31 May 2011

The Relevance of Music Theory exams

Having spent a week marking theory exam papers and run round to DHL to courier them all off to London, I would usually now be sitting back and waiting for the cheque to come in.  It's never a particularly worthwhile wait since the remuneration is so meagre it barely covers the cost of running the air-conditioner and light while marking.  (You can't have the fan on as it blows the papers all over the place and keeping the windows shut to prevent the air-con burning out means that the anti-glare tint on the glass also blocks out most of the natural light.  I wonder if those of my British friends who envy my living in the "wonderful climate" of Singapore realise the privations we face on a daily basis.) This session, however, I feel a little more involved and have spent the last few hours collecting my thoughts on the papers I have been marking.

In the immediate run-up to this examination session I was traversing Malaysia giving seminars to teachers about the Trinity Guildhall theory exams, so I feel a little more involved this time.  Of course, the pearls of wisdom I passed on to the teachers will not have borne any fruit in these exams, but it was interesting to see if the impressions I gained from the seminars were reinforced by the results the candidates obtained. 

Of course, it would be entirely unethical of me to be in any way specific about the exams, not least because the candidates will not have had their results yet.  But before students start preparing for their November session, it might be timely to draw attention to a concern that has been strongly ignited by what I have seen this time from the papers I marked from south east Asia.

The first thing is something of a conundrum.  If any research student is looking for a topic for a post-graduate thesis on a music education, they might like to consider this.  In the past I have been conscious of the fact that exam results in music from students in Thailand are considerably better than those from the rest of the region.  More than that, from both my examining and my adjudicating visits to Thailand, I am well aware that Thai children not only perform better in music exams but have a generally higher standard of musical ability (the two are not in any way connected) than those in the rest of south east Asia.  The theory exams have only reinforced this observation.  Why?  Is it something in the genes of a Thai child (the number of foreigners taking exams in Thailand is too small from which to extract any kind of reliable pattern)?  Is it the culture of the country?  Or is it that Thai music teachers are unusually good?  I'd love to know the answer.  What added to my thoughts on this matter was the fact that students from the Malaysian state of Kelantan, which borders Thailand, generally seemed to do better in theory than students in other parts of the country.  I don't think this is a coincidence; it's too consistent a pattern for that.

The second thing is more serious, and led to some pretty horrific results especially from some city states (can I dare to be more specific?).  Take this grade 8 question as an example:  "Name three Baroque composers".  Not a single student got that right.  Those who attempted a response all listed Mozart (in various orthographic permutations) and some listed a composer called Jacob (who he?).  Here's another (from Grade 6); "List the woodwind instruments usually found in a Classical orchestra".  We had trumpets, trombones, tubas and, in one memorable case, a Jacob (what that?).  Of flutes, oboes and bassoons we barely got a whisper.

So what's the problem?  The problem is that candidates do not recognise a correlation between musical theory and musical practice.  Of course, by candidates, I really mean teachers, but you can't blame teachers entirely.  For historical reasons nobody seems to care much about musical theory and it's usually consigned to a few extra hours pinned on to a year's lessons from the piano teacher.  Specialist teachers of theory are as common in Asia as purple giraffes.  Now piano teachers, as we all know, are about as clued up on general musical matters as a Malaysian taxi driver is on safe driving, and for them theory means answering questions on a bit of paper.  That it might have some relevance to practical music completely escapes them.

The Trinity Guildhall theory syllabus is exciting because it is so relevant to music as most of us know it.  You don't need (many) special skills to do well in a theory exam, but you do need a good, solid musical background to call on.  If you go to concerts on a regular basis, you quickly know what instruments are in the orchestra when a Mozart or Haydn symphony is being performed, and you soon learn the names of composers and recognise their connection with different stylistic periods.  You soon get to recognise what a Bach chorale sounds like, and you know what four instrument you'd usually find in a string quartet.  But that's where it falls down.  Teachers have long believed that theory is a subject with no relevance to anything else (an attitude rather encouraged in the past by the horrible ABRSM theory) and so they struggle to get to grips with questions the answers of which are staring them in the face.  If only they had the ears to see!

In the seminars I did, one particular group had huge difficulties with the concept of writing 12-bar blues.  The problem was they had no idea what the blues was and struggled to get to grips with an idiom in which parallel 5ths and octaves and doubled thirds had no relevance.  Others wanted to know if there was a good book to give them guidance in writing 12-note rows; the fact that it has to be the simplest (and the most pointless) musical activity known to mankind had escaped them.  And all of them wanted to know where there was a list of "technical terms", unaware, it seemed, that every technical term in the exams will have been encountered in the music they and their students play on a daily basis.

If any student in south east Asia wants to have advanced theory lessons from me, I'm available and extraordinarily expensive.  But you can learn it all yourselves from appreciating the direct connection between the music you play and listen to and the questions you are asked in an exam.

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