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.
It's the start of the school summer holidays here, with lots of students and teachers taking a well-deserved break. I'm having a couple of weeks off from teaching but much of that time will be devoted to finishing my MA dissertation which is due in mid-August. I'm currently finishing writing up the section on how adult learners write about exams (well, I have been this morning - I'm currently having a short break, a cup of tea and a packet Hula Hoops, and writing this blog post!).
My research has revealed some striking metaphorical language used about the experience of preparing for and taking exams. Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a lot of negative terms with groups of words which suggest violence - executed, hanging, murdering, killing - and pain - excruciating, suffering. The process of entering, preparing for, and taking exams is compared to a military campaign with terms such as withdraw, forearmed, territory, officer, bullet, target, medal - and there are also hints of a treacherous naval expedition - uncharted, adrift, wreck. But thankfully we also see the horizon and there is talk of surviving. There are also discourses which suggest that exam preparation is like training for a sport - hurdle, treadmill and discussion of tapering, and even what to eat on the day (which explains the initially mystifying appearance of potato in the corpus)! There are lots of terms which relate to movement - exams approach, near and loom. There is pushing and pulling, but also swinging and waltzing, and quite a bit of wobbling like a jelly. Adult learners express concerns about facing 'scary' examiners, but tend to find in reality that they are kind, gentle, courteous, calm, supportive, encouraging. 'Support' is a common theme, surfacing in descriptions of how teachers help learners prepare for exams and boost their confidence - my teacher is an angel, my teacher is lovely and encouraging. They also mention how helpful it is to have a friendly accompanist, if you play an instrument which is supported by a piano part. Online communities also offer support, with adult learners offering sympathy and hugs during the build-up and the wait for results, and many congratulations (for successful results, but also for being brave enough to take the exam in the first place!).
A couple of months ago, I posted about my own plans to sit two Grade 1 exams, learning the clarinet more or less from scratch, and taking my piano playing right back to basics. I took both of these exams a couple of weeks ago. It was an incredibly useful experience as a teacher to be back in uncharted territory - although I've taken many flute exams, I'd never sat one on another instrument, so it did feel rather like being a beginner, not quite knowing what to expect or exactly how well I needed to play at this level. Nerves definitely kicked in, and I had no idea how my playing of each instrument would respond under pressure (whereas with the flute, I have a pretty good idea what happens and how to deal with it). It turns out that the fact my mouth dries up with nerves is even more 'bleurgh' with a reed in my mouth, but it is manageable! My experience of the examiners definitely agrees with those that the learners in my study talk about - both were friendly and welcoming. The one for my clarinet exam had no idea I had any musical background, so I felt I was being treated as she would any adult beginner, and it was a very positive experience, topped off by a lovely comment on my mark form declaring the exam "an excellent start" on my clarinet journey. What a boost that would be to any beginner!
The piano exam was a slightly different experience, as I was sitting another exam (Flute Performance DipLCM) on the same day, with the same examiner! So she was aware that I had experience of music and exams behind me, and indeed joked that the supporting tests at Grade 1 should be fairly easy for me! ;) All the same, I still felt that I was judged on my performance as a Grade 1 piano student, rather than there being any 'extra' expectations of me (and I know that adult learners often feel they are expected to do 'better' to pass exams than children, simply because they are older). This was really helpful for me, as part of the whole point of sitting this one was to help build my confidence on the piano, to learn it properly rather than feel like I 'should' be at a certain standard with it due to the rest of my musical background. Still, I have to admit that getting full marks on the musical knowledge, aural and sightreading certainly did help with my overall score! It also underlined to me as a teacher how much impact these skills can have on how you get on in an exam (as well as being incredibly useful skills when making music, which is why they are tested in exams). For both instruments, I definitely agree with the learners in my study, when they say that having supportive teachers is a huge bonus in the exam process, helping you feel like you are on the right track and you can do this scary thing! I also agree with their thoughts about accompanists - it is incredibly comforting to work with someone you know is 'on your side' (something I found a bit daunting about the piano exam, as you're on your own there!).
And yes, I did sit two exams on the same day. As well as the Grade 1s, I had entered myself for a flute performance diploma. I'm pleased to say I passed that too, and even more pleased to say it was an enjoyable experience. More about that in a future post, soon... but I must get back to the dissertation!
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!