Things a middle aged woman can learn from doing her first ever music exam

A year ago, I took my 10 year old to his first violin exam. The buzz was exciting. He'd practiced for months, our teacher was doing anxious, last minute warm-ups with him, and it all seemed very busy and important.

A tiny spark hit my brain. Genius, perhaps, or just some kind of demented mania. I don't know where it comes from, but it's the same thing that pops up and tells me, "You could go on a roller coaster." Or, "You could possibly go jogging". Or, "You could write a book." Stupid things like that.

The spark whispered in my brain, and this is what it said: "Next year you can do an exam too." There was a half-hearted 'really?' from the back rooms of my mind, but the voice of mania was far stronger, louder and bossier. It prevailed.

Fast forward twelve months, and I have completed my first, ever, music exam: fourth grade, on my cello. Did I pass? Honestly, I don't know. I won't get the results for a few weeks. In a way, though, that's unimportant. Because the year I spent preparing for it was the important part. 

Here, in no particular order, I present my list of things a middle-aged woman can learn from doing her first music exam. (By the way, I apologise. The list isn't funny. I wish it was. I tried to make it humorous, but to be straight up with you, I'm exhausted. A year of practice and a very very very stressful exam will do that to you. So, it is what it is.)

1. Practice will get you there. After I blithely announced my intentions, my teacher gave me a list of pieces. "Choose three," he said, "and we'll start preparing. You'll need all that time." (His words should perhaps have given me some kind of warning about what was to come, but at that point I still knew nothing, so I ignored him.) Choose pieces? Sure thing.

I looked at the list and got practical, mostly because I'm stingy. I had to purchase the pieces in the books they were published in, and two of the options were from the same book. One of them sounded pretty good when I searched around the internet to have a listen. That's okay, I thought. I'll chance it on the other one. Don't need to buy three different books if I can buy two. 

Choosing the third lot of music was harder. I couldn't find any performances of the pieces on the list on YouTube, and I couldn't find a screenshot of the music anywhere, so I looked at the composers to try to get some clues as to what I might be purchasing. Bach, I thought. He'll be okay, right?

At this point, anyone who knows more than me about Bach and cello playing will break into laughter. Because Bach is h-a-r-d on the cello. Really hard. And if you say those last two words with a whiny voice, you'll get a good sense of how I've felt for a large part of the last twelve months. Wah, it's too hard.

Yes, I cried, at one point. Yes, I thought about chucking the piece in and trying something entirely new. (I decided, 'no, it would throwing good money after bad'). Yes, I wondered if I'd ever be able to play the stupid thing right through - when I didn't even really know what the notes were, and the position shifting was So Difficult. But that's when the same little voice in my head that said, "Hey, you should do an exam, and it should be fourth grade," popped back up. "If you give up now, you won't be able to prove you can do it, and then you'd be a quitter, Cecily Paterson." I don't like being called a quitter, especially by my own brain, so I kept at it.

I think we worked on that piece in every single lesson. Every week I'd get a little further, and my teacher would have a new way of practicing it for me. When I did what he suggested, I saw the difference. When I was lax about practicing it properly, it didn't improve. Halfway through the year, I realised that I was a fool if I didn't actually do what my teacher said, so I started to really practice how he showed me, and the thing began to come together. Forty lessons later, I could play it. Adequately. Not brilliantly, but adequately. And that's saying something. 

So practice - of whatever you're doing - is important. I practiced that piece, or bits of it, over 350 times in a year. My kids were bored of it. I was bored of it, but it worked, and now I can say that I can play a Bach piece on the cello. 

2. There's a lot of value in fine-tuning. I played the same three pieces for twelve months straight. If I hadn't been doing the exam, I would probably have left them at about the four month mark (except, obvs, the Bach, which I would have quit early.) Going over and over them taught me more than leaving them and moving on would have. My playing became more subtle, more accurate, more nuanced. I am a better player because I have fixed the little errors instead of barrelling through. Keeping at it, even when you think you're good enough, is a useful discipline - and gives you better results.

3. Failing still feels as bad as it used to when I was a kid, but I can deal with it much better now. Yes, I stuffed my exam. It's embarrassing. I got the fingering wrong on my E flat major scale - like, totes wrong. I also added an extra note into the G chromatic scale. How is that possible? I do not know.

When I finished, I came out feeling like a fool, but it only lasted for about two minutes before I could shrug it off and be rational. "Well, I probably passed most of the rest of it." Lemme tell ya, it's better to be 43, slightly wrinkly, and okay about stuffing up something you've worked at for a full year, than 16 and gorgeous, but distraught for weeks about flubbing something minor. 

4. I am just possibly a little bit too ambitious. When I told my teacher I wanted to do fourth grade, he said, "Really? Not third grade?" in a voice that said, "I strongly advise against it..." But my manic voice was insistent. It had to be fourth. That would be a real achievement, I thought. Fourth grade after two and a half years of learning cello would be a thing. Third grade wouldn't be nearly as impressive.

Were my ambitions realised? Yes, probably. I'm guessing I'll pass, even if I don't get anything higher than that. So I have probably achieved fourth grade, but I wonder if I would have done a better job on third grade. I might have played with more confidence, and more actual skill. I might have owned it more, rather than sitting there looking like someone just trying super hard. I don't know. 

Would I go back and do it differently? Um, actually no. I'm still glad I did fourth grade. However, I do know that what I missed in forging ahead - confidence, muscle memory, confidence, musicality, general skillz, confidence, y'know... all that stuff - I'll have to go back and focus on now, before I try to move on in grades.  

So maybe ambition isn't a bad thing. But it would be a mistake to not recognise what I'm lacking because of the short time I've been learning, even despite officially getting to the grade I'm on.

5. The manic voice pretty much only gets one go. While I'm not anti-exam, I've decided I'm not doing one next year. Maybe even the year after that. I don't know. It was a big deal, and I need some down time. I know what I've achieved, and I don't need to prove anything more to myself again for a while. (Also, I don't really like that vulnerable feeling it makes me have, even though I know vulnerability can be the precursor to success and achievement, and I know I can be rational about it. It's still a sucky feeling, and I'll take it in small doses, thanks.)

What have you learned from your middle aged achievements? Or from music exams?

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