We’re just entering exam season here in the UK. The bulk of AS and A-Level exams begin this week, and GCSEs soon after. Virtually all 16-18 year olds are affected in some way by this, and it can be a stressful time for everyone.
The trouble is that music lessons are, rightly or wrongly, being increasingly affected too. The impact of school exams on instrumental lessons appears to be on the increase, and I believe that this is a conversation we need to have going into the future, especially as the arts subjects are ever-increasingly squeezed in society.
As I say, exams, and revision for exams can be a stressful time, especially at an age when young people experience many stresses, far beyond those of school. When I was studying for my GCSEs and A-Levels just under 20 years ago, it was stressful too, but I didn’t miss any of my music lessons; indeed, I did my Grade 8 Flute at the same time as my A-Levels. I might have been an anomaly, but I loved my lessons so much, I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing them. If someone had suggested I should miss lessons in favour of revision, I suspect there would have been serious outcry!
Not only did I love my lessons, but they were a welcome relief from the revision itself. Balancing the demands of revision and exams, with health and wellbeing is something which we all have to learn to do. It’s a good age to learn it, but it needs support from parents and schools too.
As we approach exam season, I’ve already lost one pupil for four weeks who wishes to concentrate on revision, and another pupil has given up completely due to the demands of school work. On social media, other teachers report similar issues:
‘I’m having a cull of those who aren’t interested. (Missing lessons because of gcses.. Really? no-one revises all day & night or shouldn’t).’ @nikkiw650 on Twitter
‘Highly irritating. If you haven’t paid attention all year 4 weeks of cramming & neglecting everything else won’t help.’ @SusiejeanLow on Twitter
‘I get cancellations this time of year due to exams as some students feel they need to concentrate on their revision which is fair enough!’ @willhaypiano on Twitter
‘That’s the summer term for you! Frustrating, isn’t it?’ @ScaleBoxApp on Twitter
On the one hand, there’s a business consideration as a self-employed private music teacher. Pupils wishing to miss lessons due to revision generally expect you to keep their slot open for their return. This means than unless you can fill the slot temporarily, or you charge a retainer fee (which I feel uncomfortable with), you can lose that income. This month, I shall be down £180 due to this. But, one also has to remain sensitive to pupil needs too. Exam season is stressful, and entering into a battle with pupils and/or parents about missed or cancelled lessons can add to that stress.
Another important consideration is that music lessons can and should provide a welcome break. It’s unhealthy to be revising all day and night. Balancing various demands on one’s time is a useful skill to learn.
‘I believe music should be a nice break from the revision. I’ve had several pupils get all A* and not miss a lesson for public exams.’ @nikkiw650 on Twitter
‘I told my students to regard music as something enjoyable & relaxing.’ @CrossEyedPiano on Twitter
Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s different for everyone, and there are other issues at play too (travel, for example); I certainly don’t want to ‘get’ at anyone in this post. I think we all accept that even for those who carry on with lessons during school exam season, practice might be reduced. But, I too have had past pupils get strings of As and A*s and not miss a lesson.
I wholeheartedly believe that music lessons should be see as a positive part of that revision and exam process. A welcome distraction, light relief – call it what you will, but rather than push the enjoyable things to the sidelines in favour of wall-to-wall work, we should embrace all that music can offer our mental and physical wellbeing.