In our new blog post in the Meet Trinity’s Music Examiner series, Richard Deering talks about his own experience of taking a graded music exam, gives tips on dealing with nerves, and reveals what he looks for from a candidate during an exam.
What do you most enjoy about being an examiner?
As of 24 March 2017, I have been an examiner for 41 years, averaging over 100 days examining per year, and still I start each day knowing that something memorable will happen! On many days, it is just the simple look of joy on the face of a young Initial Grade candidate who has just played to their best ability, or sometimes it is something more humbling like the Indian man who had just completed Grade 3 guitar – quite well – and then told me that he had walked for five days to get to the venue for the exam, or the sheer infectious inspiration of some blind girls in Cairo sharing their wonderful enthusiasm for the violin.
What do you remember about the experience of doing graded exams yourself?
I grew up in a very rural environment and long before the days of mass communication. I saw street lights and pavements for the first time when I was seven, saw a television and heard a telephone ring for the first time when I was 16, but there was always music playing on the radio in our house. Therefore, I remember little about the only two graded exams that I took – Grades 6 and 8 – because, for me, it was just another performance amidst the mini concerts for family and those organised termly by my teacher, as well as performances at school.
What do you like about Trinity exams in particular?
What I like is that we are always rewarding a sense of performance. Every performer plays the occasional wrong note, in the same way as we frequently use wrong grammar or pronunciation when speaking to others, and, as Beethoven famously said ‘to play a wrong note is insignificant but to play without passion is inexcusable!’
What are you particularly looking for from a candidate during an exam?
Always strive to get the character and the sound right, which, in many of the repertoire pieces for the grades, is clearly indicated when you understand what the title of the piece means, or understand the era of the composer. That aspect of the performance and the ability to integrate the odd mishap – like a professional – is what the Trinity examiner is most interested in.
What are your top tips for preparing for an exam?
If you work outwards from the piece’s title to the notes and rhythms, you can then conjure up pictures in your mind about what it is that you wish to share with your audience. It then liberates you from the notes and helps you to communicate as naturally as within any spoken language such as English, Hindi or Cantonese, and it lessens the inner tension. The greatest handicap for a performer is thinking too much when performing: we think when we practice but only listen when we perform.
Get to the venue in plenty of time so that you can calm your thinking and just picture the mood or scene of the music before entering the exam room. Although you have a choice, I would always advocate beginning with the Technical Work because that will help get you into the mood of the room, its acoustics, and, if a pianist, gets you the feel for the instrument. Recently, I examined at a teacher’s house and was told by all the pianists that they always started to learn the Technical Work first, and, quite rightly in my opinion, because the pieces are full of scale and arpeggio patterns, as well as requiring control over rhythm, tone and dynamics. Therefore, if the Technical Work is secure the pieces should be relatively straightforward, and the sight-reading will be a logical spin-off. The exercises are so imaginatively titled that you can express yourself beautifully right at the very start of the exam and get both yourself and the examiner into a relaxed state of mind.
Performing is with us all throughout our lives, be it settling into a new environment or having an interview for university. Treating the exam as another performance is a valuable way of viewing your preparation because the examiner is only interested in finding out what you can do and is not interested in what you cannot do. Having this mindset helps overcome the inevitable stumbles that occur for all performers and is part of the ‘fun’ of being a human being.
What are your top tips for the supporting tests part of the exam?
The preparation for the Aural Tests can be done away from the music lesson because Trinity’s brilliant tests are perception-based and not reliant upon memory. I would advocate listening to everything around you, and always be thinking what the time-signature is of everything you hear on TV or in a shopping mall; is it major or minor, legato or staccato, and so on. As musicians, our job is to be acutely aware of sounds around us, more so than the average person, so these tests are merely testing that perception and need to be treated as a means of making us interesting in an age where many people just do not listen!
What are your top tips for dealing with nerves?
When the steward ushers you into the exam room, smile and enjoy the moment, as that positivity will carry you through the awkward bits. Always know that for the duration of the exam, you are the most important person in the world and far more important than the examiner, because they are merely the audience. You are the performer on the stage that we want to learn from; I can firmly vouch for the fact that I have learned a lot from hearing others play pieces of music that I thought I knew well.
Share the positive state of mind that a young Grade 1 pianist shared with me in an Indian town in 2010, who walked to the table and said, ‘This is the most important day of my life, having the opportunity to perform to someone from outside of my community’.