The answer to this really does depend on what you ultimately want to achieve, and how much practice and effort you have time to put in.
Speaking from experience, taking piano exams can be fun, extremely rewarding, exciting, excellent for learning, and also nerve racking, stressful, and difficult. If I were able to go back in time and take the exams again, would I? Yes, I certainly would. And I would also practice a lot more as well!
But why would I want to put myself through that all again? Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to! However, I wouldn’t be able to play as good as I can today if it weren’t for the exams. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a virtuoso, and there are millions of people out there that are far better than me; but I love teaching and performing, and there is no better feeling or satisfaction when you can play something really good.
What I love about the piano exams is that they cover pretty much everything you need to know in order to learn the piano effectively, and to gain a great knowledge and understanding of the theory side as well. Not only do you have to learn and play three pieces, you are also tested on scales, sight reading, and aural tests (examiner plays and asks questions). An exam also puts that added pressure on you to succeed and pass, which is a great way to learn and test yourself, and progress.
When you are learning anything, one of the most effective ways to progress is to set out a specific set of goals, and when you’d like to achieve them. Without having goals and set timelines/deadlines, most people find it difficult to stick to a practice routine, and can sometimes drag their feet. When you set a date for the exam, it pushes you into ensuring you practice enough and get everything ready and prepared – otherwise you may fail!
There are however potential downsides to taking the exams. Stress and pressure are the most common, because it’s not easy taking an exam in anything. And a lot of practice, hard work and dedication have to go into it, because failing would be a big set back and knock to your confidence. So it’s important you fully understand and accept what you are getting into before you take an exam, as you may put yourself off playing the piano for life if you don’t like it!
Another way around this is to consider taking the earlier exams, but stopping around grades 3-5. It’s not imperative that you take all 8 grades, and you can stop anytime you want. I would certainly advise this if classical isn’t where your hearts at, as the piano grades are all based around classical pieces, with the exception of the odd jazz piece that’s thrown in. If however you love playing classical music, and this is where your passion lies; then the exams would be perfect for you, as the key to playing great consistent classical music is the ability to have good discipline and technical ability – which is what the exams bring to the table.
Lastly, why not consider following the grades, but don’t take the exams. If you don’t want to put yourself through all the stress and pressure of sitting in front of an examiner and playing, then why not do this in front of your piano teacher instead. If you are having piano lessons, then you are playing every week in front of your teacher anyway, and you are going to be a lot less nervous because you know them. It’s important however that your piano tutor decides whether or not you are ready to move onto the next grade, and you still need to make sure you are able to play everything to a good standard and not jump ahead until you’ve mastered what’s required for that grade.
The main thing to remember is that learning to play the piano is meant to be fun! If you don’t want to do the exams, then don’t do them. They are not the be all and end all of learning. You will still be able to progress and get to where you want to be without them, as long as you still have goals outlined for every step of the way.