Taking performance assessment online has been a bit like moving house.
You can do a certain amount of preparation in the run up to the big day – in fact you should. You can write lists, measure spaces, pack boxes, label everything. But however carefully you plan, there will always be something that goes wrong, something you didn’t think of.
The three main Boards I have dealt with over the plague year are London College, Trinity and the Associated Board. All entered the on-line assessment arena in their own way – London, as the smallest, appeared the most agile, flexible, and eager to impress, like the new recruit on the removals team, scrambling over the inside of the van, packing and stacking at speed. London were quick to replace their Spring bookings with recorded exams, made the switch easy and even opened their exams to candidates presenting pieces from any of the other main Boards’ grade lists.
The real benefits of digital exam assessment have come to those students who .... listen back to their recordings with ears open for the beauties in their performances as well as the knots and blemishes, and then go back to the bench with a plan of work for the week. Even if there are patches they still find challenging days later, they will have learnt to listen critically and become better reflective practitioners in the process.
ABRSM lumbered late out of the dressing room, opting to refund or delay their Spring exams rather than replace them with digital options. They scurried down rabbit holes of their own making: first by clinging to the hope of in-person exams in public centres well into the Autumn, exams which mostly then had to be rearranged or refunded; and then when they drew up their new Performance Grades as an alternative digital option. These grades, while a welcome addition to the landscape, were not easy for candidates and teachers to switch to: they required a fourth piece (for piano) which few candidates would have had ready; criteria offered for the – 30 marks-worth – ‘performance’ element were sketchy; and recording instructions changed without announcement. To their credit, ABRSM introduced an on-line grade 5 Theory exam for the Autumn session, but they failed adequately to test the functionality and the load on the software, which sadly crashed on the day.
Trinity, too, took a wrong turn out of the tunnel when they first launched digital assessments in the summer of 2020, which left out the technical sections and replaced them with a moderating algorithm, for reasons that remain impenetrable.
So far I have had only good results, with more Distinctions than usual, and I suspect that this is not because the joys of lockdown have put examiners in a more generous mood. I strongly believe that digital performance grade exams give a truer picture of the competence and talent of young musicians.
With so much to be said for digital assessments, I for one hope they will continue to be a well-resourced, well-supported option for years beyond lockdown.