My heart is thudding in the 30 degree heat of the first fiercely hot summer day. My pal Angela Durcan has entered me for the exam and told me that I won’t have a problem. I’m the only candidate to turn up without a parent for comfort and support. I’m 46, it’s going to be fine. The examiner sits in front of me with his poker face. I hand him my programme of pieces and repertoire list for him to choose from later. The tiny space is unforgiving as the two of us compete for all the air the room can give. I try to remember the little techniques that keep me calm. Both feet on the floor, solid and rooted to earth. Squeeze the flute hard and let go, remembering how light and relaxed your hands need to be. Breath from your diaphragm, enjoy the moment and in the back of your mind visualising how great it will be to have finished strongly and successfully. He asks me to start playing.
Killavil Jig and Ships in Full Sail. I’ve been playing them for ever, a safe start. No response from the examiner’s face. Ok, go again. The Coulin, keep focused think sad, play just the once over and into the Kildare Fancy Hornpipe. Play without fear, a few variations. I’m at the Ceili Band Competition, on stage. Concentrate. Back in the room again and keep it nice and steady. Phew. The sweat is dripping off me now. Reels now, don’t lose the head. Roaring Mary going good. A few niggles from the back of my brain. You’ll go wrong, you’ll mess up, what’s for tea? My heart’s going even faster, I start having palpitations. That massive coffee and huge jammy biscuit was a really bad idea. My heart is going to stop. But I pull back to focus. Get my feet rooted and imagine my shoulder muscles relaxing. The flute feels like it is playing itself. Trust in what you know. How have I done? Still can’t gauge it from the man. All I can remember are the mistakes.
He picks the March into the Reel. The Lilac always makes me want to go fast but I take it steady and keep it lively. Think Hup! Think NYAH! ‘That worked well as a march but it’s actually an O’Carolan air’. He liked it! It’s whizzing by now. ‘Two five minute presentations on particular musicians and their styles please’. Seamus Tansey…Sligo…. ornate… controversial.. wide cuts…. Kevin Crawford… Birmingham… Clare……thank you. ‘I’ll play you four bars of a tune twice, play it back to me’. Done. Name the type of tunes, slip jig, hornpipe, yes, yes. Barndance? No, mazurka. Hello, is there anyone home? What was I thinking, it’s a disaster but at least it’s over. ‘Play me a cut, tap and roll’. How did I do? We’ll let you know. When can I resit? LCM Grade 8 Trad music performance flute exam done. I walk out into a sticky Manchester afternoon, exhausted but relieved. My results come a few months later and I pass Grade 8 with Distinction.
It gets me thinking about the point or value of exams in traditional music. I took it to demonstrate that I had a high standard of musical skill when applying for my Ethnomusicology PhD. How can you measure a folk tradition and if anyone is any good? I’m still not sure and what the balance is between performance and skill. You can be a great player but a terrible performer. What it did give to me was a structure on which to hang my skills, review them and ultimately develop them. I’ve often been in sessions and couldn’t think of more than a few sets of tunes. Pulling my repertoire together for this made me realise how much I actually knew. It made me consider technique, reminded of all the things I talk about when teaching or coaching. Relaxing, visualisation, setting targets, regular practice. I am definitely an improved musician after going through the experience.
If you want to know more about LCM Grades for Trad Music or would like help and guidance with preparing and entering for them get in touch with me via the traddad for hire page.