Online Exams – Is there a better way?

Finally after a year into the global pandemic there are glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel. With the vaccination going great guns and with the restrictions starting to lift, with hopes of a more ‘normal’ summer things are starting to look like they might return with some resemblance to what we had before.

At the time of writing this blog, things are still very much unknown for the return of live music events and concerts, but there are glimmers of live music returning to the stage. But for music lessons there are further glimmers of normality returning, with some teachers being able to start face to face lessons again and live music exams returning again in the summer.

As I wrote in another post – I did feel that the online exams sessions were a good stop gap, but not without their own issues. And now it being a year later you would have hoped the exam boards that embraced it would be now up to grips with the technology. But from a glance through social media it would appear not…

But what’s the alternative? Sit and wait and hope the summer exams go ahead face to face… or is there another way.

Thankfully there is.

Victoria College Exams have been offering exams in the performing arts since 1890 and I have been using them for music exams since I started teaching ukulele in 2013. What drew me to Victoria College (VCM) was the fact that at the time they were the only exam board offering a comprehensive ukulele exam and, for me, the importance was the fact that they focused on fingerpicking and note reading. My students loved strumming, but I knew that if I could teach then note reading and finger picking it would only add to their musical bow. But one of the greatest attractions to using VCM as an exam board was that they allowed skype exams, which was perfect as I was entering one or two students at a time and saved a commute to a London based exam center.

I must say at this point that I now work for Victoria College, as their saxophone advisor and have recently trained as an examiner for them as well. But I fell in love with this slightly smaller exam board and their ethos for music education well before I started to work for them.

It was knowing that VCM have been doing successful music exams online for years that made me wonder why other exam boards didn’t embrace it as well. Instead they opted for videos, with students announcing pieces, teachers stressing over uploading and pulling their hair out with file names. Instead VCM function online over skype. So it literally is the same as a face to face exams. And as we have seen with online lessons, that actually the transference to online works really well.

Students are then able to feel more relaxed as the exams are either at their home, school or where they would normally have their lessons. The syllabus is a good balance of more contemporary pieces and as well as more traditional and folk based arrangements.

The skype examiners I’ve had have always been professional, yet without ever feeling too formal, which has been perfect for my younger and more nervous students. There is always the sense of performance and occasion during the sessions, but much less anxiety for them as it can often be daunting if the exam venues are large churches or music venues.

Everything else in the skype exams functions the same as it would in the face to face session. Scales are the same, pieces are the same and aural tests are also the same. The only difference is that the sightreading is posted in advance and left sealed in an envelope beforehand, or emailed to the tutor ready to print before the exam starts.  

So why haven’t the other exam boards taken up this approach. I guess the more skeptical thinkers could think it would be a monetary issue, as they won’t need to pay examiners. But all will still need to hire their examiners to review submitted videos and mark them accordingly, all of which would take the same amount of time as a skype session. In my experience of skype exam sessions, I would say that the sessions themselves would take no longer than a face to face exam, so grade one is still only about twelve to fourteen minutes long.

If your students are getting keen to take exams again, but if you or they are still dubious about real world lessons and want another option, or even if you just fancy a change do check them out. Good music, good attitude and a clear passion for music education. Even if you are thinking real world lessons and you just fancy a change from the big three. Definitely worth investigating.