Having recently accrued 15 years’ experience working as a music examiner, I can honestly say that no two examining days are the same. Admittedly, much of the procedural stuff is quite similar from exam to exam, but part of the attraction for me, is that you never know quite what to expect, and that you are afforded the opportunity (& privilege) of meeting some truly wonderful personalities along the way.
When I look back over the vast number of candidates that have entered my exam room, a handful of individuals inevitably spring to mind; from the incredibly nervous (and acutely apologetic) adult beginner, to the supremely talented (if slightly precocious) young adolescent.
Today’s reminiscence, however, is of one of my initial training days at HQ. It was a stiflingly hot June afternoon and I had just settled down for the afternoon session (alongside a highly experienced examiner & moderator) in the hope of persuading this gentleman that I was ready to be let loose on the general public.
I was hoping for a straightforward run of exams, during which I could demonstrate my ability to interact warmly with the candidate, deliver the various practical components with confidence and professionalism, whilst also keeping rigidly to the rather unforgiving schedule – something that is always an area of concern for the anxious trainee. Fitting all six sections of the syllabus into just 12 minutes is no mean feat, after all!
So, imagine my surprise when the first candidate of the afternoon entered the room wearing a duffle coat, scarf, and gloves! It must have been just short of 30 degrees Celsius outside and this individual was wrapped up for something resembling a Russian winter… Pushing these thoughts firmly aside, I turned my attention to the exam requirements.
Having ascertained that the lady wished to begin with her scales, I read confidently from the syllabus, my pen poised and ready to jot down my observations. But these were not a type of scale that I recognised! For one thing, the notes didn’t seem to progress in any particular direction, and it was difficult to spot any discernible sequence to the pitches. Not to worry. I was certain that the pieces would be more familiar.
Not so! Within a matter of seconds, the performance came to an abrupt halt and somewhat taken aback, I respectfully enquired as to whether the candidate might like to ‘have another go’. She assured me that this would not be necessary, going on to explain that she would not be offering any other pieces for assessment that afternoon. Again, it was my duty to sensitively gain confirmation that she was not offering any work in two further sections, and to explain that this would, unfortunately, prevent me from awarding any marks. This was, apparently, absolutely fine by her.
Next came the ‘playing at sight’. In my naivety, I assumed that (since this was an element of the exam that couldn’t be prepared to the same extent as the scales and pieces) this would more than likely fall well short of the expected standard too. I was wrong! Not only did she read a large proportion of the pitches accurately, but there was musicality in evidence too and, dare I say it, the final phrase was played with aplomb!
Feeling suitably chastened, I made my way over to the piano to administer the listening tests – all the while roundly admonishing myself for so brazenly ‘judging a book by its cover’.
I began to relax a little. After all, we were coming to a section of the exam that could be ‘steered’ by the examiner to a much greater extent. I read the rubric for the first test as carefully and deliberately as I was able.
(I just needed this exam to finish now, because goodness knows how much time I had already lost from having to clarify so many points with the candidate… This was not the smooth start to the afternoon that I had envisaged.)
I explained that I would play a short extract on the piano and that I would like her to clap in time with the beat. I also made sure that she understood the need to join in just as soon as she could. Off I set, possibly labouring the main beat a little too much, in a last-ditch attempt to give the candidate the very best chance of success…
Nothing. No response whatsoever.
I instinctively repeated the (now rather lengthy) extract a couple more times, looking (first, expectantly, then rather desperately) in the direction of the lady. Feeling somewhat deflated, I eventually stopped playing, gearing myself up to explain (once again) what was required of her. This was when she took me completely by surprise. Her face lit up and broke into the most beautiful of smiles as she clapped vigorously. ‘Wonderful. Simply wonderful!’ she said, ‘You can certainly play that piano!’