In my last post, I talked about exams - the discourses around them that I'm discovering in my research, and my own experience of taking two Grade 1s on different instruments. I briefly touched on the metaphors of movement that I've come across in my data - there's a sense of exam-taking being a journey. But there are also terms that refer to movement on a smaller scale, and in particular to 'force' on the student - pushing and pulling. Looking at these in context shows that some learners feel 'pushed' into exams by teachers. Others are talking about entering exams working as motivation - with exams 'pushing' them to work harder, to learn scales or perfect pieces which they might not do otherwise. These two sides sort of reflect my feelings about exams - they can be a great goal and act as amazing motivation. But they can also become something that learners feel they have to do, even if they don't really want to.
In my teaching, I'm equally happy to help people prepare for exams if they want to, or to teach without exams. I consider exams mainly as a 'marker' along the way - it's nice to have a certificate to say "well done, you have reached this standard" and some feedback from an impartial outside person. The different exam boards test slightly different skill sets, but I think they all have something to offer in terms of checking up on where you are with learning musical skills. Sometimes students need exams for other goals they have, such as joining a particular ensemble or studying music at university. What I don't think exams are, or should be, is the be-all-and-end-all of learning music. If you only ever learn what you need to know for exams, you miss out on so much - wonderful music, different styles, skills that aren't tested in the exams. I think there is a real danger of fitting music into 'exam boxes' and thinking of everything in terms of grades. There's a movement of a Handel sonata in the Grade 5 syllabus but that doesn't make it a "Grade 5 piece" - Handel didn't write it with a particular standard of exam in mind. It doesn't mean that if you aren't approaching Grade 5 level, you can't try to play it (although you might not quite manage all the detail that a more advanced player does), or that if you first encounter it once you've done your Grade 8 there is no point in giving it a go. Equally, I tend to introduce particular scales earlier than they appear in the exam syllabus, because I believe that they are vital building blocks for being able to play music, not boring things that have to be memorised in order to pass an exam (and yes, that means that my students who don't do exams, DO do scales!).
Having said that, I do think exams are great in the right circumstances. It can be really motivating to have a 'big' goal to work towards. It is a good (and often enjoyable) thing to perform music to someone else, whatever the circumstances. It can feel brilliant to get those results and think "yes, I did it!". For myself, I like doing exams. When I say like, I don't mean I love every minute of it. I absolutely do get nervous about them. I worry and am a complete pain (to myself and everyone around me) for the days/ weeks following the exam whilst waiting for the results. BUT I do really enjoy the process of preparing, of performing, passing (hopefully!) and getting feedback. All of those are reasons why I sat my DipLCM Performance recently. I do play my flute most days (as I say to students, there is nothing wrong with the odd day off!) - playing with groups, with friends, in students' lessons, and at home. At home I do a lot of technical practice (yes, including scales!), and learning pieces that I need to learn, for orchestra concerts etc. And I do learn solo flute pieces, but they don't tend to take priority. Entering the diploma exam gave me an opportunity to actually polish up some of those solo pieces, to get into them in real detail, to think about my interpretation of them. I had to put together a half-hour programme of music (complete with programme notes), which resembled a real (though short) solo concert. It was wonderful to work with an accompanist to produce a performance - sadly I don't have a pianist to hand in my daily practice!
C. Stamitz - Concerto in G (second and third movements)
Saint-Saens - Romance
Berkeley - Sonatina
Richard Rodney Bennett - 'Games' from Summer Music
The first three of these I had played before, varying amounts of time ago, so it was a case of re-visiting, tidying up and tweaking. The Rodney Bennett was a new piece to me, added because of the syllabus requirements to play something written post-1945. It was a really useful experience to learn something new, and get it up to performance standard, quickly.
On the day, well, yes it was slightly odd performing to an audience of one who was scribbling down notes, but it still felt like a performance - I really felt as if it was an opportunity to 'communicate' this music to someone else, and I truly enjoyed doing that (apart from the moments when I was struggling to keep my flute attached to my face - it was a very hot day!). The examiner was utterly lovely, saying at the end how much she'd enjoyed listening. Of course I was delighted to pass (with 88%) and really happy to get positive comments (plus of course a few things to think about for the future) - as I said earlier, that external view on your playing can be incredibly useful. Of course this sort of 'professional development' is invaluable for teaching - I've learnt a lot about myself as a player along the way, and I can see how that will feed in to how I teach too.
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