15 July 2016

Grade 8 at 80

Following my post about the man who had passed Grade 2 violin at the age of 74, a number of examiner colleagues got in touch with their own stories of examining members of the older generation.  It's not for me to re-tell these - although I liked the story of the man who, entered for a grade 3, confessed to the examiner that he had no idea how to play the piano and had only entered the exam so that he could have someone different to talk to; since his retirement he had only his family for company and the 15 minutes of an exam seemed to provide him with an opportunity to get out and meet someone new.  However, all this reminiscing did remind me of one of my more memorable encounters as an examiner with an older candidate.  And, as it all took place well over 30 years ago, I am content that the main protagonist has long since died.

Having been one of the youngest examiners taken on by the Associated Board - I was barely into my mid-20s when they appointed me - I confess I had lots of experience as a performer, listener and teacher but minimal experience of dealing with people.  So it was especially daunting for me as a new examiner to be faced with those of more advanced years.  Only a few years into my examining life, I was sent to one of the Scottish islands where the steward was a perky old fellow who came into the exam room before each candidate giving me the low-down on their background and
what had been going on in the waiting room.  "This wee lassie", he would tell me in his melodious Western Isles accent - "is very proud of her new shoes", and then usher the young girl in; and, suitably primed, I'd be able to break the ice by saying "My, Megan, what beautiful shoes you're wearing.  Let's hear if you can play C major hands together as beautifully!"

Thus it was that. with the last candidate of a morning session, listed as doing grade 8, I was expecting a similarly detailed intro from the steward.  Instead he came in armed with a large metal wastepaper basket, placed it beside the piano and, with a wry smile, left the room with the pithy statement; "Ye'll be needing that!".

The door opened and he ushered in the grade 8 candidate; a startling apparition dressed from head to toe in black, wearing a pill-box hat with a black veil draped over her face.  She sat at the stool, put her music on the stand and placed a new box of tissues on the top of the piano.  She sniffed loudly, lifted the veil, reached for a tissue and dabbed her eyes.  The tissue went into the wastepaper basket to be followed by another and another.  "Good morning", I ventured (at that stage I had not mastered how best to address elderly candidates; you could hardly call them by their forenames and I was reluctant to make the assumption of her being a Mrs or a Miss).  "Och, I cannae do it", she uttered, and dabbed her eyes again with a fresh tissue - the wastepaper basket was rapidly filling up.  "Would you prefer to start with the scales or the pieces?"; standard examiner spiel which rarely elicits a decisive response and did not then; "I cannae do it!" she wailed.

Assuming deafness, I repeated the question and, having had the same response, took matters into my own hands, saying as breezily as I could, "Well, let's have E flat major, hands together, ascending and descending, legato."  She extracted a book from the pile on the stand and proceeded to root through it.  I was just about to remind her that scales had to be done from memory when I realised the book was the Bach 48 and she was preparing to play the first piece.  "OK.  Pieces first then.  What are you going to play first?"  "I cannae do it" was the reply.  More tissues from the box, across the eyes and into the basket.  "I don't know that piece!", I quipped in a feeble attempt at humour.  "But I see you have the Bach 48 there.  Which one are you going to play?"  "I cannae do it".

This went on until ,with 10 minutes of a 30 minute exam passed and still nothing played, and even worse, nothing written on the vast A3 report form the AB used at grade 8 for a couple of years in the mid-1980s, my patience snapped.  "You have come in here, played nothing, and spent all the time telling me what you can't do.  Don't waste my time or yours. Please just play something.  Anything!  Don't tell me you can't do it!   I know you can do it!"

She was suitably shocked into submission, gathered herself together and played, quite acceptably, a Bach Prelude and Fugue, part of a Beethoven Sonata (the AB in those days used to ask for a complete Sonata and instruct the examiner just to hear fragments) and some Chopin.  Her scales never did get played, but her aural was fair and her sight-reading almost fluent.  She passed with 103 in what was the longest grade 8 I ever administered (72 minutes in total).

For weeks afterwards I waited for the complaint to come in.  I had lost my temper and been curt with a candidate who was clearly in  a very distressed state.  I regretted it bitterly and cursed myself for my short temper.  However, when Ronald Smith, then the Secretary to the Board (later to be re-branded its Chief Executive) contacted me enclosing a letter from the "candidate" which he wanted me to read, far from being a complaint, it was a letter of thanks.

"Dear Sir. I recently took my grade 8 piano exam and although I have no great expectations of having passed, I am writing to thank the examiner for giving me the opportunity to play my best and to apologize to him for my uncooperative behaviour.  I am 80 years old and my husband had passed away the very morning of the exam.  Even from his death bed he urged me to go ahead and do the exam; 'I know you can do it!' were his dying words to me.  When the examiner said those very same words to me, I heard my husband's voice and it pulled me out of my misery.  No matter how I fared in the exam, I feel I have fulfilled my dear departed husband's last wishes, and for that I must thank your examiner".

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