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In many parts of the world, beginner musicians are taught and examined using a syllabus that is divided into "grades". It is a well known shorthand for ability level ("I play a bit of piano", "Oh really, what grade are you at?").

Related question: Instrument grade exams

In essence, you would typically be expected to pass a Grade 8 exam, before considering applying for music college.

Apparently this is all alien to American contributors to this site.

Is there a structured system of music teaching and assessment, that is ubiquitous in the USA? How do the ability levels compare to European/etc. grades?

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I must say this amazes me. I have lived my life in the USA. I have never heard of this. I'm 47 years old, have a college music degree from an American university, I work with a professional orchestra, and I've travelled around the world quite a bit. I had no idea that there was such a thing as an instrument grade exam or levels for grading musical achievement, much less that this has anything to do with applying for music college. Yes, this is totally alien to me. – user1044 Jan 26 '12 at 23:39
You should probably reference ABRSM in your question. I'd guess that what throws us most for a loop is really just the terminology of "grade" and "exam". In the US, the word 'grade' is reserved almost exclusively for the K-12 public education system, and rather than take 'exams', individuals participate in a yearly 'festival' to be 'evaluated' at whichever 'level' (1-6) has been deemed appropriate by the teacher (at least in New York). Strong de-emphasis on competition, ratings, and failing. – NReilingh Jan 27 '12 at 5:01
@NReilingh I chose not to mention ABRSM because although they're big and international, there are lots of other boards that use the same 8 grade structure, and I feel the linked question explains that best. – slim Jan 27 '12 at 10:36

Great question; I've always wondered about other states, but here's mine:

I'm a resident of New Hampshire, so it's not necessarily representative of the larger states. We've got nothing like that for individual instruments instruction. Piano and strings might be the exception, but I don't consider any of the methods ubiquitous or even regularly agreed upon.

The closest thing we've got is the NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) manual, which defines solo pieces into six grades for each instrument. However I take exception to many of their grading choices, and newer pieces are not regularly assimilated into the lists. Many Northeast all-state, etc. festivals use these grades.

Music colleges, especially music education programs, have WIDELY varying criteria, which at smaller schools can even vary by instrument and year. There are some college music programs that have students with abilities I've seen in high schoolers. (That doesn't address their teaching ability, though.) Unfortunately, I've seen some college students who would have had a call to the parents about taking the horn home, if they were in a high school band of mine!

On the other hand, larger schools, especially in or near larger cities, may be auditioning hundreds of people, and can afford to be quite selective, even for non-performance majors.

As for the United States not having a ubiquitous graded system like that; I think it has a lot to do with the musical culture here. Unfortunately, as shown by so many schools cutting music; there is very little emphasis on music and the performing arts in general. Most students receive very little music class after elementary school, if at all, and many school schedules make it difficult for students to take regular performing art courses. Even in the elementary grades, students receive very little classroom time in music class, sometimes only a half hour per week. They get as far as screeching on recorders, and then move on to middle school.

In europe (and it could be an outsider's "grass-is-greener" effect) it seems that music and art are more densely woven into the culture, and therefore the school system.

I'll be interested to see whether residents of other states have any widely-used systems!

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As an aside relating to the NYSSMA manual. I looked up the ABRSM syllabus for trombone (my most familiar), and many/most of the grade 8 pieces I recognize are on the NYSSMA level 6 list. The others I recognize, I would consider just a touch more difficult than the NYSSMA level 6, although usually on a musical level, not technical. For example: The Sulek Sonata (ABRSM GR. 8) is very difficult rhythm/counting/ensemble-wise, but technically not very challenging. I don't believe it's on the NYSSMA list at all. – Josh Fields Jan 26 '12 at 14:31
The music teaching in British schools varies from county to county. However the same exam boards are used whether you learn at school or through private lessons; whether as a child or an adult. – slim Jan 26 '12 at 15:00
As you mention, NYSSMA is used by a number of states and is the basis for many more. The next most widely recognized is likely TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association). – NReilingh Jan 27 '12 at 4:45

I have personally witnessed students ages 5-15 taking RC of Music exams who play by rote. They simply learn the 5 pieces needed to pass the exam; and that's just about what all of them do: PASS. This method kills the joy of music,severely hampers any personal growth in the student and most end up quitting after they realize they can't even begin to read the easiest pieces at the next level(there are 6 grades of difficulty of pieces within each level.) Moreover,the exams cost $ to take and are at the time-table of whomever the judges may be for that area. Personally, there needs to be some push in the US to create recitals, honors, etc. for young people . We should not have to rely on other countries for Programs that do not fit our culture. And, more importantly, this is NOT education of any kind; let alone pay for it. There are no short cuts to learning any intellectual endeavor!

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We have the "recitals, honors, etc. for your people" (actually for amateur musicians of any age) in the UK as well. Many towns have annual "music festivals" (not to be confused with the commercial events with the same name, like Glastonbury etc) providing (usually) friendly competition at all levels in music, dance, etc, with professional adjudicators. The mission statement of the National Federation of these festivals is "to provide 1 million performance opportunities per year", primarily for children and young people. – alephzero Oct 20 '15 at 3:16
I'm reluctant to turn this into a discussion, but it's horses for courses. Some people like learning pieces by rote. Some people like chasing qualifications. This happens in every field. Some people enjoy maintaining a garden; others enjoy winning gardening competitions. Some people enjoy programming computers. Others enjoy passing exams and getting certificates. – slim Oct 21 '15 at 10:22

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