What do I do if I’ve failed?

F gradeI was having a look through the search terms that led people to look at this blog, and I noticed that a couple of them were things like “failed sight reading on singing exam”, “abrsm grade 6 theory fail” and “abrsm grade 8 fail”, so I thought perhaps it was time to address the horrible question of what to do if you fail a music exam, or a section of the exam.

The first thing to say is don’t panic. I know it’s hard when you first see the mark sheet and it doesn’t hit that magic pass mark. Failing an exam doesn’t mean you aren’t good at playing your instrument, or that you don’t understand the theory. It doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals. All exams are there to do is mark points on our journey and give us feedback about where to improve.

Remember, it’s also ok to be sad, frustrated, angry and disappointed. Do what you need to do to process the feelings. If you need to have a cry, that’s ok! Or get someone you love to give you a hug. Make a cuppa and treat yourself to your favourite chocolate bar. Don’t try to figure out your next move until you feel ready.

Once you are ready, the first thing to do is reflect on what you did well:

  • Where did you get good marks? Did you pass your pieces, or do well in your sight-reading?
  • What kinds of positive comments did the examiner make? Even on a marksheet that records a fail mark, examiners still try to say what you did do well.

If you need to, write these out separately and read them to remind you that you did do some things well.

The next stage is to look for the things you didn’t do so well:

  • What sections or questions did you do worst on?
  • What sort of comments are there on the marksheet? Does it say something like “pitch was insecure” or “forgot the words repeatedly”? This will give you an idea of what needs to be better next time.
  • Do you agree with the examiner’s comments/marks? Do you remember making the mistakes?
  • In a theory exam result, do you remember finding the question hard to answer?

You might find it helpful to make a separate list of the things you need to work on for next time.

The last thing to do is to answer the question of “what do I do now?”. Here are some of my suggestions

  • Talk to your teacher to make a plan to tackle technical problems like pitch, rhythm or memorising.
  • Make a plan to focus especially on developing aural and musicianship skills if you failed the aural tests.
  • For sight-reading, challenge yourself to sight-read as much material as you can. Sight-reading is often a fail point in exams because it takes a lot of time and effort to build up the skills to do well.
  • Join a choir that uses sheet music – this will help your aural, sight-reading and performance skills
  • Get some performing experience – are there local competitions or concerts you could participate in?
  • Do something totally different for a while. Switch genres, try learning some duets, work on a bucket-list piece.
  • Think about how you’d teach the things you do know to someone else
  • Move away from formal theory and try doing some more creative things like composing or arranging

Finally, it’s important to remember that unless  you were taking a theory exam at Grade 5 or a practical exam at Grade 8, you don’t have to retake the exam if you don’t want to. If your teacher is happy, you could skip the failed exam and just move on with a view to taking the next one when you’re ready. You could also consider taking the same level exam again, but with a different board. If you stick with the same board, consider learning a new set of pieces.

If you do decided to retake the exam, you can find links to a range of different posts about taking music exams on my Advice from the Blog page and by checking the “exams” tag.

Whatever you do, don’t let a fail stop you from enjoying music. Exams are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and sometimes a fail is just what we need to remember that we are not exam taking robots – we’re musicians.

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