Exams… as a musical performance
I found the final round of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award totally gripping.
Each of the three finalists gave an outstanding performance, and their stage presence was breathtaking. It was both inspiring and humbling to see such gifted teenagers with the passion, commitment and aspiration to develop their talents to such a high level.
They were also so accomplished that it was all too easy to forget their youth, and the hours and years of practice and ‘blood, sweat and tears’ that lay behind those individual performances.
Their external assuredness and professionalism also masked any vulnerabilities they were feeling: nerves, distractions, health and the stress of performing under the full media spotlight and for such high stakes.
The intensity of concentration of the performers reminded me of the athletics finals at the London Olympics and ‘make or break’ matches and competitions, such as Wimbledon finals. In each case, years of training and preparation are tested out in a short performance – one critical moment.
There are ‘critical moments’ like this for all of us in different ways and at different times of our lives without being Olympians or aspiring Musicians of the Year. Auditioning for an important part, music exams, University interviews, and job interviews are a few examples, and of course top of the list for many of us right now: academic examinations. All over the country, school pupils and university students are in the throes of internal or Public examinations.
Most school children and students tend to dread exams and the fall out extends to their families and others nearby. So, prompted by the Young Musician of the Year finals, I think it could be helpful to think of exams in terms of preparing for a performance.
Our academic examination system in the UK is certainly not perfect, and no system ever will be. There are several issues which, rightly, are under the spotlight: what is actually being tested?, and marking and grade inflation to name a few.
Like it or not, however, the results of public examinations such as GCSEs and A Levels represent a formal measure of an individual’s academic achievement, and serve as a comparator with other students. They are a major factor which can help open doors, or not, to university places, job interviews and other Higher Education options.
On the positive side, as I have already suggested, examination performances prepare us for other events and situations in life where we are “put on the spot” and have to perform under the spotlight such as interviews, important meetings and presentations.
Thinking about it, the preparation for a performance (musical, academic exam or an interview) can be broken down into three main elements:
Long term development of core technical skills, knowledge and competences. In the case of academic exams this includes covering the curriculum, developing good learning skills including higher order skills of analysis and application of facts or knowledge to different tasks.
Performance preparation is a transition phase which involves the process of reduction and concentration of several years work with a very clear end focus – the performance itself. It requires different, but related skills including self discipline to start preparing well ahead of the deadline and set aside regular slots of time as well as perseverance to continue when there are seemingly no immediate wins. Effective preparation techniques will be different for each of us.
There are many words of wisdom on the importance of thorough preparation, often based on hard experience.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Abraham Lincoln
“The tendency of an event to occur varies inversely with one’s preparation for it.” David Searles
“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.” Alan Armstrong
In the UK we call exam preparation ‘revision’, which suggests revisiting what has already been studied. Listening to girls’ conversations in corridors around the School, many think of revision as reducing a seemingly impossible number of facts onto revision cards and mind maps “in Biology we’ve got to do all the body” and “I can’t believe it, Mrs X says we have to know everything from Years 8, 9 and 10”. What is really important though is to keep the context and big picture in mind at all times.
The performance itself. Performances, by their very nature, have an element of unpredictability. We, as performers, are human beings and not machines, we have nerves and feelings and we all have better and worse days. The challenge here is to learn to manage ourselves so that we can perform to the best of our ability and do justice to our preparation.
Part of this is experience and self knowledge about our own personal foibles. The other part is practical common sense such as sleeping and eating well, arriving in good time, and adopting a positive frame of mind to the challenge. It always surprises me how many pupils and parents do not take this element seriously; it can make a real difference.
Writing this has also made me think about the importance of a constructive post mortem of examinations before the dust settles too much: making sure that pupils reflect on their preparation and performances and talk through with teachers what they have learned from the experience and what they feel they need to focus on for next time.
After all, we are all lifelong learners, constantly thinking about the next challenge or opportunity.