Turning the tables: exam time

Friday afternoon I walked into an exam room with my cello, with the other students, to play in front of the Head of Music and the Head of Chamber Music. What on earth did I agree to??! I wasn’t really having an assessment, but I had agreed to perform for a final year pianist as his soloist so that he could be assessed on accompanying. Do you know how long it has been since I have been in a formal performance assessment situation? -not a concert but an exam? The final recital for my MMus at the Royal College in London was in 1997. That’s before some of my undergraduates were even born! When’s the last time you took a test with your students? On the spot, in front of them? and were assessed by other faculty?

I did do a simulated assessment where I turned the tables at a concert in 2012. I was playing a concerto with the orchestra and I offered everyone in the audience the chance to assess me, using the same forms as we use for the students. That was scary, but… this was different. There was no other audience, and really I felt a different sort of pressure. It wasn’t like a normal recital. With a normal recital or concert planning would be in place months before, and certainly the week of the event, I would do everything I could to clear the schedule so I could concentrate and rest. As there have been so many other demands on my time, any preparation for this was really focused (that’s a polite word for squeezed) into a very small space of time. Isn’t that what it’s like to be a student though? Finals time is crunch time, even if you are well prepared. You are required to spin several plates at once, keep them in the air, and deliver well on all counts.

If you put it into perspective: What if a teacher was coming up to several deadlines that coincided, like submitting an article, revising a grant proposal, preparing for the normal lectures, and coordinating a visit from an external speaker from abroad. Ideally we would like to plan these things not to coincide, but when they do, it is crunch time and even when very prepared, there is still a sense of ‘this is it’ and the balance of tasks gets pushed around. That’s how I felt with this student. I was aware that his grade was at least partly dependent on my not messing up, and that meant I needed to prepare. Two days before the exam I was to be found practising at 12:30 in the morning. Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day.

The assessment came and went and it was fine. I did ok, and my accompanist accompanied away. I felt safe, and that’s the point. I was still nervous and wishing I had an extra 20 hours to practise that solo part, but beside playing the part, the overall experience really taught me a lot.

  • Firstly we should all have to experience being on the other side of the assessment table, exposing our craft or knowledge, whether practical, presentation, or essay writing to our teaching peers, bosses, and students. The students should see us do this. I need to be as good as my word. I need to be able to do what I ask them to do.
  • Second, I have a huge respect for those who accompany regularly. I know it is different to being a soloist, but there is a great responsibility to support, be reliable, be prepared, and the amount of preparation and commitment from accompanying personnel is often completely unseen. People just see someone turn up and do the job. Hats off to you. It is a jolly important job and I’m grateful to those who have supported me.

And after that assessment I had the biggest headache – mostly from only eating cheese and crackers for the best part of 24 hours and not drinking nearly enough water, but also from the rush of relief at having done it- and they weren’t even assessing me! …oh the perils of crunch time. Balancing plates is tricky, and sometimes taking care of ourselves is one of the first things to go. So many good lessons. …and when I do it again, I’m going to think and plan differently – or at least drink water and sleep!


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