|A badge makes a nice post-exam present. (pic: zazzle.co.uk)
The day that article came out, we went to a pianist friend's place to hear her perform Bach for a small audience including two elderly Holocaust survivors. Our friend is one of London's more magical musicians and she played us a selection of JSB's less often-programmed music - Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Sinfonias, some Capriccios (the one graphically depicting the departure of a beloved brother is a delight!) and more. But in two instances - the D minor Invention and the B minor Sinfonia - within two notes I felt a chill descend on my shoulders. Images assaulted me: Oh My God, That One.
I did the D minor Invention for goodness knows which exam, when I was I forget how young. The B minor Sinfonia was a set piece for Grade VII when I was 14. And the struggles came straight back. I worked on that bit for weeks and months. It was terrifying. I didn't know what the flippin'heck to do with the music and I didn't like it very much. You need fast fingers that aren't sweating and shaking, a light touch, preferably not too much pedal. You need to understand Bach's dance rhythms, his own instrument, his glittery, humorous flair. I don't think I'd ever heard of any of them at that age.
Glenn Gould plays the B minor Sinfonia. What a mean thing to set for Grade VII!
Exams? I was terrified. I didn't know what the piano was going to do to me (the keys are usually sticky and sweaty from all the other terrified students' fingers before you). You're shoved through the process as fast as humanly possible, because there's a time limit and a lot of kids waiting their turn outside in the waiting room, pasty-faced and nauseous.
None of that has the first thing to do with making music, enjoying music, understanding it, taking in the spirit-food with which it provides us. It's all about building up the CV, same as any exam. And 35 years later, the music is still laden with the ghastly associations of that miserable day: warming up from the chilly corridors by soaking your hands in a basin of hot water in the ladies' loos, simply counting the minutes until the whole thing will be over and you get given a nice treat of tea and cake as your reward (or I did - I was lucky).
Our friend plays Bach as if it's music to which angels dance. Among the guests were a sparky and elegant woman in her eighties, born in Hungary, who survived Bergen-Belsen, and a retired doctor of similar vintage who was deported from Amsterdam, where he'd lived a few blocks away from Anne Frank, at the age of five. He plays a little and has a clavichord at home. He and I followed the score of the Inventions together until he decided to stop and listen only, since there were tears in his eyes.
Of course, there's room for music to do both these things: to bring CV enhancement and "life skills" and to offer spiritual sustenance and oneness with the universe. That's an amazing thing about music: it's like a tree, which can pump out oxygen that we breathe, grow fruit that we eat, burn to help us keep warm, make furniture that we can sit on, make a violin that we can play, build a house or a ship, be carved to make a beautiful work of art.
Not enough of us, though, have the chance to realise that there is more to music than horrible experiences in exams. They should never be the be-all and end-all, but it worries me that perhaps, to many modern families, they become so, and they could actually put the kids off music. After all, if your first experiences of performing are in an exam situation, those associations might stay with you and they can be awfully difficult to shake off. You're ingrained to feel you are being judged from the start, not sharing music with other human beings.
Another downside is that they hold people back. You become psychologically tied to your level. "Oh, I can't play that - it's Grade VIII and I'm only Grade V." I remember being stuck with Grade VI for two years because for some reason my entry forms didn't arrive when they were meant to, so it had to be put back, but the syllabus changed, I had to learn the new set pieces and so forth. And you needed Grade VI for A level, I think, so I had to do it. When I could have just said "what the heck", and moved on to something more challenging, and maybe progressed faster.
Like various other great Victorian inventions (the first syllabus was developed in 1890) this system was possibly designed via a mindset that liked to keep people neatly in their place, like kitchen utensils. I once interviewed a quartet leader who'd been teaching the Sistema kids in Venezuela; we'd all been marvelling at the joy and enthusiasm of the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra. What do those kids have that we don't, I asked. "They don't do graded music exams," my violinist growled. "Nobody tells them they can't do this or that piece because they're only Grade IV."
The Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra in 2007. I know it's fashionable to denigrate El Sistema these days, because of the appalling conditions of life in Venezuela, but I don't think they'd have been playing like this at the Proms if they'd been stuck shivering in a corridor waiting to do their Grade V.
I don't know many professional musicians who went through the grade exams. If they're going to make a career, they'll probably have exceeded Grade VIII by the age of 12 in any case.
So do the grades, by all means, but don't forget about making music. If your children are tackling these exams, invent ways for them to practise performing for fun, with other kids, with ice cream and balloons, with a celebratory atmosphere. Take them to fun and social musical events - kids' operas, youth orchestra concerts, holiday courses. Let music-making be a natural and integral part of life, about giving, about sharing an enthusiasm, something to look forward to, something to love. If the exam associations - being judged, being frightened, longing for it to be over - can stay with you for decades, so can the joy of that other way forward.