Sample Article from The Studio
The Studio journal offers articles of interest to members such as this one to assist teachers in preparing students for examinations.
Some thoughts on music examinations
by Sue Thompson
The main benefits derived from music examination are to provide: an unbiased assessment of both the student and teacher’s progress; opportunities for intensive preparation and fine tuning of repertoire; and long term goals for students to work towards.
For less experienced teachers, the graded technical work and repertoire within the examination syllabus, is helpful in providing guidelines for study. However this should not be treated as a complete study curriculum, and teachers should find ways of providing students with a broader musical education and not spend the entire year on examination preparation
Students sitting for lower grade examination should spend no more than one or two terms on exam preparation. Otherwise their repertoire and overall music education may be too restricted, leading to disenchantment and possible termination of music study.
It is sometimes beneficial for students to have a year off examination work in order to concentrate on reinforcing weaker areas or to introduce them to other areas of performance. Some students are unsuitable for examination work and should not be encouraged to follow this path. Apart from examinations, goals and incentives such as recitals, competitions and playing to their peers in small groups is sufficient motivation.
Between periods of examination study teachers should allow students to broaden their repertoire with a wide variety of pieces for sheer enjoyment and relaxation, quick study pieces to improve reading skills or reinforce weaknesses, duet and other ensemble material. Other areas are keyboard harmony and creativity and aural training for developing inner hearing and critical listening skills. Examination aural tests are for testing purposes and are not designed as a course in aural training; therefore teachers need to look at ways of building a solid foundation in aural awareness.
Suggestions for less experienced teachers preparing students for examination Before the examination, try not to transfer your anxieties to your students and persuade parents to do likewise.
• Explain to students that the examiner is there to provide helpful and constructive criticism.
• Warn students that the examiner may inadvertently ask something outside the student’s grade, for example a wrong scale or general knowledge question. There is no harm in politely pointing this out to the examiner. Examiners are fallible!
• Make sure young children understand terminology that may be used by the examiner. (For example, similar motion, harmonic minor, modulation etc.)
• Demonstrate to students how to adjust the stool heights, otherwise provide students with a firm cushion if the stool is too low.
• If necessary, provide a footstool for younger students and train them how to gauge how far away from the piano to sit so they are not too close.
• In order to avoid false starts, advise students not to rush into playing their technical work or pieces before they are mentally ready, and to wait a few moments between sonata movements. They need to imagine the tempo and mood of each piece before commencing.
• Immediately following a performance, students should not look up at the examiner or take their hands to abruptly off the instrument except in bravura type pieces
• Make sure that clothing worn to the exam is comfortable, neat and suitable for the occasion; shoes with low heels are more suitable for pedalling than high heels, platform soles or joggers.
• Don’t erase pencil marks from pieces at the last moment as this can be disconcerting for the student who is used to seeing them on the page. Only general knowledge and analysis marks need be erased, while fingering, phrasing and expression marks may be left to assist the student.
• Analysis of pieces should be introduced from the outset to facilitate learning and not left until close to the examination.
• Similarly, aural testing and sight-reading cannot be crammed at the last minute. Both skills require careful and frequent reinforcement to be successful.
• If students are having difficulty with aural work or sight-reading for their grade, it is better to go back and work through earlier grade levels. This will achieve better results and rebuild confidence.
• Close to the examination, allow students to play through each piece so they have a sense of continuity. Concentration is difficult when students are continually stopped for correction of errors and this can lead to ‘stuttering’ in performance. If necessary make a mental or written note of any critical feedback at the end of the performance. Advanced students need to play through their entire program a number of times in order to test concentration and endurance.
• If necessary, advanced students should arrange for, and rehearse with, a page turner.
• Arrange for opportunities for students to play their examination pieces in front of each other as well as to an invited audience close to the event. This often takes pressure off the actual examination. To be meaningful this recital should take place at least a week or 10 days before the exam so that corrections or alterations may be made in plenty of time.
• Cassette or videotaped recordings are an excellent means by which students can see and hear themselves play. However, it is important to allow students plenty of time to hear and see the replay so they may make necessary adjustments.
• To help new examination students prepare, it is helpful to arrange for a mock exam close to the real event. This can be conducted by the teacher or a colleague. During this mock examination, the ‘examiner’ should make written not verbal comments on the performance to be conveyed at the end of the session. Allow the mock exam to be as close a simulation of the exam as possible.
• Inexperienced teachers sometimes have difficulty knowing how soon before an examination to start teaching the list pieces. If started too late, the student may not be ready, too early and the student may lose enthusiasm and momentum and the performance its spontaneity. When unsure, it is advisable to start the pieces early, giving a date by which the pieces must be completed and performed. This could be in the form of one or two examination recitals given with other students, of either specified list pieces only, or all examination pieces. Following this, any completed pieces may be put aside to be revived and refined closer to the examination date.
• When an examination is held at a public centre, some teachers feel it is better not to accompany their students. Many students are over-anxious to please parents and teachers and may become more nervous with their teacher present. Before the examination teachers and parents should hide their own feelings of anxiety but give comfort and moral support both before and afterwards.
• Immediately before the examination, students should be kept calm and quiet and given the opportunity to look through their pieces to refresh their memories on points of interest. A few deep breaths will help steady the nerves and prevent hyperventilation.
• In cold weather advise students to dress warmly and if necessary carry a hot water bottle to keep their hands warm.
The following are suggestions for teachers who provide their home as a private centre for examinations.
• Provide a quiet, cheerful and relaxed atmosphere and a recently tuned and well maintained instrument.
• In the waiting room, which should be warm in winter, have some light refreshments and reading material such as comics, magazines etc. on hand.
• If there are several students sitting for the same grade, try to vary the choice of pieces. This allows the examiner greater scope for comments, while students have more opportunity to hear a wider repertoire.
Examination work should be very carefully introduced from the outset, with meticulous attention to detail if remedial teaching at later lessons is to be avoided. Therefore, proceed by teaching a little at a time, making sure the student understands how and what they need to practise each week.
Insist on quality practise and you will be well rewarded!
Reproduced with permission from "Bravura" July 2012, the magazine of the Music Teachers' Association of Queensland.