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Returning to exams in your 40s

The guest blog this month is written by Marion Peutherer who took her ARCO recently.

Marion Peutherer is not your typical organist:  she mostly plays for fun in her sitting room!  Having spent her school days in Berkhamsted playing the organ, piano, bassoon, saxophone and violin, and singing in many different choirs, she went on to read Music at Newcastle University before having a “rest” from music for the best part of 20 years.  Two years post graduate study at Newcastle Business School prepared her for her future career as a Human Resources manager for a global consumer goods company.

Her passion for playing the organ (and JS Bach in particular) was instilled at the age of 14 by her first teacher, Jean Cooper-Smith, who continues to encourage her to this day.  She began studying the organ again in 2012 with Michael Stoddart and embarked on a mission to achieve various diplomas.  Over the past 8 years she has learned a huge amount from a number of teachers including Michael Haynes, James Parsons, Ian Curror, Duncan Middleton and Drew Cantrill-Fenwick and continues to love playing.  Ever the HR manager, in this month’s article she shares what she has learned returning to exams in her 40s.

I’m one of those people who likes to have one eye on ‘what next’, so as I sat my A Levels in 1990 (with Grade 8 distinction under my belt), I browsed the diploma syllabus requirements for the Royal College of Organists, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music.  Such wonderful pieces of music that I longed to learn! 

Sadly, I never quite found the right combination of teacher and practice venue at university, so abandoned the organ in favour of my bassoon.  The organ was really my true love and I always rather regretted leaving it behind, as building my career and having a family absorbed most of the next two decades.

I eventually found my way back to the bench and started lessons in 2012 with the local Cathedral organist, to remind me of what I had long forgotten.  In our second lesson, he asked me what my goal was and, without pausing for even a nanosecond I replied, ARCO!  The dream had never died; just gone dormant for a couple of decades.

We agreed it might take some time, but it was a worthy challenge and we’d give it a go……step by step.  I started with CRCO (to get a flavour for what I was aiming for), followed it with DipABRSM and LRSM to build stronger technical foundations and repertoire, and eventually embarked on ARCO.  I learned a HUGE amount over the 8.5 years it has taken, which is summarised here:

Exam mentality

  • It’s hard going back to exams when you are out of the habit.  As a child at school, exams are part of normal, everyday life.  Whilst I had taken the odd exam post-university, I was not prepared for the self-imposed pressure I felt as an adult, despite nothing riding on the outcome.  (Professionally, I’m a Human Resources manager, not a musician.)
  • I found RCO exams on an unknown organ in a strange building much more scary than ABRSM exams, where I booked the venue and knew the instrument well.  That was mirrored in my fear of the examiners:  ABRSM (1 organ specialist, 1 general musician), RCO (3 organ specialists).  One teacher gave me this affirmation which I displayed on my organ: “The examiners are a group of supporters willing me to pass.”  It helped enormously!
  • As an 18 year old, I would have been very nervous about the ABRSM viva section, but as an adult I really looked forward to being able to discuss my programme with the examiners.  I was super excited to tell them that I’d held Stanford’s original manuscript of the piece I played, as it’s in my University library.  Interesting to see the editor’s marks and corrections!

Practice

  • Diplomas require ‘industrial levels of practice’, as I was told.  Early on I invested in an electronic organ for home, so that I could practise at any time of day or night when I found a spare moment.  And yes, I have been on the bench at 1.30am when I couldn’t sleep!  Much of my practice was done between 9.30 & 11pm, with headphones on, once my children were in bed.  My husband learned to recognise pieces by the clatter of the pedalboard.
  • Building a good relationship with a local church so you can practise with real pipes and action is hugely important, as that is the context in which diploma exams will be taken.  My children will have memories of hanging about in cold churches whilst I practised, along with the odd trip up the tower with the verger when he offered babysitting services. If you are accustomed to playing on an electronic instrument, the switch to an instrument with heavier action (especially if manuals are coupled) will be hard work for your fingers which need time to build strength.

