Meet Dr Jonathan Drennan, and read his thoughts on the benefits of taking a music exam, what he likes to hear from exam candidates, and his top tips for preparing for and taking an exam.
What’s your musical background?
My music degree from the University of Ulster majored in Piano and Organ Performance (with secondary studies in Voice and Percussion), for which I gained first-class honours. I wrote my PhD on a pupil of Claudio Monteverdi and it included historical musicology and various performance editions of seventeenth-century Venetian music. I have held various academic music posts in the UK but also elsewhere (my first being in Florida, USA). Due to my research interests, I regularly provide material for international publishers on Renaissance and Baroque music; and as a performer I work frequently as a pianist, organist, harpsichordist and choirmaster throughout Europe. My other professional time is spent teaching and examining.
What made you want to get into examining?
Given that I have taught music grades and diplomas for 20 years (both privately and in institutions), and played for thousands of exams, it seemed logical to seek experience from the other side of the exam room. Also, I travel a lot with my work so the prospect of examining worldwide was a major attraction.
What do you most enjoy about being an examiner?
When working, I often imagine that I am examining my own two children. This is especially important when I am faced with young musicians. It means a great deal to me, therefore, when a candidate of whatever age mentions they have enjoyed the exam experience. In a sense, the point reflects the huge responsibility of the examiner, since the experience for the candidate may be life-changing.
What do you feel the benefits are of taking a music exam?
In my opinion, there are countless benefits of taking a music exam. However, as a teacher, I feel that a major benefit is the ‘structured’ learning. While I admire teachers who motivate and develop their students outside the examination system, I must confess that many of my pupils would be severely hampered in the absence of a definite ‘end product’. Also, the music exam system ensures that students are exploring wide repertoires, often accessible through a single published exam book.
What do you particularly like about the Trinity syllabus?
There are two aspects I particularly like about the Trinity syllabus. First, in the technical work, I think it is so helpful that Trinity assesses technique not solely by way of scales. In my opinion, scales represent only one aspect of technique. So, for example, a pianist playing a Bach prelude or fugue will be conscious of voice leading as much as scalic precision, and the violinist preparing for a professional orchestral position will likely know the importance of preparing the detail of their orchestral excerpts. These components are, of course, incorporated in the Trinity syllabus. The other aspect I rate highly in the syllabus is that singers are given specific vocal exercises to prepare in each grade.
What do you feel you gained from the experience of taking graded exams yourself?
All of my music exams – practical and theory – were with Trinity College London, and, significantly, I used both my Grade 8 practical and theory exams to gain admission to my music degree (my A-levels were in other subjects).
Which is your favourite part of the exam to examine?
I enjoy all aspects of the exams; however, I particularly enjoy getting the opportunity to direct the aural tests from the piano (especially, when there is a Steinway piano on offer in the exam room!). It is a terrific opportunity to engage with the candidate.
What are you looking for from a candidate during an exam?
Naturally, as an examiner, I am hoping to hear consistency – tonally and rhythmically – and a confidence that really engages the listener. A very important desire is to feel that the candidate is realising the composer’s intentions. In a nutshell, I am seeking an entertaining and creative production that does not hang wholeheartedly on mechanical perfection. Related to this point, I have had special experiences witnessing candidates, notably singers, who have become thoroughly absorbed by the passion of their music.
What are your top tips for preparing for an exam?
There are so many tips one could cite for preparing an exam. It is very important to be organised, so the candidate should arrive early on the day, allowing time for rest and reflection. Another tip would be, if performing with an accompanist, to make sure there have been ample rehearsals beforehand. If the candidate is a pianist, the experience of trying different pianos is invaluable and lessens the shock of the likely-untried exam piano. Also, if the candidate is bringing their instrument to the exam, it is worth making sure that all is in order: I have had instances where candidates have been flustered by bits seizing and screws in flutes coming out, and so on. However, my chief tip is to make sure that all parts of the exam have been prepared. This seems obvious, I know, but it is so easy to overlook the sheer weighting of the supporting tests – they are incredibly useful if things don’t go to plan in the pieces. From my own performance experiences, concentrating more on one aspect does not necessarily ensure its success on the day.
What are your top tips for the supporting tests part of the exam?
When preparing scales, it is so useful to practise these randomly since the examiner will likely not ask every scale and arpeggio in the chronological order shown in the published material. In terms of the exercises, it is very important to capture the detail of the music (rhythmic, dynamic, and so on). And in the aural and improvisation tests, generally, it is useful to be aware of the examination rubrics/content so that the examiner’s questions and their ordering do not come unexpectedly.
What are your top tips for dealing with nerves?
Personally, my recital success hangs on two salient factors: first, preparing well; and, second, on the day of the performance, making sure that I focus my mind purely on the music and not letting it become distracted by unhelpful thoughts.
What’s the main piece of advice you’d give someone taking a music exam?
My main advice to any candidate is to enjoy their exam – this is a wonderful opportunity to show off individuality and skilfulness. And, of course, a candidate has the opportunity, through the supporting tests, to demonstrate prowess outside their instrumental/vocal aspects.