06 February 2011

Music Examiner Anecdotes - Part 2

The lovely thing about learning a musical instrument is that you can start it at any age. True, you are not going to become a child prodigy if you don’t have your first piano lesson until you are 65, but you are still going to get an awful lot of pleasure out of it. At least, that’s the theory and for the thousands who start learning after retirement, that’s often the case. But teachers often spoil these golden years by insisting on exams. Why? Do they serve any purpose for those whose only wish is to pursue music as a retirement hobby? True, I have a 70-year-old student who’s just done her DipABRSM and is eagerly preparing for her LTCL, but she’s an exception; she enjoys exams while others in her age range prefer an uneventful progress through pieces, killing time between meals and offending no one. Most examiners would urge teachers to pursue the second course with their students; I think we all agree that the most dreadful thing to encounter in the examination room is an elderly candidate tackling an early-grade practical examination. Tears from the candidate are almost guaranteed, and the examiner’s patience is put sorely to the test in ways which are likely to increase the likelihood of hypertension and possible heart damage.

There’s something about a music exam which brings out the very worst in people, and there’s something about the psychology of people of more advanced years that renders them unconscionably nervous when placed into the one-to-one examiner-candidate situation. In short, they do the daftest things. My heart always drops when the door opens and a person of more advanced years steps in to the examination room. I don’t commit the solecism of one former colleague who, without thinking, saw a candidate at the door and said “Hallo Bertha. Do sit down at the piano”, only to find a vast mound of vintage flesh towering over him and uttering the phrase “It’s MRS Hanson to you, young man”. Gone is the early lunch-break or the luxury of running on schedule; whatever the time allocated to the exam, with an older person it’s almost certain to overrun. It’s always a harrowing experience for the examiner; and it appears to be an utterly horrific one for the candidate. One wonders why they do it, but they do and, as a result, examiners’ stories always feature at least a few Tales of the Elderly.

Take an otherwise pleasant tour I did years ago to the outer islands off the north Scottish coast. The tour was made all the easier because bad weather prevented quite a few candidates from getting to the centre, so the usual terror of running behind schedule was averted. The last candidate of a morning was a grade 8 piano with the apparently innocuous name of Mary Macpherson (not really, but we must respect anonymity, although I suspect she is long since dead). Scheduled to take 30 minutes, I was already a good five minutes ahead of schedule when the steward entered the room alone. My heart raced. She was an absentee and I was going to get an unimaginably long lunch break? No. He had words he wished to utter in private before Mary came in. “You’re in for a time laddie! This one’s not quite right in the head!” And with that cryptic comment, he located a large waste-paper basket and placed it next to the piano. “Ye’ll be wanting this” and, with a smile, he departed.

Enter Mary. A tall vision dressed entirely in black; long black gloves, a black hat and, most alarming, a black mesh veil covering the face. In the years before you ever saw the burkha on British soil, this was a rare spectacle indeed. The Black Maria carried under her left arm a large pile of music and under her right a fresh box of paper tissues. Placing the music on the piano’s music stand and the tissues on the lid, she raised her veil with both hands, reached for a tissue, dabbed her eyes, and held the damp paper aloft while I scuttled up and moved the waste-paper basket; my steward had got it wrong – he’d put it to the right, while she was left-handed and needed it to the left. “Excuse me”, said the voice of great age from under the veil, “I’m a wee bit distressed”. (Another tissue used and discarded.)

“No need to worry”, I came up with the usual examiner cliché, “I’m sure you’ll be fine once you’ve started. Shall we have the scales first or would you prefer to begin with the pieces?”
“I dinnae know” was the unpromising reply. (Another tissue.)
 ”Well, let’s do some scales. Play me D major” – best to start easy. Nothing. “When you’re ready, D major”.
Another tissue, this time not just wiping the eyes but blowing the nose. Sob! “I cannae do it!”
 ”Well, let’s go back to that one later. How about B flat major”.
Tissue. Sob. “I cannae”. And so it went on through a litany of half a dozen random keys. We are now six minutes into a 30 minute exam and we haven’t actually had a note played.
“Shall we forget the scales for a moment and go on to the pieces? Which piece would you like to play first?”
Tissue. Sob. “I cannae”.
“Let’s try the Bach. It’s the Prelude and Fugue in C minor isn’t it?”
Tissue. Sob. “I cannae”.
“Go one, I’m sure once you have played something you’ll get into the swing of it” (and I might still stand a chance of a spot of lunch).
 ”I cannae. I cannae”.
At this point examiner cool breaks. “Mary. I’m sure you’ve worked very hard for this exam. You’ve certainly had to pay the fee and come all this way to do it through the snow and wind. Stop wasting our time, pull yourself together and play. I don’t care whether you play it right or wrong. I just want to hear you play something. Anything!”
 Tissue. Sob. “I cannae do it!”
 ”Yes, you can. Now stop all this nonsense and start! I don’t care whether you can play it or not. I don’t care if you make a mess of it. But play SOMETHING NOW!”

