Walking the exam tightrope

Here’s a story about a student of mine that wanted to do grade 8 but failed (it might have been 2006). There were lessons to be learnt by both of us for that experience but to cut a long story short, this was what went wrong…

…the student didn’t practice and missed too many lessons.

To say that the student deserved to fail would be an understandable first reaction.

This student fell short of a pass by 3 marks (97 out of 150 for ABRSM Grade 8 clarinet). Usually I’d only recommend an exam to a student if I believed they could achieve a merit or distinction but this student insisted on doing grade 8 for his final year of high school, despite him hovering around a grade 6-7 level.

“You realise how much work is going to be required to pull this off?” I asked the student at the beginning of the school year. “Yes.” He replied.

The data

We’ll round the start date to about March (the beginning of the school year) and the exam date to about mid November; that’s about 38 weeks. With the student only showing up every second week for a one hour lesson, that’s 19 lessons to:

  • Learn a stupid amount of scales, arpeggios, Dom 7ths, Dim 7ths etc.
  • Learn three incredibly challenging pieces of music
  • Get their aural sorted. This student was in the school choir so that helped, but there is a lot of theory tucked into grade 8 aural like Cadences and analysing/talking about a piece the examiner plays
  • Sight reading

That’s a lot for 19 lessons, especially because the last exam they did was maybe grade 5.

With too many missed lessons and not enough practice, pieces that should have been achievable given the time period just didn’t get mastered. In fact, the accompanist was so incensed with the lack of progress that they threatened to quit.

They student, realising they were in such dire predicament even wagged a significant portion of school the day prior to the exam and camped themselves in the music department to practise scales that they’d neglected all year.

It was not a good look.

The phone call

It was the end of the year and the senior students had left by the time the music exam result came in. I rang the student to let them know they’d failed by 3 marks.

“If anything, take this as a life lesson.” I said. “Consider all those missed lessons and practices during the year and how many of those equate to 3 extra marks. Take this as rough lesson for your architecture studies…” (he was studying architecture the following year at University) “…and don’t let the work required get away from you again.”

“3 Marks” I would have repeated again. “How much more effort for 3 more marks?”

Post mortem

So what went wrong? This was a student who set a goal with plenty of time to achieve it but proceeded to casually meander through the year as if it would all magically come right.

The student was definitely capable but:

  • There were too many missed lessons that we had to catch up on; they were fortnightly for an hour so often there would be two weeks in a row to catch up. Fortnightly is not such a good idea but neither is 30 minute lessons which go quite fast when there are not just pieces to look at but scales and arpeggios to quiz the student on.
  • Despite starting a class with some warm up scales, the student didn’t appreciate the urgency in having to memorise them. If we’re going to start a class with an F# minor (melodic for 3 octaves) and it’s not working so well, there’s a good reason why it becomes homework.
  • Not enough practise
  • Inefficient practise. If there is a passage in the music that is difficult, it has to be worked on in a methodical manner. We did the Saint-Saëns Sonata 4th movement and the beginning of the piece is quite technical but definitely achievable. Slowly, mechanically; that passage can be rote learnt.

Music selection

The students neglect of scales is a discussion topic in itself (I mean, how do you make those things interesting enough for the student to practise anyway?) but the main point I want to bring up in music selection.

Music selection is something the teacher has ultimate control over and in hindsight, the Saint-Saëns was a poor choice for my student. Some music can be be fudged to sound good more so than others but the Saint-Saëns Sonata 4th movement isn’t one of those pieces. It’s too long and there are too many contrasting emotions required to be expressed that a poor student won’t be able to sustain the ‘faking’.

Yet in contrast to the unsuitable Saint-Saëns was a solo piece by Iwan Müller (no. 76 in 80 Graded Studies for Clarinet book 2) that the student did quite well in.

This was a classic case of first impressions defying reality because despite looking quite difficult to play (5 sharps and lots of semi quavers and demi-semi quavers), this piece’s slow and rubato nature enabled the student to ease into it with minimal ‘panic’ moments. The rubato helped hide their faltering timing, the slow speed hid bad technique and, despite the demi-semi quavers making the page look black, I, as teacher was able to explain away the beats, rhythms and phrasing. Despite the black creating the perception of fast, once the piece’s quaver count is thrashed out, a piece such as this is much less intense and thus less likely to freak out the student.

The best part is that a piece of this style is much easier to apply musicality by embellishing phrasing and articulation. Rubato ads a lot of room to play around with the music and examiners love that stuff. This is in stark contrast to the Saint-Saëns which is very technical; lots of pace and emotion but if the student is too busy fumbling notes, emotion is the least of their concerns.

History repeats

Last year I got the opportunity to put my theory to the test. I had two students doing Grade 8, one who practised and one who didn’t. There were many parallels between the one that didn’t practice and the previous student who failed.

It turned out that the same Iwan Müller piece was still in the curriculum. Good, took that. In the A Section the Saint-Saëns was also still there. Mmmm, let’s try the Spohr Concerto No. 2 Adagio: slow but with notes and scales everywhere. For Section B I chose the Arnold. Short, so the student didn’t get tired and only with the occasional technically trying parts that hopefully after a few months would sink in.

Was it an effort. YES! After the relatively melodic and simple opening few phrases, the Sphor’s middle section is full of notes, thankfully just lots of ‘normal’ scales and arpeggios like G minor, A# major and D minor etc albeit quite intense. The adventures in teaching the Spohr is a story in itself but lets just say that, with its slow speed we were able to stretch out those more difficult bars to create fantastic rubato and thus hid the student’s frailties. The subsequent accelerando that you do as you bring the music back up to its prescribed tempo ads instant musicality. Classic musical fudging at its best.

It worked. The student was able to bluff his way through the Spohr and Muller and achieved a merit. I say bluffed because I new his actual ability. How he pulled off a merit I’ll never really know but getting the pass mark for the scales certainly helps. My unfortunate other Grade 8 student butchered his scales under pressure (he had been doing well all year but had a brain melt) and also had a different examiner the previous day whom I suspect marked slightly harder. That’s luck I suppose.

Conclusive strategy

Have you got a student that is over stretching their goals and/or doesn’t practise enough to achieve that performance goal? Select music that is slow (Adagio, Lento) and short (one-two pages long) and don’t let the ‘black’ looking page intimidate you. Those pieces have a far greater chance of being mastered than the long, technical and fast pieces. Slow affords lots of room for rubato which in turn results in musicality whereas the faster, longer, more technical pieces will overwhelm the student. Those faster pieces may look like they’re easier with all those crotchets and quavers but ratchet up the speed and there’s a good chance there could be a looming disaster come the exam day.

You have been warned.

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