One of the news magazine programmes on BBC radio invites listeners to submit a single sentence about the most important thing that has happened to them during the week. Some of these can be heart-breaking (I well recall the wife who had said goodbye to her husband at an euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, and the parents who had been informed that their child had an incurable disease), some genuinely heart-warming (the couple reunited after 50 years or the lady able to hear again after 20 years of deafness), and many seem mundane to the outsider but clearly were of great significance to those directly involved. Two things always strike me about these personal news stories; the complete absence of those issues which dominate the public news (politics, economics, etc.) and the almost total absence of music-related stories. Looking back on my life, I suppose there have been just a handful of weeks where I can honestly say what has been the most important thing for me has been something musical, but mostly music, no matter how important it seems to us, rarely has a genuinely life-changing effect. This week, however, one of the stories was musical. A man had written in to say that the most important thing that had happened to him that week was that he had passed grade 2 violin with distinction at the age of 74.
The struggles he had gone through to achieve that are implicit in the fact that he felt it was an achievement worth shouting abroad. And so it is.
For the young musician, an exam is often a distraction; distracting them so far from the path of true musical ability that they fail to grasp the whole purpose of the exam or the study of music. But the adult has no such problems. Presumably, they have already set themselves on their career/life paths and music can, at best, be a diversion from the drudgery of daily existence. As an examiner, while I dread the moment when an elderly personage walks through the door (anticipating stumbles, refusals, lengthy autobiographical discourse, conversations about the weather, politics or, indeed, anything other than music, pleading requests for re-tries and, ultimately, tears) I do derive far more satisfaction from the encounter than I do with a hundred 12-year-olds smashing their way through Liszt and Chopin with amazing technical facility and non-existent emotional perceptiveness.
In my early days I made something of a speciality out of teaching adults, many of whom went on to do very well in their graded music exams and beyond. For them it was a goal worth aiming for. I had little time, as a teacher, for the younger student who would expect to do a music exam a year and nothing else. With the adult, I could talk about the music and what it was all about; with the youngster, one felt confined to technicalities and devices to anticipate what the examiner would be expecting. I’ve often said that I can teach anyone to pass an exam; but I can’t teach anyone to enjoy music. To do that, the student has to have that inner driving force which comes from experience of life and the perceived need to find some way of enriching it.
Children can benefit a lot from graded music exams, provided they are properly taught and are encouraged to see them as steps along a path to an altogether different goal. Adults, on the other hand, can benefit even more. For them the music exam is a goal to be respected rather than merely attempted, and achieving it a wonderful confirmation of still-existent faculties.
If the youth of today think that at 74 someone is on the path to decline, let them think what really goes into a music exam and then celebrate, with me, the wonderful achievement of anyone of that age who can pass his grade 2 violin with distinction.