Followers of this blog may well be aware that I am quite active as a music examiner and do, occasionally, draw on my examining experiences in blog posts. I have been asked by those who run the examination bodies to make it clear that what I post are entirely my own thoughts and in no way reflect those of the exam boards themselves. I am not only happy to do this, but would be horrified to think that anyone might think that my personal views had any official support. Similarly, I am anxious myself to stress that, aware of the sensitivity of commenting on music exams, I take every effort to ensure that privileged information which comes to me as an examiner and direct experience from specific examinations I conduct, do not find their way into my posts. If you think you are being offered an insight into how the exams work or if you think you recognise yourself in one of my posts, you are wrong.
That said, I would be a pretty lousy examiner if I did not do all in my power to support and promote what I believe to be an excellent tool in the armoury of music education, and when something comes up which undermines the very basis of a system of which I am as ardent a supporter as you could find, I cannot sit back and let it pass while I have the channel to redress the balance. So it was that when an Italian tenor of some repute collared me after a rehearsal and asked if I had a few minutes to spare, assuming that he was going to praise me for my perceptive notes for his latest CD or for my informative writing in the booklet accompanying a recent concert he had given, I offered my unwavering attention for as long as long as he required. As it turned out, he was anxious to vent his wrath on someone and, knowing that I had some connection with the world of music exams, he chose me as the fall guy.His anger was the result of an audition he had recently given to a young soprano. Her CV was so impressive he felt he could not but offer her an audition and the clinching thing seemed to have been that she had a “Performing Diploma”. Assuming her to be a capable, possibly talented, performer, he had called her in with every expectation that she would prove admirably suited to the role he had in mind for her.
“But my friend”, he wailed, “She could not sing. Puccini, she make-er this noise”. And, much to the bemusement of those around us, he proceeded to do a pretty fair imitation of the sound a goose might emit were it to land inadvertently on an electrified barbed wire fence. Allowing for the Italian penchant for exaggeration, I nevertheless knew exactly what he meant, and while the organisation awarding the “Performing Diploma” was not known to me, I was painfully aware that it could easily have been one of the legitimate diploma-issuing bodies with which I have been associated.The problem is, in trying to find a standard which can be maintained across the board for all musical instruments and voices (it makes a nonsense of the system if, for example, and LRSM in singing was palpably more demanding than an LRSM in double bass), exam boards need to draw up a list of criteria to which examiners are duty bound to follow. Those criteria are in the public domain and are carried by every examiner when they are at work. The drawback of this is that, while diplomas are awarded in all good faith, they really do not indicate anything more than the ability of the diploma holder to meet those pre-determined criteria. In an effort to address this issue, some years ago Trinity renamed its diplomas so that the “Performing Diploma” – which, by its very title, conferred a certain legitimacy on diploma holders as performers – became a “Recital Diploma”. The inference is that the diploma candidate is able to present an intimate recital even if a fully-fledged stage performance is beyond their grasp. But semantics apart, whatever the diplomas are called, an awful lot of people (Italian tenors of some repute notwithstanding) assume it confers total legitimacy on the diploma holder to be up there amongst the great and good of the musical world.
So when singers, unable to produce an Emma Kirkby-like purity of tone but under the rules of the published criteria can show through musical and communicative skills that they have sufficient in them to earn a diploma, are thrust into the spotlight and listened to with unrealistic expectations by others, it is neither their fault, nor that of those who awarded the diploma, that they do not meet expectations. The failure is with those who assume a diploma is something it is not.As I told my Italian tenor, a diploma recognises the overall abilities of a candidate in any musical discipline to fulfil all the necessary criteria laid down to achieve examination success. It does not tell the world that they are great performers. That recognition comes with experience, not with a piece of paper, no matter how beautifully engraved it is.