…by which I mean…

In less than a week, the Early Music singers at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague head onstage and expose their musical and artistic souls for the judgement and criticism of a panel of examiners.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am writing this blog post instead of writing my program notes.

It is a well known fact that even if one has just sung a universally acclaimed solo recital in Carnegie Hall, the prospect of singing an exam in school will reduce you to a nervous, stressed-out mess. And not the hot kind of mess.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have not just sung a universally acclaimed solo recital at Carnegie Hall. Neither am I a hot mess.

There is something about knowing the entire performance exists solely to be judged that throws any kind of perspective or rationality out the window. Exam time is when the ultimate paradox of many musicians comes right to the fore: we love making music, but sometimes would rather eat a bucket full of spiders covered in wasabi than perform.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that exams are an inevitable and in fact useful part of any conservatory degree. The give us a set goal to work towards over the year (or semester), they provide markers for development, they give us performance experience, they force us to organise music, ensembles, rehearsals and marketing in an environment where if it all falls apart, it doesn’t affect whether we can pay the rent or not. And in theory, exams give us an opportunity to gain feedback and constructive criticism from professionals in our field.

I find exam or competition feedback often falls into one of two categories: ridiculously blunt, or confusingly obscure.

Examples of the ridiculously blunt feedback:

That was the best singing we’ve ever heard from you – the comment we all dream of.

Not your best, dear – thank you Captain Obvious. I’m perfectly aware that I forgot the second verse and missed my entry. Twice.

You will never have a career – actually said to a friend of mine, in the same year she made her debut at the Sydney Opera House.

Oh, how good to see you singing again. You used to have such a lovely voice – said to a friend of mine in a competition. The adjudicator then went on to ask what she was doing after having finished conservatory. When my friend replied that she was performing with a very successful popera group as well as in the chorus of the state opera company, the adjudicator replied “Oh, chorus. Well, I suppose it’s work, isn’t it?”

While ridiculously blunt feedback can be soul destroying, it at least means you know where you stand. You have a clear, if subjective, statement which you can then choose to take on board or leave by the wayside. The confusingly obscure feedback can be more problematic, as trying to decipher what it signifies means it gets inside your head and drives you insane. It is possible to walk out of an exam or competition round quite confident and pleased with what you presented, only to receive some comment that leaves you analysing every aspect of your performance trying to nut out what they really want to say.

How you end up interpreting obscure feedback depends a lot on your relationship with the examiners and the general politics and atmosphere of the school or competition. It is of course possible that these examiners offer up these sometimes generic statements because they literally can’t think of anything more relevant to say. Or perhaps they think they are expressing themselves clearly. But I inevitably read them as snarky and passive-aggressive.

For instance:

We think you have great deal of potential – We’re not really sure if you suck or not. Time will tell.

You have a lovely voice, but further consolidation is needed – You have a lovely instrument. Such a shame what you do with it.

We applaud your ambitious choice in repertoire – This music is way too difficult for you.

Your manner of presentation was engaging – You wore a very pretty dress.

You are becoming a real singer – I used to think you were a hat.

So to everyone doing their exams at the KonCon in the coming weeks, toi toi toi! Let’s endeavour to actually enjoy the experience of making music and minimise the atmosphere of judgement.

And remember, if they tell you you’ll never have a career, it means the Sydney Opera House is about to call.


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