Music Exams

Mention music exams and many people think of high-stakes, high-anxiety situations where you go into a small room and find a stranger at a table beckoning you to “come in please”.  You then locate a music stand or sit at a piano and spend an inordinate amount of time either adjusting the stand up and down or moving the piano stool forward and backwards.  If you have an accompanist, your normally friendly teacher has turned into some sort of robot zombie who gives you next to no facial recognition and is fumbling around with a piano score and extending it to twice its original size with selotaped photocopied sheets to prevent page turns.  You then have to play pieces and scales you have practiced a gazillion times but this time with absolutely no idea if the silent stranger likes what you are playing.  You come out kicking yourself as to how on earth you mucked up that section, why was the sight-reading impossible and why would you play D major when the examiner asks for D minor.  You curse the piano or your squeaky clarinet and wonder how on earth even after a degree, a PGCE and a Masters you have got yourself into a situation where you are honestly debating whether what you are hearing in a Grade 3 aural test is in 2/4 or 4/4.

These exams are certainly not the best way of performing to the best of your ability but they are curiously popular even now.  Even if you are not particularly good at performance exams, people still take them.  I say this as someone who failed Grade 3 piano and Grade 7 violin and never got more than a merit in an ABRSM exam.  I recently did a Grade 3 clarinet exam that I barely passed (due to my clarinet squeakingly malfunctioning – I was so nervous that I dropped it on the way to the exam).  My accompanist told me that my rendition of “Mr. Benn” was as if the jolly fellow had ingested a helium balloon.  I have also done a ukulele exam with LCM which was much better but still had a similar format.  You would think I would be anti-exams from these experiences but I am not and I will explain why.

Firstly, they give you something to aim for.  I don’t think I would have the career I have had if it was not for ABRSM exams – I am one of those people that need a target to work towards.  It was exactly the same for my Chinese HSK 1 exam this year – without the pressure of an exam I would have coasted along not really going anywhere.  The deadline focused my mind.  My technique improved.  I got better.  When I passed an instrumental exam I was proud and my friends and family were proud of me.  I got to shake hands with my headteacher and receive a certificate.  I still have them all.  Without those certificates, I don’t think I would have got the job I have now.  You have to upload a copy for most music teaching jobs.

Secondly, I learned a lot from my successes and my failures – I knew I did not deserve to pass Grade 3 piano and Grade 7 violin as I simply hadn’t put the work in.  Very rarely are the examiners way out although sadly it does happen from time to time, as it does for any assessment that relies on fallible human judgements.  The feedback I received from my failures was stark but useful and I took it on board when I successfully repeated the exams the following academic year in October.  I understand that some people would have been dismayed and may have quit performing completely as a result of this experience, but in a bizarre way I am glad I failed those exams and I feel it made me a more determined person as a result.  It was character building in my teenage years, although it certainly did not feel that way at the time.  I locked myself in my room and burst into tears.  Both times.  But after the tears and the initial embarrassment, I thought – 97/150 – come on!  I only needed three more marks – I can pass this bloody thing.  Later in my life, it took me five times to pass my driving test; I thought about giving up the idea of driving a car but I thought back to my Grade 3 piano and Grade 7 violin disastrous experiences and I knew I could do this driving thing.  Of course I could pass, I just needed to have another go – I’ve realized since that I’m just not very good at practical tasks – I’m quite clumsy, I struggle to open locked doors and do a lot of simple practical things.  In fact, some friends think I might have dyspraxia.  I’ve never got tested and I don’t really care to be honest what label gets put on me – the point is I passed everything in the end and I refuse to be labelled or treated differently from everybody else.

And I’m not driving at the moment – so you can rest easy.

Finally, the exams have been put together pretty sensibly.  There are some things I disagree with but generally if you were going to make a performance exam from scratch you would make them similar to how they exist now.  I particularly like the idea of an external marker and the feedback form – I feel as teachers we can be quite bias giving feedback to children we know well and it is good for them to hear feedback from a total stranger.  I like the fact that the repertoire is in one book so you don’t have to go around buying multiple books for one piece you need to learn.  I like how the pieces get progressively harder.  And I like the fact that you can get UCAS points for reaching the top grades.  That was a really good decision whoever made it.  Some people scoff but I personally know of someone who only got into the university of his choice because of that ABRSM exam result.

I understand that this format of exam is not for everyone.  I have lots of time for non-examined music classes.  I really like Kodaly and Orff, Sing for Pleasure and Musical Futures where exams are the last thing in their musical philosophy.  But controversially, I think that practical music exams should be offered to everyone irrespective of our own personal pedagogical feelings.  Hence, why at our school we are thinking of offering LCM exams for ukulele, keyboard, recorder, singing and ensemble performance for EVERY primary child through their normal curriculum lessons.  We have someone coming in from the exam board on Thursday to have a chat about it.  Nothing has been decided yet but it is something we are actively considering, mainly because we know that many of our children would really respond well and we believe it would dramatically raise performing standards.  Under this idea, no-one would have to do an exam but they would get the choice.  I think this is fairer than giving everyone no choice to do one unless they sign up for paid external tutoring.  Under this idea, no-one would have to pay – if they want me or my colleagues to hear them play that will be cool.  We will make home-made certificates and feedback forms and make sure they look just as good as the official ones.  If they don’t want to play in any exam at all, that will be fine too but we will teach the content anyway.  If they want an external person to come in and pay for an official certificate that would be fine too.  Yes, the exam board will make some money but we are also grateful for their curriculum and resources.  And I will tell every child about my failure experiences because the only way we can make these things less high-stakes is by either getting no-one to do them, or to tell them that failing isn’t a big deal.  I understand that by saying there is a possibility of failure, this could make children immediately anxious but I think it is misleading to say that everyone passes every time.  And I am not going to start lying to children to make them feel better.

I have the same attitude for SATS exams that have recently been discussed in the media due to Jeremy Corbyn saying that a future Labour government will abolish them.  I can understand all the different passionate views for or against these tests and as I have a young daughter I am also worried about the mental health of our children and have concerns about testing children at a young age.  However, I am also worried that for some children in the absence of SATS, the first time they will ever have to take an external examination is when they take their GCSE’s at the age of 16.  Where is the time to learn to pass and fail?  Where is the time to learn to deal with high-stakes testing that most people will have some experience of in their lives?  If we don’t give children the opportunity to respond to failure or even acknowledge it exists, I actually think we are not giving them one of the most important and potentially life-changing learning experiences that they can get.  Ask anyone who has failed something – this can change the way you look at life.  My only caveat with SATS is they are a big deal to many people and you can’t do them again.  It would make more sense to do them at the end of the first term of Year 6 and give them a chance to do better later on in the year.

I feel music exams might be able to help children to learn what it means to pass and fail and understand that failure isn’t the horrific thing that it is made out to be.  It shouldn’t be a horrific experience and I don’t wish it on anyone but if it does happen, it should be a learning experience.  We also have the amazing opportunities of the vast majority of children passing and becoming proud of their achievements.  And it is good to acknowledge that if things do go terribly wrong there is a comforting, reassuring reality:

It’s not a big deal; you can always have another go in October.