In the latest instalment of our Meet Trinity’s Music Examiner series, we hear from Gary Higginson about why the Musical Knowledge questions are his favourite part of an exam, his memories of examining an 80-year-old clarinettist, and his tips for projecting confidence in exams.
What’s your musical background?
Singing was something I did from a very early age and consequently I started my musical life as a choirboy, first in the all-male parish church choir and then sometimes at Lichfield Cathedral. I was ‘put to’ the piano when I was eight and learned the flute from 11. I started to compose at about the same time. I became a church organist and choirmaster at 16, something I’ve continued to do for much of my life.
Between the ages of 18-22 I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London as a first study singer (a counter-tenor) and pianist, and I had composition lessons – first with Edmund Rubbra, a leading symphonic composer of the time, and later with Patric Standford. I also took composition and analysis classes with Buxton Orr and Alfred Niemen. After a few years of teaching, I studied part time, doing an MA at Birmingham University under John Joubert.
What made you want to get into examining?
I have spent much of life – 33 years in fact – teaching, and have been Head of Music and later Head of Performing Arts at three different schools. On planning for early retirement, largely to have more time to compose and sing, I realised that I would miss working with young musicians and, as I had been an occasional examiner for the Guildhall for 12 years, I decided to join Trinity and became a generalist examiner in 2008.
What are your memories of taking graded music exams yourself?
Throughout my life, I think from age nine, I took practical music exams which I always found nerve-wracking, and also Theory exams which I really enjoyed. In those days examiners were rather severe and they always seemed to be very ancient. Perhaps we still seem so, but we are definitely more welcoming and understanding now and it’s our prerogative to put the candidates at ease.
Which is your favourite part of the exam to examine?
I especially enjoy the sections of the exam when I can talk to the candidate, during the Musical Knowledge questions and often the Aural. It gives me a chance to gauge more of the candidate’s background and personality, and indeed often their passion for musical facts and history.
But I most enjoy hearing young musicians making music at any level. The Initial candidate nervously trying to adjust the stool before playing the attractive short pieces prescribed; the Grade 8 candidate, who is about to leave school for university having been long involved in school music and who has completed several exams before, knows what to expect, and who wants a positive experience from the exam and the examiner: and the Diploma candidate who has decided to take music performance seriously and clearly has a burgeoning talent, and a clear drive to make music at a high level.
It may not always be possible, but meeting the teachers is always a fascinating and important thing to do during a tour. We can share ideas about some of the technical difficulties that certain pieces present, also about syllabus content, which many teachers appreciate, what they like and sometimes don’t like, and about how they see themselves within the context of their own musical environment.
What do you like about the Trinity syllabus/exam process in particular?
The great thing about the Trinity system is that with the supporting tests there is a wide choice, depending on each candidate’s strengths. Not everyone can do well at scale playing and although Scales & Arpeggios are the keystone of all music, many young players are better at Sight Reading, Musical Knowledge or Improvisation – a discipline which I would have enjoyed if the choice had been offered in ‘my day’. But none are easy options and they do need careful preparation. It’s worth bearing in mind that you might be able to achieve a really good mark in the exam if your supporting tests are well prepared and if your pieces don’t go quite as well as you expected, perhaps due to nervous fingers.
What have been your most memorable moments as an examiner?
I recall a boy aged about 12 in Portugal who was so nervous that he shook violently with fear. He only spoke basic English but sang so beautifully that I just closed my eyes and listened, and was so carried away I forgot to write any comments for his first song. I then had to apologise for holding the exam up longer than usual. I also remember a lady in Ireland aged, she told me, over 80 who came in for her Grade 1 Clarinet exam. She had only been learning for one year – she gained a distinction, by the way. On leaving she told me that she was off to rehearse with the church jazz group.
What are your top tips for dealing with nerves?
Every candidate suffers from nerves, even candidates who score high distinctions (and even the examiners sometimes!). It’s a good sign and proves that you care and desperately want to do well. Of course you also know if you have not put the work in. The worst moment is when you are just outside the room. Take some deep breaths and raise your posture, singers and wind players naturally do this anyway, and then smile so that when suddenly you are welcomed into the exam room you are at least looking confident and outgoing. In response, the examiner will always be friendly and positive in return, to your accompanist also. Pianists and guitarists will naturally be on their own, but walk into the room in such a way that you are saying ‘I intend to enjoy the experience of playing these pieces to this audience today’.
What’s the main piece of advice you’d give someone taking a music exam?
Think of the music exam as a chance to demonstrate to a perfect stranger how good you are and how much you want to communicate the enjoyment of the music you have studied. The examiners also want to enjoy the experience of hearing you, and telling all your friends and supporters how promising and able you are.