A year ago, only LCM offered any kind of online music exams, and that was their Performance Awards. These consisted of a video submission of the candidate’s performance which was assessed by an LCM examiner. I have used these in the past with great success.
Despite this, over the past year, all exam boards have been forced to explore their options when it comes to offering online music exams. Fast forward to 2021 and we see an increasing number of digital and online exam options available, including:
- LCM Recorded Exams
- LCM Online Exams
- LCM Performance Awards
- ABRSM Performance Grades
- Trinity Digital Assessments
In this blog post, I’m going to be exploring our experiences of these digital exam options so far. It’s true to say that none of the exam boards have covered themselves in glory over the past year. Even now, I see daily posts about problems accessing and uploading submissions. That said, progress has been made under difficult circumstances.
I’m very grateful to the three teachers who agreed to share their experiences in a case study for each board, but also to the members of my Teaching Music Mindfully Facebook Group for sharing their thoughts and experiences which I have also included.
A teacher writes:
“I entered one adult (65+) pupil for ABRSM Grade 5 Singing Performance Grade in the first session. The pupil already had a diploma in piano, so this seemed a great opportunity to take her performance skills further than a standard ABRSM exam would require, and not have to include aural and sight-singing into the mix which she was already proficient at. The pupil absolutely loved the focus on stagecraft, how much control and yet freedom that needed to hold a complete performance of four songs lasting just longer than 10 minutes. It seemed more like she was working towards a mini recital than an exam and she also realised how much technical control it would take to keep that constant sense of mastery of performance going unblemished.
The recording of the exam worked fine live on an iPad Pro, socially distanced between plastic screens and 2m distance, but we were prepared to do it with backing tracks if we couldn’t meet in person. Lessons had been online for six months and we met for one lesson live before recording three attempts and submitting the final one. The uploading of the recording proved tricky as the pupil’s broadband width was not strong enough to send it, but I stepped in and did it for her. One downside is ABRSM don’t have simple access, all in one place, for all the technical details required to take the exam – it took some searching! It took a little getting used to the new exam format and it certainly gave me more work to do, but I’d definitely use it again with the appropriate pupils.”
This teacher’s experiences was echoed by others who also found the experience generally positive. One in particular praised the ‘speed and fairness of the results’. One widespread criticism was that the cost of the ABRSM Performance Grades was the same as the normal graded exams. Teachers felt this particularly unfair as they made considerably more work for them, and less for examiners. The general feeling was that there would be more support for these exams if the fees were adjusted to reflect their online nature.
There was some criticism that the ABRSM Performance Grades were not as rigorous as, for example, Trinity, as technical work was not included. I would say, as I’ve always said, that different exams will suit different students at different stages on their learning journeys, as can be seen in the case study above. An exam syllabus is not a curriculum.
A teacher writes:
“I have been a fan of London College of Music’s online offerings since long before the Covid-19 pandemic. I have used their Performance Awards on numerous occasions over the last few years and think they are a really great option for certain pupils. I’m really impressed with their new offerings; recorded exams and online exams. I have yet to submit any pupils for an online exam (although the premise is great) but have used the recorded exams a handful of times this last year, which has been a largely positive experience. The speed in which LCM managed to provide these exams was amazing and left other exam boards miles behind. Two pupils who had their in-person exams cancelled in April 2020 were able to submit their recordings very promptly and I loved that they accepted repertoire from other exam boards as I quickly acquired two ABRSM woodwind pupils whose exams were cancelled.
I have found the results to generally be a little bit lower than anticipated, but I think this has been the case across all exam boards. The experience of listening to a mobile phone recording and listening to a live performance obviously differs greatly and I do wonder how much examiners have taken this into account. I have also struggled to get responses from the exam boards when I’ve emailed but again, I think all exam boards have been swamped with queries and really struggled to keep on top of their correspondence. LCM have recently updated the system that they use to upload the recorded exams and I haven’t found it the most intuitive to use and much preferred the old system; however, I understand that they need to have the infrastructure in place to suit the demand and things change – I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon enough! Overall, I think the addition of virtual examinations has been a really positive step forward and I hope that it is something that continues well beyond lockdowns and social distancing – hopefully they’re here to stay as another tool in the music teacher’s toolbox.”
Overall, teachers felt that LCM had been quick off the mark last spring in allowing candidates to convert to or enter for a recorded exam. Teachers were grateful for LCM’s speed in getting them up and running promptly, enabling candidates to continue to take the exams they were working towards. The overriding concern was the poor communication which had hampered some teachers’ efforts to upload online music exams submissions. One concern in particular was teachers waiting a long time for results, and not knowing whether submissions had been successfully received.
