This month we meet music examiner Peter Harrison, and hear about his musical and examining experiences and his tips for preparing for a music exam.
What’s your musical background?
I was born in Wallsend on Tyneside and began playing recorder in primary school encouraged by Mr. McKay (I remember him with gratitude) then flute at high school, progressing through the grades and subsequently studying at the Guildhall School and Birmingham Conservatoire. The chance acquisition of an eighteenth century boxwood flute led to an interest in early music, and an enjoyable and fascinating period of study and research in connection with an MA in Music Performance at York University. I live now in a village near York and in addition to my musical activities, I am a keen railway enthusiast and closely follow the fortunes of Newcastle United Football Club.
Since 1974 I have directed and played baroque flute and recorder with the early music ensemble Concert Royal, giving Purcell Room and Wigmore Hall recitals and touring abroad for the British Council (http://www.classical-artists.com/concertroyal/). Particularly interesting projects over the years have included research into Jane Austen’s music collection, which led to many hundreds of performances encapsulating her musical world, and for the Arts Council an extensive research project into Charles Avison’s music, leading to the first recording of his concerti grossi. Currently I am working on a project to research and record the music collection of Branwell Bronte. As a young man Branwell, brother of Anne, Charlotte and Emily, played the flute as a pastime in the family home at Haworth in Yorkshire.
I have held a number of interesting and rewarding teaching posts, firstly as a peripatetic woodwind teacher in Northumberland, then as Director of Music at schools in Sussex and York, and finally I held the post of Lecturer in Primary Music Education at the University of Hull.
What made you want to get into examining?
Welcoming the opportunity to positively encourage young musicians and to travel both in the UK and abroad, my examining career began with Guildhall in 1990. I and my fellow examiners strive to make the exam experience as positive and encouraging as possible for candidates – in contrast to my own experiences of taking grade exams in the ’50s: rather dry, impersonal occasions, I remember.
What has been your most memorable moment as an examiner?
The general friendliness, enthusiasm and openness of the vast majority of today’s candidates is much appreciated and of course, over the years, there have been many memorable experiences. Outstanding perhaps was the candidate who travelled 500 kilometres by train overnight and waded through the floods in Chennai in 2015 to take Grade 6 Piano, and the confident and personable Initial Grade singer in Cheshire whose impeccable performance fully justified full marks, 100 out of 100!
What do you feel are the benefits of taking a music exam?
Music grades can be important benchmarks, which help developing musicians to measure progress, and the benefit of accrued ‘UCAS’ points should not be overlooked. Don’t forget to include your music qualifications in your CV. They help you ‘stand out from the crowd’ and would-be employers will recognise your ability to work independently and self–motivate.
What are your top tips taking for an exam?
As part of their musical development my own pupils take Trinity exams, appreciating the choice of repertoire and supporting tests. I encourage my pupils to prepare all aspects of the examination to a consistent standard. When examining I occasionally find that the first two pieces go really well but the third has perhaps not received as much attention. My tip for the aural tests and musical knowledge questions is not to dwell on a perceived error, but put it behind you and concentrate all your efforts on the following test or question. Exams can be a nerve-wracking business but remember that the examiner is on your side and wants you to do well, and will always be listening for the positive aspects of your performance.
I look forward to continue meeting and enjoying the company of teachers and candidates in the coming years, and to appreciate the efforts of aspiring musicians everywhere.