7 Teaching

7.3 Exam boards and the space for creativity


Assessment is obsessive in WCM. Exams, children’s competitions disguised as ‘festivals’,[1] masterclasses, competitions, auditions, concerts, recordings, all check repeatedly on the faithful and convincing performance of norms. Because conformity needs to be so thorough if one wishes to work, this frequent, in effect continuous assessment is always stressful; and because the stakes feel so high, WC musicians are unusually sensitive to the smallest criticism (as we shall see in chapter 13).

In the UK the Victorian thirst for assessment, as a guarantor of standards of behaviour, led to the establishment of several new conservatories for music in the 1870s and 80s, which in turn spawned curricula for examination throughout the country: notably those of Trinity College London (since 1879) and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (since 1889).[2] Both TCL and ABRSM quickly spread their examinations through many other countries, sending their own examiners on tour, initially across the British Empire (now the Commonwealth), more recently wherever a need can be created and met.[3] Cultural imperialism is still inherent in the belief system that underpins WCM: the standards and practices that are normative in Europe are held to be natural to WCM and definitive of it. Young musicians elsewhere are assessed against European and American norms, and as we shall see later (chapters 910) can experience blatant racism when they are perceived as failing to meet them. And so it seemed entirely proper to WCM culture that British examinations should be held far and wide.[4]

Similar systems now operate from the USA and Canada, working together to regulate North American preparatory music training,[5] while US conservatoire and other graduate-level music training is overseen and standardised by the National Association of Schools of Music.[6] There are comparable organisations elsewhere, including in Australia and New Zealand, competing with ABRSM, Trinity and others to supply the enormously expanding market in South East Asia.[7] Interestingly, continental Europe has managed to avoid a central examination system, although a comparably thorough programme is based in Austria.[8] As a result, these programmes ‘have shaped the way that very many teachers teach, and have defined musical standards and musical taste for millions of people’.[9]

These systems of course have much to offer in encouraging purposeful development of technique and knowledge of repertoire. But inevitably they at the same time instil normative interpretation, indeed insist upon it in return for the highest marks: the successful performance of norms is the very thing that these exams aim to reward and ensure. For Trinity this is marked as ‘stylistic understanding’ coupled with ‘effective communication and interpretation’, for the ABRSM the slightly more interesting ‘musical shaping’, ‘communication of character and style’; where ‘character’ and ‘style’ represent interpretative norms, and ‘communication’ their persuasive performance.

A particularly targeted set of criteria are offered by the ANZCA Music Examinations whose key terms are[10]

Accuracy, security, evenness, observance, control, fluency, planned variation [dynamic variation, but the notion is striking in its distaste for the spur of the moment], shaping, musical planning [whatever that is], expression suitable to the style of the work, understanding and evocation of the characteristics of the style [‘the’ style], musical involvement, confidence.

Through criteria like these the exams schematise and institutionalise standard practice and enforce conformity. Only the improvisation element encouraged by the Trinity exam syllabus offers any possibility for fresh musical thinking. For these the examiner provides a two-bar starting-point which (at the candidate’s choice) may be stylistic, motivic or harmonic, and the candidate improvises for a further four to sixteen bars (according to the Grade) using specified chords, keys and classical forms. Here the key criteria are a ‘sense of musical structure’ and a ‘creative and imaginative response’: not far from norms, it’s true, but at least introducing the possibility that creativity and imagination might have some role to play.

One shouldn’t underestimate how much of a challenge this is for classically trained musicians. The overwhelming emphasis on acquiring technical skills on one’s instrument causes the under-development of other skills essential to musical creativity including decision-making and the ability to play by ear,[11] while the constant emphasis on notated repertoire, on faithfulness to score, and to stylistic norms that are held to be desired by the composer, inhibits the sense of agency without which a performer cannot feel confident enough to create. Nothing short of improvisation as an essential strand in classical music training will be sufficient to counteract these pressures, which is why Trinity’s initiative is so important and their syllabus so much to be preferred—and worth extending and developing. (For more on classical creativity see Chapter 7.4 on Juniper Hill’s (2018) book, Becoming Creative.)

What might then be the possibilities for including ‘creativity’ or ‘imagination’ as criteria for assessing candidates’ performances of scores? Some seem still to believe that individuality comes later, once ‘the basics’ have been ‘mastered’. But it cannot once it’s been drilled out. As a conductor and pianist reported to me of the way he was taught,

No-one had motives other than good ones: they were trying to get the music performed well and as it “should” be played. But they tried to control rather than encourage personality in interpretation and find out what their students were looking for. It was only when I worked as an assistant to a famous conductor who said to me that the most important thing was to develop “an own artistic vision” that I began to understand what it meant to be a musician, and I was nearly 30 by that stage![12]

The other common objection to accepting creativity from young musicians is the problem of how to assess it. In a system where marking is very tightly regimented to ensure consistency and to be proof against appeal, anything unexpected is a challenge. And yet the boards already give marks for ‘communication’: how do you assess that? By how engaging you find the musical performance. And creativity is no different in this respect. The performer’s job is to be persuasive; that’s what you mark. So please, teach creativity and, if you must, assess it. It can be done. (We’ll look in more detail in Chapter 22.5 at assessing non-standard performances.)

