I love travelling, visiting new places, meeting new people and watching musicians perform, so having the opportunity to do this in my work with Trinity is one of the most amazing things about the job. Working with Trinity I have visited a number of countries including India (which was my first tour!), Malaysia, Italy, the Middle East and South Africa.
On my most recent tour to Italy I examined in two places; firstly Mantua in Lombardy and then on to Catania in Sicily – see map below.
Sometimes one might be based in a single place and examine in a number of different schools and centres in that area, but this time I was based in just one music school for each location. I heard a variety of different grades and instruments over the week. As is often the case, certain songs are very popular and you will hear them performed several times over the course of a tour. Each performance of the same song is never identical and for me, as an examiner, I am always interested in hearing how the performer makes each song their own. This could be in an improvised drum fill, an inflection in a lyric, a specific guitar or keyboard sound, or it could be within the improvised section of the song – I always find this variation fascinating. On a recent tour to South Africa, I even found one candidate changing their hat and coat for each song – it all adds to the performance! However, I’m not suggesting everyone should start making serious costume changes between each performance.
I mainly encountered candidates performing the improvising task for the Session Skills part of the exam and I feel this is also a perfect opportunity (as well as the own choice song) for candidates to bring something of themselves into the exam. Again, over the course of a tour, I hear the same improvising backing tracks played back from my computer, but every improvisation is different and has the opportunity to bring something new to the performance.
I keep mentioning the word performance and what is so great about the nature of the Rock & Pop exams, is that they can be treated like a real-life gig. Something I have noticed recently is how the improvising task has really helped to develop an approach. Now I am seeing candidates really think about the sound they are going to use to bring out the style, the techniques associated with that genre and how a part can be developed each time it recurs through a song, so that it is not just the same thing repeated. There is also a much deeper understanding of the actual musical styles, which is great to see.
One of the reasons for this development is of course the wealth of material now available in Trinity’s Rock & Pop improvisation blog posts and videos, which I would strongly encourage all students and teachers to check out. We now also have Rock & Pop Session Skills books for students to practise with, which you can buy on Trinity’s online shop. I would also recommend students to continue researching the styles used in the Rock & Pop improvisations – just putting in ‘blues guitar’ or ‘reggae drums’ into YouTube for example will bring up a wealth of material that you can use to practise with and learn from. As a teacher I recommend my own students to think of the Session Skills almost like a fourth song: think about the amount of preparation you put into the songs and dedicate the same amount of time to the Session Skills.
While in Italy it was also great to see more and more adults entering for exams. This goes to show that these exams really are for everyone regardless of age. Sometimes even for teachers it can be very worthwhile, if they have never done grades on their instrument, if they are learning a new instrument, or to give them a greater insight into the experience of taking an exam – so much can be learned from the experience. It has also been good to see candidates really thinking about balance and taking time with their sound check at the beginning of the exam. This of course can make or break an exam, because if you can’t hear the backing tracks you are not going to perform to the best of your ability. Similarly if the backing tracks are too loud then the dynamics of the performance are not going to come through. I usually get my own students to practise the sound check in their lessons, so that they go through the process of being in charge of the volume and to actually think about the balance more.
Below is my tour diary from Italy so that you can see what we get up to from day to day, while on an examining tour.
2016 tour diary – Italy
Day 1: Friday 20 May – travel day from London to Mantua
I had a pleasant evening flight from London Gatwick to Verona and then a car journey into Mantua. I have never been to Mantua before, but have heard some amazing things from other examiners about the place. It was a joy to arrive in such a vibrant area. Walking around the square in the evening it was great to see a live band playing, something you rarely see outside in London. I’m looking forward to meeting the guys at Associazone Culturale Consonanze tomorrow.
Day 2: Saturday 21 May – examinations at Associazone Culturale Consonance
Work started for me at 2pm today, so beforehand I hired a bike and spent the morning cycling around the beautiful sights of Mantua. After lunch I met with Elena the representative for the exams here in Mantua and was driven to the exam centre ready to start the afternoon session. I always like to arrive very early on my first day, so that I can check the room layout and make sure everything is ready to go for the candidates. I had a great day hearing a selection of instruments and grades. It’s always so interesting to hear such a difference in the way each candidate plays the same song, making it their own.
Day 3: Sunday 22 May – examinations at Associazone Culturale Consonanze
A slightly earlier start today so was picked up from my hotel at 9am ready for a prompt 9:30 start. Interestingly I had quite a few adult learners today. This is something I have been seeing more and more of recently. It was my last day examining here and as I only had a half day of work, I drove to Lake Garda and then onto Verona. So amazing to see these places.
Day 4: Monday 23 May – day off
No exams today, so have caught up on some admin work and I can’t think of a better, more peaceful place to do it. The weather has not been as good today with heavy showers so I have spent most the day in a cafe working. Tomorrow I relocate to Catania for the second part of my tour. I always grow quite attached to places when I have been somewhere for a few days so it can become a little difficult to leave. On the other hand, you always have the excitement of what the new place is going to be like.
Day 5: Tuesday 24 May – travel day from Mantua to Catania
I was flying to Catania today so had to catch a train from Mantua to Milan airport this morning. I’m looking forward to meeting the guys at CESM and examining there tomorrow.
Day 6: Wednesday 25 May – examinations at Centro Etneo Studi Musicali
An early start today so had a nice big breakfast and caught my taxi down to the centre to meet the team at CESM and examine there today. Heard a great array of instruments again today.
Day 7: Thursday 26 May – examinations at Centro Etneo Studi Musicali
More exams today at CESM. Lots of higher grades – good to see students developing on their instruments. Also good to see and hear some bass exams!
Day 8: Friday 27 May – examinations at Centro Etneo Studi Musicali
My final day of exams in Italy. Everyone was waiting patiently outside for me to hand the results over to their teacher at the end of the day. It’s always a nice feeling to leave the centre hearing cries of joy as the marks are being handed out.
Day 9: Saturday 28 May – travel day from Catania to London
An early start ready to catch my bus to the Catania airport and early afternoon flight back to London. It’s been a great tour and I look forward to returning in the future.
About the author
Hi my name is Matt Fisher and I have been a Trinity Rock and Pop examiner for about four years now. As well as an examiner, I am also a performer and teacher and I enjoy the variety that these different disciplines bring to my career. It has been great to see the Rock & Pop exams grow and develop over the time that I have been examining for Trinity and to see them now at the forefront of music exams around the world.