In January 1991 I received a call from Ronald Smith, Chief Executive of the Associated Board, the U.K.’s leading music examining body. He was keen to appoint new examiners- close to the chalk face as it were-teachers in active service who might offer a different perspective from performers and teachers from music conservatories. Was I interested in joining the panel? I was flattered to be asked and quickly accepted the opportunity to widen my musical horizons. Apart from anything else I saw it as a chance to offer feedback to staff and pupils at Marlborough.
With its graded examinations designed for music students and adults in the U.K. and abroad its team of examiners travel to a wide variety of centres offering a unique service in administering what the Board proudly calls The Gold Standard. Readers may well be aware of the basics: eight graded examinations, timed to last from ten minutes at level one to half an hour level eight, involve performing three pieces, playing scales and arpeggios, and attempting sight reading and aural tests. The result is a pass, a merit, a distinction, sometimes a fail, recorded, with relevant comments, on a mark sheet during the exam. Candidates range in age from 5 or 6 to retired adults.
My training included four days of examining alongside established senior examiners, a terrifying and sobering experience concluding with a session with the formidable Chief Examiner, Jean Harvey, who in a single prom in 1953 had performed the solo part in both a violin concerto and a piano concerto. She had a bulky leather handbag, which some joker told me was full of ball-bearings for when she needed to clobber an errant examiner, and she certainly wasn’t standing any nonsense from me.
Charming young Angeline was attempting her Grade 2 Flute exam and when her lip trembled at the prospect of playing her minor scale I hesitated and began to weaken: “Perhaps we should pause for a moment, and….” Miss Harvey wasn’t having this. “Now Angeline, Mr. Nelson has come all this way to hear your scales-so it’s A minor now, straight away!” and Angeline did it, without hesitation. The look from the chief examiner didn’t require words: “You men-no defence in the presence of a nervous young lass!”
Once launched I began the long journey from place to place, trying to keep on schedule whilst bearing in mind Sir Hugh Allen’s memorable summary of the range of abilities needed to be a successful examiner:
“A talent for simple arithmetic, an elastic vocabulary, a synthetic memory, decent handwriting, an unwearied patience, a ready power of description, a gentle demeanour, a sense of justice, solicitude for the weak, a taste for logic, a golden voice and a bedside manner” to which I would add, bearing in mind the long hours sat at the desk, “rock-solid bladder control!”
For the examiner, apart from making quick and hopefully consistent decisions, the major challenge is to keep to time with an average day list of 24 candidates. In my experience the adults were the most time-consuming, often beginning with chatty preambles and little confessions. One lady arrived in quite a lather, peeling off her coat and scarf. “Can we open a window in here, it’s terribly hot?” Another cried out halfway through the exam “Do you know, this is worse than childbirth!”
Sometimes fingers trembled too much for the scales and arpeggios to emerge reliably, however much they had been rehearsed. “It’s not usually this bad”, and again “I cannot believe this is happening” etc.
A candidate from a top security prison was very nervous, and so my God was I, left alone in a room with a prisoner who had committed so heinous a crime that he had to be kept away from all the others. Despite the presence of security staff outside both doors I kept jerking my head up from my mark sheet in case he had decided to strangle me.
He played a Bach Minuet with muddled beats and jumbled up bars-heavy sighing and the cracking of knuckles ensued. Things were a lot better after that, so much so that I let him play the Bach again at the end and it was note-perfect, allowing me to give him a respectable Merit mark overall. Actually, as I discovered by checking the guidelines and speaking with a colleague, what I did was strictly wrong, even if there was time to allow a second run, but in a strange conspiratorial way I don’t regret it.
I am not sure I was cut out for examining: my instinct to help the candidates and lead them to success by a warm and friendly approach was not always a winner.
One candidate waiting at the end of lunch time for a 2.15 examination had drainpipe trousers, bovver boots, white shirt, stringy black tie, a mean haircut and attitude!
“Ah you’re here for the first exam with me are you, young man?” I said cheerily as we went into the exam centre. “I told you, didn’t I?” snarled the mother to her offspring, “I told you if you dress like that they’ll all think you’re a boy!” A few minutes later Tracey took her exam.
To another first in the day candidate I pretended I was the caretaker and warned him that the examiner was not very nice. Fortunately, when he came in ten minutes later he enjoyed the subterfuge and the exam too.
Then there was Thomas, doing his grade three clarinet in the Witney Centre. “Hello Tom” I began breezily “Grade three today etc… Tom was followed by a flautist, down on the list as Grade 2 but actually intending to do Grade 3. I had the Grade 2 Flute music in front of me, so had to quickly switch to the correct music. “Snap!” I said holding up my Grade 3 book with a friendly smile. A few weeks later I had a call from “quality control” at the Board. Did I remember Thomas and Susan, wind candidates at the Witney centre? The wind teacher had registered a complaint. I had called Thomas “Tom”, which he was not used to and it had “rather put him off.” Then Susan had heard me say “Snap!” and this had “made her very nervous.” Did I have any comments regarding these incidents?
I am afraid that we were entering the era of pupil reactions and parent and teacher response and action: the examiner did not necessarily have the final word. All I could say was “Do you really buy this kind of thing?” and of course quality control played a straight bat and said it was only reporting what the teacher had said.
One candidate was attempting Piano Grade three and I couldn’t help noticing he had a recurring twitch in his right eye. “Pieces, or Scales and Arpeggios first” I asked, and the reply came “Pieces first please, Sir (twitch)” and off he went. Then was he happy to play the scales and arpeggios? “Yes, (twitch) I know these!” And so we went on, and I tried to be kind and helpful with each new test. He wanted aural tests next (twitch) please, and he did those successfully. What was left? I don’t know how this came about, but I said:
“Should we have a squint at the Sight Reading now?”