A workable practice, I think, is offered in the performance exam regulations introduced at King’s College London in 2015. Key passages are these:

Persuasive communication and imaginative musicianship are the ultimate goals of performance at KCL. Examiners distinguish between performances that creatively reinterpret familiar repertoire, and performances that are under-informed about current conventions or the information contained in the score (or possibly in the recorded tradition; the latter may be especially relevant for a jazz recital).

…students should offer a brief verbal introduction (a few sentences) to their performances, highlighting any interpretative challenges. Candidates offering a radical performance that negates aspects of the score or of current performance practices should use this opportunity to clarify intentions.

It’s really not hard to work judiciously and fairly with criteria along these lines.[13]

But when we look at the public syllabi as a whole, and at the kinds of activity that they require of children in the daily repetition of scales, arpeggios, and (typically) three pieces until all can be carried off perfectly under stressful conditions, in the knowledge that the smallest slip will be noted and marked down, it’s impossible not to see how the practices and anxieties of a lifetime are being laid down. To progress through the exam system is to learn not just what is required but that it is required absolutely; that the route to perfection is through drill, repetition, obedience, reproduction.

Anna Bull reports on the way that child musicians are socialised to trust their teacher, however badly their teacher treats them.

…four of my participants told me about being bullied by their instrumental teachers. What is striking about three of these accounts, from Miriam, Jonathan and Jenny, is that they all emphasised how good these bullying teachers were, and how the teachers were right to pressurise and humiliate them in these ways. … Even Emily, who was bullied by her cello teacher till she stopped playing, took responsibility for her teacher’s behaviour. (Bull 2014, 145)

What are the models for this kind of behaviour? Henry Kingsbury suggested conservatories were most like seminaries, where trainee priests learn devotion to God.[14] But in the case just quoted a closer model is domestic abuse, gaslighting, and worse, cases where the victim blames herself for deserving the abuse. From this perspective it’s not entirely unreasonable to see even relatively benign classical instrumental training as the deliberate induction by adults in children of an obsessive compulsive disorder in which complex actions have to be repeated until they can be performed correctly from start to finish, at which point a new sequence has to be learned, and so on ad infinitum; albeit with the unusual refinement that they get adult praise, medals and certificates. We’ll see in Part 4 in more detail, though it’s all too obvious by now in outline, how the infantilization instilled by the interrelationship between repetition, obedience and rewards feeds attachment to parent, teacher, and later to conductor and gatekeepers of all sorts; and always to the composer and His Works.

At first, much of this seems highly enjoyable.[15] The young musician accepts their teacher’s word, learns the fundamental rule: ‘play what the composer says (i.e., what teacher says), get praise’. With little sense, yet, of what is normative, everything they do feels personal because they’re discovering how to do it: they feel they’re being creative as they learn the moves their body needs to make to sound acceptably expressive. As the moves start to work they’re happy to accept the beloved leader—teacher/composer—as the source of their delight. But norms are also oppressive, and as the student learns to behave within them they become aware of gradually increasing fear: fear of making a mistake, fear of playing out of style, fear of non-conforming, of being judged unsuitable for work, of being judged ‘unmusical’ (see Chapter 5). With fear comes stress, anxiety, and performance-related illness, a plague now for which the ideology may well be substantially responsible. The likelihood of exclusion becomes ever stronger. Children (particularly in specialist schools where many potential professionals are sent) may be excluded from ensembles if they don’t meet the best standards. Even dedicated, highly skilled young musicians are dropped as they get older and the targets get harder. Eventually they’re disappointed at or soon after conservatoire, when it’s far too late to get a normal education.[16] This is made horribly clear in the essential book by Izabela Wagner, Producing Excellence, which every parent and teacher of child musicians should read,[17] and which we shall look into in Chapter 7.6 below.

Before we do that there is another aspect of childhood learning that is crucially important for the way we think about music, and by introducing it now we can keep it in mind throughout the rest of the book. Music is not just a matter of display, of expert practice, of aesthetic contemplation, nor even just a matter of profound emotional and personal experience. It is also a social praxis. It assists in the effective interaction, cooperation and mutual understanding of people. And this is also a lesson that, depending on how it is taught, can be more or less positively learned in childhood.

