The very words ‘grade exams’ can still grip the heart. For me, they conjure the icy draft in a church hall in Guildford, hard linoleum, a clangourous piano with stiff keys – instant death to any attempted nuance. So just imagine if one had never had to face the stranger at the table, pencil raised, with his tight-lipped imperative ‘when you are ready…’ How would it have felt if you’d been able to turn up at your violin or clarinet lesson to be examined by your teacher in the comfort of their own front room?
That’s the way it works with Music Teacher Board Exams, the newest kid on the instrumental exam block. Set up in 2012 by trumpeter Mark Kesel with a group of 20 other teachers, MTB was a response, partly, to the stress levels caused by exams, which put some children off music for life, and partly by their own involvement in GCSE and A level instrumental assessments which are always done in school, recorded and sent off to be moderated. ‘It struck us that if those exams can work like that,’ says Kesel, ‘then why not other music exams?’
It’s a sign of the times that this conservative field, dominated by the 125 year-old globally-influential Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, is diversifying. And Kesel is keen to stress that he sees MTB exams as a complement rather than an alternative to the existing ABRSM, Trinity College and London College of Music exams. Differences between these come down to whether studies are included, number of scales, options of improvising rather than sight-reading etc. Indeed, the MTB exams are hardly unrecognisable: the same eight levels, with ‘listening and reading skills’ and duet/ensemble replacing aural and straight sight-reading. Apart from the cosier exam setting, they have the advantage of ensuring you’ll be judged by a specialist on your instrument (rare in other boards), it’s cheaper as costs are lower, and once you’ve applied you can take the exam when you feel ready (as a journalist, alarm bells are ringing: when did anything get done without a deadline?)
So does MTB suggest a softening-up, along the lines of the hotly disputed ‘course work’ in GCSEs: there your Mum helps, here it’s your teacher? Isn’t conquering stage fright an essential part of musicianship? Kesel argues that exams present an artificial performing situation, but I well remember the trembling bow and sweaty fingers in concerts too. There’s also the question of bias: isn’t it tempting for a teacher to ensure their pupils shine? Kesel assures me that when teachers know their marks are to be moderated by a colleague, they’re keen not to be seen as over-generous.
In fact, peer review is probably the key to MTB’s success. While only some exams were moderated before, in order to qualify for accreditation from the University of Hertfordshire, it was agreed that all exams should be recorded and moderated. Pending OFQUAL approval, the new accredited MTB Grades 1-8 will be offered by January 2015. Kesel is aiming to get a group 100+ teachers together to feedback and refine the curriculum, so check out www.mtbexams.com
What do you think of grade exams? Is Grade 8 as hard as it used to be? Are they still relevant to kids today? .