Tag Archives: failure

What do I do if I’ve failed?

F gradeI was having a look through the search terms that led people to look at this blog, and I noticed that a couple of them were things like “failed sight reading on singing exam”, “abrsm grade 6 theory fail” and “abrsm grade 8 fail”, so I thought perhaps it was time to address the horrible question of what to do if you fail a music exam, or a section of the exam.

The first thing to say is don’t panic. I know it’s hard when you first see the mark sheet and it doesn’t hit that magic pass mark. Failing an exam doesn’t mean you aren’t good at playing your instrument, or that you don’t understand the theory. It doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals. All exams are there to do is mark points on our journey and give us feedback about where to improve.

Remember, it’s also ok to be sad, frustrated, angry and disappointed. Do what you need to do to process the feelings. If you need to have a cry, that’s ok! Or get someone you love to give you a hug. Make a cuppa and treat yourself to your favourite chocolate bar. Don’t try to figure out your next move until you feel ready.

Once you are ready, the first thing to do is reflect on what you did well:

  • Where did you get good marks? Did you pass your pieces, or do well in your sight-reading?
  • What kinds of positive comments did the examiner make? Even on a marksheet that records a fail mark, examiners still try to say what you did do well.

If you need to, write these out separately and read them to remind you that you did do some things well.

The next stage is to look for the things you didn’t do so well:

  • What sections or questions did you do worst on?
  • What sort of comments are there on the marksheet? Does it say something like “pitch was insecure” or “forgot the words repeatedly”? This will give you an idea of what needs to be better next time.
  • Do you agree with the examiner’s comments/marks? Do you remember making the mistakes?
  • In a theory exam result, do you remember finding the question hard to answer?

You might find it helpful to make a separate list of the things you need to work on for next time.

The last thing to do is to answer the question of “what do I do now?”. Here are some of my suggestions

  • Talk to your teacher to make a plan to tackle technical problems like pitch, rhythm or memorising.
  • Make a plan to focus especially on developing aural and musicianship skills if you failed the aural tests.
  • For sight-reading, challenge yourself to sight-read as much material as you can. Sight-reading is often a fail point in exams because it takes a lot of time and effort to build up the skills to do well.
  • Join a choir that uses sheet music – this will help your aural, sight-reading and performance skills
  • Get some performing experience – are there local competitions or concerts you could participate in?
  • Do something totally different for a while. Switch genres, try learning some duets, work on a bucket-list piece.
  • Think about how you’d teach the things you do know to someone else
  • Move away from formal theory and try doing some more creative things like composing or arranging

Finally, it’s important to remember that unless  you were taking a theory exam at Grade 5 or a practical exam at Grade 8, you don’t have to retake the exam if you don’t want to. If your teacher is happy, you could skip the failed exam and just move on with a view to taking the next one when you’re ready. You could also consider taking the same level exam again, but with a different board. If you stick with the same board, consider learning a new set of pieces.

If you do decided to retake the exam, you can find links to a range of different posts about taking music exams on my Advice from the Blog page and by checking the “exams” tag.

Whatever you do, don’t let a fail stop you from enjoying music. Exams are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and sometimes a fail is just what we need to remember that we are not exam taking robots – we’re musicians.

“But I’m Not Musically Talented!”

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThis is the cry of many people I encounter, and on the surface it might very well seem true. Perhaps other people seem to be able to hear music better, or pick up how to play an instrument faster. Surely they must be more “musically talented” than others?

Well, actually, that’s not really true. There is no real objective thing called “musical talent”. There’s not a whole lot of research into it, but this post collates a whole lot of the evidence so far to point out some key things (these are quotes from the linked article):

  • Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
  • Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching
  • Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and “deliberate practice”
  • Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains — not from birth but as a direct result of training

Ok, so if what scientific research there is struggles to identify any objective thing we could call musical talent, why do some people find musical skills easier than others? We could ask that about any skill, but here are some reasons that apply particularly to music.

