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Behind the Piano Examiner’s Desk: What Is It Really Like?

By Dr Mark McGee | Exams

Apr 24 2017

ameb piano examiner

Welcome to our second guest post this month by an AMEB piano examiner. The first article explained everything you need to know about a Rockschool piano exam- click here to read that post

Today, we are very privileged to have Dr Mark McGee presenting his thoughts on being a piano examiner. 

Mark is Assistant Director of Music at St. Kevin’s College in Melbourne, a Federal AMEB Examiner and also teaches at the University of Melbourne. Incredibly, in 2002 Mark became the first pianist in Australia to be granted the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts. 

I hope you find Mark’s article interesting, some of which he presented at an Examiner’s Conference in Sydney last year. 

Enjoy! 

What It’s Like Being an AMEB Piano Examiner

Whenever I am asked about what it is like to be an AMEB piano examiner, I find myself to be somewhat reticent because, in the majority of cases, the questioner is after anecdotes: stories about candidates or gossip about the standard of students from a particular studio.

AMEB piano examiner, educator and academic Dr Mark McGee

To me this is already a display of bad faith. A candidate never comes into the examination room with the intention of mutilating their Clementi sonata.

And when they play ‘Pink Panther’, they are perfectly entitled to be completely oblivious to the fact that the four previous candidates have also played ‘Pink Panther’. Nor can there be any judgement of the teacher on this account.

In terms of how they play or what they play, candidates are never doing so out of malicious intent. They are simply doing their best under the circumstances.

The candidate’s teacher, in entering that candidate, is also doing so in good faith. In the case of a seemingly underprepared candidate, it might have been entirely beneficial for that teacher to have imposed a timeline on their pupil, for better or for worse.

That teacher is also teaching according to the circumstances of their teaching practice. This includes things like its postcode, as well as the extent of their own musical and pianistic aptitude, experience and ability.

Whatever the circumstances, there is always a back-story that got the candidate into that examination room. And a presumption of good faith must be met in like measure with good faith from us examiners. This is surely the basis of respect and the sense of value that is bound up with the process.

What Makes Someone an Examiner?

What is it that qualifies one to be an examiner?

The first response might be that it is a question of experience and formal qualifications, and so it is.

But at the point at which the rubber hits the road, in the examination room, it surely comes down to the examiner’s level of aural acuity: the ability to be able to hear the facts of the matter; to hear the music in terms of its structural relationships; to hear the music at a theatrical, expressive level.

It is an ability to unite structural hearing with feeling, not just any old feeling, but feeling that has passed through the refining fire of culture, history and tradition. Through this ability to hear and to feel, the examiner is able to enter empathetically into the essence of someone else’s playing; to experience within themselves its motivations, its freedoms and blockages: in short, what makes it tick.

Empathetic hearing and feeling allows the examiner to respond to a performance cogently and constructively. It is a process that traces the movement from intuition to analysis.

The first capacity of an examiner is surely being able to appreciate what is good and artistically persuasive about a performance.

Role of the Examiner

If we take as our starting point, a view of an AMEB piano examiner as a representative— a kind of Ambassador— for the AMEB and its values, then nowhere is this more important than in the tone and atmosphere created in the examination space itself.

One cannot be too prescriptive about this. One must simply use judgement and intuition in setting the right tone for the given candidate: not too formal to the point of stiffness; not informal to the point of undue familiarity that will undermine the sense of occasion. There needs to be an atmosphere that will allow the candidate, in the best of circumstances, to rise to the occasion of giving a performance.

Candidates are not looking to the examiner to be their friend or confidant, or to play the part of their zany uncle or their parent. They need to see the examiner as a professional musician; someone to be looked up to. And if they can perceive this, they are more likely to be able to create for themselves an artistic space that is necessary for them to be able to perform and communicate musically.

To this end, a presence of benign neutrality from the examiner is usually the best solution. In some cases, of course, a greater level of pastoral care is called for.

