Just as so many aspects of our normal daily lives have been severely disrupted or curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, so has the graded music exams system. The three main exam boards, ABSRM, Trinity College London (TCL) and London College of Music (LCM), cancelled physical face-to-face exams and both sought to offer candidates the opportunity to take their exams online, with LCM and TCL being somewhat quicker off the mark to adapt to the new system (and AB has not exactly covered itself in glory in recent weeks with the fiasco of its online theory exams). While the main exam boards struggled to meet the demands of disappointed students and frustrated teachers, MTB Exams continued without disrution.
I had been aware of MTB (Music Teachers’ Board) Exams through some eye-catching online advertising and advertorials in the professional journals, and conversations with a piano teaching friend (who is considering switching to MTB). Their premise and approach looks very good but what often worries teachers (and students, especially those seeking UCAS points) is accreditation. Like the other main exam boards, MTB exams are fully accredited by Ofqal, and MTB Grades 6-8 are eligible for UCAS points which are equivalent in value to the other Ofqual regulated music boards.
MTB is the only UK exam board to offer online exams and nothing else – and at a time when students and teachers have had to adjust to learning online, this approach is eminently sensible and practical. Over the course of 2020, students and teachers have become used to learning online and so the transition to an online music exam should not feel unfamiliar. It is also far more flexible than the standard exam procedure as there are no exam “seasons”; instead students can submit their exam when they are ready.
Many students find taking a graded music exam challenging – and of course the process should be challenging as it is designed as a test of one’s musicianship, technicaly facility and musical knowledge. There is a great deal of fulfilment and musical and personal development to be gained in taking a music exam, but for many students, especially adults, the experience of taking an exam in front of a real, live examiner can be extremely daunting, to the point that, sadly, anxiety can sometimes derail a good performance.
MTB exams avoid this by adopting the same system as that used for the performance element of the Music GCSE exam, where exams are pre-recorded and overseen by teacher. MTB believes this approach makes the exam process more enjoyable and far less stressful. I also think such an approach allows students of all ages to give their best performance. Exams are recorded and submitted to using the MTB app and overseen by the teacher/school, either in person or over webcam. Submitted exams are then marked by MTB’s specialist examiners. Marks are awarded out of 100 and the grade boundaries are the same as for TCL.
The MTB piano syllabus is fairly broad and the selection of set pieces will be familiar to anyone who has used TCL or ABRSM. Candidates also have the option to submit own-choice repertoire for pieces and some studies, provided they meet MTB’s standards and criteria; the website offers plenty of guidance on this to enable teachers and students to make the right choices.
The other aspect of the MTB format which I like is two pre-Grade 1 levels – Pre-Grade Introductory and Pre-Grade Higher, which offer very early students the opportunity to work towards an exam and get used to the process and preparation involved.
All exam materials are downloadable from the MTB site and are contained in a single volume of technical work, exercises/studies and pieces. This avoids students having to purchase several scores or anthologies of pieces from which they may only play one piece. And since the material is in PDF format it can be easily saved on a tablet device. Of course, all of this is based on the assumption that students and teachers have good internet connections and access to a printer to print out the material.
I’m very impressed with the imagination and flexibility that has gone into creating MTB exams (their website is also very clearly designed and easy to navigate), and if I were teaching regularly, I would probably consider using the board for my students. With new piano syllabuses released this summer by both ABRSM and TCL (for which I contributed teaching notes), there has been much discussion about the “prestige” of certain exam boards, the purpose and value of graded music exams, how exams and exam repertoire should reflect current trends in music and music teaching, and the best way to serve students of all ages, abilities and musical tastes. Good teachers know that there is no “one size fits all” in teaching – and good exam boards know this too.
My friend and colleague Andrew Eales, who blogs as Pianodao, has more in-depth articles on MTB Exams on his site: