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Exams, Arrangements & Radio 1

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NoteoriousNoteoriousMy undergraduate degree was one of those old-fashioned ones that culminated in 8 hours of written exams over two days. I recall thinking at the time, ‘Well, I think I’ve got quite good at sitting exams by now – shame really that this is the last one I’ll ever need to take’. Educationalists who like to defend the exam as an assessment strategy will point out that the capacity to complete a defined task independently within a limited timescale is a useful life skill. And I’ve always tended to think that the main legacy an exam-oriented education has left me with is the ability to focus.

But last weekend I found myself drawing much more directly on the strategies I used to use to pass exams for a real-life challenge. Noteorious, LABBS 2008 quartet champions, had been asked by BBC Radio 1 to participate in feature celebrating four classic albums. The idea was to play tracks from these albums, alternated with cuts of the quartet singing the same songs in the barbershop style. Cute idea – and they had just one week’s notice to procure and learn the arrangements before heading into the recording studio.

So this had all the exam-like qualities of being a defined task to be completed in a limited timescale, and I found myself going about it in a very exam-like fashion. First, you should read through the whole paper – that is, make yourself acquainted with the nature and scope of the task – and formulate some initial thoughts about how to approach each bit of it. So, I listened to each of the four songs: ‘London Calling’ by the Clash, ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica, ‘One More Time’ by Daft Punk and ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ by The Streets. Now it was clear from the outset that this was not music that lent itself obviously to be sung ‘in the barbershop style’ – but that was implicit in the request coming from Radio 1, and the whole point was clearly to relish the musical distance.

In an exam, you don’t just read the questions, you need to think about the rubric, the general framework for answering them; part of what an exam actually tests is your ability to follow instructions. Here the rubric included the length of arrangement wanted (‘at least 40 seconds’ – which I took to include an implied maximum of a minute) and the time available to learn each one (which in turn has implications for level of complexity). Knowing the voices and personalities of the quartet, as ever, helped a lot – and the challenge boiled down to how to show them off to their best advantage. The charts needed to be simple enough to be singable on minimal rehearsal, but interesting enough to be, well, interesting.

Right, so having scoped out what needs to be done, exam strategy mandates that you ignore the order the questions are printed in, and start in on the easiest one first. There are several reasons for this. It gets you some momentum and confidence, and means that even if you waste time being stuck later, you don’t at the outset. It also means that by the time you get to the harder bits, you’ve got over any sense of panic you might have had on first acquaintance – you’re used to the question and no longer surprised by it. Moreover, as you work on the easier questions, the back of your brain is chewing over the trickier bits, so by the time you get to them, you actually have rather more idea of how to tackle them. So, I started with Daft Punk, proceeded to the Clash, and by then I had a better idea of what I wanted to do with Metallica.

The other thing you need to do in exams is manage your time. Sure, you can gain a few extra marks by polishing one answer for an extra 20 minutes, but once you have used your allotted time on that question, you gain more marks by moving onto the next. I’m not a natural completer-finisher type, so the ‘sod it, it will have to do’ response comes quite naturally to me. Still, it did bother me to spend so little time on the polishing stage of each chart. I sang through all the parts, of course, and smoothed out the bits that really needed improving, but my usual process of putting an arrangement aside for a couple of days and then coming back to refine it just wasn’t feasible under the circumstances. The point at which the time was better spent with Noteorious learning the music than with me fiddling with it came pretty soon.

Anyway, they are in the recording studio today, and I guess when I hear how they got on, I’ll know if I passed the exam! And of course I’ll let you know when the broadcast is as soon as I know too.

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