27 October 2011

Music Exam Nerves

Holed up in a school for orphan and dispossessed girls set in a remote part of the African veldt, I am obliged to stay overnight in the visitors’ quarters.  In the queue for breakfast I overhear a plaint from a young girl further up the line; “I have a really stressful day. Today I have to do my English paper and then my Math paper, and then this afternoon I have my bassoon exam”.  Cries of anguish from her friends, and words of sympathy; “Agh!  A music exam!  How terrible!  You poor thing!”  No concern at all about English and Maths, but real commiseration for the child with a music exam to face.

This is a phenomenon that is familiar to all of us who are involved in music exams.  From parents and teachers to students and examiners, the music exam is enmeshed in a level of anxiety and anguish which is out of all proportion to its importance in the greater scheme of things.

Personally, I would have thought that presenting the English paper was by far and away the most terrifying of that girl’s ordeals.  After all, in any community even those in which English is not a principal means of communication, the ability to master the language has a direct bearing on your subsequent employability.  As for Mathematics (the English in me refuses that nasty abbreviation “Math”), whilst I was a dismal failure at it through all my school years (I was dropped from the O level class when I achieved 17% - a school record low – at the mock exam), I accept that it is a hugely important subject when it comes to setting you in good stead for a future career.  Set beside tests in such vital – not to say fateful – subjects, surely an early grade bassoon exam is of no consequence whatsoever?

As an examiner I have lost count of the numbers of students who have broken down and sobbed their hearts out all because of a forgotten scale, a missed accidental, a couple of miscounted rests, even, memorably, a left hand scale played with the right hand; which so destroyed the candidate’s confidence that she fled the scene and no amount of coaxing could induce her to come back into the examination room.  No amount of admonishment from me that “We can try it again”, “Don’t worry”, “It’s not a matter of life and death” has worked.  The astonishing fact is, when faced with a music exam, something affects the brain which sets in motion a sequence of horrendous nervous reactions which are devastating in their ability to destroy self-confidence; reactions which do not seem to occur in almost any other situation.

People who glibly sail into their A levels, their degree finals, their professional diplomas, their driving tests, their medical examinations, their dental procedures, with merely a small flutter in the stomach and a slight sweatiness in the palm, turn into quivering and incoherent jellies when faced with Grade 1 Flute.  Adult candidates, especially those retirees who have taken up music as an idle hobby to keep them away from the bottle or the TV screens, are a thousand times more prone to these crippling nerves than the younger ones who, in most cases, are only doing the exam at their parents’ behest.  As one elderly gentleman told me, when he burst unaccountably into tears after fluffing a couple of bars in his grade 3 piano; “I was a dentist for 40 years, and was never once as nervous as I was doing this!”  (I did tell him that now he knew what we felt like when we sat in the dentist’s chair, but in truth, I have never been so incapably nervous, even facing a major extraction, as he clearly was facing Windmills by Felix Swinstead.)

We as examiners are deeply conscious of these nerves and do all we can to alleviate them.  Short of sitting the candidate on our lap and handing out sweeties to help keep tears at bay (that’s all been banned), we have a whole armoury of techniques designed to take as much stress out of the event as we can.  We keep formality to a minimum, we are trained to smile and keep cheerful (and believe me, it does require intensive training), we know how to pick a candidate up from apparently unrecoverable errors, and we do all we can to help them forget what it is they are doing.  None of which stops the tears or calms the shaking fingers for a moment.   

The question is, why do music exams – which rarely have a bearing on future careers and certainly have no implications for health or wealth – engender such terrible nerves in the candidates?  Why be more afraid of a music exam than a life-affecting English or Mathematics one?

Some will tell you that what spooks candidates is the one-to-one relationship between candidate and examiner; yet similar situations in language oral exams do not incur such nervous reactions.  Some will also suggest that the motor skills required in playing musical instruments are so alien to normal human behaviour that the simple feeling of oddness triggers powerful nervous reactions.  But do typists and painters suffer the same nerves?  Both professions trigger serious RSI problems, yet I have yet to hear a prospective secretary or a budding decorator crumbling from nerves at the first hurdle en route to their chosen profession,

I have an answer, but I’m not sure if it’s a correct one.  I’ve certainly never heard anyone else propound it, and it is based purely on instinct rather than scientific analysis.

My belief is that, in playing an instrument, irrespective of the level at which we are playing it, we are - often deeply unconsciously - exposing something of our inner soul.  If the famous assertion that “Music expresses thoughts which go beyond words” (I think that particular phraseology came from Orwell, but I’m probably wrong) is true, then by playing even something so banal as Windmills by Felix Swinstead we are actually expressing some of our inner thoughts which we never usually expose to ourselves, let alone complete strangers.  I think that adults, with their inbuilt reticence and sense of reserve, are particularly prone to this inner sense of exposing something deeply private to public scrutiny; which is why they get so nervous.  And that also may explain why it is that only in the very young, whose ability to express themselves in words is still embryonic, do nerves not come into play; the sheer enjoyment of communication is still a novelty and has yet to become a precious and treasured indicator of unique personality.  It certainly explains why it seems to us that some incredibly young children are able to perform complex musical works from which even the most self-assured and capable adults shy away.  Only this afternoon, for example, I was being shown a video of a six-year-old Finnish boy giving a very impressive account of a Chopin Nocturne. 

Glad to report the African girl acquitted herself well in her Grade 4 Bassoon and left the room calmer and less agitated than she had entered it.  She even managed a smile as she fled into the arms of her waiting classmates, tearfully relived that the terrible ordeal was over (and perhaps privately conscious that only the strange fat white man left behind in the room had been afforded that unique and very intimate view into her naked inner soul); until, of course, next year, when she goes through it all again for Grade 5.

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