Public performance

  • Nerves in public performance were a major issue for me.  A traumatic experience in a school concert aged 10 left me with a real fear of playing in public, to the extent that I physically shook, which makes finding the right pedal notes very much harder.  A professional musician friend suggested beta blockers to take away the tremor and they worked a treat.  Some years later I also tried hypnotherapy and that was a revelation:  after one session, no longer did I fear playing in public!
  • Play your recital pieces in public as much as you can before the big day.  Not having a church position, I was fortunate to be allowed to play out Evensong at my local Cathedral on a number of occasions ahead of exams and I gave a mini recital at a local Abbey before my ARCO exam.


Liturgical playing

  • RCO diplomas require you to have skills in liturgical playing / accompanying a choir.  At school I had sung in the chapel choir, rather than being on the bench, so this was completely new to me.  It is only this year I have been appointed organ scholar at a local parish church and begun to ‘do for real’ what I’ve been training for in order to pass the RCO diplomas.  I would heartily recommend doing this the other way around!
  • Improvisation skills don’t have to be in your DNA….they can be taught and it’s fun to learn them.

Resources to support preparation

  • Surround yourself with talented teachers who will coach and encourage you to give of your best.  Recognise that you may need different people to teach you the different skills.
  • The RCO runs courses to help prepare you for the diploma exams, including time on the organ you will play on the day.  Attend!  The Library has an array of excellent materials for loan, both books and audio recordings to study for the aural paper.  RCO approved teachers are likely to have a good understanding of the standards expected and how you measure up against them.  More recently, the huge array of useful resources on iRCO is most definitely worth exploring.
  • Singing in a variety of choirs was very helpful training for the RCO aural papers:  being able to recognise intervals and pitches and hear how individual lines moved was a good foundation.
  • For ABRSM diplomas, I sought guidance from an experienced examiner on what sort of questions might be asked in my viva so I could be better prepared.  At the time there were no practice sight reading tests available, so I went into that totally blind, not realising that I would have to work out all the registration myself…..the RCO diplomas specify what is required!  I spent many happy hours in my local library with my head in Grove’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians researching my programme notes and set works.
  • Never get rid of textbooks that you might one day need again.  I rather happily parted with my books on score reading and keyboard harmony after my degree and regretted having to buy them again, at three times the price, 20 years later!

Adult learner

  • Something once learned, whilst perhaps no longer in your near memory, can be dredged back.  I went into this knowing that ‘mediant’ was a musical term but having no recollection what it meant, as I hadn’t used the language of music for two decades.  It, along with how to harmonise Bach chorales, came back relatively quickly once that muscle was exercised again. 
  • If you like jigsaws, Su Doku and maths, learning to write counterpoint and fugues for ARCO will be fun and it can be taught over Skype.  (Neither topic had been covered in A Level music or my music degree.)
  • You need to make time to learn.  I became adept at managing my time carefully to fit my studying around family & work commitments, keeping a Bach chorale or counterpoint exercise in my handbag for when I found myself with a few minutes spare.  I had past papers for the keyboard skills on my tablet, so did mental preparation whilst sitting in the airport departure lounge.
  • Don’t let the odd hurdle throw you off course.  I rode out two bouts of ill health, two changes of teacher and a number of failed papers/tests in the five years it took to pass ARCO.  If something really matters to you, you’ll find the drive, determination and perseverance it takes to complete the challenge.

Memorable moments

  • The surprise on the face of the ABRSM examiner when they realised it was the candidate offering to make them a cuppa before the start of the exam.  Well, I had to fill my time somehow whilst they set up!
  • A critical stop failing on one note the hour before my exam, resulting in my teacher trying to repair it on the hoof and then swiftly re-registering a section, promising to pull the appropriate stops at the right moment.  It’s a good thing I trusted him!
  • Running out of the RCO keyboard skills halfway through the sightreading in tears as it had all gone so horribly wrong that I couldn’t face finishing it off.  Not one of my better moments…

Take time to enjoy the journey – whilst the end result is important, the fun of learning new skills, new music, meeting new people, building relationships with new teachers and feeling the support of the organ playing community is what it’s all about.  Make the most of it!

If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!

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