06 February 2011

Music Examiner Anecdotes - Part 1

At 10.00am on Monday 10th May 1982 I arrived at the Royal School, Armagh, for the first of several days’ examining for what was then called the Northern Ireland Schools General Certificate of Education Examinations’ Board. I don’t recall how many candidates I heard there, nor, indeed, what instruments they played, but I see from my diary I was only there an hour before moving on to St Catherine’s College in the city to hear a few more candidates. That was a significant day for me; it marked my first ever work as a music examiner.

Over the next two weeks, I visited schools across Northern Ireland – from Enniskillen in the west to Portstewart in the north, from Belfast in the east to Armagh in the south – and was to do the same sort of thing in Northern Ireland for the next eight years, my last duty for them being, rather neatly, to examine at the Royal School in Armagh on the afternoon of 18th May 1990. Ten days later I flew to Hong Kong to take up a teaching position and, before the year was over, I had settled in Malaysia. To my lasting and eternal sorrow, I have barely set foot on Northern Irish soil again; it is, without doubt, my favourite place on the whole earth and, I’ve seen rather more of the whole earth than most.

Another significant date was 29th November 1982 when I visited a school in Ilford, Essex, on my first day as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. That relationship with the ABRSM (as it now prefers to call itself) lasted through to the year 2001 when, in rather acrimonious circumstances, I decided I could no longer stomach what I regarded as their fundamentally unfair and unjust way of doing things. Within weeks I found myself examining for Trinity College London and now, a decade on, I am still spending around half of each year travelling the world, examining music students for them. It’s a job I love and, while I miss the camaraderie I had with the ABRSM, there is no doubt in my mind that the Trinity syllabus and way of examining is much fairer to the individual student and so much more musically-orientated.
So, with the best part of 30 years examining under my belt (I also did an extended spell for the University of London and for a remarkably inept organisation called EdExcel), I reckon I must have administered somewhere in the region of 70,000 music exams to as many candidates in Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, China, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, The Maldives, Mozambique, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, The Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Wales and Zimbabwe. That’s an awful lot of air miles to clock up, and when I was I on an interview panel for a prospective new examiner a few months ago, I sympathised with him when he responded to the obvious question “Why do you want to be a music examiner?” with the immediate reply, “I like to travel”. It’s not the answer we might have liked, but it’s a valid one. You can’t do the job unless you are prepared to spend a large chunk of your life on the road or in the air; and as all the income is derived from examination fees – which are pretty high by any standards – no matter how far that air journey is, nobody can justify it being in any class other than economy. You have to really like travel to accept that as a working condition.

But what is the right answer to give to that question? After all, apart from the travel, what is attractive about sitting for up to seven hours a day alone in a small, either stuffy or viciously air-conditioned room, hearing a succession of nervous children and even more terrified adults going through their over-prepared (usually) programme of three pieces and giving them their short, sharp and, in most cases, utterly unwelcome tests. They hate you for what you are putting them through, you are working to such a tight schedule that you don’t have any spare time to get them relaxed and, in any case, you cannot have any social interaction with them. After all, in the frenzied atmosphere of an examination room, even the most innocuous of questions can take on a sinister mien. “How old are you?” can be so easily misinterpreted; “My child failed because he didn’t know the answer the question which the examiner asked”, “My child lied about his age because he thought he would get a better mark by pretending he was younger than he was”, “Does the result depend on the candidate’s age?”. Even a simple thing like calling the candidate by name can lead to untold problems; “The examiner mispronounced my name and I was so worried that he thought I was someone else that I didn’t do well enough to pass”, “Why did the examiner call me Loke Yew when all my other teachers call me Lim?”, “The examiner called me Jenny. I hate that name and it made me so angry I couldn’t concentrate on my playing”.
So you’re not in it to meet people. Does it, therefore, offer up a stimulating musical experience for the examiner?

In a word, No. You hear the same pieces (and, certainly in the case of the ABRSM, pretty dire pieces at that) over and over again, often played with the same irritating mistakes and misconceptions as to composer’s intentions. Trinity used to have a dreadful piece in its syllabus by Benjamin Britten called “Moderato” which ,almost without exception, every student thought meant the same thing as “Prestissimo”. And if you think you can get some kick out of performing to a captive audience, think again. Yes, you have to play to the students, but only a few bars of drivel (Trinity syllabus) or a tantalizing snippet from something worthwhile (ABRSM) designed as an aural test. Which means you have to get it right first time round and cannot afford to make a single mistake. It’s surprising how difficult that is and how far-reaching the consequences are if you get it wrong; “I failed because the examiner didn’t play the piece the same way twice”, “He said he’d change the rhythm, but he changed the dynamic as well so I was confused and didn’t give the right answer”. There’s no pleasure in performing under those conditions.

So, apart from travel, what is there to like about being a music examiner? The money, as we all agree, is miserable; you earn more washing up in a hotel kitchen.

But ask any experienced music examiner and they will tell you that, cramped wrists from incessant long-hand writing (you can’t type it out on to a computer as that makes too much distracting noise), stiff joints from all that sitting, over-worked brains from all that mental arithmetic, jaundiced ears from all that listening apart, the job has so many benefits that they wouldn’t stop doing it for the world. Get them to list some of those benefits and the one thing they will invariably suggest is that there is a firm belief that somewhere among those 70,000-plus candidates there may have been one whom the examiner has encouraged to pursue a career. That will have given immeasurable satisfaction both to the individual and the hundreds of music lovers who will have heard that performer…and if that one in 70,000 hasn’t come along yet, it surely will one day, and that’s what keeps us going.

