Are you qualified to do that?

21st century living requires proof for everything. We want to know where our cucumbers were grown, down to the farmer who picked them. We trawl social media sites for proof that our friends did have that holiday that they say that they did. We ask for read receipts on our emails to make sure that the person who you sent it to, really has got it so there is no excuse for them not to action it. And, more than ever before, we want to know how well qualified everyone is to do their jobs.

The number of qualifications we all have to have now is incredible. Fifty years ago, 1 in 50 school leavers went to university. Now it’s 1 in 3. That means that more and more, on top of GCSEs, A-Levels and swimming badges, you have to go the extra mile to be ‘qualified’ to do something. Many of my friends have almost collected qualifications; from Masters degrees to accountancy exams, first aid certificates to cake decorating diplomas, just to show that they really can do what they say they can do. But how does this work if you are a musician?

What are music exams?

Music is one of the few art forms where there are clearly structured sets of qualifications that show how good you really are. These are known as graded examinations and go from beginner level (Grade 1, which you take after playing about 1-2 years), through to graduate level music diplomas. Not everyone who plays professionally has these,  as they are not compulsory to become very good, but if you had ‘normal’ lessons on musical instrument as a child, there is a very good chance that at some point you were forced to sit at least one of them! In recent years, the government have included them on their list of official qualifications (some government department called ‘Ofqual’…!), alongside GSCEs, BTECs, degrees, etc., which just goes to show how much work really goes into them. The have now decided the following equivalences:

  • Music grades 1, 2 and 3 are ‘Level 1’, which equates to GCSE grades D-F
  • Music grades 4 and 5 are ‘Level 2’, equivalent of A*-C at GCSE
  • Music grade 6, 7 and 8 are ‘Level 3’ which is the same as an A-Level (and actually carry UCAS points if you want to try to go to university)
  • Music Diplomas are ‘Level 6’ which equate to degree level

All of these exams require the applicant to learn several pieces of music, play a piece of music which they have never seen before (called ‘Sight Reading’), play some technical exercises (called ‘Scales’ and which put more people off taking exams than anything else!) and then you have to answer questions about some music that you have to listen to. These all have different numbers of points, but to pass requires a score of 67%, 80% gives you a ‘Merit’ and if you’re incredibly good and get 87% you get a ‘Distinction’. To prepare all of this lot takes months of lessons and daily practice (usually completed under a lot of nagging from one’s mother… well mine certainly was!).

Now that you know what it is all about, you can decide for yourself whether I am qualified enough for my job.…!

Piano Exams

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistThe first instrument that I began to learn aged 4, was the piano. I had some lovely teachers, before finally finding Mr Sams, who patiently put me through the piano grades. Under his tutelage I earned 8 qualifications, seven graded exams from Grade 2 to 8, and one advanced diploma by the time that I left school, which said far more about his teaching ability than my piano skills!!

Flute ExamsNicola Veal Wedding Harpist

After playing the piano for a while, I took up the flute, where again I rattled through some exams. As I could already read music by the time that I started, I jumped in a Grade 2, skipping Grade 7… but then taking Grade 8 twice (long story!).

Harp Exams

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistFinally we’ve got to the harp! The cost, logistics and general awkwardness of playing the harp meant that I actually started this the latest, and so I took just grades 5, 6, 7, and 8 on this instrument (sounds like a song from my youth!).



DiplomasNicola Veal Wedding Harpist

Two of my biggest achievements academically, were gaining my musical diplomas. These are given the same weight as a degree, and I have one on the piano and one on the harp, and these are the reason that I can put some extra funny letters (CertGSMD(P) and LTCL) after my name.

Odds and Ends

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistAlong the way, I’ve also managed to collect a Grade 5 Music Theory (like a written music paper… very dull!!), Grade 1 Saxophone (that I took as part of a charity fund-raiser at University – we learned new instruments and were sponsored for charity) and Grade 2 Clarinet… which I seem to have taken for fun!!


The normal stuff

Nicola Veal Wedding Harpist
Like a lot of other people, I do have a collection of 11 GCSEs, 3 A-Levels, 2 AS-Levels (which are a sort-of half A-Level, that only existed for a few years!), a degree in Music and a PGCE (Teaching Qualification) also in Music.


In short….?

That means that I have, in total…

  • 1x Grade 1 exams
  • 2x Grade 2 exams
  • 2x Grade 3 exams
  • 2x Grade 4 exams
  • 4x Grade 5 exams
  • 3x Grade 6 exams
  • 2x Grade 7 exams
  • 4x Grade 8 exams (although one doesn’t really count, as I retook one to see if I could get a better mark!)
  • 2x Performance Diplomas

Ignoring the hours and hours of time slogging through exercises and boring my poor family silly with the same pieces for months on end, in today’s money this lot cost an incredible £1,892 in exam fees alone! And that’s without the cost of lessons and instruments…

But does it matter?

In short, no. What matters is that you like the musicians that you wish to engage for your wedding or function. Listen to them play. Do you enjoy their music? If ‘yes’ is the answer, then does it matter if they have the pieces of paper to prove it? But just in case you wondered what it takes to be a professional musician (or what it takes to be the PARENT of a musician!!), now you know!

PS Thank you mum and dad… sorry that we cost you a fortune (as my sister has just as many!).

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