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FORUM Surviving Setbacks

Your chance to share experiences and ideas with other readers. In each issue our Chief Examiner, Clara Taylor, introduces a subject for discussion. We then publish your responses in the next issue. Your contribution may be edited for publication.

Write to Clara Taylor, marking your envelope Forum, or email chiefexaminer@abrsm.ac.uk

Picking up the bits

I shall always be grateful to my piano teacher who helped ‘pick up the bits’ after my shattering experience of failing an exam. She immediately entered me for the local music festival, where I played one easy, familiar piece. I won first prize and have never looked back since (although I never came up to expectations in exams). If she had not boosted my confidence – by showing me that she had faith in me – I might easily have given up. Now, here I am, after a life-time of teaching, enjoying my ‘retirement’, teaching in the Philippines! Thank you, Miss Marriott!

Margaret Powell Davao, Philippines

Sioux surprise

Surviving setbacks reminded me of an incident a few weeks ago at a piano festival in Richmond.

My daughter, Sophie, had decided to play The Swinging Sioux from the Grade 1 syllabus in order to get used to playing the piano in front of an audience before taking her first exam. All went well, from memory with good dynamics and a swinging tempo until the end. For those unfamiliar with this piece, the last line is very important. There is a long tied note, a rest and suddenly a fortissimo chord. My daughter carefully counted the long note, prepared for the last chord and… with all her strength played the wrong notes.

She couldn’t believe what she had done. She had got to the very end and seemingly ruined a good performance with an almighty mistake! She corrected herself, played the right notes and crept back to her seat while everyone kindly clapped.

She sat miserably through the rest of the pieces being played, trying to be brave, until finally, it was time for the adjudicator to award the prizes. Two girls were given certificates for third prize, then someone who had played the same piece as Sophie was called up for second prize. Then the judge started talking about the winner. She said that even though the last note wasn’t right she thought the Swinging Sioux wouldn’t have minded and presented Sophie with the medal for first prize!

Next topic: have confidence!

M Lewisohn London

Clara Taylor

How often have you used those words? If only it were that easy.

One of the most delicate and frustrating tasks facing a teacher is nurturing confidence in pupils who quail at any challenge. It’s heartbreaking when all the preparation is done and things seem set for a healthy exam result only to find that on the day quivering fingers in the pieces and last minute memory lapses in scales cause low marks which make the situation even worse. Of course no one has to take exams, they can be avoided, but a certain level of self-belief must be in place for any musical performance to succeed, whether formally assessed or not.

Children react badly to flowery words of praise, instantly detecting any ulterior motive or overstatement. Parents’ compliments can also miss the mark with the chronically self- critical, who tend to replay that immortal line ‘He would say that wouldn’t he’?

Genuine appreciation and respect for efforts made and positive qualities are an excellent starting point right from the first lesson. Children flourish when they are told regularly what they are

doing well, preferably before being alerted to areas for improvement. Laughter, as long as it is mutual, is a great diffuser of tension in lessons, and the playing that follows is often much improved on the previous attempt.

Examiners notice the happy combination of mental alertness and physical relaxation which confident candidates bring to the exam room. Sometimes this is a fortunate result of individual temperament, family background, and of course the teacher’s input. On other occasions, usually in higher grades, it may be a hard- won reward for persistence, having worked through the earlier exams, and gradually learned, the hard way, how to approach the musical and personal challenges.

There are no easy answers, and the truth must be told in lessons. So much lies in the teacher’s skill in finding the right words, and indeed the right order of the words, to set up an atmosphere in which their pupils, and ultimately our candidates, can do their best.

This is such an important subject that I hope many of you will write in with your own ideas and suggestions, so that we may all benefit.

From setback to success

Few of us are so blessed that we don’t receive some setbacks in life, but as we mature we come to realise that our attitude to the setback also matters.

Setbacks seem to come in two varieties – the ones which one cannot alter, and the ones which one can. In the first category, let’s take a minor setback such as waiting for a bus. No amount of fuming will make it come quicker, so one might just as well relax and use the waiting time to do some posture or breathing exercises, chat to your neighbour or read a book.

In the second category, let’s take an exam failure. You can analyse why you failed, e.g. was the material not fully prepared? Did you arrive late and feel under pressure? Were there distractions which made you lose your concentration? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then face the fact that you blew it, and that a lot of the blame lies at your own door. Learn to turn the setback into a success by being 110% prepared for the next exam!

Laura Shur London

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