Discovering MTB Exams (part 1)

An Interview with MTB Chief Examiner Mark Kesel

For music teachers and students struggling through the last five months, with the UK in lockdown, there has been a significant preoccupation with the problem that music examining boards have been struggling to adapt to the situation.

On the social media platforms and forums where I am active, I have seen regular and very significant complaints about all three of the traditional boards here in the UK. But throughout these challenges, one fully accredited music exam board has stood out from the crowd by a country mile.

Many teachers hadn’t even heard of the Music Teachers’ Board at the start of the year. But this changed overnight with the appearance of effective targeted advertisements online trumpeting a bold claim:

“MTB’s Grade 1-8 exams are to continue without disruption during this difficult period.”

The progression from intrigue to full commitment has been startling, many teachers who were formally loyal to ABRSM or one of the other boards posting online to praise the MTB Exams having tried them out and had hugely positive experiences.

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I tracked down MTB’s Chief Examiner Mark Kesel for this remote interview. And in a second feature I talk to some of those teachers who have tried out these exams with their students, asking them about their experiences.

So buckle up and enjoy the ride…

An Interview with Mark Kesel

Mark Kesel

Andrew Eales:

Thanks for agreeing to talk to Pianodao, Mark! 
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about who MTB are, the vision and history of the board?

Mark Kesel:

The Music Teachers’ Board (MTB Exams) offer instrumental qualifications from grades 1-8 in over 25 different instruments.

Music exams are an invaluable tool for teachers by providing targets and motivation for their pupils. However, traditional methods are not suitable for everyone and we felt there were many improvements that could be made to the instrumental exam process for teachers and learners.

In particular, we aimed to improve the flexibility and accessibility of graded music exams while striving to make the whole process more enjoyable and reducing the stress felt by students. 

We achieved this by adopting the system used for the performance element of GCSE music qualifications and applying this to our instrumental grades where exams are recorded and submitted to us using our app and overseen by the teacher/school either in person or over webcam.

It is then marked by one of our instrument specialist examiners and a mark sheet emailed to the teacher with the certificate sent to the candidate.  

As there is no visiting examiner, unlike other boards, our exams offer:

  • Complete flexibility over exam dates – Our grades can be taken at any time without having to enter months in advance or accommodate exam periods and visiting examiner dates.
  • Reduced stress levels for pupils and teachers – We believe that the whole process of learning to play a musical instrument, including taking grade exams, should be a positive and enjoyable one. Taking the exam in a familiar environment with your own teacher instead of a visiting examiner significantly reduces the stress experienced by candidates.
  • Optimised rate of progress – The wait to take an exam to accommodate exam periods and examiner visits can demotivate pupils as it is difficult to progress during this period and they can grow bored of playing the same music for months. Music Teachers’ Board exams can be taken as soon as you are ready.
  • Lower costs – Our exams are less expensive than those of traditional boards.
  • Specialist examiners – Uniquely, MTB exams are only marked by instrument specialists. Only a specialist piano teacher/player will mark a piano exam, a guitar specialist a guitar exam etc. Frequently, traditional methods mean the examiner is having to mark performances on instruments they cannot teach or play.
  • Convenience – There is no need to travel to examination centres. You decide where to take the exam and with our app, you can record and submit your exams to us using just your smartphone or tablet.

The board was created by teachers for teachers and we developed our syllabuses, testing our exam system with trial centres and worked to gain our status as an Ofqual regulated awarding body over several years.

Our new Ofqual regulated grades were launched in March 2019 and since then the board has expanded rapidly with over 600 centres in 36 different countries. As with all Ofqual regulated boards, our grades 6-8 carry UCAS points. We aim to continue to improve our syllabuses and technology to provide the best learning and exam experience for teachers and learners around the world.  

AE: So of the many unique benefits offered by your exams, it’s immediately striking that they are delivered and recorded in audio by the teacher, during the standard lesson. Can you tell us more about how this works in practice? 

MK: Our new app simplifies the whole process. It allows teachers and schools to complete the whole exam-taking process with just their phone or tablet whilst offline, so requiring no internet.

It provides exam instructions, a recording quality test before you start the exam, and the ability to record, listen to and submit exams to MTB when you are ready.  The app captures a very high quality audio file and the entire exam has to be recorded in one continuous session. The MTB App is available for download from the Google Play & Apple Stores for free.

Teachers, schools or organisations can conduct and submit an MTB exam by signing up as a centre with us on our website.  Either the teacher or the parent can enter and pay for an MTB exam.

After entering a candidate, you will receive a front cover which provides detailed instructions on how to deliver the exam and acts as a verification form. This is submitted to us via the app along with the recording.

We also offer regular webinars to support teachers and organisations detailing how to conduct an MTB exam. Dates for these can be found here.

AE: And who are your examiners – how are they selected, trained and moderated?

