When coronavirus hit the UK, it became evident that normal life as we know it would have to change. This included the provision of graded music exams. The major exam boards swiftly cancelled the spring season’s exams, which caused a great deal of frustration and disappointment to candidates and teachers who had been working so hard in anticipation of their exams.
It’s unlikely that the summer season of exams will go ahead as usual and thus the exam boards are finding ways to enable candidates to take their exams. This is especially important for those in Year 13 taking Grades 6 to 8 which accrue UCAS points. The ABRSM is offering an “adapted exam” for these candidates, while from August candidates in the UK will be able to enter for an online exam “with an emphasis on performance” – more information here.
Trinity College London is offering a digital assessment, allowing candidates with an existing exam booking to upload a video of their exam pieces and receive feedback and marks just as in a normal exam. Candidates will be able to take the other components of the exam (sight-reading, technical exercises etc) at a later date at a Trinity exam centre. This will then be recognised as a fully regulated grade exam. Grades 6 to 8 will also be eligible for UCAS points. More information here about Trinity’s arrangements in response to COVID-19.
The London College of Music, perhaps the most enlightened and forward-looking of the three exam boards (in my opinion), is offering candidates a fully regulated recorded exam option. In addition, and this is a significant innovation, they are offering Online Exams where candidates meet with an LCM examiner in real time, over a secure platform at a mutually agreed time. The exam will be conducted in much the same way as a face-to-face exam, except that the candidate will be playing at home. Full details of LCM’s digital arrangements here.
As a passionate advocate of music for enjoyment and personal development rather than tick-box attainment and assessment, I am fully in favour of offering students the opportunity to take their exams online, either by uploading their pieces for feedback or in the slightly more formal setting of an actual online exam, as per the LCM option, and I think these options have significant benefits for candidates:
A less stressful exam experience
A number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, who have had to move all their teaching online because of COVID, have commented that their students seem more engaged, motivated and above all relaxed when playing in their own homes and on their own instruments (in the case of piano students). For many students, the exam process and the activity of performing in front of a stranger can be a daunting and, occasionally, very stressful experience. (I can still remember my Grade 8 exam, taken nearly 40 years ago. My teacher gave me no guidance or support regarding performance anxiety and I was simply expected to enter this rather cavernous music studio in which lurked an imposing shiny black grand piano, and do my best.) When I prepared students for exams, we would always do “practice exams” as well as exercises and strategies to help manage anxiety. Today we are so much better informed about stage fright and the anxiety of performance, and the best teachers know how to support and prepare their students. But even the best-prepared candidate can have an off day when they come to take their music exam, and it’s a great pity when an exam performance is derailed by nerves.
Many children and young people, and adults too, want to take graded music exams and value the experience, feedback and benchmarking that comes from the process. Passing a music exam, at whatever grade and marks awarded, is a huge achievement. Thus, the option to take your music exam virtually is extremely tempting, offering as it does a more informal experience – and even the virtual exam format is likely to be less daunting if you are playing in the familiar surroundings of your home.
For some students and parents, exam centres are not so easy to get to. The online option means you do not have to travel to take the exam.
Play to your strengths
The assessment formats which permit you to upload a recording of your pieces allows you to ensure you send in your best version of the pieces for feedback. And if you are used to performing to your teacher via a platform like Zoom, taking an exam in this format should feel familiar, plus you will be performing from your home.
These new exam options are in place to allow candidates to take their exams and/or receive important critical feedback at a time when the exam centres are closed, but I think the points made above are a good case for keeping an online option available even when face-to-face exams resume. It will certainly be interesting to see how this system plays out (forgive the pun!) and how satisfactory it proves to be for candidates and teachers.
If you have experience of online assessment, I would be very pleased to hear from you.
Meanwhile, to everyone who is working towards a graded music exam, good luck and, above all, enjoy your music-making!