 Expecting more in the way of tissues (box by now thoroughly depleted), sobs and possibly even an angry retort, I was astonished by a fluent and fairly accurate account of Bach. Beethoven followed and Liszt wrapped up proceedings. We had a fair stab at the aural and sight reading, and although scales were never revisited (we were now approaching the hour and lunchtime had shrunk to 40 minutes) Mary passed with 103. She was even sufficiently calm as she left the room to thank me for “your kindness” (I hadn’t spotted any) and look forlornly at the totally empty box of tissues. “Leave that”, I told her, “I’ll throw it away for you”. When I eventually got out of the examination room and headed off for lunch (the steward had long since wandered off for his daily Haggis, Neeps and Tatties) I felt emotionally drained and rued the day Mary Macpherson had started to learn the piano.

But some weeks later I had to attend a meeting at the London headquarters of the ABRSM. Ronald Smith, the then Chief Executive, called me into his room and confronted me with a letter. “It’s about your recent tour to the Scottish Islands”. Anticipating a legitimate complaint about how I had lost my cool and told a candidate I didn’t care how she played, I was dumbstruck when Ronald read a letter praising me for my patience and kindness. I then related the whole episode to him and, amused, he read out a further extract from the letter; “My dear husband had passed away the morning of the examination. His dying wish had been for me to go and do my grade 8 exam and I had left his side for the last time to get to the centre on time. When I went into the room, my heart failed me, but it was when the examiner told me to pull myself together – the very words my poor departed husband used to say to me when I told him I could not do the exam – I heard his voice and I knew I had to do it. I don’t know whether I’ve passed or failed, but I am grateful for your kind examiner and his firm words. Because of him, I could fulfil my dear, departed husband’s dying wish”.

What seems to terrify adult candidates more than anything else is the scalework. Nervous, arthritis-ridden fingers seem to seize up at the very thought of C Major Hands Together In Similar Motion One Octave Apart. Some years ago the ABRSM had the bright idea of doing away with these and other tests and offering up a Performance Assessment which allowed the candidate to play whatever pieces they wanted and get a certificate afterwards. There was no pass or fail and no real comments given. Afterwards the examiner merely had a chat with the candidate and handed them a pre-engraved certificate. It should have been a good money-spinner, but probably was too bland and, although I see it still exists in a modified form, I gather it doesn’t have many takers, which is a great shame since it certainly filled a need. (The Trinity Guildhall certificates are rather more worthwhile, but they are kept locked away in a remote corner of the website and so few potential candidates ever know anything about them!)

The public centre in Dublin was the scene of my second most memorable Adult Candidate Encounter. Halfway through a morning of grade 1 pianos and grade 2 violins, I had Paddy O’Malley (or some such inescapably Irish moniker) as a Performance Assessment. You never knew what to expect with these – not even what instrument you were going to hear – but I was still surprised when the steward appeared at the door and suggested that I might like to open a few windows. It being November, it was all I could do to keep warm with the windows firmly shut and heating up full. But a whiff of Paddy as he entered had me off my chair and at the window latches faster than you could say “Top o’the mornin’ to ye”. Paddy, dressed in large brown and frayed woollen overcoat tied across his generous girth with string, baggy trousers which appeared on the edge of a great descent, open ended shoes which had long since abandoned the concept of polish and in which sole and body had, in a prelude to The Great Hereafter, parted company, and bearing a huge beard browned around the mouth where a cigarette clearly had only recently been extracted, smelt of pedestrian underpasses – that unique mix of ammonia, damp wool, stale tobacco, even staler cheap liquor and with a dominant nose of urine. Paddy also bore triumphantly on his chest a battered piano accordion. Thoroughly imbued with the ABRSM ethos that Everything Is Beneath My Dignity So You Don’t Surprise Me At All, I duly greeted Paddy and asked him what he was going to play for me.

“Ah, What would ye be wantin’ a body to play for ye at all, Sir?” was the somewhat elusive response.
“Well, what have you prepared?”
“Ah, ’tis loike this, Sir. I stand on O’Connell Street Bridge each day and play to me punters and they say, Ah, Paddy, you’re a wild feller altogether at the accordion, ye should get ye a sortifficit. So, to cut a long story short, Sir, and I know ye respectfulness’s time is precious, I’ve jost com to play to ye and get me sortifficit, Sir!”
“Ah! Well just play what you normally do and I’ll stop you when I’ve heard enough”.

And with that Paddy launched into the most athletic, energetic, ebullient bit of accordion playing I’ve ever witnessed. Stamping the foot, singing along, calling out what may have been racing odds or possibly verses from the Rosary. Bits of everything came out of the accordion (physical as well as musical, a KitKat wrapper did end up on the floor as well as a couple of chewed cigarette ends) and I was hard-pressed to stop the man once he was into his stride. It was fun and quite good, and I duly handed him his certificate. The inclination was also to hand him an Irish 50p piece (and I think he expected no less) but I desisted; ABRSM examiners don’t do that sort of thing. However I did venture out on to the Dublin streets some days later and there, large as life and as aromatic as ever, was Paddy playing his accordion with his “sortifficit” duly displayed in an attempt to warrant a larger donation from the passing crowd. And, to be frank, he deserved every penny he got. If only every adult candidate was that much fun.


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