In our latest post, examiner Fiona Berry tells us all about her musical experiences and passes on lots of advice for getting the most out of your own musical journey.
What’s your musical background?
Music, as far as I can remember, has always been a part of my life: every Friday from the age of about four my Aunty used to come round for tea and spend time playing the recorder with me, which meant I could read music before I could read any literature. It was when I reached secondary school that I found my real passion, the saxophone. I had a great time during this period and spent many happy hours practising and playing in ensembles both at school and the local music centre. It was always homework that I had to be nagged at to do, never the music practice. When I applied for university the saxophone was nowhere near as popular as it is today, and Huddersfield University with its Contemporary Music Festival seemed like an obvious choice. Here I was lucky enough to study with Richard Ingham (who was and still is a renowned saxophonist) and perform in some of the first saxophone ensembles including, the National Saxophone Choir of Great Britain.
I decided to embark on a career of instrumental teaching. Bringing music into the lives of people young and old has always given me great pleasure. Many of my students have achieved great accolades either individually or as part of one of the numerous ensembles I direct. Conducting is something I adore. I love being on stage and in this role I’ve been privileged enough to perform at some of the best venues. Highlights would have to include Montreux Jazz Festival and the World Saxophone Congress.
What made you want to get into examining?
Having entered hundreds of students for Trinity exams over the years, I felt I had a real affiliation with the exam board and loved the flexibility of their syllabuses. I think there are two reasons that I applied to be an examiner. Firstly, a good friend of mine, who is also an examiner, suggested that I had the necessary skills, and secondly, I wanted to further my own teaching and thought that I would learn a lot from the candidates that I would examine. I know that I have a great rapport with people and this would enable me to put them at ease during their exam so that they could perform to the best of their ability. I always open the door to the exam room with a big smile and welcome candidates in.
As an International exam board, being a Trinity examiner would also give me the opportunity to travel and experience musical performance around the world. I’ve recently spent several weeks in India examining, where day to day life is far removed from what I am used to in the UK. After getting used to the chaotic road systems, I soon found myself enjoying the hustle and bustle of daily life. My steward was kind enough to give me some Indian cooking lessons and the trip to the local market was definitely more interesting than my weekly shop at the supermarket. I also visited the Taj Mahal which was every bit, and indeed more, beautiful than any picture, and enjoyed an evening of Jazz (I was surprised at how popular this genre was in India) at a local bar.
What do you most enjoy about being an examiner?
This question’s quite simple: meeting people. As an examiner you have the opportunity to meet so many people including stewards, local representatives, parents, teachers, colleagues, and most importantly the candidates. There is so much to be learnt from meeting people, hearing about and witnessing their experiences, not only musically but in life generally. I also love listening to people perform and seeing how their interpretation differs from ones I’ve heard before. No matter how often I hear certain exam pieces, every candidate plays it in their own individual way and I never get tired of the repertoire. Being a generalist examiner I hear so many instruments in a session that there’s usually something new to discover. Recently I assessed a candidate who performed their own composition, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
What do you feel the benefits are of taking a music exam?
Taking an exam gives you a benchmark of the standard you’ve reached. I also think there is much more to be gained than just a number on a certificate. Exams can often provide a focus or an aim for a student, which in due course leads to an enhanced practice regime. When learning an instrument practising is definitely essential, no matter what level you are at. I still enjoy practising and discovering the joy of new repertoire and techniques. Exploring the repertoire of exam syllabuses is certainly worthwhile and I always encourage my students to try most of the pieces before selecting their program. Exams also provide an opportunity to explore all aspects of music learning, not just performing a piece. All the technical work and supporting tests are valuable assets in making someone a good musician. The list below provides some examples;
Scales: Essential in developing co-ordinations of fingers, finger strength, knowledge of keys, and most composers use them in their melodies, so it improves your sight reading.
Technical exercises: Important for developing aspects of your technique such as articulation, phrasing and tone.
Orchestral/brass band extracts: Understanding the role of your instrument within an orchestra or band. Knowledge of repertoire and difficult passages which you may come across in an ensemble that you perform in.
Sight reading: A key skill when you embark upon any new piece. Being able to read notes and rhythms fluently makes music more accessible and enjoyable. The ability to sight read is also really beneficial when playing in an ensemble.
Musical Knowledge: Understanding the musical terms and context of a piece will inevitably enable you to perform the music better.
