This story is going back a while, maybe 10-15 years ago. We had some friends round. One of those friends had some of their university friends visiting them, and they came along to our house as well.
One of those friends of friends heard that I was a voice coach, and they said “Oh, I’m a singer, I’ve just done my grade 8 vocals and got a distinction“.
Well of course, my curiosity was piqued! So I offered to run through a few exercises with them and see what we could do with their voice.
I started them off with the standard assessment… and what came out was diabolically bad.
How bad was it?!
It was all in tune, but it was the weakest thing I’ve heard come out of a “singer” even to this day.
It was so breathy and weak, I had to set the digital piano I teach from to the quietest setting to hear them. It was not much more than someone breathing out but with some semblance of pitch to it.
Their range was so impaired, they had less than an octave of range to their voice. At either extreme their voice became just fully disappeared into pure air and breath.
Put bluntly, there is no way that person could ever sing a song with what they were doing with their voice, let alone be heard by anyone else whilst doing it.
But they’ve got a grade 8 in singing… with distinction?
Quite! If grades actually mean anything at all, this doesn’t add up. How can someone with basically no useable singing voice have achieved a grade 8 in singing? I asked them to tell me about what singing they’d done previously.
“Oh I’ve sung a little, but I’ve never done any proper training. I basically did my grade 8 in piano and did really well, then did my grade 8 in flute and did really well, so I thought I’d give grade 8 singing a go… and I did really well”
Some take-away points
1) Grades primarily test for musicality – This person was clearly a skilled musician, who could identify correct notes and execute them on piano, flute, and probably a few other instruments. To then execute the same musicality in their voice (albeit over a limited range with negligible tone) would not be tremendously difficult for them. However, the fact the grading examiner did not (could not?) identify the complete absence of singing as a specific skill in their voice has made me very very wary of grades as a means of assessing the skill of a given singer.
Caveat: Some people might argue “well maybe the examiner wasn’t very good”, or “maybe they did grade 8 in a particular school of teaching that isn’t as comprehensive”. Well, maybe. But this only further serves to concrete my point regarding grades. Some of the worst voices I’ve ever heard had grades, but believed they were top drawer because a piece of paper said so.
Which brings me onto point 2…
2) You are only good as you are – Grades, degrees, titles, accolades, praise from friends, etc, are ultimately meaningless. They are meant to be reflections of your actual skill level, but they themselves are not your skill level. Worse still, they may be inaccurate reflections of your skill level and lead you into false certainty of your ability.
Grades might be a fun experience, and getting a high mark can feel very self-esteem boosting, but reality is the ultimate test of your ability. At the end of the day, this person had achieved a very high mark in an exam that is meant to reflect their ability, and within the first few notes it was apparent they wouldn’t even be able to hold a tune the whole way through a song.
This person has not been the only “grade 8 singer” with a bad voice I’ve encountered over the years, but their story is a stark reminder to me not to place too much emphasis on marks or grades. If people want to sound great and improve their voice, that is a separate path to doing grades or exams. They of course could intersect, but they are by no means the same.