by Vaughan Jones violin teacher – At around April, July and December, thousands of children (and adults) will be taking a music grade exam in their chosen musical instrument. For many, this will be the culmination of many months of preparation, whereas for others grades can offer a way of making rapid progress through having a meaningful target to work towards. For some however, it will involve a period of struggle, where last minute scales are memorized and sight reading skills honed.
As a private violin and piano teacher in Buckinghamshire, I realise that teachers often face tricky decisions when putting pupils in for music exams. There are generally three parties involved: pupils, teachers and parents. Often this is harmonious and all three are able to agree the best timing for a grade examination. When teachers are working through music services or schools however, the lack of contact between parents and teachers can¬†lead to¬†misunderstandings however, with parents eager for their child to progress through their grades, often without a thorough understanding of the complications involved. In my private violin teaching in Buckinghamshire on the other hand, parents are encouraged to sit in on lessons and this has two advantages. Firstly, they can accurately gauge the¬†process of teaching and¬†cultivating musicianship¬†(as well as being able to see how their son or daughter responds to this). Secondly, they begin to gain an insight into the learning process itself and can see how much¬†progress can differ on a musical instrument to other more academic subjects.
There are scenarios which can occur from time to time which even the best will in the world cannot avoid. Sometimes a pupil will be deemed ready for an exam and entered in for it. He or she appears to make good progress in the first few weeks of the term and then significantly tails off towards the exam date – perhaps other subjects or activities start to take priority and practice time gets forgotton. In such situations extra lessons are inevitably scheduled but the hidden truth is that this all puts a lot of pressure onto the conscientious¬†teacher (a fact not often acknowledged). Most feel very responsible for getting the pupil through the exam, but in taking on this responsibility ourselves¬†the natural balance of co-operation is lost. In any one-to-one instruction there must be a perfect balance between the pupil‚Äôs desire to learn and the teacher‚Äôs desire to give. After all, it is a co-operative venture: the pupil cannot learn without a good teacher and the teacher cannot teach without a responsive and interested¬†pupil, therefore a synchrony exists. Once this balance shifts, a situation can develop where the pupil (and their parents) places more and more of the onus on the teacher, by failing to prepare for lessons and not listening to tips and advice, thereby forgetting things from one week to the next.¬†From the teacher’s point¬†of view, it can¬†feel like¬†pouring water into a colander, with the teacher putting more and more effort and detail into instructions which the pupil should have retained from the last lesson.¬†If a¬†pupil lacks the motivation to concentrate, or¬†figure things out for him/herself (as the teacher appears to be repeatedly providing it all) then a cycle can develop, with parental expectation often leading to the teacher feeling even more pressurized!
I spoke with two other teachers recently who had in excess of 10 pupils entering grade exams in a single period, and both described how much each individual pupil meant to them, but also how different their approaches needed to be from one pupil to another. Both said that once the exams were over, they felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
So for any nervous pupils, about to sit an exam – perhaps it is comforting to realise that you are not alone and your teacher is almost certainly going through similar feelings!