This month we meet music examiner Sheila Kent, and hear about her most memorable moments as an examiner, as well as her tips for candidates preparing to take a music exam.
What’s your musical background?
My musical background is best described as being as varied as it could possibly be! I grew up in a house where my father always had recordings of the popular music of the time or swing and military bands playing. My mother played the piano reasonably well but sang much better! I won my first singing competition, singing a pop song of the time, at the age of seven, and I haven’t stopped singing since! I started singing in a church choir at about this age so became used to harmony work, and I still love hearing choral music. I also started piano lessons at the same time.
At the age of 15 a new music teacher at school took over my piano lessons, and my real love affair with music began. I was prepared properly for exams, which I realised could be useful goals to aim for, and when I took up the oboe in the sixth form I actually started to enjoy the preparation for exams, exploring new and ever more advanced repertoire. The oboe brought me into contact with much more of the classical repertoire, and with ensemble and orchestral playing, which I sadly can no longer do because of a serious injury to my hand some years ago. My time at music college was full of practical music making, both vocal and orchestral, and with an inspiring piano teacher, but I always wanted to teach.
What made you want to get into examining?
Heading music departments in schools for over 20 years meant that entering the pupils my teaching staff had prepared for exams three times a year was an essential part of my role. My teachers used a variety of boards, but I was always impressed by the professional but friendly attitude of the Trinity examiners, and the fact that the pupils knew their results so soon after taking the exam. I had entertained all the examiners to lunch, and I was also interested in the fact that the Trinity examiners all talked about the wide variety of different instruments they heard. When I left full time teaching one of the avenues I decided to pursue was examining with Trinity – a decision I have never regretted in the nearly 20 years that I have been examining.
I am proud to be an examiner for Trinity, which continues to be a board noted for the professional but friendly approach it takes with teachers and candidates.
What have been your most memorable moments as an examiner?
I have met some super people in my examining life – colleagues who have become friends, reps, and candidates. I’ve examined a number of teddy bears and dolls that young players have brought into the room with them, and have been very happy to do so if it relaxes the candidate to have them there, but at the other end of the playing spectrum I shall never forget a wonderful counter-tenor taking his Grade 8, a simply amazing 11 year old Grade 8 drummer, or two separate high grade plectrum guitarists from one centre who did the best improvisations I’ve ever heard. One of the most interesting though was a trumpet player who had broken his arm playing rugby, and came with a very high stool and many different cushions so that he could rest his arm on it as he played! He did very well!
What do you feel the benefits are of taking a music exam?
Some of my own pupils choose to enter for music exams, even though they are nearly all adults. They like having the goal posts of music exams to aim for, and several have progressed from the earliest grades to diploma level. I use some Trinity repertoire for all of them as there’s such a wide variety of music available and it allows them to progress at an identifiable rate even though they might not wish to take an exam.
What are your top tips for preparing for an exam?
When my candidates are entering I think it is really important that they enjoy the pieces they’re playing. This always comes over in the performance that is given, and allows people to perform and communicate their music properly, which is a vital part of the exam. My own pupils always know much more of the potential music than they will use, so that we can make a good choice of programme together. I think it is vital that they are really well prepared so that there are no surprises ahead, so we always begin the technical work and supporting test options as soon as preparations begin. We try out all the available choices of supporting tests so that they can choose their two favourites, which can change from grade to grade. I then keep telling them that it is important they enjoy the experience, and that it’s natural to be a little bit nervous, but there will be nothing they don’t know about happening in the exam, that they should try to relax and take a few deep breaths before they go in, and not to be afraid of asking the examiner what they mean if they don’t understand what was said to them.