27 February 2017

Distinction Secrets

“Some Believe That to Get Distinction You Need To Be Special.  We Believe That To Get Distinction You Need To Know The SECRETS!”

I came across that (or something very close to it) pasted to a window of a small private music studio tucked away in an ill-lit corridor in some forgotten shopping mall over in the east side of Singapore.  Having just spent a couple of interesting hours in the company of some ABRSM examiners who had just arrived to undertake their extended examining tours, it got me thinking.  Are there SECRETS to getting a Distinction?

With 40 years as a graded music examiner for the two principal boards (ABRSM and Trinity) I have frequently been asked that question.  Are there exam techniques (ie. special tricks) which, if the candidates employs them, the examiner will automatically award Distinction?

Certainly I have had plenty of those tricks tried on me.  In Malaysia on no less than four occasion I was unsubtly offered inducements to look favourably on a certain teacher’s students.  Many of us examiners have found ourselves put into a very difficult position by having been offered what seems like genuine hospitality from people overseas only to realise, far too late in the day, that this innocent social intercourse is in fact intended to put pressure on the examiners; I never forget one particular occasion in Hong Kong where three of us, very seasoned examiners, were asked to comment on a singer in a restaurant, to which we had been invited as guests of the proprietor.  A few days later one of us (not me, thankfully) reported that the same singer we had politely praised, appeared in the examination room as a candidate. 

The trouble with examiners coming from the UK (as the vast majority of them do) to examine in other parts of the world, is that they do not understand the different business ethics, where inducements are considered perfectly normal, and where pressure to gain Distinction is way beyond anything they have experienced back home.  I cannot speak for others, but inducements never achieved the desired result with me.  As I often reported, when informing the various Boards of these situations, I accepted all inducements to avoid causing offence, and promptly ignored them all.

So what other secrets might help a candidate achieve Distinction?

Firstly, there is the choice of examiner.  Try as the Boards might to achieve a wholly artificial uniformity amongst their examiners (if no two people ever listen to music the same way, why should examiners be expected to do so?), there is no doubt that some examiners are more prone to handing out Distinctions than others.  I knew of one examiner who suggested (and not entirely flippantly), that if the candidate had taken the effort to prepare for the exam, they deserved high marks.  Some examiners are more generous when confronted by a younger candidate at a high grade (and Trinity commit the ultimate sin by letting their examiners know the ages of each candidate); I remember arguing at length with another seasoned examiner who told me how she had awarded the highest mark she ever had at a grade 6 “because this sweet little child was just FIVE YEARS OLD!”  And there is a widespread belief in some societies that women examiners are more harsh than their male counterparts, and that young examiners are meaner markers than older ones.  I was once involved in sifting through entry forms which included a box marked “special requests”, and was surprised how many put as their special request “Elderly White Male Examiner please!”

But, unless there is some secret way of determining who the examiner is going to be (and I do not believe there is), then this is a purely chance element over which the teacher has no control.

Perhaps a secret over which the teacher/candidate has a little more control is in the choice of repertory.  If the composer of a piece is also the examiner (something which seemed to happen a lot in my days with the ABRSM), teachers felt that, by choosing their piece, the student stood a better chance of gaining a Distinction.  Similarly, much effort would be made to find out who the examiner was (something which the ABRSM used to hold as a state secret, but which Trinity never did, often announcing the examiner and giving the examiner’s full biography, weeks before the exams) in order to find out what their personal likes and dislikes were.  An examiner who declared an interest in the music of Chopin would often find candidates playing Chopin to him, while another examiner who had written about the “error” of using a pedal in Bach, would find all the Bach works presented to him in the examination room delivered senza pedale.  I’m not sure, however, that this ever worked; examiners are much too preoccupied with their administrative tasks in the examination room to recognise the efforts made to entice a higher mark through choice of music or style of performance.

Deep post-exam analysis by teachers is often carried out as a means of trying to identify a pattern.  “All the examiners seem to ask for F sharp major in contrary motion at Grade 5.  Examiners never ask for C major in Grade 7” and so on.  But while some examiners do have their own private list of scales and exercises to ask, there is no central directive on this, and the technical work asked in the exam is entirely random, within the parameters of the syllabus.

So if choice of examiner, choice of repertory or section of technical work has no effect on the result, what does?  Increasingly, the technique of an appeal seems to be a teacher’s weapon of choice.  There was a time with the ABRSM (in the days of the inimitable Pam Harewood) when any complaint from a teacher was met with a stern, curt and dismissive reply.  Candidates and teachers are now seen as “customers” who need to be induced to retain brand loyalty in an evermore competitive market, so an appeal is almost automatically met with an official assumption of the examiner’s error, and customer satisfaction is assured by an upward revision of the mark.

However, beyond wondering what secrets there were in obtaining a Distinction, the notice I read also made me wonder why there was considered a need to obtain a Distinction in the first place.  If we accept (as we should) that a graded music exam is no indicator of musical ability – just an indicator of an ability to perform specific skills – what value is there in a Distinction?  Passing an exam, is, surely, enough, and with that the student can get on with the serious business of studying music rather than exam technique.

Unfortunately, within south-east Asian society where there is a widespread inability to recognise musical ability, the ability to recognise paper qualifications is endemic.  We all have stories of great musicians shunned because they have not got a paper qualification.  Singapore’s Ministry of Education or National Arts Council would never entertain any application from the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven because they have no paper qualifications to show for their endeavours.  Rather like the academic who publishes reams and reams of pointless and incomprehensible gibberish simply because tenure in post demands an active record of publication, the sterile attainment of qualifications undermines the whole raison d’etre of their existence.

In that culture, Distinction does matter, and every trick known to mankind (and few besides) is brought into play in an attempt to guarantee Distinction.

But, in truth, there are no secrets to it.  With assiduous practice and hard work, any student should pass.  A student who actually enjoys their music-making and is not too stifled by the constraints of an examination might well get Merit.  But for a Distinction, only two things seem to help.  Being exceptionally skilled as a technician – with agile fingers and a pin-point level of accuracy – or having a natural musical instinct which shines through even when confronted by the horribly constraining environment of an examination. 

If it was left to me, I’d give up the chase for a Distinction, be happy with a Pass, and then go on and enjoy my music.  But for too many, music has nothing to do with enjoyment, and everything to do with hard work, misery and artistic sterility.  It’s not the fault of the examination boards that they stifle musical enjoyment; rather, it’s the fault of those who believe that the sole purpose of a musical examination is to get a Distinction.

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