With more than 30 years conducting graded music examinations under my not inconsiderable belt, I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to inspiring talks given to teachers by chief executives, chief examiners and examiner colleagues (I’ve even done it myself more than once) during which the exam system is likened to the “rungs of a ladder”. It is a useful metaphor for seeing examinations in the wider context of musical education and reinforces the idea that exams are things which are passed along a journey, but are not in themselves the ultimate destination. I particularly like the ladder analogy since it not only implies a sense of striving upwards but hints that, while the exams are rungs which, sequentially, help reach whatever is at the top, each also represents a certain level of achievement which can, if needs be, serve as a goal in its own right while promoting a desire to progress further.
Invited to give a series of lectures in China to students preparing to work as music teachers, I have decided to include some mention of graded music examinations. Students in China live in blissful ignorance of this peculiarly English approach to music education; indeed, beyond the British Isles and its former colonial possessions and protectorates, graded music examinations are largely unheard of. Music education in such places as the USA and Russia, China and Venezuela, carries on perfectly well without them,. However, as I believe fervently that there are enormous benefits and advantages in the graded music exam system, I feel fully justified in, at the very least, explaining what it is and how it works; even though these prospective music teachers will have never experienced it for themselves and are unlikely to have the opportunity to involve their own students in the process.So, in preparing my lectures, I have almost decided to go down the ladder route (if you get my drift), thinking it the best way of explaining the function of graded music examinations to those for whom examinations are usually regarded as essential rather than helpful. I did have some reservations about this, since my lectures will need to be delivered in the presence of a live interpreter, and I’m not sure how the rungs of a ladder analogy works when translated into Mandarin. I have thought long and hard for a more obvious Chinese metaphor, but none springs to mind.
However, after travelling in a remote and somewhat hostile border area in south east Asia, a new idea struck me. There was a history of hostility between the two countries on either side of the border, while a third was actively claiming part of the territory as its own. The result had been some insurgencies during which foreign tourists had been particularly targeted. Along the road we encountered numerous road blocks where nervous soldiers and police unsmilingly demanded to see passports, permits and the contents of cases. After the third of these, and its attendant queues, my driver was clearly getting frustrated, and when a parade of flashing headlamps coming in the opposite direction foretold of yet another roadblock, he lurched on to a dirt track and barrelled through some pretty desperate countryside, until, eventually, he bumped back on to the road. It terrified me and, having shared his frustration with the roadblocks, I realised that I felt much more comfortable with them than without them. They were an inconvenience, certainly, but they helped ensure my safety and increased my sense of security in strange and alien surroundings.It has since struck me how much these roadblocks have in common with graded music exams. They are an inconvenience, interrupting and obstructing what we would like to be the free and easy passage from one point (complete beginner) to another (brilliant virtuosity) but ensuring that, at every stage of the journey, we are not only progressing safely, but helping us to feel more prepared and secure on the lonely journey ahead. A good teacher should understand that graded music exams are an inconvenience, but a useful one. Having to stop and check things like technique, interpretations, aural and reading skills, theoretical knowledge and musical understanding, seems a lot of trouble at the time, but if we skip them, we risk heading into disaster. You can bypass an exam, just as you might a roadblock, but are you totally confident that you haven’t put your future wellbeing in jeopardy?
Continuing the roadblock theme, we can also see how the pupils of a poor teacher - the one who only works towards examinations - will soon lose heart and abandon the journey. Hopping from one roadblock to another, stopping only to sort out the papers and requirements for the next, makes the journey incredibly frustrating and, ultimately, pointless. We do not need security on the road if we are not actually going anywhere. I cannot imagine anyone sitting stationary waiting for the police to set up a roadblock; yet this is exactly what an awful lot of music teachers do.So, I have rather taken to this road block analogy.
But there is a problem with it. I was once in a car stopped at a roadblock on a road out of Shanghai. The driver calmly wound down his window, handed the police officer a wad of currency notes, and then sat back as the barricade was lifted and we could carry on unmolested. I am not sure that is a message I want to give to my Chinese students, so, regretfully, it’s back up that ladder.