24 March 2012

Worthy Distinctions

Responding to my rant against unsolicited "Pass Exam Quick" schemes ("Training Geniuses") a correspondent asks a good question; "Do you mean that the ABRSM distinction holders really aren't worthy of their distinctions?".  Another suggests; "Judging by the sheer numbers of distinctions given to Singapore students, I guess it's easier to get one here".  I must not let either comment pass unremarked since they voice common misconceptions about the music exam system.

Standards in the major UK examining boards - ABSRM and Trinity – are absolute.  That is to say that there is neither a requirement to come up with a fixed percentage of fails/passes in each category nor any pressure on examiners to award or withhold distinctions in certain grades.  It is perfectly possible for an examining tour to pass in which no distinctions are awarded, just as it is possible for one to pass where an overwhelming number of candidates receives distinction.  I know this to be true because both have happened to me on more than one occasion.  Unlike some other qualifications, while statistics are kept (and, in the case of Trinity passed on to individual examiners) these are purely for interest's sake; there is absolutely no question that examiners are encouraged to slew their results to meet certain statistical criteria.

Neither is it easier or more difficult to get a distinction, a merit, a pass or a fail in some territories than in others.  When a candidate gets 135 in Botswana, that candidate would have got 135 in Brooklyn, Birmingham, Bangkok or Bangladesh; when a candidate fails in Singapore, an identical result would have been given were the exam to have been held in Seoul, Stevenage, Sri Lanka or Surin.  This international consistency is the simple result of the practice both boards have of sending examiners around the world rather than retaining examiners for use only in one region.  When the ABRSM actively recruited examiners to be based in New Zealand, there was strong opposition from local teachers who felt that there was too much risk of these examiners adopting different standards from those based overseas.  In the event, while the ABRSM do maintain a pool of examiners resident in New Zealand, they only examine there in emergencies, and are every bit as likely to be found assessing a grade 1 in Newcastle, Australia, as in Newcastle, UK.  Trinity, too, has examiners situated across the globe – I'm one – and while we might be called on to go somewhere nearby in an emergency, we do not examine, as it were, in our own backyard or, indeed, on our own front doorstep.  This ensures consistency across international borders.

Of course, examiners are human (to an extent) and other factors might seem to influence their thinking.  A month in some horrible hole in Hyderabad, complete with cockroach infested bed, continual gastric unease and terrifying taxi trips to the exam venue might seem to make the examiner less prone to handing out distinctions than a week in warm Weymouth where a comfortable hotel, a soft bed and delicious food surely encourage a more generous frame of mind.  But, again, I know this not to be true from personal experience.  An unforgettable week of sheer bliss in a divine resort hotel in Noosa, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, barely compensated for three days of incredibly ghastly failures, while a grim and miserable week in the coastal English resort of Bournemouth at the height of winter, complete with being thrown out of the hotel (for complaining about the filthy state of the rooms) and holing up in a leaking caravan with nothing but a single gas burner to heat cans of soup, surprisingly yielded some of the highest marks I ever gave in my ABRSM days.

The reason that music examiners seem immune to the kind of feelings that affect the rest of humanity is entirely down to training and experience.  Working under the intense pressures that we do, when the candidate walks in the door, the training kicks in and, irrespective of personal situation, the routines of administering and marking take over and, almost as if it's someone else, we find ourselves writing the same sort of report and giving the same marks as we would anywhere in the world and under any circumstances.

None of which addresses the first comment, that distinction holders are not worthy of their distinctions.  The direct answer is yes, if you get a distinction (wherever and whenever and from whomever) you have thoroughly deserved it.  The background to it is less straightforward, and goes to the root of the music examination culture and of my original rant. 

In terms of music exams, a distinction is always a valuable and rightly treasured result.  In terms of real life, of musical life of artistic and emotional development, it's not worth a fig.  All a distinction shows is that you can pass an exam well.  In cultures where passing exams is seen as the be all and end all of education, that's all well and good, and it explains why there is such an urge to get distinctions especially in developing countries where parents and teachers have no other yardsticks by which to measure educational progress.  But in the harsh realities of life, while exams are a useful sign of educational progress, they hardly equip one for the realities of career or, indeed, daily existence. 

Years of sitting on audition panels has taught me that having distinction at Grade 8 is often more of a stigma than a support.  It raises expectations in the minds of the audience which are rarely met, especially by those who have studied only to pass exams. Probably having the distinction in the first place has earned you a place in the audition, but those who assume distinction to be the ultimate sign of musical ability are sadly misguided.  A distinction should be regarded only as a starting point to greater development of skills which are not assessed in an examination, and while it is perhaps a rung further up the ladder than the student who earned a mere pass, it is nothing more than that.  Being a worthy distinction holder does not mean that the distinction itself is worthy; what matters is what you do with it once you have it.


  1. Thanks, Dr Marc for answering my question so thoroughly, complete with your personal adventures ala National Geographic. You have confirmed my convictions on this issue. I have always been called upon by friends and strangers to give advice on their children's music education which almost always is about exams. I find myself constantly trying to correct misconceptions. I am not very successful though because I say things contrary to what they want to hear and also contrary to what they have learnt from society at large. I get lots of questions about skipping grades in order to "move ahead". They think I'm out of my mind when I tell them I've encountered Grade 2 kids who can play better than some Grade 5s. To them, the higher the numbers, the better.

    You know, I think there are many teachers who perpetuate these misconceptions. So, low quality performances are here to stay.

  2. I should think so. One of my kids was the sole distinction awardee for his g8 for his particular exam season.

  3. Dear Dr. Marc,

    This is very interesting, and is a much sought after answer. I find the last two paragraphs the most interesting. Being a Trinity ATCL student, from SriLanka, i do know how much a distinction is worth, not just in music, but in everything. :)