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Try Again

My first pupil to ever actually fail an exam was a teenage girl who I’ll call Try Again. She’d gained a comfortable pass in her grade 1, so I had no real reason to worry about her grade 2 – she knew what was required and – although I was never expecting a merit or distinction – I felt she had the ability to achieve a mark of at least 110.

However, on the day of the exam, Try Again had forgotten to take her exam book to school with her. Her mother picked her up, assuming she had it in her bag, while the girl expected her mum to have it. They arrived at the exam centre in time, but suddenly both realised that neither had the piano music, so had to drive back home to get it. Fortunately, Try Again wasn’t too late to sit the exam but she was, understandably, a little flustered by this point and I imagine this contributed to her disappointing result.

The most important thing for me is that, following a letter I wrote to her, she did indeed Try Again (in the next exam period) and her efforts were far from wasted as she was awarded a high pass mark.

For several years, this was my only experience of a pupil failing, although, sadly, two of my adult pupils were unsuccessful in more recent exams. I can’t help wondering if there are proportionally more adults who fail piano exams than children – or whether that’s just my own experience: I don’t have statistics from other teachers to know the answer. Over the years, I have had nearly 100 successes – the vast majority of these being under 18s – so the fact that two out of my three ‘failures’ are adults does make me wonder.

Why would this be? Possibly because adults are more self-critical and therefore more likely to be affected by exam nerves. (Speaking from personal experience – as a child I was nervous when I took my piano exams … but as an adult I was a complete wreck!)

Perhaps piano teachers are in some way to blame as well. Maybe we (or just me!) are too soft on adult pupils and feel we can trust them to do what’s required. I must admit, I do seem to treat adult exam candidates differently from children: I’m far less likely to ‘check up’ on the frequency of their practices, to make them feel guilty if I feel they’re not working hard enough or to express disappointment if a scale or piece I’ve asked them to work on hasn’t actually improved. While trying desperately hard not to appear patronising, maybe I’m actually not pushing them hard enough; I’m sure I still have a lot to learn about striking a happy medium.

Last Chance

In both cases, my adult failures had been learning their pieces for some time and this was their ‘last chance’ before the new syllabus started taking effect.

‘Last Chance One’ was a young male who took lessons with me for several years. He was successful in his first three grades – gaining merits – but he seemed to lose momentum at grade 4. I often wonder if he would have been successful it I’d entered him for the exam a term earlier. I had offered him this option but he said he didn’t feel ready, although I feel his playing gradually deteriorated after this.

There were several reasons for his failure. One may have been loss of interest in the pieces, as he’d been learning them for so long, while another was lack of time to practise as his employers were making increasing (and often unreasonable) demands on this time.

However, I think what ultimately caused Last Chance One to fail was a family bereavement, just days before the exam. The impact of something like that would heighten most people’s emotions – and, as playing the piano is such an emotional thing in itself, this is likely to be affected too. I imagine trained pianists may be able to use their emotions to enhance their playing but for most of us, sitting a piano exam is a time when added stress and distractions just makes the task more difficult.

There are some similarities between this story and that of Last Chance Two – an able but nervous piano-learner in her 40s. She attained a comfortable pass at grade 1 but, like Last Chance One, took far too long over her grade 2 and should have agreed to sit the exam a term earlier before the pieces become ‘stale’. Also like him she let work commitments and stresses get in the way of her practising.  However, unlike Last Chance One, she felt at the end of the exam that she’d done enough to pass … which made it very hard for me giving her the result.

My Own Failure

However, at least I am able to empathise with my ‘failures’ having myself failed my first attempt at grade 8.

I started this exam – quite confidently – with my scales but, as I began playing them, I was distracted by the sound of someone warming up in the waiting room. I mentioned this to the examiner who responded with: “I can’t hear anything”. She did, however, leave the room and shut another door in the passageway.

Unfortunately though, her comment of: “I can’t hear anything” played on my mind and affected my concentration and confidence far more than any noises from the waiting room had done. I began to wonder if she was doubting what I’d said and possibly thinking I was making excuses for my mistakes. Despite all the good advice I give to my pupils, I was unable to put distracting thoughts aside and focus on what I was doing, so I certainly didn’t play my best for the remainder of the exam.

But ‘not playing my best in exams’ was something I was used to and I didn’t feel that my grade 8 had been any more of a ‘nerve-wracking, stomach-churning disaster’ than any of the earlier grades. So, it was a complete shock when, a few weeks later, I discovered I’d failed and even more of a shock that my score was only 90 marks!

Although I was extremely upset at this result, I knew immediately that I wanted to re-take the exam, which I did at the next possible opportunity. On this second occasion, I came out of the exam room feeling totally deflated as I didn’t think it had gone any better than the first. Incredibly, the mark I received this time was 111 … which makes me wonder just how much discrepancy there is between the judgements of different examiners.

Letter of Complaint

Once, my doubts about consistency in marking caused me to write a letter of complaint about my pupils’ results to the ABRSM. I had entered 10 pupils for exams and – basing my estimations on previous results and on how well prepared my candidates were on this occasion – I was expecting at least five distinctions. In fact there were no distinctions at all and many of those whom I had predicted would do very well only just scraped a pass.

The Chief Examiner from the ABRSM kindly – and promptly – telephoned in response and assured me that all examiners were checked regularly, that no other complaints had been received about this particular one but that the Board would look into it further. However, if I wanted to make an official complaint I would have to pay a fee and, even then, the only possible positive outcome would be that my pupils could receive a voucher to cover the cost of re-sitting their exams: it would not be possible to remark the exams they had already taken.

Had any of my pupils actually failed, it might have been worth preceding with the complaint but, as they were – on the whole – reasonably happy with their results, there seemed little point in putting them through the ordeal of a re-sit. Of course I’ll never know whether that particular examiner had been totally fair on the day.

Although most of my pupils were happy with a pass, there was one whose mother was disappointed that her son hadn’t achieved a distinction. As I said before, there is no point in putting too much emphasis on the quest for distinctions – especially at the lower grades. I feel it is far better for a young person to move reasonably quickly through the early stages – ideally so they can complete the higher grade exams before GCSE and A level studies start taking up too much of their time.

From grade 6 onwards, of course, distinctions are a little more relevant as they help boost student’s points when applying for university (although friends with university-aged sons and daughters tell me that the most prestigious universities are only really interested in A level grades). Perhaps more importantly, those who reach the higher grade musical instrument exams obviously take their music seriously and are far more likely to be interested in pursing musical careers: in this case, it may be worth taking a bit of extra time to prepare, so that the pupil has more chance of achieving his full potential.

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