What are grades?
Grades generally follow a syllabus that's designed and accredited by educational institutions. It is a curriculum that contains pieces of music and exercises written and arranged for students to develop their technical playing, theory and general musicianship.
There are eight tiers in a syllabus that rank lowest to highest in difficulty - Grades 1 - 8. Each grade usually requires for the student to learn three pieces in the book, as well as a number of technical exercises such as scales, arpeggios and chord voicings. They will then have the option to take a grade exam and perform the material to the examiner on a 1-1 setting.
Each grade will also test the student in fundamental skills of musicianship, such as improvisation and sight reading. Certain skills will be emphasised depending on the syllabus - i.e a classical syllabus will focus more on sight reading than a contemporary syllabus.
Passing the exam will reward the student with a grade certificate as well as a level of their performance: pass, merit or distinction.
Following a standardised curriculum offers the student a clear path of linear progression, with means to take an exam and receive a certificate recognising their achievement. Grades 5 + are also equivalent to GSCE and A level in the UK.
Working through a grade book can serve as a visual representation of progress, especially for parents who are paying for lessons and would like to see that their child is improving. This of course, is not as effective of an indicator of progress as hearing your child play better, more confidently and having more fun learning music, but it can help.
With so much information available to us right now, limiting the amount of sources we use to obtain the information can save a lot of time, help avoid discrepancies, subsequent confusion and allow us to progress much faster. A great teacher with a great syllabus can serve as a fast route to your destination.
Things to bear in mind
Every syllabus generally requires for students to study and learn a minimum of three pieces for each grade. If you do the math, the student has only learnt 24 pieces of music when he/she has reached the level of what's regarded as advanced musicianship.
This is why it's important that additional supplementary pieces must also be studied. A teacher is the best resource for this, as they can provide a piece of music that will serve as an additional study of the skills they're currently working on and require for that particular grade.
Working through one book for a number of months will most likely get monotonous for most students anyway, so it's crucial that the teacher offers additional material.
Needless to say, it's important that the student is studying the right syllabus for them. If they
The take away
Achieving a grade can feel satisfying for many students and it's a great system that rewards progress - however, learning an instrument solely for the pursuit of obtaining a certificate would be missing the point entirely. Commit to learning and commit to developing your skills - structure and great education material is essential, but at the same time remember all the things that excite you and inspire you. Study and play your favourite music, jam with other musicians, perform, create and have fun.