Music Exams 2019-22: Too Many Changes?

Over the past few months in particular, I’ve sensed an increasing degree of anxiety and frustration from music teachers who feel somewhat overwhelmed by the changes made to graded music exams over the past few years. In fact, in a recent Twitter poll, over 75% of respondents felt there had been more changes in the last three years than at any time before.

Change can be good, and indeed, many of the changes made have been positive. But, that said, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling there have been a lot. To name just a few:

  • New ABRSM booking system
  • Introduction of ABRSM Performance Grades, followed by changes to the entry and session dates
  • LCM introduced new recorded and digital exams
  • Three new LCM booking systems for these recorded and digital exams
  • Trinity introduced new digital grades and diplomas
  • There have been a lot of new syllabuses, some well overdue from their original scheduled date
  • Changes to the ABRSM diploma entry process
  • Numerous changes of personnel and communication difficulties associated with that
  • ABRSM Grades 1-5 Theory exams going online
  • Replacement of long-standing publications such as Music Theory in Practice
  • Some centres have failed to reopen and been closed permanently

I’m sure there are others, and I don’t know about you, but it’s exhausting!

Music Exams 2019-22: Too Many Changes?

I think this quote perfectly sums up where we’re at:

“There have been so many changes to music examinations that the pure processing overload for me has meant I’ve avoided them and reduced my teaching of examinations by around two thirds. “

Karen Marshall

I’m indebted to those teachers who’ve provided quotes for this blog post.

Before 2019, I felt fairly confident when it came to preparing and entering students for music exams. I entered my first student in 2004, and in the intervening time period, there had been few major changes to the way exams were arranged and conducted. There have, and always will be syllabus changes, but certainly no major changes elsewhere.

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It isn’t always easy for teachers, as in many respects, they’re the ‘middle man’ between the exam boards and the candidates (and often their parents). Not only do teachers need to fully understand what’s involved in preparing and entering students for exams, but they also need to feel confident in selling the ‘product’ to the ‘consumers’. I personally feel this has become harder. The recent chaos at LCM regarding the recorded exams has shown that when it comes to it, teachers feel they’re very much at the bottom of the pile when it comes to exam boards. Yes, occasionally things happen which are out of their control, but as any good business knows, you need handle those effectively and efficiently. Last year, ABRSM were plagued by issues with their online booking system, though we hope that this has now been resolved. Trinity haven’t been immune to issues either. Their recent decision to only publish a web-version of their new woodwind syllabus prompted a backlash from teachers who pointed out they needed access to the syllabus at times when an internet connection was not available. A PDF version was promptly provided, but one can’t help but think that could have been avoided if they truly understood the needs of teachers. All of this adds to the many stresses teachers already face.

Music Exams 2019-22: Too Many Changes?

Change is inevitable, but I truly think it can be handled more effectively. In this blog post, I wanted to make just a few personal suggestions:


Communication is key. The ability to communicate with all exam boards over the past few years has been difficult, at some times, impossible. Teachers need to have easy access to knowledgeable staff who are able to answer questions and respond to queries. Many of the frustrations taken out in online forums and on social media could be avoided if communication was better. Likewise, communicating any changes needs to be handled careful and sensitively. Teachers deserve to be treated better than some exam boards have done over the past few years.

Guidance and support

Where changes are made, teachers would, I’m sure, value support and guidance, not just in implementing any changes, but also ‘selling’ them to their students. Clear, simple, step-by-step instructions would be invaluable. Yes, occasionally there are webinars and videos, but these are not always easy to find and navigate.

Teachers should be consulted

Every time a change is made, particularly in terms of new syllabuses, we are told that changes have been made after consultation. I have to be honest and say that I’ve not personally been consulted, ever, and I don’t know anyone else who has been consulted. I don’t doubt that consultations take place, but are they reaching the right people? Are they connecting with instrumental teachers at grass roots level, or are we asking a select few?

“As a teacher, I don’t feel I matter.”


Change should be underpinned by evidence

Perhaps this is a personal one for me, but I’d like to see changes, particularly to syllabuses, underpinned by evidence. As I’ve said, change is inevitable, but perhaps exam boards should be more transparent in informing us what let to the changes. What evidence was there to suggest change was needed, and what led to the exact changes being made?

“What makes ABRSM think teachers and pupils don’t want face to face theory exams anymore? I don’t know anyone who wants to see an online only theory exam.”


Treat teachers with respect

We all get frustrated, and a large number of us are guilty of venting our frustrations online when it comes to music exams. Admittedly, this is often because there appear no other channels through which such frustrations can be vented, but nevertheless, I don’t think it’s something we want to do, or do lightly. But, teachers deserve to be treated with respect. As many have pointed out, we are a key cog in the graded exam machine. Some of the responses from exam boards have been extremely condescending, and completely without understanding of the impact these changes have at grass roots level. I think the follow quote sums up perfectly how teachers are affected, often emotionally, by these changes:

“I am a teacher who is neurodiverse and even though I can complete the [ABRSM Grade 5 Theory] examination (using the sample on-line test and scoring nearly 100 percent) I find it an utter nightmare to teach in the format needed for the examination. It was so difficult for me that I would end up looking stupid in front of my student and apologising profusely, or in tears afterwards. It appeared to me that there was absolutely no thought given on how easy it would be to actually teach the information in the new format required. The processing required to do an individual question was far greater than before, how do you teach this? And being able to answer the questions needed was way beyond the information being asked. Things are not being asked in a musical context which is the root of the problem for me as a teacher. Even the thought of teaching the new ABRSM theory exam now gives me a wave of anxiety. I have looked at switching to Trinity but have decided to simply use an alternative substitute (GCSE music/Jazz exam) for the Grade 5 theory now and continue using the old style ABRSM past papers.”


Changes shouldn’t be ‘fads’

As I’ve written above, there should be some rationale for the changes made to music exams. Changes shouldn’t just be a response to the latest ‘fad’. Many of us have embraced recorded and digital exams, but that doesn’t mean the appetite for face-to-face exams has diminished. There is a feeling that an attempt is being made to shift face-to-face exams to the side in favour of digital exams, but is this really what teachers and candidates want?

“After initially students enjoying recorded (performance exams) the novelty of this seems to have worn off. Many students for the first time last term have requested to return to ‘face to face’ exams. The students say they don’t get the same kind of buzz when the result comes through as they do when they’ve had the sense of occasion being in person with an examiner.”

Karen Marshall

I have to say that some of my own students have told me this too, although like many others, we will be continuing to use the recorded and digital options.

Music Exams 2019-22: Too Many Changes?

We should, of course, remember that exams aren’t everything, as this quote illustrates:

“I’ve found finding alternative performance opportunities has been a really excellent substitute and progression has been equal if not increased. It’s also meant I’ve been able to complete more repertoire bespoke to the student, rather than sticking to the examination syllabus. I use lots of publications from all the examination boards and still do some examinations, I’m just much more cautious about using them – especially digital ones. We skip one or two grades now and never do everyone.”

Karen Marshall

There will, I’m sure, be many changes to music exams to come, though I can’t be the only one who hopes we might now enter a somewhat more settled period. In the early stages of the pandemic, teachers could, to an extent, understand the difficulties exam boards faced; however, we are well beyond that now. Teachers and candidates deserve better from professional and prestigious organisations.

All the exam boards need to take steps to rebuild relationships with teachers, again, at grass roots level. Change will always be easier when those most affected are on-board. At the moment, many teachers are still dealing with problems caused by these changes, and unfortunately, are far from being ‘on-side’.

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