Issue 83: These Music Exams

Every so often, I put myself in the position of my pupils; I take a music exam.


It started when I took my LTCL as an adult, after I had been working in the computer industry for many years. I was faced with redundancy, and needed to find a way of earning while fitting in around the children. As I had continued to play the piano after leaving university, and even had lessons from time to time, this seemed like a good idea. My word, that practical exam was one of the scariest experiences ever. Still, in spite of running out of keyboard in one scale, and miscalculating the number of octaves in a chromatic scale, and starting the Bartok on entirely the wrong notes, somehow I passed.

Then, I found myself in charge of a church choir and ignorant of the principles of singing, and so I took singing lessons, culminating in a Grade 5 exam (distinction, let me gloat for a moment). Singing exams are a whole new world of scary – no music stand or music to hide behind!

Then the ABRSM Jazz piano syllabus came out. This was a whole new world for me – improvisation just hadn’t been invented as far as my music lessons were concerned – at school, on cello, on piano. Remember, this is back in the dark ages when I have a feeling saxophones were not admitted to music colleges! So, as three of my students were taking grade 2 and 3 in jazz piano, I took a grade 4 ( and I passed) just so that I could find out about how the exams worked, and relate the marking to the actual exam experience.

A few years later, I took a Grade 1 violin exam. (Merit. I had hoped for greater things!)

Why? Well, I found that personally revisiting the exam experience was extremely useful in preparing my pupils for their exams. The way the examiners interact with the candidates is different to how it was back in the 70s. They are less formal, (but still scary!). It was good to see how the aural and sight-reading tests are presented to the candidates. And I hadn’t expected to be so nervous; Grade 1 aural tests – simple, surely? Well, if you lose concentration and focus, you lose marks. So I lost a mark. Me! Moi! only 17 out of 18 for aural! And I really, really hadn’t expected my bow to bounce as much on the strings. That exam was also an interesting learning curve for one of my piano pupils who accompanied me, but that’s another story.

What’s next? I had been working for a Trinity Guildhall saxophone exam, but what with one thing and another I ran out of time last term. Now I am preparing a student for grade 8 piano, and  would have liked a trial run with Trinity, as I have always “done” ABRSM until now. Oh well. Luckily she has taken Trinity exams before on violin so at least she knows what to expect.

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