Thomas Regelski, in an important article on music teaching and institutional ideology, shows how Kantian beliefs about aesthetic distance and the autonomy of art—which are very much in keeping with the limiting and conventionalising of performance expression, and still hold sway in our thinking about classical music—deny an understanding or a practice of music’s potential to be a social good.[18] Policing musical expression, so that it may only serve as a marker of conformity to behavioural norms, decreases a child’s sense that music is a social, rather than a State activity. Far from encouraging cooperation, mutual give and take, sharing of ideas and expressions, normative classical music teaching encourages the notion that reproducing manners correctly is first and foremost what society requires of one.


Continue to 7.4 Conservatoire and creativity: Juniper Hill’s Becoming Creative

Back to chapter 7 menu
Back to Contents menu


[1] For example, http://www.northlondonfestival.org.uk/ , https://www.twomoorsfestival.co.uk/discover/young-musicians , https://www.lancashiremusichub.co.uk/site/make-music/ramsbottom-music-festival/
[2] Other UK exam boards are available: https://www.rhinegold.co.uk/music_teacher/off-beaten-track-small-exam-boards/
[3] An outstanding study of ABRSM is Wright, David C.H. 2013. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History. Woodbridge: Boydell. In August 2020 a public letter called on the ABRSM to diversify its syllabi: https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/ABRSM-Diversify .
[4] For a sight of the implementation of these values in South Africa see Johnson-Williams, Erin. 2020. The Examiner and the Evangelist: Authorities of Music and Empire, c.1894. Journal of the Royal Musical Association (forthcoming). The classic study of the non-European experience of ABRSM assessment in modern times is Kok, Roe-Min. 2011. Music for a Post-Colonial Child: Theorizing Malaysian Memories. In ed. Lucy Green, Learning, Teaching, and Musical Identity: Voices Across Cultures (Indiana University Press), 89–104. Also informative on the historical development of a composer’s-intentions-focused view of performance is Wilén, Sara. 2013. In Search of Oscillating Relations: Power, Gender, Remix in Operatic Performance. In ed. Petter Dyndahl, Intersection and Interplay: Contributions fo the Cultural Study of Music in Performance, Education, and Society (Malmö: Malmö Academy of Music), 105–23.
[5] National Association for Music Education: https://nafme.org. US Music Certification Exams http://www.usmce.org/ and Conservatory Canada https://conservatorycanada.ca/.
[6] For an enlightening study of NASM values see Mantie, Roger and Brent C. Talbot. 2015. How can we change our habits if we don’t talk about them? Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 14:1, 128–53. act.maydaygroup.org/articles/MantieTalbot14_1.pdf
[7] Australian and New Zealand Cultural Arts http://musicinaustralia.org.au/index.php?title=Music_Examination_Boards_in_Australia
[8] Vienna Music Examination Board http://www.vmeb.org/e_main_musicexam.htm
[9] Wright 2013, 6. Hence Anna Bull’s apt label ‘the standardisers’. Bull, Anna. 2014. The Musical Body: How Gender and Class are Reproduced among Young People Playing Classical Music in England (PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London), 71.
[10] http://www.anzca.com.au/Syllabus%20PDFs/ANZCA%20Performance%20Syllabus%20Information.pdf
[11] Hill, Juniper. 2018. Becoming Creative: Insights from Musicians in a Diverse World (New York: Oxford University Press), 33.
[12] Response to a Survey Monkey questionnaire, 2018, an investigation of musicians’ experiences of obstacles to creativity. Further details in the notes to Chapter 7.5, further reporting of results in Chapter 7.7 below.
[13] An example of conservatoire criteria that reward originality see Royal Academy of Music: Examination Procedures 2018–19, pp. 12–13, where a mark of 90–100 rewards ‘Performance which combines striking originality with authority in all matters of technical and artistic delivery, which is consistently inspiring and engaging, and has the highest standard of presentation.’ The question, though, is always what kinds of originality are acceptable. The King’s criteria differ in explicitly including the breaking of fundamental norms.
[14] Kingsbury, Henry. 1988. Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 19.
[15] Most of this paragraph appeared previously in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2016. Classical Music as Enforced Utopia. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 15:3–4, 325–36 at 329–30. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474022216647706
[16] One of Juniper Hill’s participants says: ‘If you become the highest, the first top violinist in the radio symphony orchestra, then you might be happy with your education. But if you don’t, then what have you got? You didn’t become anything, you can’t play without notation, you can’t play anything other than classical music, and that’s where people have tried to ask … should it be like this, and could it be different?’ (Hill 2018, 62). Cf. Ginsborg (2018)’s participant quoted in Chapter 7.6 below.
[17] Wagner, Izabela. 2015. Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
[18] Regelski, Thomas A. 2016. Music, music education, and institutional ideology: A praxial philosophy of music sociality. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 15:2, 10–45.

Leave a reply