A question that I often get asked by students and parents of school aged students is should I/my child complete grades on the guitar? It’s a great question with no clear answer; this will very much depend on the student and what their goals on the guitar will be. If you are not familiar, many different companies will have a series of books designed to teach students the fundamentals of playing an instrument, requiring them to play several pieces as well as also scales and technical exercises. These come in different grades, usually starting at a Debut or Initial grade and working up to Grade 8.
Some common companies that sell these grade books include AMEB/Rockschool, Trinity, ABRSM, and ANZCA. These can also come in different guitar-specific styles such as rock/ electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or classical guitar. Grades will suit some students who benefit from having a clear list of tasks to complete, with a certificate to receive once completing the grade to show that the task has been completed. Although not all people work like this; some students want a more free-flowing lesson structure that will allow them the opportunity to be more creative or allow them to learn specific songs that they like. To help you answer this question for yourself, let’s look at the pros and cons of learning guitar grades.
One great thing that I like about certain grade books is the clarity of the resources. All tasks are given to you in a clear way to visualize, which allows you to look ahead and plan what you will need to learn before the exam and what you already know. This is a great way to plan clear goals in your lessons and also in your personal practice time. Many students of mine need clear goals to see where they are going with their guitar playing, which also makes them feel motivated once they complete one of these tasks in the book such as confidently playing one of the pieces or learning a section of the technical work.
As a guitar teacher myself who emphasises the importance on learning an array of techniques to mentor versatile and well rounded students, I also value how thoroughly some of these books teach the core fundamentals of guitar playing in a step by step manner. There are pieces that are clearly laid out and are to be played along to the backing tracks (in some cases, such as in the rockschool books), but also plenty of examples to hone in on learning the common scales used in the makeup of compositions, as well as ear training tests.
Once you have completed the exam you will receive a certificate and a mark, which rewards the student for their hard work and also signifies that the tasks at hand have now been completed. This can be useful to school aged students who may want to get into certain schools in their area on a music scholarship for example, which is something that I have helped some of my current and former students achieve. This is a clear and precise way of letting a potential school know that you can play guitar to an X grade level, rather than them taking your word for it when you say that you’re “pretty good”.
So there are most definitely a lot of pros to learning grades, but there are also some things to be mindful of if you or your child will be taking this route. Although the grades give a student clear goals and instructions that are to be completed, not all will thrive on learning this way. For many students, their guitar lesson can be a highlight of their week and a chance to get away from regular school or work life where they are constantly being given tasks to complete. Their guitar lesson can be a brief moment where they can forget about all of their other responsibilities and just enjoy playing music.
For many students, their lesson will be an opportunity to learn a song that they like that they may have requested to learn or that their tutor has suggested they learn, which may not be available in a grade book. This of course doesn’t mean that they won’t get as much out of learning a song that isn’t a part of a syllabus; they will still learn the same fundamentals of playing a song start to finish along to a recording or backing track, just like in the grades. Something to keep in mind with grades is that the way the pieces are arranged will often be simplified and shortened versions of how the original song actually is, so you’re not always learning the exact way how to play the song than it is when played by the actual band or artist.
Although some students will benefit from having clear tasks presented to them, for many this can actually put guitar into the ‘chore’ category, seen as similar to homework or work tasks that aren’t ‘fun’. This is something that we want to avoid at all costs, as practising guitar should be something that brings the student enjoyment. It is great to receive a certificate for completing a grade, but also keep in mind that this shouldn’t be the end goal – the goal is obtaining the knowledge of playing X-Y-Z on the guitar! This could be being able to confidently play X song along to the backing track, or to memorise a series of major, minor and pentatonic scales on the fretboard. Many students will complete the grade, receive their certificate, then forget the knowledge that they have obtained since these tasks are now being seen as ‘completed’.
What Is The Right Option For You?
So we’ve dealt with a few pros and cons on both sides of learning grades, so hopefully you’re starting to get a bit of an idea to which side of the fence you sit on. In short, the answer to this question should be whatever gets you playing and enjoying the guitar as much as possible! The vehicle in which you get to this desired outcome does not matter, as long as you are learning the important skills and fundamentals of a great guitarist.