In our newest post meet examiner Sarah Aylen and find out why she believes taking a music exam is so beneficial, read her tips for practising, and hear about how she got on taking a Grade 5 exam on an instrument she’d never played before.
What’s your musical background?
I have been involved in music since I was a child, playing and singing in a wide variety of ensembles. My career has been in music education, working as an instrumental teacher, as a classroom music teacher, as a choral animateur and running a large music department in an independent school for 14 years. I have also enjoyed directing a number of adult, youth and children’s choirs, some of which have achieved national recognition, been broadcast on the radio and undertaken concert tours abroad, running music groups for under-fives and their mothers, and adjudicating music festivals.
What made you want to get into examining?
I decided to become an examiner about five years ago, when two friends who were already enjoying being Trinity examiners encouraged me to apply. I believe that, as an examiner, I can encourage players and singers of all ages and standards, using my broad experience in music to good effect and being part of their journey as a developing musician. I love both meeting new people and travelling to unfamiliar places, so being an examiner gives me an ideal opportunity to do both.
What do you feel the benefits are of taking a music exam?
Music exams can be a valuable performing experience when a varied repertoire of pieces, scales and/or technical exercises need to be prepared and played for a particular occasion. Feedback on such a performance from a professional musician is helpful to both the performer and the teacher alike, providing a ‘snapshot’ of the performance on the day and highlighting areas for further development. Graded exams also offer a structured and progressive path for musical attainment which is internationally recognised.
What do you particularly like about the Trinity syllabus?
The Trinity syllabus offers an exciting range of contrasting pieces and songs, with lots of choice and styles to suit all musical tastes. The three areas of assessment in the mark scheme are clear for teachers and candidates, and also make the examiner’s job very straightforward. There are a variety of options available, including improvisation and own composition, which enable candidates to work to their own strengths. The prompt return of candidate results is another of Trinity’s strengths.
Have you ever taken a music exam yourself?
I took graded music exams in piano, violin and singing as a child, and diploma exams as part of my later musical training. I have also accompanied a variety of instrumental exams and prepared students for exams. A few years ago I amused my school colleagues by taking a Grade 5 exam on an unfamiliar instrument. They offered to sponsor me for each mark I achieved over the pass mark with the proceeds going to a charity. They were less amused when I gained a Distinction and it became an expensive exercise!
What do you most enjoy about being an examiner?
The most enjoyable part of being an examiner is meeting all the candidates, representatives, accompanists and organisers. Whilst travelling both in the UK and around the world, so many of them have gone out of their way to be helpful and welcoming. On one memorable occasion in Greece, the staff at the music centre found out that it was my birthday; I was presented with cake, serenaded with several jazzed-up versions of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ and taken to watch the sun go down at the Acropolis to the strains of a full dress rehearsal of ‘Aida’ from a nearby amphitheatre. A memorable birthday indeed!
Have there been any other memorable moments?
There have been so many memorable performances during my examining career: a viola diploma candidate in Hong Kong who made me want to smile, cry and dance, all in the same performance; a day of fabulous early grade recorder players in Southern England, who shaped every phrase musically, and observed all the dynamics and articulation indications; and a nine-year-old Grade 6 Jazz saxophonist who played and improvised with true flair, panache and professionalism.
Which is your favourite part of the exam to examine, and why?
I enjoy the whole exam experience, but I particularly like being able to interact with the candidate in the supporting tests.
What are you particularly looking for from a candidate during an exam?
I look for a musical and stylish approach. It is not enough to play or sing every note correctly (in fact, if you listen to a live performance, even professionals don’t always get all the notes right!). If the piece is a march or a dance, make it sound like one. If it has a title like ‘Spooky’ or ‘Lullaby’ make it sound like that. If it is by a well-known composer, listen to some of their other pieces to find out what their ‘musical style’ sounds like. Practise, practise, practise!
The area that lets many people down is sight reading. Practise this every day. Joining bands, orchestras and choirs or playing duets can also help your sight reading. Remember, exploring new music can be fun!
What are your top tips for preparing for an exam and dealing with nerves on the day?
Nerves are a concern for almost all exam candidates. In my opinion, the best way to combat nerves is to be thoroughly prepared. Note security is the first essential. Practice should be thoughtfully planned and structured, avoiding the pitfall of always starting pieces from the first bar. It is a good idea to practise starting from anywhere in the piece, highlighting areas needing particular time and attention, and starting with these at the next practice session. Teachers can help with this. As the time for the exam approaches, trying out the exam pieces in front of friends or relations can give performance practice, and any stumbles or areas of insecurity can be noted for further work. On the day of the exam itself mindfulness and relaxation techniques can aid with calming the nerves and focusing on the task in hand.
What is the main piece of advice you’d give to someone taking an exam?
Play music that you enjoy and try to convey your enjoyment to the examiner. Don’t just play or sing through your pieces like a metronome – give them time to ‘breathe’ and plan your ‘musical pacing’. Put in all the marks of dynamics and articulation, and shape the phrases musically. Above all, try to enjoy your performance and then other people will too!