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Under Pressure – Digital Music Exams

Under Pressure – August, 2020

As Covid-19 continues to a global issue, there have been many industries hard hit by the virus, and none more so than the music industry. Teachers needing to adapt and teach online, all concerts and recording projects shelved and with no grass roots rehearsals – many musicians have been at home with nothing to practice for. At the time of writing things are starting to ease slightly. We’re seeing the reintroduction of socially distanced concerts as well as community rehearsal allowed to return with many, many guidelines observed for safety.

But while the music world has been at a standstill things have still had to move forward. Teachers have had to adapt or loose their income, and students have had to adapt as well or give up their joy of progressing and continued musical development. I’ve enjoyed teaching online, especially as it’s something I’ve been doing since 2015 when a new baby and house moves happened. It’s not the same as one to one lessons but actually despite it being more exhausting, it has been a welcome change as I’ve found it has really worked students ears and brains a bit more.

While lessons were almost the same online, it did mean that many students missed out on music exams when lockdown started. Now there are some great exam boards out that who already offer online / skype exams, like my favorite Victoria College of Music, but the ‘main’ exam boards were left napping and unprepared.

It was great to see Trinity was the first to prepare itself for a possible long term transition to online exams as we still don’t yet know when ‘real’ exams will resume.  As I had students preparing for exams in the Winter I wanted to complete an online exam to see what they were like as I don’t like entering students for exams I haven’t experience myself first.

So with the closing day approaching I finally made my choices, and thanks to the super speedy delivery from June Emerson Music my music arrived before the closing date too.

The task was simple. Record all three of the pieces chosen from the syllabus in one video and submit them before the closing date which was 14 days later. Easy I hear you say! Well yes, and quite  a lot no. You would expect on a first glance to say that these would be much easier than exams. You can do as many takes as you like, there’s no supporting tests to do so you have less to worry about and less overall to practice. Trinity then mark your three pieces out of a hundred, instead of the whole exam being out of a hundred, and there you go. That should be easier, that should be cheating and be worth less than a ‘normal’ exam surely.

Erm no!

The lack of supporting tests were viewed as a much easier option, indeed Trinity underestimated the popularity of the exam process so did struggle slightly with the admissions and website end of things. But actually I think most people found the lack of supporting tests harder… Make a mistake on your pieces? That’s ok because your scales can bring the marks up again. Forgot your dynamics? That’s ok … because you can soon get some mark backs in the aural tests… oh..

Now I am aware that there would have been no way logistically Trinity could have offered a great number of people supporting tests. Scales could have been practiced too much, where as off the cuff randomly chosen scales are often a better indication of knowledge. And the aural and sight-reading tests would have been difficult to arrange. So there was no option really but to run the exams without.

But that means the whole exam is on your performance and for most of us that meant no accompanist as well. Now that might sound easier, no piano to keep up with, no bars rest to count, no introduction to hope they have at the speed you want to go at….

The reality of doing an exam that’s ‘just’ playing three pieces was a lot different to how a lot of people envisaged.

Obviously the advantage of recording one video to submit is that you can record as many takes as you like. But this is not easier. You play it once, decide to go again, but this time mess up something different to the first time. Listening back is horrible – you are really well and truly exposed. There’s no piano to hide behind, no one there to help support your tricky runs and breathing… its all just you. Recording yourself while you practice is always something I’ve advised student to do, but I’ve never actually asked them to do a video as most hate being on camera, which is another downside to online exams in this way.  But I think recording video will be a new teaching aid when we’re back to school.

Intonation, breathing and note production are so much clearer using a video. It could be that because there’s a picture that we focus on it more. Or it could just be that hearing outselves on video is like hearing ourselves talk, no one really enjoys that either.

It will be interesting to get the exam results and feedback. One of my concerns is how the examiners are watching the video. Are they treating it like a ‘live’ exam, so playing the video and writing as they go. (Hopefully!) Or are they really concentrating solely on the pieces and then pausing the video to write as they go. Would they listen again? (Hopefully not) Would the examiner be more lenient as there are no supporting tests, or harsher as it’s all about the performance side…. All these are unknowns as it’s never been done before. 

Overall I’m not sure I’d encourage students to do these exams. Yes as a stop gap they’re a good idea. But actually having the whole exam ride on the examiners interpretation of your video and performance… not sure about that.