Through the exam process everyone wins!
For the pupils an exam helps them step up quite intentionally to another level of playing and gives them an internationally recognized qualification.
For the parents an exam provides an honest, qualified, outside perspective on their child’s learning. It is a check that the tutor is guiding their child well.
For the tutors an exam shows areas of strengths and weaknesses in their own teaching.
The exam system I am most familiar with is that offered by Trinity College London. They provide an impartial unknown examiner and globally recognized levels of achievement for a range of instruments. Other examination boards such as the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music offer very similar systems.
There is so much that goes into preparing for a music exam. The 5 tips from last week and another 5 here are just scratching the surface, but I hope you will find the process interesting and helpful if you ever want to consider your child or yourself sitting such an exam.
- To memorise, or not
My preference is that pupils always have their music in front of them for the exam and that they know how to read it – and especially where to continue playing from should a slip arise! This is a valuable skill that all musicians need to develop. Playing from memory is wonderful, but if it slips up and you don’t have the music in front of you, it can mean unnecessary failure. The examiner can only judge by what he or she hears and you do not get extra marks for playing by memory. They want to hear a beautiful performance and it is irrelevant whether you have the music in front of you or not.
- Mock exams
Getting closer to exam time, when the pieces can be played proficiently, but with polishing still relevant, is a good time to have a mock exam with the tutor. This helps get a feel for the flow of what will happen in the exam. You get marked down on things like restarts and realise you have to have things clear in your mind before the performance. As a teacher it is always helpful for me too, to see how accurate my predictions are of the marks that follow later. I am usually a harder marker than the examiner, but that is how we get a better result when it matters too.
- Pre-exam concert
A concert before the exam always proves valuable for getting rid of last minute concerns and in particular dealing with playing for an audience. I have clear memories from my youth of pre-exam concerts before the examiner from England had travelled to our town and do the exams. My parents had so many music pupils that we had the exams at our place and the best china always came out with the silver tea pot!
For our pre-exam concerts the music room sliding doors were opened up to our lounge and the larger room was filled with parents and friends a few days before the exam. Pupils would play their pieces and my mother would jot down final points for them to be aware of.
- Playing ahead of time on the actual instrument of the exam
It is especially important for pupils to have a practice on the exam piano. Just going from an upright to what might be a grand piano is a big enough adjustment to throw their concentration off. I was fortunate growing up that the exam piano was also my practice piano (which was probably worth a few extra marks in itself). These days I book a practice session for my pupils at the examination room ahead of the actual exam. If you play a different instrument you will likely be using your own. But even though familiar with it, you need to know it well and have extra bits (reeds, strings, etc.) for breakdowns as may be required.
- On the day of the exam
Relax! Don’t frantically play right up to the exam. Warm up with some scales and just imagine you are going to play some nice music for a kind elderly gent. (Who knows? It may turn out to be a kind young woman.) Examiners are usually lovely people and do their best to set you at ease. Enjoy the day and have something nice to do to look forward to after it.
Last week I started by saying that I am not a natural performer and I did not find exams easy as a child. But with clear goals and working progressively towards it, I’ve witnessed now as a teacher and a performer that a music exam can be a positive experience even for the most unnatural of performers.