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Meet Trinity’s Rock & Pop Examiner, Ross Brennan

I have been a Trinity Rock & Pop examiner for nearly two years now and in that time I have examined in the UK and abroad, including a couple of overseas tours, one across the Middle East and the other in Australia. I always enjoy my time as an examiner and the opportunities that arise. The fact that it permits us to travel, as part of the job, was definitely something that appealed to me when I first considered applying.

The training itself was pretty full on, with an initial interview followed by an intense training course in London and then subsequent in-field training days, shadowing already fully-fledged examiners. The latter of these really helped me to understand how to run a day of exams efficiently and to deal with unexpected issues, which have a habit of cropping up.

I am sure most people who have learned an instrument in the past or are currently learning one, will have taken – or will be taking – an exam at some point in their musical journey. I remember taking my exams with what was then the Guildhall exam board and often found them a bit stressful. Sometimes this was due to my own expectations, but most of the time it was due to nerves.

As an examiner, we all remember these feelings, so I always try to make the candidate feel at ease as much as possible for the duration of the exam. Every candidate experiences stress differently and, whilst some appear confident throughout the exam, others can feel stressed from the start. Some get more nervous as the exam goes along and vice versa. I have found it interesting that broadly speaking, it is often the younger candidates that are full of confidence and the older candidates that feel the effect of nerves more. As we get older, it seems that our ability to think things through and worry can affect our ability to perform.

If you do have an exam coming up, there are a few things that can help you feel less nervous:

  1. Deep breathing. Just a few long and slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth can put you at ease and slow your racing mind by providing your brain with more oxygen.
  2. Eat a banana. Bananas are a natural beta blocker and are a common musician’s friend in combatting anxiety. Eating one half an hour or so before an exam can really help calm you down.
  3. Think positive. Conjuring a happy memory or past experience is an effective way to distract the nervous part of your mind and can help in regaining focus on the task ahead.
  4. Enjoy! Rather than thinking about a particular tricky passage or section of the exam, allow yourself to enjoy every moment of your performance and your playing will communicate better with an audience, or in this case, the examiner.

The Rock & Pop exams themselves are proving very popular with teachers and students alike, especially it seems, abroad, where the reach of these exams continues to grow. Most feedback relates to how relevant and often current songs are to each instrument, and that students enjoy playing and practising them, especially with the professionally produced backing tracks. This is always nice to hear (not that I had anything to do with the creation of the exams!) and is encouraging for what the future holds for Trinity Rock & Pop.

The freedom (as such) of the Song Two choice has also been a hit as it gives the opportunity for candidates to perform songs they love, as well as their own compositions.

As I mentioned earlier, there are always unexpected situations in which you find yourself as an examiner, especially abroad, but in my opinion, they make this job even more enjoyable and in some cases, challenging. For example, most exam centres are well equipped with drum kits, monitors, microphones etc, so there are never too many technical issues. When I visited Brisbane last year however, all the ’tech’ was there, although they lacked a table onto which I could put my materials, laptop and report forms. This resulted in some quick thinking from the helpful steward, who managed to fashion one from some cardboard boxes and a couple of timpani covers!

As has been mentioned in previous blogs, although one may listen to the same songs over and over, each candidate brings something unique to their performance. In Dubai, I had some vocal candidates who wore some very colourful dresses and brought props in with them. One that I remember particularly well was a young girl who sang Rihanna’s song Umbrella. She brought an actual umbrella with her into the exam room and during her performance was swinging it around and opening and closing it! Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new always comes along and surprises you!

I hope this blog has provided some insight into the world of a Trinity Rock & Pop examiner.

Enjoy your music making!

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