It’s that time of year again.
In houses the length and breadth of Britain (as well as one or two further afield) suitcases are being packed, books of tests dusted off, instruction papers rooted out, calculators primed, packets of post-it notes, new pens and refills replenished and batteries checked and new ones bought. Hotel and flight bookings are being confirmed, passports are being retrieved, taxis booked to the airport, train tickets purchased and Satnavs primed. Yes; the music examiners are on the march!
The period between October and December has traditionally been the busiest for the music examining industry, and while the huge growth in candidate numbers and ancillary services, especially in south and southeast Asia, has substantially increased the examiner’s workload over the year, this period is still the biggie; the time when even the most reluctant examiners, fulfilling their obligation to “offer a minimum of three weeks”, have no choice but to get down and dirty in the examination circus.
I no longer examine for either of the big exam boards and I have to confess I miss it dreadfully. I used to love that moment, just as summer was ending, when the letter would drop through the door (in later years it became an email) detailing the places and dates of my autumn examining tour. I never asked to go anywhere nor expressed any sort of preference – indeed rumour had it that if you did, you were guaranteed never to go there – and I was thrilled when the list came, sometimes even having to get out the map to see where, precisely, I would be heading off to in a few months’ time.
I enjoyed the travelling, even when, at the height of my examining career, I was doing upwards of 20 long-haul flights and checking into anything up to 50 different hotels a year. I enjoyed that frisson of excitement arriving at a new hotel wondering whether the room would be palatial with spa bath and ocean view, or cramped with resident cockroaches and a view and whiff of the kitchen waste bins. I enjoyed sending out the preliminary letter to the local representatives telling them that I liked black coffee with no sugar in the morning and white tea with no sugar in the afternoon, that I never ate when examining and that I would be arriving on such and such a day and would be at such and such a hotel to receive my week’s papers. I enjoyed meeting the stewards and helpers who worked so hard to ensure the examining day went off smoothly. I loved being able to go back to the hotel after a seven hour day and know that I had nothing left to do until tomorrow. But most of all I loved hearing the candidates and using the resources of my professional judgement to offer them worthwhile assessments.
An examining day of almost seven hours continual listening and writing is not everybody’s idea of fun, but I found it so, I relished the chance I had to make a difference, to inspire and to encourage and, sometimes, to point out faults and problems. Direct feedback was rare, but when an accidental meeting with a teacher resulted in a comment like; “I’m so glad you wrote what you did. I’ve been trying to get my student to do that for months! She will probably do it now that the examiner has said it too!” I felt that all the agony of listening to nervous, terrified candidates had been worth it. Occasionally one made mistakes, but I, like all of my colleagues, had just one goal; to give as fair and balanced assessment of whatever performance was thrown at us, and thereby encourage candidates to improve the standard of their music-making.
That, though, is no longer what is wanted. Professional judgement is viewed with suspicion in an environment where commercial pressures dominate. The examination fee is not seen as payment for professional service, but as purchase of a commodity. That commodity is a result which reflects not reality but aspiration. The examiner can no longer write a carefully-worded report and issue a supporting mark in the knowledge that it will be accepted as a professional’s considered judgement. Instead, restrained by increasingly conflicting and unrealistic instructions from an office-based administration with a clerical background largely separate from musical or educational experience, the examiner has to write a bland and largely meaningless report in order to forestall any complaint from those who have to be regarded not as teachers or students, but as clients and customers.
Examination boards have become so focused on avoiding complaints that they are in danger of losing their very raison d’être. Already among teachers in south east Asia it is widely believed that if you do not like the result the examiner has issued, you only need to complain and it is almost automatically revised upwards by a London-based administration, terrified in case, in the hugely competitive environment which is now the music examination landscape of the region, they lose to the rival board that client and the potential customers in its circle of influence.
Seen from the outside, music exams are a strange and wholly unnatural phenomenon. They serve no obvious musical purpose and stand in the way of artistic development. Lessons have to be adapted to suit the demands of the examination syllabus, rather than the musical and educational needs of the individual student. When a teacher told me that she was preparing a student for an examination, I asked her why. “You need to do examinations”, she eventually told me, having found my question remarkably inane. “That’s the only way students can progress”. How bitterly Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven must be feeling now; had they taken exams as students, what might they not have achieved as musicians?
For many students and teachers, however, exams are a valuable means of gauging progress and achievement. But what value does it have when you regard the examiner’s report not as an assessment of achievement but as the opening bid in an extended negotiation to obtain the mark the customer wants. I pity my former colleagues; what pleasure is there in examining when you know your professional judgement is regarded as immaterial?