As usual, the questions submitted to me over the last few weeks have been extremely varied and often very unusual - thank you all for providing me with the challenge of answering them!
1. I would like to ask Clara Taylor whether she sees any benefit in students being encouraged to learn how to memorise pieces right from the start of their learning. If so, does she think that to incorporate memorised pieces into the exam system right from Grade 1 level would facilitate this learning process, even if it only started with a few bars at Grade 1, with pieces gradually getting longer up the grades. Does the Board have any plans to introduce memorised pieces into the exam system?
There are no plans at the moment to introduce compulsory memorisation into the exam system. It's important to bear in mind that many players memorise pieces 'too early' in the process of learning them, losing contact with the detail of the written music! Although developing the skill to memorise pieces is important, technical accuracy is even more vital.
2. Do you believe that there will inevitably be some variation in the technical difficulty of exam pieces on the same list in the same grade (i.e. A3 may well be easier than A1)? Or would you say all pieces are guaranteed to be of the same difficulty and it just depends on the individual player?
In response to the first question - yes, the technical difficulty of particular pieces may vary slightly within the broad parameters of the grade being examined. However, technical strengths and weaknesses vary between players - a 'challenging' piece for one player could be a relative pushover for another. It is very difficult to assert that one piece is objectively harder than another - it really is dependent on the individual player.
3. If there IS some variation between pieces, would examiners expect more â€˜musicalityâ€™ from a less technically difficult piece?
No - each piece is examined on its own merits against set criteria. There are no hidden instructions to examiners (believe it or not)!
4. I'm curious about why it is OK to play with a recorded CD accompaniment for jazz exams but not for ordinary grade exams. It really does seem odd, given the nature of jazz! Why is this the case?
We have tested various electronic accompaniment systems for graded exams, which have proven neither successful nor popular. The lack of personal interaction poses a problem - it is not possible to exchange visual clues or gestures with a CD during an exam that could assist a performance involving more than one player! CD accompaniments are permitted in jazz exams when an accompanist is not available - the specialised nature of jazz means that finding a suitable accompanist is often more difficult than it might be for a graded exam.
5. If it is so important for players of orchestral instruments to learn to play with an accompaniment... why isn't it important for pianists to learn the skills of accompanying, or even just playing with other instrumentalists or vocalists (if only at higher grades)?
It is important to learn the skill of effective accompanying if you have any intention of playing with others, even if it is not directly assessed in the graded exams. This is an interesting point though. I should point out that exams are available for accompanists at diploma level.
6. Do you think it's possible that a young candidate could be advantaged at the higher grades (or especially diploma levels) simply because their technical abilities may seem more overwhelming?
Absolutely not! The performance is assessed, not the person. At diploma level, all the exams are recorded and the moderators who check the recordings agree with the initial assessment of the examiners in an overwhelming majority of cases. Examiners assess the outcome, not the means.
7. I don't know if you're in charge of theory as well but... presumably, although there are no right or wrong answers, there are guidelines to examiners (i.e. some sort of mark scheme) for how marks are awarded for the questions (adding chords, figured bass, composition etc.) in the higher theory grades. As far as I'm aware these are not made available to teachers or students (although I have seen a scheme somewhere for the grade 5 composition question). Is this a deliberate omission, through fear that the exams would be made too easy if the students knew how they were marked, or would the AB consider publishing the marking guidelines (should they exist) so that teachers have a better idea of what to aim for on these grades?
The Associated Board is considering publishing marking guidelines and making them available to teachers and students. However, these guidelines are currently in the process of revision so this may not be immediately possible. I would suggest anyway that specimen theory answers - which are already available - would be of most benefit to both teachers and pupils.
8. If a piece appears on one grade and then appears on a lower grade 20 years later, what would be your response to the oft made statement that the exams are therefore being 'dumbed down'?
I assume you mean 'appears on a higher grade' or the implication would be the opposite! Our syllabus archives help us to ensure that the standard remains consistent. It is important to bear in mind that if a piece was to appear in the syllabus for two grades the performance would still be marked against the criteria for the particular grade being assessed - a better performance would be expected from a Grade 5 candidate than a Grade 4 one.
9. Is it possible for someone to claim they are grade X standard without taking the exam?
They might well be 'working at Grade X level' but it is something of a risky claim - even if the person is capable of competently playing pieces at Grade X level, for example, this does not necessarily indicate that their sight-reading, aural and scale work is of a similar standard. The claim is effectively unfalsifiable unless the person is properly assessed - and self-assessment is particularly unreliable!
10. Sorry to be boring you with questions on the supporting tests all the time.
I think most people can understand the reasoning behind the majority of the tests. I can see the argument for sight-reading and the D section of the aural, scales are fairly obvious and the C section is understandable, all of which contribute to forming a well-rounded musician as you said.
But I've never been able to work out the justification behind the A and B sections of the aural.
So in what way do those components help in forming a rounded musician, when in all likelihood an instrumentalist will never require the skills they seem to teach?
A sense of pitch and interval is important to develop regardless of whether or not a candidate has to sing. The A and B sections of the Aural test are all about hearing and reproducing melodies, which are vital skills to learn and particularly so - essential in fact - when interacting with other musicians in an ensemble. Suggestions for how the tests can be improved are always welcome, however - the syllabus is regularly reviewed.
Keep the questions coming!