Improvisation: Creating music is equally as important as performing: improvising develops your confidence and compositional skills.
There are also many skills that can be learned from taking a performance exam which are not musically related but beneficial to other aspects of life. For example, learning to cope with being nervous is a valuable life skill. There are lots of situations such as job interviews and presentations whereby being able to perform despite being nervous is an asset that all employers would relish. Dealing with a situation which doesn’t quite go as expected is essential to many situations, so being able to continue in an exam, despite making a few mistakes, is a good skill to develop. In a written exam you can rub out the answer but this isn’t possible in a practical exam and therefore the ability to execute things under pressure is something that can be taken into every work place. Developing your level of confidence, whether that be from gaining a great exam mark or learning from your mistakes when things didn’t go quite according to plan, is also important. Taking exams also demonstrates your level of commitment regardless of your level of skill, and having extra qualifications on your CV is always a bonus.
What do you particularly like about the Trinity syllabuses?
I think getting your result quickly is something that my own students appreciate. Being able to read the report sheets whilst the memory of the exam is still fresh is really beneficial. I think it’s also great that Trinity have a clear marking scheme so that candidates can see where marks were lost and gained.
From my own teaching perspective, I love the flexibility within each syllabus and the way in which you can tailor the exam to suit your strengths. The choice between scales and exercises is one which is particularly helpful. The choice of supporting tests is also something I like. So many times people say, “I’m no good at aural” or “I just can’t sight read,” so it’s fantastic that there are other options available. It is great that Trinity have options such as musical knowledge and improvisation, which offer fantastic alternatives for some candidates.
I also find the repertoire lists both exciting and diverse. There are genres and styles that offer something for everyone and I often encourage my students to listen to examples on YouTube before making their choices. If you haven’t visited Trinity’s YouTube channel and website, it’s well worth doing so.
As for the exam process itself the best thing for me and my students is the genuine warmth of a Trinity examiner. It brings great delight to me when I hear one of my students say to the next before an exam, “Don’t worry, the examiner’s really nice”.
What are your top tips for preparing for an exam?
- Make sure you understand the mark scheme, if you don’t have a copy download it here Exam pieces are marked in 3 areas: fluency and accuracy, technical facility, and communication and interpretation. You can think of these as: me and my music (ask yourself: how well do you know the notes and the rhythms?), me and my instrument (am I making a good tone, articulating my notes or breathing correctly?) me and my audience (does my audience know that this is a sad piece, a happy piece or a particular dance? Am I bringing it to life with dynamic contrasts? etc.).
- Organise a practice exam. This is really helpful as often only particular aspects of an exam are practised in a lesson or indeed at home. Familiarising yourself with what will happen in the exam room is really important. There are several online videos of Trinity exams that you can learn from.
- Make sure you feel confident in all areas of the exam. Don’t forget to practise the supporting tests as well as the pieces.
- Enjoy the experience! Trinity examiners are trained to support you throughout your exam and we love to see candidates enjoying performing for us.
What are your top tips for dealing with nerves?
Nerves, if controlled well, can give us an extra sense of alertness and more energy. Everyone gets nervous, including examiners.
- Prepare thoroughly: There are few things more unnerving than performing in front of someone when you’re not completely sure what you are doing. Being thoroughly prepared in all areas of the exam can give you a real sense of confidence and ensure that your nerves are much less likely to get out of control.
- Smile: When you walk in the exam room, do so with a smile, you’ll be surprised at how much better this makes you feel. Smiling encourages the release of endorphins (the body’s feel-good chemical) and these can really improve your state of mind and make you feel much more relaxed.
- Don’t worry about mistakes: Leading up to the exam, practise telling yourself it’s alright to make mistakes. Every performer, no matter if they’re a professional musician or an examiner, makes mistakes, and in any exam gaining full marks is a rare achievement. The important thing is to not dwell on the mistakes, just carry on and keep focusing on the music that is to follow.
- Be kind to yourself: Whatever happens, always praise yourself. If you prepared well and did your best that’s all anyone can ever ask.
What’s the main piece of advice you’d give someone taking a music exam?
Enjoy it! Believe it or not examiners want you to succeed and do well. Most examiners have been on the other side of the desk and worked their way up through the graded exams, so we do understand what it feels like to be nervous. We also know that everything doesn’t always go to plan, so we will do everything we can to put you at ease so that your exam can be an enjoyable experience. I should also let you into a little secret, examiners get nervous too.