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Meet Trinity’s Rock & Pop Examiner, JJ Wheeler

In my day-to-day life as a musician, be it performing, composing, teaching or examining, I interact with audiences and, most importantly, communicate with audiences. Music is often an underlying aspect in communities, such as groups of people who perform together, people who congregate to listen to a concert, music for worship in religious contexts or people who share a passion for a certain band or artist. Music has the power to move people, it often affects or represents the mood we are in or how we wish to portray ourselves. A great example of this is in blockbuster movies. Have you ever seen one of those clips where somebody takes a crucial moment from a film, and removes the film score (background music)? Suddenly it all seems so flat and the emotion or tension is lost. A good example can be seen in this clip, the finale of Star Wars: A New Hope, presented here without any music.

Why am I making all of these points? It’s because I believe that the audience has as much right to be considered in your performance as the performer and, in the exam situation, as unusual as it might seem, you have an audience of one.

I can relate as I’ve been there. You walk into a room that you may have never set foot in before, there’s a stranger shuffling papers behind a desk, seemingly ready to analyse your every move, and you have to give the performance of your life, potentially on an unfamiliar instrument (drummers!).

It can be daunting, and we know that. In fact, that is the reason I became an examiner. My experience of music exams (many moons ago and not with Trinity, I must add) was not so pleasant. The charts and backing tracks were nowhere near the standard of today’s recordings, the syllabus did not relate to the music I was passionate about and the examiner made me feel as though I was intruding in their job of pointing out all of my flaws.

I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. So much so that I actually spent a long time believing that music exams were not relevant to the real world of a working musician.

Imagine my surprise when one of my mentors and musical heroes told me one day that he thought I would make a good examiner. Even more so when an email landed in my inbox from a friend suggesting I apply to become a Trinity Rock & Pop examiner, then further still when I was actually offered the chance to train as an examiner.

It turns out that, in the many years since I took my graded exams, music exams have evolved monumentally, with Trinity Rock & Pop now at the forefront of this. My ideals of providing a space where people can express themselves and feel as comfortable as possible in performance, even in  an ‘exam’ situation (although, having said that, we’ve probably all done that gig to one man and his dog…), seem to be mirrored by the Rock & Pop syllabus.

It’s a cliché, but one worth remembering, that examiners really do want you to enjoy the experience and perform to the very best of your ability. Personally, I love performing. I always have. That’s why playing music is my job. Saying that, I’ve not always had the confidence I have now; I had to learn through mistakes, put things down to experience and use those experiences to improve.

So when you come into your exam, remember this: most of us examiners have been on your side of the desk. We understand you might be nervous and that mistakes happen. In my opinion, I would much rather see somebody commit to the music (even taking risks, if it adds to the performance) and make mistakes, than a rendition which lacks the required energy. This includes spending time checking out the original songs you are learning, or other songs by the same artist. You might want to discover where that artist came from or who their influences were, in order to gain the same perspective. Try to work out what each song is about and convey that message as best you can.

Whatever you do in music and however you choose to do it, there is one word that sums up a truly great musician for me: commitment. Commit to the style, commit to the hours of practice necessary to control your instrument, commit to learning the history of the music, commit to listening to a wide range of genres and then use all of this knowledge to commit to the performance.

Music is one of the most wonderful gifts in life, whether you play recreationally or are lucky enough to make a living from it. So don’t forget to enjoy yourself, give it the commitment it deserves and you will find reward, I promise.

About the author

Hello! My name is JJ Wheeler and I am one of Trinity’s Rock & Pop examiners. You may have read some of my previous blog posts on ‘Improvising in the style’, covering different genres of music in the Trinity Rock & Pop syllabus, which I hope you all enjoyed. I have certainly learned a lot from the fantastic information given by the other musicians involved.

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