"But What About Exams?" a closer look at Suzuki vs. ABRSM


by Melany Piech

“But what about exams?” Hong Kong families who visit our school sometimes wonder if, given the absence of exams in the Suzuki education model, their children are missing out on an important marker of musical achievement. Indeed, exams are generally a valued part of music instrument study in Hong Kong. While both the Suzuki Method and the exam system aim to develop fine musicians, they differ in their scope and emphasis. Let’s look at each approach in more detail. 

Most Hong Kong students who participate in music exams do so through the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), founded in 1889 in the UK and self-described as “an impartial and expert organization to promote high standards of musical education and assessment.”* Popular tests include the “practical grade,” which assesses overall musicianship and includes preparation of three performance pieces as well as scales, sight-reading and aural skills; and the “performance grade,” which requires the preparation of four pieces that are then graded via video submission. 

These exams, then, are simply assessment tools that students can use to prove their level of accomplishment. The ABRSM is not a teaching method, and therefore is not concerned with either the process of music learning or the other skills/qualities developed through music study apart from the musical skills themselves. 

The Suzuki Method, by contrast, builds comprehensive musical skills while aiming for a broader scope of personal development. Through an early beginning, a loving environment at home and in lessons, active parental involvement, participation in a community of other learners and frequent performance, Suzuki students not only develop superb musical skills; they become confident performers, grow their social and emotional intelligence, learn to collaborate with others, and contribute to their communities through the sharing of music. The Suzuki Method, then, does not exclusively emphasize musical skill development, but is also concerned with developing character, heart and civic-mindedness.

In the absence of exams, markers of achievement in the Suzuki Method include completion of a given book in the method’s series and subsequent book recitals (playing through each piece in that book from memory), performances in concert halls and other venues, and additional projects as devised by students’ teachers. 

Given the greater scope of learning and development that the Suzuki Method offers, we recommend students to engage in this approach for several years before participating in an exam later if they wish. This way students come to the exam process not only with the musical and music learning skills to succeed, but with an understanding that, ultimately, music is about so much more than measuring up to a set of standards.


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