I recently listened to an episode of a podcast in which the host and guest discussed alternative means of tracking progress to exams. The guest argued that the exam system is geared towards preparing candidates for a performing career. The host speculated that it might be only in the range of 1-3% of students that follow the exam path but not necessarily in the pursuit of a career. I just want to add something here: in acknowledging that few students want to take the exam path, and even fewer, if any, will pursue a performing career, we mustn't neglect our obligations as educators to provide a musical education of the highest standards.
Firstly, exams don't make professional musicians—quality teachers do. The exam path probably fosters a certain level of polish and attention to detail, but there's no reason that a quality teacher can't do so without putting a student through exams.
Secondly, who are we to rob a student of their potential? If we believe it's unlikely that any given student won't have a performance career and we teach accordingly, we ensure they won't.
Finally, there is an argument to be made that quality teaching is even more important for those not taking the exam path because it's no longer about a narrow set of outcomes determined by an external body and the attainment of a standard determined by and for that body, but about individual progress and beating one's own personal best; this requires a much more personalised learning experience for the student and more responsive teaching. Moreover—and possibly most importantly—the extrinsic or instrumental outcomes or benefits of learning music, such as heightened phonological awareness, improved reading comprehension, better spatial reasoning, enhanced self-efficacy, greater empathy, more developed creative-thinking skills (to name a few), are maximised through quality teaching (and starting before age seven). Those outcomes don't magically manifest themselves simply because a student makes some organised sound at the piano; a teacher requires considerable expertise to teach for those outcomes. So while we accept that it's improbable that any of our students will become professional musicians, we mustn't become lackadaisical in our approach, robbing our students of their potential, a quality education, and the instrumental outcomes of learning music.
Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is the founder and director of Advantage Music Academy—a music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.