Examiner Jessica O’Leary shares her account of what it’s like to be an ABRSM examiner. No two days are ever the same, and yet music is at the heart of every day as an examiner. 

Einstein’s mother asked him every evening what he had learnt that day. Being an ABRSM examiner never ceases to surprise and stretch me, and the constant need for flexibility and refinement each day keeps me learning! 

 Let me share what happens from the beginning…

Having offered possible exam dates online, there is always a buzz of excitement around where I will be sent: a school, private house, public centre, which county, a night away? When the news comes through on our shiny ABRSM iPads, I accept the dates and am delighted to see I’ve been assigned, for example, to a school about 20 miles away for two days of examining. It’s a nice mix of instrumentalists and several singers and it’s perfect for me as it’s close enough that I can drive out of town which means no arm-strain carrying everything, but far enough away that I’m unlikely to know any of the teachers or students.  

There’s always lots of prep to do so first I check the list of students in detail to make sure there are no conflicts of interest. If it’s a public venue, then I check each teacher too to make sure I don’t know anyone. If I do, then I flag it with HQ and they advise. All seems well so I make a list of how many candidates there are for each grade and check any less familiar entries like high grade bass trombone or harp. I practise the aural tests and accompaniments to the singing sight-reading tests well in advance as I’m not a first study pianist and I can’t afford to be hesitant as it wouldn’t be fair on the candidates. Over the two days of exams, there are twelve grade 1’s, eight grade 2’s and a decreasing number of the other instruments but lots of high-grade singers and a Grade 8 harpist! Marcato, the app we use for writing exam assessments, minimises the risk of doing things wrong as everything including the scales, sight-reading and aural tests is integrated into each student’s entry so there is no chance of me being on the ‘wrong page’ of a paper syllabus thankfully! Still, I work out options for harp scales that won’t involve too many lever changes but still cover the parameters. Perhaps this is my new challenge for today? 

About two weeks before the exam dates, I contact the school and we check timings, any remaining covid arrangements, car parking and hopefully they mention school lunch and tea breaks too! Setting things up comfortably in advance gives everyone a chance to relax and look forward to the day. 

The day before the exam, I log into Marcato again to download the latest ‘candidate list’ and plan my journey. I think every examiner has a specific wheelie-bag they use, and I check that I have my iPad (fully charged, and with the charger for lunchtime), Sight-reading tests, school address and snacks. After the past 18 months, I seem to be quicker typing than writing on my iPad, so I take my extra-quiet external keyboard and cable. I also take my syllabuses and paper and pens too, in an abundance of caution!  

As soon as I am near the school, I try and smile at people. I never know who a candidate might be, and word could spread quickly if I look in the slightest grumpy! There are the usual ID checks and often the Head of Music or administrator will show me to the exam room, and I have a chat with the steward.  

Before the exams begin, I test the piano to check its parameters and that informs me of the possibilities for any piano students, particularly the less experienced ones, and then I set up the room carefully. I want the students to feel welcomed as soon as the door opens and for me to be able to ask for the scales with good eye contact, without them having to turn around for each item. I usually move my desk rather than the piano as it’s just easier! Then I check the music stand is in a sensible place if the first candidate is going to need it. I set up the iPad, do a quick test of the IT and make sure I’ve got the right Sight-reading books on the desk. Finally, I double-check the candidate list and timings with the steward.  

Each venue has a different way of doing things and every day is interesting. There is honestly no time for a bored moment! Sometimes a whole team arrive to set up a young cellist, an advanced harpist might need to retune between pieces, or a kindly teacher might come in to settle an anxious student. It can be a balancing act to keep things moving along without giving the impression of rushing anyone, and a relaxed atmosphere in the room is crucial so the students can perform at their best.  

Although we have a given timetable, there always seems to be time to allow students to play their best if I can set the right tone from the start. If possible, I pop into the waiting room and say hello to any pupils warming up. If it’s a public centre or private house, then there are often parents there too and they can be more worried than their children, so a cheery welcome helps settle everyone and hopefully even enjoy the experience. The first candidates share their experience with the next ones, so it feels important to get this bit right. If things go awry, my tea breaks can evaporate, but if things go smoothly, I might end up with a longer break and perhaps even a piece of cake! 

Marcato stops us accidentally missing out a section or adding the marks up incorrectly. I can’t move on to the next without completing every section first. I have also to feel fully confident with the total mark when it is near a category boundary. I find this surprisingly reassuring and it keeps everything in order.  

There is no such thing as a ‘full-time’ ABRSM examiner, and we all fundamentally understand the complexities of teaching and performing, and I think this is our secret ingredient in assessing in a kindly and fair way. I park my teaching hat at the door and keep the exam criteria firmly on my desk, as I can only assess the musical outcome of what I hear in the moment. I always hope that my positive attitude and goodwill towards the candidates comes across and helps them play as confidently as possible. 

On a day when I might hear several students play the same three pieces; I’ll understand that they probably learn as a group, but each performance is still quite individual, and that is the magic of music and how it affects each learner in their own way. There are sometimes Distinctions to be awarded, which is lovely, but no matter what the final mark is we all know the level of commitment and team effort behind the scenes. Sadly, there are occasional exams where things just don’t quite meet the required minimum standard. These are so hard for the student, as they usually know themselves that it didn’t go to plan, but it can also affect an examiner’s day too. All I can do is be gentle in the moment, clear with the feedback, and hope that they continue playing and perhaps try again.  

Marcato automatically records the exams and backs everything up, but we also do this manually during the day and again at the end. Although Marcato is brilliant, I read every mark form to check that my comments are clear and there are no typos (there have been some scary near misses!). Then I press that wonderful ‘submit’ button, knowing that the results are immediately with HQ. Pre-Marcato, there was always the slight anxiety that forms could potentially get lost in the post, but now there is immediate confirmation that the results are in. 

As an ABRSM examiner, I have the privilege of hearing a huge range of different exam performances each year, sometimes revealing new aspects of pieces or ways of doing things that then influence my own approach. Certainly, for me it is a very stimulating, enjoyable and important strand to my professional musical life, and one which helps me reflect both on my own playing and teaching. 

Jessica O’Leary 

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Last modified: Wednesday, 28 June 2023, 9:24 AM