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Meet Trinity’s Music Examiner, Steven Maxson

Have you ever wondered what the examiner at the other side of the exam room is really hoping to hear from your performance? Are you looking for some top tips on how to combat those exam room nerves? Or perhaps you’re interested in turning the tables and hearing about an examiner’s experience of an exam?

In our Meet the Music Examiner blog series, Trinity asks examiners more about themselves, their experiences examining for Trinity, and their advice for taking exams.

We hope you enjoy our first interview.

What’s your musical background?

I started playing the piano, reluctantly, at age six. I say reluctantly, because I wanted to learn the organ, which I did from age eight, playing for my first church service at nine! I was Organ Scholar of Keble College, Oxford, before becoming Assistant Organist at Cardiff’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Grimsby Parish Church and, currently, Organist and Director of Grimsby Minster and Musical Director of Grimsby Bach Choir.

What made you want to get into examining?

I have long recognised the benefits of music exams as part of the broader process of learning an instrument. Having done some church music examining previously, I had very much enjoyed being a part of that process and helping people of all ages to progress musically. The fact that, while doing so, examiners get to experience some wonderful places and meet some fascinating people makes it even better.

What do you feel the benefits are of taking a music exam?

There is nothing like the feeling you get when you receive a certificate rewarding all of your hard work and long practice. It is always useful to have an impartial snapshot of achievement at a given point, particularly so with Trinity, as that snapshot will come with personalised advice to guide further progress. Exams are also useful in building confidence in performance, something that is essential for musicians.

What do you like about the Trinity syllabus/exam process in particular?

I am a great fan of Trinity exams. I love that they are performance focused, not just in the weighting given to the pieces, but also that, for most instruments, technical work can be performed by way of studies. I very much like the flexibility of the exams: the ability to choose supporting tests, the wide range of pieces, even the flexibility of the order of the exam. As an organist, I am delighted that improvisation is an option at all grades.

What are your memories of doing graded music exams yourself?

I took my grade exams on the organ, as well as diploma exams through the Royal College of Organists. I used to love performing my pieces and, in particular, I remember a particularly fiery and loud piece of Langlais that I played for my Grade 8, which reverberated around the large church in which I took the exam and remains in my repertoire now, many years later!

What do you most enjoy about being an examiner?

I love listening to music and so love examining people who are playing music. I also enjoy the variety: there is no such thing as a typical day. Each day can consist of any grade, any instrument and, of course, a selection of different supporting tests. It is a very rare examining week which doesn’t see every syllabus and every supporting test folder come out of my briefcase at least once!

What has been your most memorable moment as an examiner?

My favourite moment so far has been a high grade jazz saxophone exam. The candidate played beautifully, had a real feel for jazz, improvised well in both their pieces and in the improvisation supporting test. I could happily have spent the rest of the afternoon listening to them play, if I hadn’t had several other talented individuals also waiting to play to me!

What are you looking for in particular from a candidate during an exam?

I am looking for someone who plays music rather than notes, where the music flows naturally and where the candidate seems to be enjoying making music.

 Which is your favourite part of the exam to examine?

Undoubtedly the pieces. They really are the candidate’s opportunity to show off their love of music and of their instrument, also to present a balanced and varied programme that highlights their individual skills.

What is your top tip for preparing for an exam?

My top tip would be to ensure that all parts of the exam are equally well prepared; don’t focus on, for example, the pieces to the exclusion of the technical work and supporting tests.

What are your top tips for the supporting tests part of the exam? 

The most important piece of advice I could give would be to choose the best supporting tests for you. There is always a choice of tests, all of which assess important musical skills. You don’t have to choose the same tests as all of your friends! As with pieces, the other useful advice is to make sure that you are fully prepared: look at the sample questions for musical knowledge, work through the aural or sight-reading exemplar materials, enjoy improvising, and then use the exam as your chance to shine.

What’s the main piece of advice you’d give someone taking a music exam?

It is good to remember that the examiner will be looking forward to hearing you and willing you to do well. Just go into the exam and enjoy making music.


If, like Steven, your passion is the Organ, you can find out more about Trinity’s Electronic Keyboard and Organ exams here

Find out more about Trinity's Music exams

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