What motivated you become an ABRSM examiner?
Zoe: Before applying to become an examiner, ABRSM had been a constant throughout my musical life, firstly as an exam candidate myself, later as recipient of the ABRSM scholarship throughout my time at music college and then as a teacher of pupils taking their own ABRSM exams. My passion for music education was the main reason I chose to apply to become an examiner, and I did so as soon as I felt confident that the level of my professional musical qualifications, skills and experience would support me in my ambition.
Russell: I wanted to add another interesting strand to my work. In the years I’ve been examining, I’ve found it fits amazingly well around my composing schedule because I can look ahead and plan how much examining to take on between commissions.
What is the most rewarding part of the role?
Zoe: Day-to-day satisfaction in the role of examiner comes in many ways, including through the range of musical performances you hear, the wonderful and interesting people you meet and work alongside and, for some, the international experiences. Just as in music, you never stop learning as an examiner, and it’s a role well-suited to those who enjoy honing their skills towards ever-increasing heights and efficiency. There are also so many inspiring and surprising daily moments within the exams themselves - it’s good to be ready for anything! Finally, it’s great to be part of a global organisation, which nurtures and encourages developing musical standards; as examiners, we find ourselves at the forefront of this mission and it’s rewarding to learn how our maintenance of the gold standard of assessment - for which ABRSM has earned its worldwide reputation - contributes to the achievement of ABRSM’s musical ideals.
Russell: Knowing that my comments and marks will really matter to each candidate, and that I am playing a small but important part in their musical journey. Behind every person that enters the exam room is a whole support network of people including teachers and family, so it feels like a big responsibility to get things absolutely right.
How are ABRSM examiners trained?
Russell: Training begins with a residential course lasting a few days at which all aspects of being an examiner are introduced and trainees get the chance to try everything out. Trainees who are successful at this part of the training then get four days in real exam rooms shadowing an examiner, and getting more experience of the job. If those four days go well the trainee becomes an examiner.
What’s the timeline between application and being a fully-fledged examiner?
Zoe: Following receipt of the completed application pack, ABRSM invite applicants to interview for the role of examiner; these take place approximately every 4-5 weeks. After interview, trainee examiners are invited to attend the next available residential course - as well as offering dates for later in the exam session to undertake the Training Days. Following successful completion of the training, new examiners would be asked to submit their potential dates for examining at the first opportunity.
Do you have to be a certain age to apply to be an examiner?
Russell: Absolutely not! I started when I was 24, but it depends on experience and suitability for the role rather than age.
What’s the time commitment?
Zoe: ABRSM ask for a minimum of six days to be offered for UK examining in each of the three exam sessions per year, as well as attendance at a one-day professional development conference. In practice, some examiners offer far more time, including dates for overseas tours.
What are overseas tours like?
Zoe: The view from the examining studio might be very different and you might be working with an interpreter, however the examining work is, otherwise, exactly the same! Once the exams are over for the day, it’s fun to be able to use your evenings and weekends to explore and experience the country in which you find yourself. Many ABRSM tours are with a friendly team of examiners, so there’s a social side to international touring, and you’re professionally supported by a great team on the ground as well as from ABRSM in London. All in all, the chance to combine your work with travel is a great privilege in this way is one of the great privileges of being an ABRSM examiner.
Russell: Unbeatable. The chance to work in another country, meet local people, and get some sightseeing in can’t be bettered. My international examining trips have changed who I am, and literally transformed how I see the world.
What measures are put in place to support examiners overseas?
Russell: Larger group tours where several examiners will all be in the same hotel at once usually have a coordinator looking after everyone and checking that things are going well. There are also local reps in each country who provide information, keep the exams running smoothly, and provide extra backup, while of course the team back in London oversee everything and add further support. We have an online resource for examiners should information about anything regarding the examining be needed, and ABRSM provide help for examiners who have any sort of emergency or difficulty. Emotional support is also now available for examiners while away from home.
Do I have to do overseas tours?
Zoe: No, there is no requirement for examiners to offer their time for international work.
How do I prepare for examiner training?
Zoe: If you are thinking of applying to become an examiner you are probably already familiar with some aspects of the role; in preparation for the Training, as well as developing your strengths, reflect and take some time to address any aspects which you may feel could be more of a challenge. ABRSM are looking for examiners to put candidates at the heart of the exam-experience, so the more you are acquainted with the practicalities and procedures of the exam room – which ABRSM send to you before the Training Course - the easier it will be for you to make your assessment whilst your focus remains on the musician taking their exam.
Do examiners assess all instruments?
Zoe: ABRSM Graded Panel examiners assess all the instruments for which there is a current graded syllabus. Graded exams are offered in all woodwind, brass and bowed string instruments as well as piano, organ, harpsichord, guitar, harp, singing, singing for music theatre, percussion, Practical Musicianship, Choral Singing and Ensembles. Examiners of the Jazz syllabus or Diplomas receive further, specialist training.
Russell: Yes. We examine from a generalist rather than specialist perspective which means that we are listening to the musical outcome, and that in turn means we can assess all instruments at all grades using the same marking criteria.
What would you say are the 3 core skills you need to be an examiner?
- To have a genuine enjoyment of working with people; a friendly and welcoming examiner allows each candidate to relax and do their best
- To have the musical skills to play the piano and listen with detail to the elements of each performance, which results inaccurate, fair assessments
- To work efficiently and professionally, staying on time; this ensures that the details of every exam run smoothly
- It sounds obvious but the ability to listen extremely carefully, and in a highly analytical way for several hours in a day is needed.
- The ability to stay calm and focused under pressure.
- And the ability to convey a positive, friendly and calm approach throughout every exam.
Would I have to examine everything?
Russell: Yes, all instruments from our Prep Tests through to the ARSM diploma. Some examiners also examine the other diplomas, jazz, and theory, but these are trained for separately at a later date.
How do ABRSM make sure that all examiners are consistent in their marking?
Zoe: Once appointed, ABRSM examiners are professionally supported, to ensure consistency across the panel: on moderation days, an examiner is shadowed by a Moderator for the day, who observes them and feeds back on all aspects of their examining; detailed reports on mark forms – produced by a team of professional Readers drawn from the examiner panel - are issued regularly; examiners attend at least one whole-day conference per year, to keep their focus on the many aspects of assessment; ABRSM use statistics to keep an ongoing check that best practice is being maintained throughout the year.