Updated: Jul 28
Every year, as existing families prepare for the upcoming academic year, and new families inquire about music lessons, the question about music examinations and festivals is often asked:
"Will exams benefit my child?"
"What is a music festival?"
"What is the difference between an exam and a music festival?"
"Is my child ready for exams?"
Often, students who have been taking lessons for awhile and have been enjoying a steady progress in their education will reach a point where they may like to try something more challenging. As lessons only occur once a week, and the only feedback a student gets is from the same teacher, participation in performance opportunities outside of regular lessons can be a rewarding experience for the student.
Annual studio recitals and casual performances for charity or small, familiar audiences are generally lower-pressure, and a great way for students to progressively build up confidence on stage. Perhaps, a student would like to benchmark their progress by participating in a graded performance experience such as examinations, music festivals or competitions.
Preparing for performance in these settings is typically higher-pressure, and requires a strong commitment and an established home practice routine. In this blog post, we will explore the differences between music examinations and festivals and discuss preparation expectations, fees and experience.
Generally, there is more preparation work and time that goes into a music examination than preparing for a performance for music festivals. The reason being, music exams cover a lot more content to be assessed other than performing pieces, such as ear (melody playback or singback), sight-reading tests (play a new short excerpt of music on the spot), and finger technique tests (scales, chords, arpeggios). An appropriate weekly lesson duration and consistent, regular home practice of all these aspects on top of the music pieces being prepared is crucial to a successful and rewarding examination experience.
For music festivals, students can choose to participate by performing just one repertoire, or he/she can choose to plan a concert or recital program (usually 2 - 3 contrasting pieces). Therefore, it can be less time-consuming to prepare as there are no scales, sight-reading or ear tests. Bear in mind, this does not mean that finger technique work can be eliminate from the lesson or practice plan. Performance at a music festival is expected to be at a high standard, which means that the piece(s) must be learned well and performed from memory.
In both examinations and music festival performances, finger technique and musicality aspects are being graded and assessed at a high level. Adjudicators from around the world are usually invited to be part of the panel of judges at a music festival, and their feedback is highly regarded for developing further in one's performance skills.
In an exam, the results are assessed up to a 100% with a minimum passing mark between 60-70% depending on the conservatory board's requirements. The examiner will assess and write feedback notes during the exam, and the student will be able to view the full written results in a few weeks time.
Most music teachers will share the same sentiment as me in that the % mark is not the most important. It is the examiner's invaluable comments is what matters the most. The written feedback is what helps student and teacher to celebrate strengths as well as work on areas that need improvement. Both music exams and festivals provide high quality feedback to the student on his/her performance.
It is also important to know that students do not need to sit for exams each year. Anyone at anytime can sit for an exam level that they are prepared for. In my teaching, I am strict about having students follow through the graded syllabus by levels, even if they do not sit for exams that year. Each level provides an appropriate level of structured progression in technical concepts and pedagogical challenges.. Skipping levels can be frustrating for a student in the long-run, as they may miss out on very important concepts and development of finger technique while wanting to tackle more advanced works.
For music festivals, grades are typically done in categories instead of a % number, i.e. bronze, silver, gold, gold superior. Similarly, a participant with the highest grade can receive scholarship awards which is usually in the form of cash or scholarships to encourage and aid in further music education.
Music festivals have since expanded their methods on providing feedback with online formats being conveniently accessible more than ever. Many adjudicators are providing online video feedbacks in response to an online submission of a performance. Performances done in person, however, will typically receive a written feedback. Some music festivals also offer a masterclass session by adjudicators where a mini-lesson is given in a group setting to participants.
In some cultures, marks/grades are seen as a deterrent to children's learning. Personally, I agree it can be the case if the student or child is not ready. In the real world, marks/grades/assessments are necessary in some settings, especially for structuring scholarship applications. Exam grades can also provide students with high school credits when they complete both theory and practical exams. All of these add to building a good resume or curriculum vitae when it comes to applying for scholarships or entrance into music colleges/university. Additionally, having an advanced level certificate handy can offer you the opportunity to pick up teaching beginner and elementary music should you decide to switch careers at some point.
Music exams typically cost more in the long-run as the registration fee and learning materials do increase at the higher levels you are preparing for. For this reason, some music teachers will not register students for exams unless they are ready and committed to do so.
For music festivals, the registration fee to participate is generally less costly. Materials and resources can cost the same as all music festivals require performance of repertoire from the music conservatory school syllabus. Virtual festivals require the performer to own original works/books if you're submitting a scanned copy for fair use by the adjudicator. In exams, you are required to bring an original copy (your own or your teacher's) for the examiner to refer to as you perform your music. Photocopies are not accepted and you can be disqualified from performance.
Stress and Pressure
This is a difficult one to differentiate as everyone feels anxiety differently. Personally, I find that exams are less pressure since the student is only performing for the examiner (one person), as opposed to a music festival or competition where there may be a panel of judges, and eventually a grand concert at the end with a full audience. Some conservatory boards are also set up to offer a mini-lesson immediately after the exam is done.
Music festivals and competitions go through stages in that a student starts off performing for one (or more) adjudicators. If he/she qualifies for provincials or nationals, then he/she would be performing again with different audiences each time.
A good teacher is able to guide and encourage your child to challenge themselves to be courageous on stage and share their music with others. Many a time, performances are not about perfection but a way of communicating stories to the community. It is a journey of self-discovery for both the pianist, and the audience, and to bring all that on stage confidently is always more of a mental obstacle rather than a skill challenge.
At the end of the day, it is important to discuss with your teacher what your goal is for yourself or your child in the journey. A teacher who knows and understands where your child is at and how well they can handle challenges will be able to recommend which performance opportunity to try.
As mentioned, these performance opportunities can be very rewarding and provide much growth in the learning. Many families believe that exams can provide the child with a beneficial goal to work towards. It is never advisable to send your child for an exam if he/she does not commit to regular home practice. Teamwork between the student, parent and teacher must occur in order to ensure the