In a Methodist chapel in Colwyn Bay the steward announced each candidate with the stentorian voice of an Orator: “Mr Nelson! This is Megan Thomas, offering her Grade Three Violin…thank you!” A train journey from Colwyn Bay to Blaenau Ffestiniog was picturesque until the last few miles, as darkness fell with the rain steadily falling on slate heaps on the side of the line. The following morning, the rain still lashing down, I came to the bottom of a hill with two roads leading upwards. “Which road will take me up to the school?” I asked a local. “Depends which one you want, my love” she said helpfully. “There’s one up on the left and another on the right!” I took a gamble with the steep road to the right and found the lady steward waiting for me at the school entrance.
“Ah Mr. Nelson! Bad news I’m afraid! The heating isn’t on, I can’t find the caretaker as it’s a Saturday and the window in the exam room keeps flapping and won’t shut. Oh, and by the way, it’s all Harps this morning and then Brass in the afternoon.”
I prepared myself, as I sipped my cup of tepid tea, for a difficult day…
It was the period of the foot and mouth disease-Anglesey had been badly affected and my harpists included a farmer’s daughter and several other girls from the island. What followed, to my delight, was a series of beautifully prepared candidates delivering exquisite scales and arpeggios and recital standard performances. My last harpist was Dora, playing on a lovely antique full-sized instrument. When I asked her whether she was hoping to carry on her studies to the next level her eyes lit up:
“If I do well, my mother says, I can have the Harp for keeps!” and after the mark I gave her I guess she had definitely deserved it.
Among the frustrations of the examining life were the occasional travel problems. In my book there was not much worse than arriving late at a destination because of traffic delays. I well remember looking at my watch as I approached the centre in Reading at 8.40 a.m. with 1.8 miles to go. With the first exam due at 9.30 it seemed I would arrive with time on my hands. It wasn’t until 9.28 that I got out of the car and rushed into the exam room, sweating profusely.
On another occasion I was due to examine in Sutton High School in Greater London and the night before was out for supper with friends. At my request son Nicolas wrote out a meticulous set of directions to get me there and I set out the next morning bright and early.
The route began to get more rural the further on I went, and as I followed a B road to Sutton I passed a sign proclaiming “Area of outstanding natural beauty.” Cows were chewing the cud and a postman came out of a cottage gate whistling to himself. I realised as I spoke that asking directions to a Girls Public School of over 500 pupils was likely to cause hilarity. My Sutton, as he pointed out, was almost an hour and a half away to the North. Luckily, when I arrived 25 minutes late, the first Grade 8 candidate had withdrawn and I had five minutes in which to calm down. While the traffic problems got worse over the years the acquisition of a Tom-Tom was a godsend and reduced the stress levels.
I learnt much from my examining years, and it was very nice to be paid for listening to young hopefuls making music. The thinking behind the marking was educationally sound: write about what you hear not what you think the candidate might be capable of, never award a mark one below the various categories: Pass, Merit, Distinction (that made you think before deciding) and justify your marks with sufficiently detailed comments. The final summary remarks worked on the sandwich principal: something positive, ideas for improvement, something positive.
After a while I was thought sufficiently experienced to be invited to examine abroad, and that prompts another chapter in my story. But what surprised me was that however many years I put in, I never felt I had totally cracked it-there were always gremlins lurking in the undergrowth-a fire alarm suddenly going off, a mother pushing her sobbing child into the exam room against her will, a chronically slow candidate labouring through his performances, ensuring the schedule would be up the creek.
One needed to be prepared for anything and smile through it all. At one centre Adrian came in to do his Grade Four violin exam and scored 125, a comfortable merit. According to my list he was to be followed by his brother, David. There was a knock at the door and looking up from my desk there was Adrian coming back in. “Did you forget your bow, or your music?” I asked. “No, I’m David” he said. Identical twin brother, same clothes, same haircut, same exam, and, of course, same mark: 125.
It was at this large centre in the Midlands that I was joint examiner with Antony, a colleague and old friend from our Cambridge days. Music Examining is largely a solitary occupation so it was an unusual and happy opportunity to share duties with a kindred soul. He fixed the accommodation for us both: it was summer and the friendly landlord had offered him the use of an adjacent tennis court for the week. We reported to the steward on the Monday full of beans and again on the Tuesday, just a little stiff from our first game the previous evening. We were a little the worse for wear on Wednesday, but by Thursday we both came staggering in bow-legged, leaving the steward wondering what on earth we had been up to.
A visit to the centre at Harrow had me imagining young chaps in boaters, but it had nothing to do with the famous school. A nervous candidate, Mukarjee, came in for his Grade 5 piano exam clutching the standard Exam Book. I couldn’t help noticing that the laminate green cover had little cuts and serrations along the top. He took the exam, thanked me and departed. Then a young girl came in, also for her Grade 5 piano exam: same teacher, and once again the copy in green with tears and cuts-all along the top.
“Sarah” I said” you’ve got Mukarjee’s copy, with those cuts and tears along the top!”
“No sir.” she said “You see, that’s the teacher’s parrot!”
I’ve heard of some interesting ways of making children practice the piano, but terrifying them with a parrot is a new one on me.
Would I experience such weird and wonderful happenings examining in the Far East I wondered to myself?
Robin Nelson, July 2020 to be continued…..