If you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken a music exam fairly recently. Congratulations! Whatever the outcome, I have a huge amount of admiration for any learner who puts themselves forward for any form of external assessment. To me, simply turning up to play or sing in front of someone else in an exam situation is an achievement in itself.
Students are rightly keen to know the numerical results of the exam they’ve taken, alongside which band (e.g. distinction, merit, pass etc.) the result fell into. But, there’s another piece of paper which comes with your certificate, the mark sheet, and this is something which, when used effectively, offers a lot which can help a learner on the next step of their musical journey.
Accepting that deciphering both examiners’ handwriting and language (special ‘examiner speak’) can be challenging, rather than being filed away behind the certificate, the mark sheet is well worth exploring further.
Most exam candidates come out of the exam remembering all the things which went wrong: the words they forgot, the scale which had a false start and the incorrect answer in the aural tests. This is a natural response, and in some ways, it’s a necessary part of ‘moving on’ to go through that process of reflection.
When your mark sheet comes, there are usually a good number of positive comments and we should take time to celebrate those. Exam candidates are notoriously good at remembering all the things that didn’t go to plan, but it’s worth remembering that examiners see a much bigger picture. I know that following my own candidates’ exams this past term, many of the things they felt hadn’t gone well were, in fact, not even noted by the examiner.
Tip: make a list of all the positive comments. You may surprise yourself by how many there are. Celebrate them! If you like, stick your list up somewhere prominent where you can see it. There are many times on our musical journeys where we need a confidence boost, and these positive comments are something to return to. At the bottom of this blog, there’s a sheet to download to help you with this process of reflection.
2. Is the work you did before the exam reflected in the comments?
Before we enter for an exam, we’ll have almost always worked on specific things which we wanted to improve on. We might have worked on the tone quality of our scales, or the dynamic variation in our pieces. We might have worked on the tuning of our unaccompanied traditional song, or on the singing back the melody in the aural tests. Knowing what we’ve worked on in particular, it’s worth cross-referencing this against the mark sheet. Did the examiner pick up on any of these things? Is the work we put in reflected in the comments?
Tip: if you worked on something and it isn’t mentioned in the comments, don’t be disheartened. I take the fact that it wasn’t mentioned as a positive.
3. What can you learn from the comments?
I think the most important thing about the mark sheet is seeing how the examiners’ comments can help us take our learning forward. It’s easy to see the examiners’ comments as criticisms, but they can offer us some pointers for things we can work on next and seek to improve further.
Part of taking an exam is getting feedback on your performance. The examiners’ feedback can by hugely valuable as you start to learn new pieces, work on specific areas of technique, or seek to improve your skills further.
Tip: make a list of things that the examiner has identified which you’d like to improve and work on. See the comments in as constructive a light as possible. Use the examiners’ assessment to take your learning forward.
4. Reflect on the exam journey
Taking an exam can be a nerve-wracking and often stressful experience. We invest a huge amount of effort into preparing for exams, and we often underestimate the emotional input required. When you’ve got the result and the mark sheet, it can be a good time to reflect on the whole exam experience.
Think about the process you went through as you worked on your pieces, learnt your scales and sought to improve your sight-reading. Is there anything which you might have done differently? Not everyone who takes an exam goes on to take another one, but many do. That said, reflecting on the way we prepared for the exam can help us in areas of our lives beyond music.
Whatever your exam experience, remember that it’s a huge achievement to just put yourself through it. Remember, that as self-critical as we inevitably are, there’s much to celebrate about what we’ve achieved.
To help with your reflections, I have created a worksheet which you can download below. You are encouraged to adapt it to suit your own needs, but it offers a framework by which you can utilise the possibilities of the mark sheet and reflect on the overall exam experience.
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