Why take an exam?
Students are often encouraged to take music exams, either to have something to work towards, or to be able to measure and compare their ability in order to join appropriate ensembles, or as a way of encouraging personal pride in their progress..
The examinations themselves
There are several different types of exams. The most common are the ABRSM grade exams – grade 1 to 8 and then diploma level. (Trinity College of Music provides an alternative system.)
The great advantage of these exams is that you can take them when you are ready! There will probably be at least one centre offering exams in your area at least once each term.
Some people like to take every grade, in succession, to keep a check on their progress. However, there is no need to do this – you can just sit whatever exam you like, whenever you like. Most people take grade 3, grade 5 and then, later, a more advanced grade, usually grade 8. (N.B. – if you want to sit an advanced grade, above grade 5, you will also need to pass the grade 5, written theory exam.)
One big danger of focussing too much attention on grade exams is that you may end up learning only those pieces required for the exams – when, really, you should be learning and playing far more and a far greater variety of music than that!
Also, exams don’t encourage you to play with other people (apart from your accompanist) and it is from playing with others that you will get the most pleasure and the greatest educational benefit from your musical activities.
Remember, exams don’t actually teach you anything and they don’t serve any useful purpose other than providing a rough guide to your progress and, maybe, a means of motivation.
At School (GCSE and A-Level)
If you have a talent for and/or an interest in music, then GCSE will be fairly easy to pass and it counts as one more exam to have under your belt. However, if you are actively involved in a range of useful musical activities (playing in orchestras and ensembles, singing in choirs etc.) then you might be just as well occupied taking a different subject at GCSE – because the GCSE syllabus probably isn’t going to teach you anything useful that you won’t have learned anyway. Of course, we don’t yet know what the syllabus for EBacc Music exams will contain but the chances are that it will be even easier and less useful than GCSE.