Another benefit most music examiners will describe is that, when all is said and done, it can be a lot of fun.
Fun? Music Exams? What planet are you on?

It’s awfully cruel to say it, but when people are as nervous as they are for music exams (and I have a theory which I won’t bore you with now as to why music exams are more terrifying than, say, a visit to the dentist or an interview with the tax inspector) they do the most ridiculous things. When two or three music examiners are gathered together, its quickly apparent that it is those humorous moments (nearly always at someone else’s expense) that keep us going. Occasionally you regale music teachers with examples, and they politely guffaw (music examiners are a bit like royalty; people feel they have to be nice to us) and say “You should write a book about it”. Of course any such book would be both incredibly boring to all but a tiny handful, and would, in any case, verge on the libellous; after all, the examination room is regarded by examiners as every bit as sacrosanct as the priest’s confessional or the doctor’s surgery; whatever goes on there should not be thrown into the public domain. But that hasn’t stopped some trying to publish their examiner anecdotes. My old colleague, Peter Stevenson, once sent a circular around ABRSM examiners for their stories so he could include them in a book of music examiner anecdotes. It came to nothing. But I did once write a series of radio talks which were broadcast during the intervals of live concert relays which went down quite well. Sadly, from my point of view, an incoming Director of Music Programming decided that humour and classical music should not mix and the plug was pulled.

Those talk scripts have been gathering dust over the decades, so I’m going to bring them out of the closet from time to time simply so that when another obsequious music teacher says “You should write a book about your experiences”, I can point them in the right direction. So here’s an edited – and updated – text of talk one (actually you’ve had quite a bit of it already). The title was “What Do You Want To Play?”
It’s easy if you play the piano. The examiner says “What are you going to play?” and you say “List A”, “List B” or, if your teacher is adventurous (and none of us examiners is under any misapprehension that the pieces have been chosen entirely by the teacher, irrespective of what the poor candidate wants to play – “You can’t play that piece, Jimmy, the examiner won’t like it!”) “List A one and two and List B 3″. Of course Trinity, being the Much Better Board, insists on full titles and composers for every instrument, but this discipline only kicks in with the ABRSM once you deviate from the path of piano (and you can’t help getting the impression they wish you wouldn’t). And here’s where the fun starts.

You quickly become adept at identifying composers from the vocal equivalent of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Bethanan = Beethoven, Moe’s Fart = Mozart, Buggeraller = Burgmuller… you get the idea. But you have to be pretty quick off the mark with some titles, especially where they are in a foreign tongue. Take this Newry trumpeter, born and bred in the Unionist ghettos of Co. Down and with an attitude towards the Pope which makes George W Bush and Osama bin Laden look like bosom buddies. Examiner: “What are you going to play, Billy?”. Billy: “The Yennertennmenothepowp”. Examiner: “Ah! Who’s that by?” Billy; “Er?” Examiner: “What-is-the-name-of-the-composer?” Billy “Er?” Examiner: “If you look on the page you will see a name on the top right hand of the page, just above the first line of music. What is it?” Billy: “37″. Examiner: “Er?” Billy: “Itsaisterdysen” (trans. “It says 37″). Examiner: “Ah. Look just underneath the page number and you will see a word. That’s the composer’s name. What is it?” Billy: “Shiteofshitty”. (trans. None available). At this point Examiner decides to break with protocol and get up from the desk to inspect the music. The curling page of photocopied music, with a nice imprint of a shoe, some evidence of it serving time in room where culinary experiments were carried out, and a large rubber stamp reading “Eastern Education and Library Board” across the first few bars of music, revealed both title and composer. The composer was Tchaikovsky and the title “Enterrement de la Poupée”.

Now before we go on, we might draw attention to a certain hierarchy of instruments practiced by the ABRSM. Piano first and foremost. Strings second. Voice third. With the very dregs of musical activity – the brass- way down at the bottom of the heap. So while lucky pianists know and love this piece as A3 and cellists and singers have the privilege of calling it the “Doll’s Funeral”, brass players – not normally renowned for their gift of languages – need to call it by the French title. Someone with a sense of humour clearly lives in the darkened room in which syllabuses are set.

Having thus ascertained that Billy is going to play Tchaikovsky’s “Enterrement de la Poupée”, Examiner foolishly decides that a certain educative input would not go amiss, and tells Billy “Ah yes, you’re going to play Tchaikovsky’s Enterrment de la Poupée”. Billy: “Yezised. The Yennertenmenothepowp” (trans. “Yes, that’s what I said [you stupid old Burgmuller], The Entertainment of the Pope”).

As Billy mournfully trudged through this sorrowful and morose piece of Tchaikovskian self-indulgence, Examiner stuffs hankies in mouth before collapsing in a heap on the floor. Does our Billy really imagine His Holiness dancing around his gold-encrusted Vatican saloon to this dirge? He probably does. Full marks that boy, Tchaikovsky’s “Doll’s Funeral” will never sound the same again, nor will one be able to look at the Pope without smothering a smirk.

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