Examiner training: the full story
Examiners are the public face of ABRSM, with an essential role to play in the effective delivery of our assessments. Here Andrew Stewart talks to ABRSM examiners, including Chief Examiner John Holmes, about the all important selection and training process. A certain UK advertising campaign and the power of personal experience tell us that no one forgets a good teacher. The message could equally be tailored to suit the memorable characteristics of good music examiners, those able to calm candidate nerves, write cogent reports and deliver objective marks with fairness and consistent accuracy. Examiners rank high on ABRSM’s list of priorities. Their work offers the closest personal connection between the organisation, the music teaching profession and the wider public. It also mirrors central standards of excellence and carries them to ABRSM exam centres from Bolton to Beijing, Sidmouth to Sydney. ABRSM’s examining panel, populated by more than 700 musicians and teachers, spans an impressive arc of experience and expertise. It benefits from regular additions of outstanding new entrants, continuing professional development, moderation and monitoring – all vital for an organisation determined to preserve the gold standard of its exams. John Holmes, ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, says that he welcomes applications from prospective examiners. He points to a smoothly functioning selection and training system before describing its constituent parts. The rigorous process of choosing and training examiners, explains John, begins with an application form. Interviewees with formidable credentials will be called to attend one of the four or five interview days held annually at ABRSM’s London offices. Following interviews, ABRSM offers places on its initial training weekends to around 60 to 65% of applicants. To be invited on to this next phase of the process applicants need to demonstrate a range of attributes. These include, amongst other things, sufficient keyboard skills to deliver the aural tests, a breadth and depth of teaching experience and the ability to manage the multiple skills required during an exam. For all that, John wants to encourage a wide range of musicians to consider adding ABRSM examining to their career portfolios. ‘Yes, people need good piano skills but they don’t need to be concert pianists! And they don’t need to know about every instrument in great detail. We’re not specialist examiners; we’re not there to assess fingering or pedalling technique, embouchure or breath support. We judge musical outcome in the exam room against our criteria for such universal aspects of music making as rhythm, intonation, accuracy, attention to detail, ability to communicate, engagement with the composer’s intentions and so on. Our job is to report what we hear as clearly as possible.’ One of ABRSM’s recently appointed examiners, Nick Burns, counsels fine musicians not to rule themselves out as examiners because of concerns about their piano skills. He says that, as a pianist, he can understand why a brass or wind player might feel intimidated by the prospect of ‘performing’ aural tests for ABRSM higher grades. ‘I think the problem is there, certainly. But it’s possible for people to prepare the aural tests thoroughly and show the interview panel that they can deliver them under pressure. I think they will find that it’s really worth the effort.’ Those able to deal with the demands of the interview and show their all-round potential for the job are called to attend a three-day training session. ‘I guarantee that everybody selected for the training weekend, regardless of whether they are eventually chosen as examiners, will have a positive professional development experience,’ John adds. ‘The aim is for sessions to be insightful and valuable, and to offer a clear understanding of how assessment and examining work.’ Initial training is followed by individual training, which involves new recruits attending four venues on four different days with four different trainers. This offers real exam situations and genuine candidates to test confidence and competence. ‘The process usually begins with people examining for quarter of a day, before moving to half and three-quarters of a day on subsequent days,’ John explains. ‘Day four is like a driving test, where the trainee is expected to run the exams while being assessed by a trainer. The trainees award marks and write comments, although it is the trainer’s mark forms that are sent to candidates on all four days.’ For each day, John inspects the trainer reports; in rare cases where contradictions or doubts arise, he takes on the role of trainer for a fifth day of assessment. John speaks of the constructive pressure of the training process, while emphasising the importance of involving experienced ABRSM examiners. Nick Burns also clearly recalls how the training prepared him for the job’s demands. ‘I must say that examining is much easier than the training. It’s certainly easier to put candidates at their ease when you’re not thinking about being assessed yourself.’ So what makes a good examiner? The ability to keep calm come what may and focus on listening while writing are certainly high on the list of essential attributes. ‘The demands of multi-tasking are often underestimated by applicants,’ observes John. ‘If you’re normally comfortable playing the piano for aural tests, you might not be quite so comfortable after settling a candidate who is anxious about the exam. The ability to multi-task is important, but of course, the primary aim is to provide an environment where the candidate has every possibility to succeed. The examiner’s manner and awareness and their ability to put someone at ease all play a part here.’ Flautist Zoe Booth is another relatively new examiner. Zoe, a former ABRSM scholarship student, believes that being an examiner complements her work as performer, teacher and composer. ‘I always thought I would apply to be an examiner. It’s a job that fits well with the other things I do and offers great flexibility.’ Looking back, Zoe welcomes the pressures of the selection and training processes. Total immersion in examining techniques, she notes, supplied secure foundations for life in the exam room. ‘You need to learn very quickly. The training weekend begins with talks and note taking, and within days you’re dealing with real candidates. Everyone discovers the areas they need to improve. For me, it was about the sheer speed of writing something relevant while listening and being sensitive to the candidate almost simultaneously. There’s definitely a knack to it, which is why the training and mentoring experience is so important.’ While Eric Tebbett and Pete Rosser are new to ABRSM’s general examiner panel, both arrived at their training weekends bearing extensive examining experience. Eric, busy as a freelance singer, teacher and competition adjudicator, was formerly a senior examiner with Trinity Guildhall. After more than two decades examining for another board, he decided it was time for a change. ‘I was happy to go through ABRSM’s training programme. It was very intense. If you get through the initial training weekend and go on to the individual training days on the road, then you’ve done well. It’s a fantastic process. Teaching old dogs new tricks is never easy, but I was thoroughly retrained and encouraged. The standards of ABRSM are second to none, which is why I love it!’ Eric’s advice to prospective ABRSM examiners, of any age, is to treat the application and training process as seriously as they would a concert performance or audition. ‘Be prepared!’ he warns. ‘You need to be organised and able to think on your feet, and you have to be an excellent musician. While you’re multi-tasking, your ears have to be completely fixed on each candidate’s performance.’ Pete Rosser agrees with his colleague’s assessment. ‘It’s a bit like plate spinning,’ he comments. Pete has been an ABRSM jazz examiner for over a decade. Although initially unsure about the skill set required to oversee classical exams, he realised that his existing experience could be transferred to advantage. ‘I haven’t been through the traditional classical system, but I think I have the right ears for the job,’ he observes. ‘Whether it’s jazz or classical, you’re always looking for a spark in the candidate’s interpretation. There are, of course, basic things that need to be in place before you get on to interpretation: good pulse, for example. That’s why the examiner must report what he or she has heard in clear language.’ Above all, Pete concludes, the examiner is there to give an objective assessment of every candidate’s performance. ‘The skills required really develop through ABRSM’s rigorous training process, and with experience.’
What happens next?
ABRSM has a thorough moderating process in place to ensure that all examiners are working consistently and to the highest standards. Moderation involves an experienced, specially-trained examiner, or ‘moderator’, sitting in and observing all aspects of an examiner’s work. We moderate all newly trained examiners for one day during their first session of exams. This is frequently followed up by a further moderation during their first year. Subsequently we moderate all examiners every two to three years. All mark forms go through a checking process before being issued, but in addition to this we periodically arrange for our panel of ‘readers’ to analyse an examiner’s mark forms. We also provide ongoing training so that all examiners have the professional support they need.
Two examiners in the room
In order for us to train and moderate examiners there will occasionally be two examiners in the exam room. This is essential in helping us to maintain consistency and uphold ABRSM standards. We are aware that candidates can, understandably, be concerned by this, but please be assured that neither the exam itself nor the results will be affected.
This article was originally featured in the September 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.