MK: MTB Exams offer instrument specialist examiners. A trumpet exam will always be marked by a trumpet specialist (teacher/player) a violin exam by a violin specialist, a guitar exam by a guitar specialist. Our examiners therefore only mark exams where the candidate is playing their specialist instrument.

Our examiners are experienced teachers and musicians selected on the basis of their level of expertise and understanding of their principal instrument and their written communication skills. Many are highly respected performers and teachers in their field, including a number who perform with major orchestras or teach in music colleges and teaching establishments.

New examiners go through a rigorous selection and training programme with practice exams and reviews of their first exams conducted by senior examiners. Each month, our ‘Exam Board’ consisting of members of the Senior Management Team moderate the marking of a proportion of the exams marked that month.

Members of this ‘Exam Board’ include our Chief Examiner, Lead Moderator and Head of Quality Assurance. Based on these ‘Exam Boards’ our examiners receive feedback to help improve standardisation of marking. 

AE: Let’s turn to the syllabus content. How does this compare with the more established boards, and to what extent did MTB take a fresh look at content and go back to the drawing board?

MK: Exam content broadly follows the structure of the syllabuses offered by the traditional boards including performance pieces and studies, scales and exercises as well as reading and listening elements. The level of expectation in terms of standard of performance and the level of difficulty of repertoire is also equivalent to other boards.

Because our exams are recordings instead of with a visiting examiner, we have put a great deal of effort into creating content and a syllabus with all these elements which can be successfully and safely delivered by teachers. Unlike other boards who offer ‘online’ options, often with only performance elements but no technical, reading or listening sections, MTB Exams are the only board which provides a syllabus for recorded exams which include all the areas found in traditional exams.

There are a number of helpful things worth noting however, born of our desire to create syllabus content that helps support the needs of teachers and the enjoyment for candidates, without compromising on standards…

We offer a single list of pieces from which candidates select their performance pieces (we call this the Recital Section) rather than list A, list B etc. This is to enable teachers to tailor the pieces chosen to suit what works best for their teaching methods and the musical interests of the pupil.

On top of this, uniquely, we allow candidates to perform free choice pieces to replace pieces on our lists. Any music or musical style may be performed as long as it is of the same grade standard. To assist teachers in selecting appropriate repertoire, we offer ‘Free Choice Guidance’ and an optional ‘Free Choice Approval Service’ if you require further reassurance of the suitability of a piece.

This element of our syllabuses has been extremely popular with teachers as it effectively allows them to build a recital programme for grades using their favourite pieces and those they know work best for them and their pupils.

Scale lists are of a manageable length but unlike with other boards, candidates are asked to perform all the scales on the list during the exam. For candidates playing wind, brass or string instruments and who do not want to perform scales from memory, we offer an ‘Alternative to Scales from Memory’.

All candidates perform technical exercises for MTB Exams as these provide valuable exercises, composed by our instrument specialists, to help develop many extra key areas of technique relevant to each instrument.

It is in the reading and listening sections of the exam that our syllabuses mostly differ from those of other boards. There are no unprepared elements in an MTB Exam, so candidates are not asked to perform a piece of unseen sight reading. Instead, pupils perform ‘Reading Skills’ which are clapping exercises designed to develop their understanding of reading rhythm. For the Listening Skills section, candidates may perform traditional sung aural tests or a duet. The option to perform a duet instead of aural tests is also very popular with teachers and provides an enjoyable and performance focused way to develop a pupil’s listening skills. 

AE: For teachers turning to MTB, what would you hope they will be most struck by?

MK: We would hope they will be most struck by the ease and convenience of the process offered by our app, the flexibility over when exams can be taken and the feedback they receive from our instrument specialist examiners.

Typically, we receive many favourable comments from teachers expressing how much they like the whole process such as the following:  

The whole experience was brilliant – all the stress taken away. All recorded on the app and uploaded in our own time. The results were super quick and so brilliant to be marked by a specialist examiner. I will definitely be doing MTB exams again in the future.”   R.H. (Music Teacher)

AE: What do you believe the future will hold for MTB?

MK: As the Music Teachers Board continues to rapidly expand in the UK and internationally, we are working on many exciting innovations which we hope will further improve the accessibility and quality of music education around the world. Particularly, for those in more rural regions who have historically been unable or had great difficulty in accessing graded exams.

We are also in the process of developing our diploma level qualification for Music Teachers which is an exciting area of development for the future. 

AE: Thank you so much for walking us through all this, Mark, and best wishes for all these plans!

The second feature, in which I talk to teachers who have tried out MTB exams this term, can be read here.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

2 thoughts on “Discovering MTB Exams (part 1)”

  1. Really useful, thank you: this has encouraged me to give this board a serious look. The free choice piece option makes so much sense. I have so much great music, and am often stuck with less than wonderful pieces being studied for exams. Now my students could have the best all the time!


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