Sunday, August 01, 2004

What think you of music exams?

I don't know exactly what went wrong, but I got a terribly nice, polite letter the other day saying that I haven't been accepted as an examiner for the ABRSM.

At first I thought that the slightly vague comments - appreciative of one's musicality and friendliness to the candidates, but concerned about "procedural errors" - were specific criticisms of my 'performance' in my training days. Then I compared notes with a good friend, a composer, who also had a rejection letter. The letters were identical, word for word. Hm.

Not that it's a problem. Quite a relief, in fact, not to face the idea of having to tell some innocent editor, 'sorry, no, I can't go to Verbier next week, I have to go to Bloggingham High School in Scunthorpe to examine 16 Grade I pianists and a prep test trumpet instead'. My composer friend and I did scratch our heads, however, wondering exactly where it was that we didn't fit the ABRSM blueprint. I am somewhat annoyed that I spent four very intense days being 'trained', but I don't remember anyone particularly 'training' me. Instead, they throw you in, let you watch a few on the first days, and then expect you to know how to do it straight away. If you go wrong, sometimes they'll step in and tell you, but by the final day, it seems, it has to be perfect. And if they haven't told you where you went wrong, how do you know?! Also, once or twice I found that I adopted procedures copied from one or other of my 'trainers' , only to be told by the next trainer that what I was doing was incorrect!

Perhaps my inner state, so well concealed (I thought), got through somehow - namely, a suspicion that the whole concept of music exams is, well, kinda flawed. Pros: an exam is a good motivator, something to work towards, something to pull your level up, something to give you a sense of achievement. Cons: you develop a dread of performing because Daddy is going to kill you if you get anything less than a good merit, you have a horror of hitting a single wrong note in case you get marked down for it, and you don't bother learning any scales other than the ones that are set for your particular grade. I can think of plenty more cons, but not a vast number of pros.

And then there's 'Creepy Crawly'. Oh boy. 'Creepy Crawly' is a Grade I piano piece. It's got a jazzy rhythm and some blue notes and it's not meant to go too fast. I reckon it is causing incipient dementia in music examiners all over the world. ALL the candidates play it. Ninety per cent of them play it horribly. About forty per cent of most exam candidates seem to be Grade I Piano. You get the idea.

What's more alarming is that 'Creepy Crawly' was written by someone I knew at university. He was the star of his year, two years ahead of me. He sang marvellous counter-tenor, he played the horn gloriously, he was completely brilliant in every way. Everyone adored him, thought he was going to be the next Andreas Scholl/Denis Brain/Simon Rattle (delete as applicable). So what's he doing now? He's teaching singing at a private school in London - and he wrote 'Creepy Crawly'. I just hope he's made a fortune from it.

My friend says she will now go and write loads of music instead. I told her I'll go and write loads of books. Wondering whether to entitle my next attempt at a novel 'Goodbye Creepy Crawly'...