My own experience of the LCM Recorded Exams last summer was generally positive. Results took some time, but the process was fairly straightforward. Marks were generally fair, although, comments were made about things which may have evaded an examiner had they been sitting at a table several metres away. I haven’t yet experienced the new LCM upload portal, but as a teacher, will need to soon.
A teacher writes:
“Pre-COVID, I used Trinity, LCM and ABRSM for exams, depending on the
student’s goals and strengths, but Trinity had definitely become my
preferred board due to – amongst other things – ease of booking,
choice of supporting tests, quick results and generally a good
all-round experience for the candidate. When lockdown struck I had a
few students heading towards Trinity exams between Grades 3-5. We
decided not to rush into entering the online exams while these were
very new, but put entries in for the winter term, which meant that we
were working towards the more ‘fully developed’ online exam offering,
rather than the ’emergency’ one available in the summer – the biggest
difference being that Trinity had worked out a way to assess the
technical requirements, with the option to play one of two lists of
scales or the technical exercises, rather than just pieces as per the
earlier version. The booking process was quick and simple – we waited
until each candidate was ready to sit the exam, put in their entry,
and received a login back within a week. We then had two weeks in
which to upload their recorded exam. Everything else about the process
took MUCH longer than normal. Of course, with any new system, there
would be time needed to read and digest the new regulations and make
sure we were complying with the rules, but I hadn’t anticipated quite
how much time would be required to record, process and upload the
These were candidates at grades where normally I might not even attend
the exam – they’d rehearse once or twice with their accompanist in the
weeks running up to it, then come exam day, they’d head off to the
centre on their own / with their parents, and be done in half an hour.
Instead, we had recorded accompaniments, and me pressing various
buttons to play and record. Where normally, they’d go in, give it
their best shot and come out again, the nature of recording brought a
different feel to the whole thing – there seemed to be added pressure
to be ‘perfect’ and having to record the whole exam as one continuous
take felt quite relentless, like you couldn’t pause to gather your
thoughts! We had to remember to show the music and the written list of
scales to the camera. We had to test sound levels. We did practice
recordings to make sure it worked OK. We had to keep remembering to
plug in chargers to make sure nothing ran out of battery part-way
through. I had to make sure my head didn’t pop into view whilst
working all the equipment.
Some students struggled to play their scales from a list to a silent /
invisible audience and rushed uncomfortably through them – we found
that me reading out the requirements helped give them a bit of
breathing space here (and I secretly quite enjoyed saying “F Major,
two octaves, slurred” in my best examiner voice). In some ways, having
the chance to re-record was helpful, allowing a chance to have another
go if there had been a wobble, but it also meant that the whole thing
took much more time than it would have done normally – tiring for
Having agreed on the ‘best’ take (always a compromise, but that was a
useful discussion to have), I then spent even more time downloading,
compressing and uploading files – taking another few hours (but at
least I could have a cup of tea during this). I’m sure we’ll all get
used to these processes, but I definitely had some sleepless nights
worrying about whether I’d done it all properly!
Results came back within the stated two weeks, and I was pleased to
see that the feedback was much as you’d expect from a ‘normal’ exam.
The new ‘overall performance’ mark categories do test some useful
skills – but they are a departure from what we’re used to. The ability
to ‘focus’ through a sustained performance is a positive one to have,
but it’s also an added pressure that comes with having to submit a
‘one take’ video. There’s no friendly hello with the steward and then
the examiner, or brief chat between pieces, or – in lockdown – even a
reassuring smile from your accompanist, to put the candidates at ease.
I did a few thumbs up from behind the camera, but it’s also a
challenge for the teacher (or whoever is recording) to try to make the
experience as positive as possible whilst tackling the technology.
Overall, I think there was a positive outcome – candidates got to mark
their progress in a useful way, and they (and I) gained experience of
putting together a recorded performance – experience which will
definitely be useful for them for sharing their music in future.”
Online Music Exams: Summary
Overall, teachers were grateful that boards had adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances. Teachers felt that the breadth of online music exams offered more choice for their students, enabling them to choose exams which suited individual student needs and circumstances.
Understandably, teachers felt that the online exams had created a good deal of extra (unpaid) work for them. In time, once we are teaching face-to-face again, I think this will, to an extent, remedy itself as much can be covered during lesson times. I certainly think the online music exams are here to stay, even when face-to-face exams are possible once again.
From a personal perspective, it is the technicalities of filming and uploading submissions which give me greatest concern, although clearly, this is something which will be easier to control when working face-to-face. There are clearly still teething troubles with the process, and again, this is causing a lot of anxiety and additional work for teachers.
In time, once these problems have been ironed out, I believe that we will get used to using these online music exams as much as we do face-to-face ones. We do, however, need to get to a stage where the process is streamlined and reliable, something which all boards will need to grapple with.
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