. If a student has performed their pieces at an ‘A’ level, for example, but failed to manage these other tests then their grade will be lowered to a B+ or a B (depending on their level of incompetence in these other tests). If a student has performed their pieces at the higher end of a ‘B’ grading but undertaken these additional tests with aplomb then they may cement a B+ or even convince the examiner that an A is a more appropriate result.

Finally, a rule of thumb for students working towards the next exam. If you want to achieve at about the same standard you did in the previous exam you will need to practice for between 100-110 hours. If you want to improve your result by a little (say moving from a C+ to a B) you will need between 125-135 hours. If you want to improve a lot (let’s say from a B to an A) you will need to practice around 150 hours. And if you wish to improve from a C or C+ to an A you will be looking at the best part of 200 hours in order to be successful. This measure has never let me down, and keeping track of your practice is an excellent way to be accountable to yourself for your own achievements.

Good luck, everyone!!

4 thoughts on “What Does an Exam Result MEAN?!

  1. Interesting…here in Canada, with Royal Conservatory of Music exams, there is a breakdown given. For example in RCM Grade 8 (Bach 2-part invention, Chopin Prelude in B minor, Christopher Norton’s Jane’s Song are examples of the level), students play 4 pieces (from 4 eras or styles) — two for 16 marks each and two for 12 marks. There are separate marks for studies (two studies, 6 marks each) and technical requirements, ear tests, and sight reading. The breakdown makes it easy to see where the student’s specific strengths and weaknesses are.

  2. Hi, this was interesting to read, and seems pretty spot on. I will be interested to observe more closely in future to see it apply.
    Just wondering – do the hours only count for time at the piano? Or would you count time spent on the theory study and books too (eg 10-20 mins/week on music craft, Blitz books etc) Thanks!

    • Everything counts, even things that aren’t directly about music – but the moment arrives when time needs to be spent at the instrument. The time I’ve suggested is time at the instrument, but the more skills a student brings with them TO that time at the instrument will mean that the learning, when looked at globally, is more efficient. The thing about time at the instrument is that the student is mastering a *physical* skill, and that’s what time at the instrument is all about.

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