Exam mark sheets: help or hindrance?

 

It’s that time of the year again – exam season, when teachers and students everywhere are awaiting the results of their practical exams.

All exam candidates receive a mark sheet which includes brief commentaries on and marks for their pieces, technical work (scales, arpeggios and exercises), aural tests, sight-reading etc. At the bottom of the sheet is the most important number: the total number of marks gained which will indicate a Pass, Merit or Distinction.

Mark sheets are useful, but there is some debate amongst my teaching friends and colleagues as to how useful they are. I think it’s important to bear in mind that examiners are limited by time and space to write detailed commentaries. I used to photocopy the mark sheets and give them to my students, but now I extract the most useful and positive comments and discuss these with each student individually. I believe students should receive positive messages from examiners and teachers, so I tend to keep the negative comments back or rephrase them so that the student understands where marks might have been gained or lost. Often comments reinforce areas which have come up in lessons or highlight aspects which require further or more detailed study, and can be applied to new repertoire. Trinity exams divide the marking for the pieces into three sections which I find far more helpful – Fluency & Accuracy, Technical Facility and Communication & Expression.

Occasionally I have read a mark sheet which seems unnecessarily negative while the student has actually scored a good mark, or which to bear no resemblance at all to the student I know and teach. And sometimes, the examiner’s handwriting is simply impossible to decipher! In all cases, I think it is important to remember that an exam is just a snapshot of the student’s attainment, at that time, and that as teachers we should know our students well – their strengths and weaknesses, musical tastes, confidence etc. I know plenty of teachers who do not enter their students for graded exams for this very reason, but in my experience, most students, especially children, enjoy the challenge of working towards an exam or assessment and are always proud of the smart certificates they receive. And for both student and teacher, exams can be useful for benchmarking and assessing progress.

As teachers, we owe it to our students to judge when is the best time for them to enter for an exam and to structure their learning to ensure they are well-prepared.

Trinity College London graded music exams assessment criteria (PDF document)

ABRSM graded music exams marking criteria (PDF document)

 

(Picture source: SE22 Piano School)

 

Why go on a piano course?

Piano courses are more popular than ever now, in part thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play It Again’. (For many years, Alan was a regular at what he described as “piano camp” – Lot Music, based in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France).

So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most pianists would agree that in addition to the opportunity to study with some top-class teachers and international concert artists, the social aspect is very appealing. As pianists we spend a lot of time alone with only dead composers (mostly) and that box of wood and wires that is our instrument for company. Many of us like the solitude, but it is also important for us to connect with other pianists. A course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, to hear one another play, share repertoire, receive expert tuition in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, indulge in piano chat, and have fun. I have formed firm, lasting friendships with people I have met on piano courses, and some of us return year after year because we gain so much from the experience. If you are preparing for an exam, diploma, competition or audition, a course is also a great way of receiving invaluable feedback from a skilled teacher and the other participants, and is an opportunity to run a programme by an informal and sympathetic audience ahead of the big day. Courses such as Lot Piano and La Balie aim to combine expert tuition with a luxury “piano holiday” (partners are welcome too), and there is plenty of time to relax, explore the local area and food, or simply chill out by the pool in between masterclass sessions and tutor recitals. Some courses have a special focus on particular composers and/or repertoire, others on duo or chamber music, and most cater for pianists of all levels and ages.

Many courses are organised in a “masterclass” format – the “private lesson in public” – with group activities too. If you have never attended a piano course before, the masterclass experience can be daunting, and I know from my own experience that hearing other people play very well can be quite unnerving, especially if you lack confidence as a performer. However, most teachers go out of their way to be sympathetic and encouraging to novice or nervous students, and the masterclass can be one of the most rewarding and interesting ways of receiving tuition, for you gain not only the input of the teacher but also useful feedback from other pianists. This interaction can be particularly useful in helping you to evaluate how you practise and study, and watching others play and problem-solve at the piano, with the support of a teacher, can be enlightening and thought-provoking. For piano teachers, observing others being taught offers plenty of food for thought as one is exposed to new ideas and methods.

Another excellent benefit of piano courses is the chance to share and explore new repertoire. On every course I have attended I have discovered new music, from Cyril Scott’s sensual ‘Lotus Land’ to works by contemporary composers such as Stephen Montague and Peteris Vasks. I’ve even attended a course where one of the participants performed his own compositions, written for his young daughter and played with warmth and affection.

And then there is the opportunity to perform, which for many amateur pianists can be one of the most daunting things one will ever do, and also one of the most rewarding and inspiring. Performing to a group of people whom you have got to know over the course of a weekend or a week-long course allows you to perform in a ‘safe zone’, and can be less stressful than a more formal concert setting. The preparation, both musical and emotional, is the same, but it can be hugely less nerve-wracking, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, managing performance anxiety and strategies for coping with nerves.

Above all, piano courses can be great fun, and I can think of few better ways to spend a long weekend than in the company of a bunch of equally fanatical pianophiles, all unashamedly in love with the instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but twice a year it is, for me, the pianistic equivalent of going on a retreat, and in addition to the very useful advice and skills I pick up during the course, as a pianist and teacher, I return to my piano with renewed enthusiasm and focus. And playing for one another at a course also reminds us of the primary reason why music was created in the first place – for sharing.