Examination prep and panic

The examination results for my students have arrived and thankfully all is well, the highlight being one student sitting grade 7 achieved a distinction, including a perfect 30/30 for her solo piece. My other grade 7 student got a merit and the grade 3 and 5 student solid passes. Well done to them.

With two weeks to go before the exam though, I was a bit nervous for two of the students.

Here’s some awesome sumopaint art to demonstrate the source of my concern.

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 7.23.15 pm

It’s sometimes difficult to gauge how a student is going to progress in 6 months; some students progress linearly (steady improvement) whereas others progress more erratically. Some will improve steadily and then just plateau.

The plateau issue happened for two of my students; both were progressing quite well throughout the beginning of the year and it was decided what exam to do. One of my grade 7 students especially, managed to make a really good first impression of Saint-Saëns’ Sonata first movt so I though, yeah, she’s totally got this.

My grade 5 student too, was also starting to get his strength and stamina up. He was starting to produce a good tone and he too, made a good job at sight reading the grade 5 material.

The exam time was nice an early this year. It runs from October through December and luckily we got a mid October date; good because students have school exams to worry about too and sometimes studying the same music for months becomes a chore. All was tracking well until suddenly, things don’t improve as much as you expect them to.

The plateau

There were a few warning signs earlier on (which I’ll discuss further down) but the real, oh, crap, moment was when I volunteered a Tuesday to sit in and listen to my students play along with the accompanist (whom was also teaching them their aural component).

Being accompanied – Warning signs

I remember having an amazing accompanists for my exams, both for my grade exams and for my university recitals. Not only were they awesome players but they offered a lot of musical advice on how to make the performance better. Things like phrasing, cueing and other ensemble work.

Perhaps I need to empower my student’s accompanist to offer advice on how to make the performance better. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to contradict anything I may have been teaching my students. When I sat in, two general themes became apparent; balance and familiarity.


Sometimes the piano was too loud, sometimes the clarinet was too soft. The fact that this didn’t seem to have been discussed prior to my participation was a bit concerning. A lot of the time it was just the clarinet peetering out; not enough energy, not enough gusto. Sometimes the piano was dominating the soft sections. It would have been good if the accompanist encouraged them to be more expressive (or passionate or something).


I was a bit surprised that one student seemed really flummoxed with the Malcolm Arnold Sonatina 2nd movt. Yes, it’s hard and yes, the piano is off-putting but he had the recording for months and I can only take his word he’d listened to it and therefore nothing should have come to as any kind of surprise. This drama could have been resolved easily enough with the student listening to the recordings more, even playing along to them (with the help of ABRSM’s Speedshifter app to slow it down if need be).

My presence there served as a ‘wake-up-call’ to the student that he really, really, really needed to listen to that recording some more and play along. My insistence on going over that section a bit more with the accompanist during that lesson helped but I suspect it may have been glossed over if I wasn’t there to insist on slowing that sucker down and reducing the trepidation of it. This was another instance of where the accompanist seemed to need some empowerment to let the student know that something wasn’t working and assisting in helping them out with it. Again, probably a time issue.

Resolving the panic

It’s hard to explain why this sudden plateau of progress happens but if the distinction-achieving student is the model to which excellence is to be measured (subjectively), it comes down to 3 things.

  • Knowing exactly what sound you want.
  • Being aware of mistakes and then fixing them.
  • Practising every day in an efficient manner.

Knowing exactly what sound you want

Why does someone learn an instrument in the first place? Look and sound are generally the reasons; they’ve heard it on the radio or seen it performed live and think, yeah, I’ve got to get in on that action. Once in the depths of learning the instrument it’s important to keep getting inspiration by listening to the pros play (beyond just hearing your teacher play).

The student has to be able to hear and appreciate the differences between the sound they’re making (tone, phrasing etc) and that of the pros. From there it’s tweaking technique and parroting phrases in order to get the desired sound. As a youngster learning clarinet, I took great pride in the realisation that I was almost making a tone like the guys in the recordings.

Being aware of mistakes and then fixing them

Come lesson time and students become more self aware and start noticing their mistakes. It’s not like they’re making any more just because I’m there, it’s that they’ve become so used to playing things wrong, going back and fixing them once, then continuing on with the rest of the piece. A 50% strike rate (incorrect, then corrected) is not a very good statistic.

Practising in an efficient manner

Time is precious for many, students because of the ridiculous number of school exams they have to sit, and adults just because… (we’ve all got reasons). That’s why it’s important that the best use of practise time is a must. There’s no point going from beginning to end of a piece and leaving it at that. The hard parts have to be worked through. Those hard parts may comprise of patterns like scales or chords. Maybe they’re just really weird finger patterns that require repetition to get the fingers used to it. Those sections need way more love than the parts one already knows how to play.

All’s well that ends well

Thankfully everyone passed. I’d like to think my timely presence at the accompanied lesson was just the kicker required to motivate the students into working on certain problem areas.

My merit achieving grade 7 was incredibly pleased with her result given that she thought her exam was a complete disaster. She didn’t trust ABRSM’s website results until the examiners written comment sheet arrived.


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