A few months ago I talked about whether exams are a good thing for any upcoming musician. I still think the same; yes they are, as long as the teacher thoroughly works his/her way through every detail. This will make sure that everything is covered for all the necessary areas for advancement.
The reason for this follow up blog is with regards to my latest experience in taking an exam myself. Some of my students and even parents ask why I should need to take an exam? My answer usually entails explaining that schoolteachers get training so why shouldn’t I. I feel a bit of a hypocrite if I don’t do something I expect my students to. I also find it funny and flattering when I’m told I should get 100%. Thank you so much, but I really wished it happened that way.

I had six students including myself taking exams on the 13th March and to say that I was prepared would have been a lie. Although I had been teaching the very same grade, I hadn’t actually sat down and practiced for any length of time. I chose to do the Grade 7 Rockschool drum exam in Latin and Jazz. Of course I am going to say this, but it was not easy. The jazz track was an upbeat 215bpm swing and the Latin was a Samba. The third song was a rock song made up of many time signatures including 7/8 11/8 and 6/4. Interesting, to say the least. All the tracks were well within my capabilities, the trouble being, I did not give it the practice it deserved. I went into the exam very nervously. Even though I have found myself in many different musical situations over the years, I knew this was going to be a challenge. With the higher grades you have to prepare a sight-reading piece presented to you twenty minutes before you are expected to perform it. Luckily for me, I’m not a bad sight-reader and found it convincingly easy. It was a blues shuffle and considering I play that style most times I gig, I knew I could achieve a good result. Dynamics felt good, feel was brilliant and the short solo at the end flowed with conviction. Although this was a confident start, I still felt very nervous and unsure. Next up was the jazz piece. It started well, but my independence was clearly out of sync. Being a teacher, I am always aware that Jazz should be free, but solid nonetheless. My solo was very random and clearly not my best, but I got through it. It was downhill from this point- Latin was up next. A few years ago I spent time with a great teacher called Paul Hose. I studied with him for three months working through many different Latin patterns. I admitted to him on the first day that I didn’t even know how to play a proper Samba pattern. This might come of a surprise, but I really didn’t. Sure, I could play along, but did I really know the right way? Thankfully, Paul looked after me and I can freely play many Latin tunes to a relaxed standard. If only this was the way during my exam. I felt that it was untidy and not in sync with the backing track. Also the solo was far from being anywhere near what I had been practising in my home studio. The third song was a Rock song based around many different time signatures. Considering I felt that I was having a bad exam, I played this really well. The next part of the exam involves technical exercises. For those of you who don’t now what these are, they are different combinations of sticking which are often used for creating fills. Apart from the odd case of me dumping the sticks on the drum, it went very well. I finished the exam with some reasonably easy questions and some relief that it was over.

The nerves got the better of me on that day and I think that was my problem. Why? I don’t know, maybe the pressure of being the teacher and having to prove myself. Why am I finding the need to describe this to you? Is it really worth going through this pressure for your instrument? The answer is clearly yes and although some students say it takes away the enjoyment of playing an instrument, I strongly disagree. It gives you something to work for and having a certificate on the wall is clearly an incentive. That is not the only reason we learn an instrument though. Pleasure in performance is one of the greatest experiences you can go through as a musician. In this situation it is only for the examiner, but imagine playing your first gig in front of a hundred people. Thinking back to some of my first shows, I was petrified and very much under pressure. This is where I think there are similarities, which can only do a student good. Gaining experience playing different styles is also on the top of my priorities, even if it is a track I don’t like. As professional you will be asked to play in different styles, the exams give you the chance to experience this. Let us also not forget about one of the biggest factors in all of this, discovery of music. It opens student’s minds to other styles they might not of discovered. Encouraging people to search for great music can only enhance the enjoyment of playing. New styles can encourage us; excite us, that is why we started playing, right?

The weeks after this experience I really knuckled down with my playing. Working even harder on my Jazz licks and foot independence. I have played many gigs already this year and with plenty of shows in the diary for 2010, I certainly will be playing a lot. Although this is certainly good for my playing, never under estimate how practice keeps you on form. I never take it for granted that I will play well. I practice a lot, but on this occasion I didn’t focus I what I should have.

Although I have just admitted my downfall, you would have thought I had failed. I didn’t, I passed with flying colours and received a Merit. I am pleased with this result and it has encouraged me to work even harder for Grade 8.

Thank you for reading.