Divine intervention?

It never ceases to amaze me just how fickle the human memory can be! These days, it can be a gargantuan struggle to recall the name of a recently discovered perfume or restaurant, whilst certain events (dating back to the previous decade!) remain perfectly preserved, as if they have undergone a sort of mental embalming process.

Some 13 or 14 years ago, I had all but completed a full week’s examining work in the South East of England. I was still relatively new to the whole process, but I was beginning to feel reasonably confident about the various procedures, and I was gradually developing a style of my own. I had looked at the candidate list the previous evening, and there was seemingly nothing out of the ordinary. Friday, (I felt certain) would be a relatively straightforward end to a busy, but rewarding, week.

Always one to err on the side of caution I rose early, ate quickly, and checked out of my accommodation. I set off down the road (at the behest of my ageing Sat Nav) for what was purported to be a 15-minute journey to the exam venue. However, it quite rapidly became the proverbial ‘journey from Hell’…

No sooner had I pulled away, than the heavens opened, and the windscreen wipers of my Renault Clio battled heroically against the deluge of water that was waging war upon them. Meanwhile, I was fighting a battle of my own; I was desperately trying to maintain some degree of visibility whilst every conceivable viewpoint promptly misted up. Heavy traffic (and strategically placed roadworks) all conspired against me, and the minutes ticked stubbornly away. Having missed my turning a couple of times (to the extreme displeasure of countless unforgiving local drivers) I finally pulled into the car park of the exam venue.

I could hear the wind whipping around the corner of the building (in near apocalyptic fashion) so I decided to wait in the car for a while. As I surveyed the outside of the building, I wondered if I would be spending the day inside the church itself, or in the rather gloomy looking hall to the side. I later discovered that the exams would be taking place in the church hall, and began making my way towards a (frankly quite intimidating) steel security door.

Just a bit further along the path I spied a billboard. It sported a rather garish looking poster, that was curling up at the edges:

 ‘Jesus Lives Here!’ it claimed (rather optimistically).

Really?” I thought. And then (having briefly considered the many other options that must have been available) I muttered, “I’m quite sure that He doesn’t!”

Determined not to ‘judge a book by its cover’, however, I strode confidently inside and called out a greeting. A few moments later, a man that could quite easily have been Mr. Filch’s doppelganger (from the Harry Potter movies) emerged, looking mildly irritated that I had arrived before he had finished ‘setting up’. I apologised for any inconvenience caused and followed him dutifully down a series of gloomy passageways, to a remote room at the far end of the building. Once inside, I noted that there was a piano, a narrow desk, a wooden chair, and a somewhat rickety music stand. At the edges of the room were stacks upon stacks of chairs and various other pieces of discarded furniture. The only light cast was from a single bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. Not exactly welcoming!

Not to be deterred I unpacked all my materials, affixed my warmest smile, and braced myself for the morning’s exams… The door opened and the steward introduced the first candidate; a young girl of about 7 or 8, immaculately dressed, and wearing the most beautiful smile. My spirits rose.

The rest of the working day passed without incident. A large percentage of the candidates were extremely well prepared and even those who were not, managed (by and large) to meet the requirements. I swiftly packed everything away (keen to get home) and I began retracing my steps along the myriad of passageways, towards the exit.

About three quarters of the way there, the lights suddenly went out and I was plunged into darkness. I called out to the caretaker, and he obligingly responded that there was “a switch on the right-hand side – just in front of the door”. All very well, but this was total darkness that I was dealing with…

Anyway, after some increasingly frantic searching, I eventually located the light switch (on the left-hand side, incidentally!) and I flicked it on gratefully. I was immediately confronted by another poster, attached to the back of the steel security door that I had been trying so hard to locate. It was a striking gold colour with the words:

‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ emblazoned upon it.

As I left the building, the irony was not lost on me!    

A Round of Applause

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!’