1. People who seem to be “musically talented” developed key skills very young.

When we’re very young we have amazing aural and linguistic capacity. Human babies are born with the ability to form the sounds needed for any language – we can pitch our tone of voice or make strange clicks. As we develop language skills, we lose the ability to make the sounds we don’t need. A child from an African culture which speaks in a click language will keep the ability to make five or six different clicks with their mouth, while we native English speakers only really use one sound. A child who grows up speaking Thai will learn to control the pitch of their voice as they speak to communicate the different words with the same sounds, while native English speakers learn to use pitch to communicate emotion. Many of these skills are also useful for music, so it’s quite likely that children who are exposed to environments that use these skills retain them better and then find learning music much easier.

Even without considering the retention of skills from birth, the younger someone starts learning, the more quickly they learn and the longer they are likely to retain the information and abilities. Ever wondered why Mozart was so amazing? He was sat down at a piano as soon as he could sit up, and taught to play at a younger age than most children in the Western world even go to nursery school. He was also not sent to school, but educated at home, which meant he could dedicate more hours to practice than anyone else. This brings us neatly to point two.

2. People who seem to be “musically talented” dedicate more time to music, and that time is quality time.

ClockYou want to know why that fifteen-year-old from China can play the piano better than you can? He’s probably spent three or more hours practicing for every one you have. Music is a bit of a numbers game. The “ten thousand hours” statistic is dubious in its accuracy, but it certainly reinforces the rule that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon in four to five hours if all you’re doing is taking a leisurely jog around the park for twenty minutes a couple of times a week, but people often think musicians can pick up an instrument and play brilliantly while putting in similar effort. Talented musicians simply put in the hours needed to be masters.

Talented musicians also know how to use their time effectively. If your music practice involves you flipping through a few books and idly playing anything you fancy, then you’re going to progress more slowly than someone who focuses in on one thing at a time, and works on the difficult bits rather than avoiding them. Music practice can be quite boring! I once heard someone say that “if your family aren’t sick of you playing that bar again then you’ve not played it enough”. For help and advice on developing quality practice habits, click here.

3. People who seem to be “musically talented” may have other abilities or disabilities which affect their musicality.

Music isn’t actually a thing in itself that one can be talented at. It’s actually more of a combination of different abilities. Musicians require aural skills – the ability to hear and understand music clearly, but they also require physical skills and intellectual abilities. People who appear to be talented musicians may have great ears that can hear intervals precisely, and predict what makes sense. Or, someone who makes rapid progress might have particularly flexible hands, good fine motor control, or great co-ordination.  Other people might bring their intellectual abilities – an ability to understand what the music is about.

There will be some people who find music difficult because they have disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, can affect music reading. Other people have physical problems – anything from paralysis or amputated hands, to severe allergies or a lactose intolerance – that might affect their ability to play or sing. None of these things make it impossible to learn to play as many disabled musicians demonstrate. Musicians can learn to play the piano with only one hand, or learn to read braille music because they are blind, or rely on vibration to play because they’re deaf. It really puts the complaints of those of us who are able-bodied into perspective doesn’t it?

4. People who seem to be “musically talented” are in love with music.

I-love-musicBeing a musician is a lot like being married (or in a long-term relationship). Some days you are the happiest person in the world, and feel the glow of love. Other days, you wonder why you ever picked this life and seriously consider giving it all up. Ultimately, though, you know once upon a time you said “yes”. You fell in love, and you decided that love was worth fighting for.

So here’s the truth of the matter: ‘Musical Talent’ isn’t real. To become that person with musical talent, you just have to suck it up and put in the hours of quality time. It’s that simple. Not everyone will want to do it, and not everyone will be willing to overcome the physical and mental challenges you will face along the way. But if you want to, it is possible. Even for you.

(And if you do want to start the journey – check out my posts on choosing a teacher to help you on your way)