Most candidates, I believe, have an accurate antenna for judging whether the examiner actually enjoys examining and is happy (or not) to have them in the room.

Managing student’s nerves

In cases in which severe nerves and related physical symptoms are evident, simply describing what is happening and explaining the options open to candidates can often be the best response.

Related: How to Tackle Piano Performance Anxiety 

For example, I might explain that it is a perfectly normal and common reaction to be nervous. I would explain that memory lapses and disruptions are not, of themselves, reasons for “losing points” or dropping a grade.

There are many options the candidate can choose. This could include going on to the next piece or scale and postponing the present one, or, if worse comes to worst, not completing the examination on this occasion.

The last option is not a sign of failure, but a perfectly understandable reaction to nerves and stress. The candidate might like to take some time out before making up their mind about which option suits them the best. I stress here that I am not encouraging the candidate to discontinue the examination; rather, by laying out each option as “normal”, the candidate often feels more freedom to address their nerves and continue.

One anecdote I will share concerns a much-loved colleague who was dealing with a candidate who was distressed and crying as she entered the examination room. The examiner said: “Just pretend I’m your grandma”, only to be greeted by a renewed wave of tears. It turned out the student’s grandma had recently died and that this was the cause of her distress in the first place.

Following Syllabus Objectives

The process of examining involves a reference to syllabus objectives that are spelt out in the syllabus by means of dot-point statements. Not being a “dot-point” kind of person, I have put myself through the exercise of summarising the objectives. The following is an attempt at distillation.

Candidates should demonstrate technical proficiency

This is reflected both in the sound produced and in the physical engagement with the instrument that gives rise to the sound. Both the Technical Work and the chosen repertoire contributes to the candidate reaching this objective.

I try to ensure my comments are not limited to the candidate’s physical use alone. Such an approach can come across as unduly prescriptive and can be open to contradiction. For example, a comment about a pianist’s “fingers needing to be curved” flies in the face of a world-renowned flat-finger pianist such as Horowitz.

A rule I apply to myself is that any adverse comment about the physicality of technical means needs to be directly linked to shortcomings in the end result as this is manifested in the sound or the artistic outcome.

Candidates should demonstrate musicality and stylistic awareness

What does this actually mean?

First and foremost, it means that the pieces are to be played with a sense of coherence and intelligibility.

Beyond this, with an elucidation of the structural detail, and finally, an ability to marshal expressive means to convey a sense of appropriate theatricality and culturally informed expression. All this is supported by a correspondingly developed use of technical resources or technical means.

Interpreting the Syllabus

Musically, at Level One (Grade Preliminary to 4), the emphasis is more on “follow instructions” and “observe detail”; whilst in Level Two (Grade 5 to Certificate), stylistic awareness and musicianship are added. It is generally the requirements of the work itself that generates the evaluation of the objectives.

We are left to depend partly on the requirements of the repertoire itself and partly on an agreed set of expectations for performance at a particular grade level. This latter point is, I believe, a matter of experience and can not be set down as a series of statutes or “objectives”. We have the Objectives and Grade Descriptors on the one hand and the exercise of judgement that comes from experience and training on the other.

It is this interpretation of the syllabus objectives that is at the heart of our aspiring to generate consistent and agreed gradings.

Because of this, it is not valid for me to respond, in the face of possible criticism about my marks being too hard or too soft, that “I am simply following the syllabus objectives.” The interpretation of syllabus objectives is established over time through my awareness of the combined practice of all examiners.

My task is not only to apply my own sense of standards but to acquire a sense of the agreed standards common to us all. This requires a willingness to subject my own work to criticism and modification where necessary.

Report Writing

To state the obvious, an important duty as an examiner is to write reports. Reports should be informative in that they give accurate feedback, affirming in that they are not without a sense of hope, and useful in that they offer a way forward for the teacher and candidate. The point of reports is to generate results and grades that reflect commonly agreed on standards for the particular grade.

