Online and Digital Exams: Time to Face the Music?

A few years ago, we’d have scoffed at the idea that online and digital music exams would be commonplace, and the idea that in the future, music exams would become online and digital-only was inconceivable. Yet, a recent announcement by ABRSM that their new suite of performance diplomas would only be available as digital exams, has raised the real possibility that in-person exams may soon be a thing of the past, and perhaps not even too far away. There is a growing realisation that the days of in-person exams are numbered, and it might not be too long before we have to face that particular music.

In the 22 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen real attitude shift when it comes to music exams. In the early days, I’d expect to enter probably 10 students a session, with nearly all students working towards a music exam. Fast forward two decades, and only small proportion of students are working towards an exam; I might enter only 10 students a year, if that. Partly, my attitude to teaching has changed, and alongside that, the appetite for music exams has significantly diminished.

For decades, if not well over a century, graded music exams have formed the basis of instrumental teaching. Despite knowing that a graded music exam syllabus is not a curriculum, none of us can shy away from the way these exams have become embedded in every aspect of our teaching.

ABRSM Performance Grades - online and digital

As I’ve written previously, in the last few years, numerous changes and developments have been made, with all exam boards significantly increasing their provision for online and digital music exams. I don’t think any of us saw it coming, or at least, never expected change to have come at such a pace. For many of us, online and digital music exams are now used with the same degree of routine that in-person exams once were.

Virtually all the developments made by exam boards have been within the field of online and digital exams. There is no going back. Whilst to begin with, online and digital music exams were offered as an alternative to in-person exams, we have seen a gradual move in which some in-person exams have been replaced entirely by a digital option. ABRSM Grades 1-5 Theory were the first to go this way, and it seems almost inconceivable that ABRSM previously-prestigious performance diplomas have gone the same way too.

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It sees that in-person exams are gradually being eroded. Teachers, parents and students are finding it increasingly hard to book in-person exams. Many local centres which were ‘temporarily closed’ have not reopened. Candidates are being expected to travel further and further to access in-person exams, and as a consequence, more and more turn to the online and digital options.

The introduction of online and digital music exams has inevitably, and in many cases, understandably, raised many questions and concerns. Is a performance exam comparable to a standard grade where aural, sight-reading, scales and other skills are tested? Indeed, is an online or digital exam comparable to an in-person exam at all? These are informed debates we should be having, but they are perhaps ones we should have been having before these changes were introduced?

Trinity digital grades

I think it’s important to remember that within these debates, generally held amongst teachers and aired on social media, there are candidates, and they are human beings. Each individual candidate has their own particular reason for working towards an exam. They all have their own perfectly valid aims, aspirations and goals. We should therefore, in the debates which need to be had, ensure that we are not pitting the worth of one candidate’s achievement against another. To take any exam is an achievement, and we should all remember and honour that.

All of this has also raised important questions, perhaps more important than all the others, about the value and purpose of graded music exams. Attitudes towards the use of exams has shifted, and continues to do so. Even in the 21st century, there is no denying that they underpin our whole system of instrumental music education, and whilst many have sought to move away from this, it is so embedded in the system, I am certain the majority unconsciously align themselves with exam syllabuses.

Perhaps an important question for us all to consider, is what our teaching, and indeed what the whole of instrumental music education might look like if there were no graded exams? It’s hard to even contemplate that, but the outcome could be both empowering and life-changing. I can understand teachers’ concerns and anxieties; what would replace the void left by exams? Andrew Eales wrote a brilliant blog post recently outlining a radical new manifesto for piano teaching with play at its heart. This is what the future could look like.

LCM online and digital exams

Right now, it seems to me that in-person exams are being starved, kept alive with the bare minimum of life support, as exam boards go all-out digital, whether it is in the interests of the ‘consumers’ or not. A future of 100% online and digital exams might not be far away.

With increasing costs (Trinity recently announced that an in-person Grade 8 exam will now be £123 in 2023-24) and growing concerns over access and inclusion (I’ve written about this in relation to ABRSM Theory Exams and it’s been raised generally in relation to music education), online and digital exams might not turn out to be all exam boards hoped they’d be.

Perhaps this is the golden opportunity for instrumental teachers to rise up against the tide of exams, and to reimagine the musical journey of every learner without the constraints of the exam system. It doesn’t have to be about lowering standards or dumbing down, quite the opposite. I would suggest that by contrast, we can teach in a way which is far more meaningful and relevant to each individual student, raising both standards and fulfilment in the process.

There is another way, and you could be part of it.

Is this a journey we all need to go on together?

As long as they remain, we might take music exams along in the car with us, but they certainly don’t have to be in the driving seat if we’re prepared to imagine and embrace an alternative.

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