Theory Examination Letter

When my pupils have passed their grade 4 piano exam it’s time to discuss with them – and their parents – which route they plan to take next. At this point I send out a letter explaining that if they wish to continue with higher grade ABRSM exams they need to learn music theory as soon as possible.

This is the letter I send out to parents (reworded if the pupil is an adult):


(PUPIL’S NAME) has done extremely well to pass his grade 4 ABRSM examination –From this grade onwards, certain decisions have to be made, as I will explain.

You may well be aware that in order for pupils to take their Grade 6, 7 and 8 ABRSM exams, it is necessary to have passed the Grade 5 written theory paper (at least one whole term before taking Grade 6 practical). I must admit, this puts some pupils off continuing with their piano exams: the grade 5 theory paper is quite challenging and requires a lot of time-consuming preparation. However, on the plus side, it equips pupils with a greater understanding of how music ‘works’ and gives those who take it a distinct advantage in music lessons at school: it is particularly useful for anyone who decides to take GCSE or A level music, as many of the topics overlap.

My aim is to start giving theory lessons to my pupils after the grade 4 exam has been completed as, if I wait until after grade 5, there would be a very long gap (with extremely intensive theory teaching) before we could start working towards grade 6 practical.

Even starting this early, it’s not easy to fit in everything that needs to be learned. Theory has to take up about a third of the lesson, so, as you can imagine, there’s not really time to cover as much practical work as everyone would like. Of course, if the pupil is willing to work on theory at home as well, (using past exam papers which are available fairly cheaply – e.g. from this helps speed up the process.

Alternatively, I could extend the lesson to an hour a week but, I understand, for most people this is a too-expensive (and, therefore, unacceptable) option (… although please let me know if you wish to consider this).

For pupils who wish to progress with their piano exams but want to avoid learning theory, there are two alternatives. One is to switch to jazz piano exams which require very different skills and which, sadly, I am not qualified to teach. Another option is to use a different exam board – e.g. Trinity or London College of Music: these do not require the theory qualification.

Some may argue that the ABRSM is the most prestigious but that’s a matter of opinion and successes in the other exam boards seem to carry equal weight when it comes to university applications. In any case, the ‘prestige’ is not the reason why I deal exclusively with the ABRSM – this is purely for my own convenience (keeping tabs on exam requirements and dates for three different boards would be time-consuming and not something I want to take on).

If you do decide that one of the above options would be more suitable for (PUPIL’S NAME) – please feel free to look for another teacher. Much as I would be extremely sorry to lose him, I would certainly not be offended – I totally understand and sympathise with pupils who want to avoid the ‘dreaded’ theory paper! (Having said that, I should add that I actually enjoyed learning theory myself – and it has certainly given me a greater understanding of how music ‘works’).

Unfortunately, I don’t know any jazz piano teachers or any teachers who deal with different exam boards, but I don’t imagine it would be that hard to find one.

Alternatively, I am more than happy to continue helping (PUPIL’S NAME) work towards his grade 5 practical along with – if desired – the grade 5 theory ABRSM exam. Or he could, of course, forget exams after grade 5 and work on pieces of his own choice instead. However, I would be grateful if you would let me know whether or not (PUPIL’S NAME) wishes to continue much further (i.e. Grade 6 and beyond) because, if so, we will need to start theory work immediately.

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