As I examine my own reactions to the work of a particular teacher whose pupils I may be examining, I find I can be seized by the desire to “teach that person a lesson,” to make them aware that what they are doing is not up to scratch. Reflecting on this, I realise that this reaction is as inappropriate as it is doomed to failure.

I am there to provide an assessment, not to judge personal attributes of character, not to set out to be of help in a direct sense, not to teach or to preach.

If my perceived attitude about the quality of the teaching is allowed to come through in the tone of the report, then the reaction of both the teacher and their student will be negative.

Providing Hope

What does providing hope mean?

It means showing a pathway forward without being patronising. There are subtle and indirect means of conveying what the good things were that led to the C-grading and how that C might be transformed into a higher grade level.

I do not write “friendly” or informal reports, the purpose being to come across as “accessible” to the candidate, to address them on their level, to break down the walls of formality and to take on the role of helper and friend.

On the contrary, a report written in objective and formal language allows teacher and pupil alike to reflect on the performance in a non-personal way. The language may be partially inaccessible to the candidate, but this encourages their reliance on the teacher to interpret the comments for them. The teacher’s role is to be an interlocutor between the examiner and the candidate.

A well-written report will always show the links between an observation of musical or technical detail and the realisation, or lack thereof, of an over-arching artistic goal. This is what it means to write a report that provides hope: something to aspire to, to work towards, even in the face of criticism.

Capturing the Moment

Some years ago when I was examining in Dandenong, a girl came into the examination room to do 5th grade. She transformed the room completely into an artistic space where memorably artistic things could and ultimately did happen. And they did so in the most wonderfully moving of ways.

How else could I respond but to bear witness to this wonderful musical occasion with a formality of language that would dignify the moment? To have written “Bravo, well done, you played terrifically today” would have been nothing but a violation, showing the grossest disrespect and lack of sensitivity to what had taken place.

I have a strong memory as a teenager of an AMEB Diploma examiner who produced a report for me written in the most immaculate, beautiful copperplate handwriting. There were no cross-outs and it contained long, beautifully formed and memorable sentences.

After my teacher had given me the report to read, I told her that it had greater artistic value than the playing that led to its being written. Being an examiner herself, she loved and treasured this casual observation of mine and would often quote it.

Teacher Takeaways

  • There are many factors behind a student being in an examination room at any particular time, and both the student and examiner should meet in good faith
  • Any negative comment in relation to a student’s physicality must rely upon a shortcoming in the sound produced
  • Ensure your students understand all of the options open to them if nerves take hold of them during an exam
  • An examiner can respond personally to the music being played, but must also aim to adhere to collectively agreed upon standards; familiarise yourself with the syllabus objectives
  • Constructive criticism in report writing is there to provide hope to your students; something for them to aspire to in the future

Conclusion

We really hope you enjoyed Dr Mark McGee’s article today; rarely do we have the chance to read such an honest recount of what it is like to be a piano examiner.

On this blog, we always strive to share with you relevant articles that will have an impact on your piano teaching and especially the way you approach piano exams. Hopefully, today’s article has done just that. 

If you would like more details on what it is like to be a piano examiner, and actually give it a go yourself, check out ABRSM’s ‘On Your Marks’ online resource. This allows you to watch and assess an exam online, and compare your notes to the Chief Examiner’s comments. Click here to see how that resource can help you. 

If you’re interested in being an AMEB examiner, please make contact with your local state office.

What did you think of Mark’s insights? Are you a piano examiner that can relate? Please leave your thoughts and comments in the section below. 

 

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About the Author

Mark’s experience as a performer is considerable, and includes concertos with ABC State Orchestras, numerous solo recitals and performances with some of Australia’s most distinguished musicians. Currently, Mark is Assistant Director of Music at St. Kevin’s College and also teaches piano and lectures in piano pedagogy at Melbourne University’s Faculty of Music where he became, in 2002, the first pianist in Australia to have conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts. He is a Federal examiner with the AMEB and is also a qualified teacher of the Alexander Technique.