Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

In Part One of this major feature, I interviewed Music Teachers’ Board Chief Examiner Mark Kesel. The article certainly generated a lot of interest, and as a piano teacher I am myself very excited by the innovation and stimulating vision promised by the MTB.

For one thing, the idea of being able to take a graded exam any day of the year is a real boon for those of us who don’t want to spend months working on and listening to the same three pieces ad infinitum. I feel that this simple innovation could revolutionise teaching and learning, providing scope for students to develop better momentum, engagement, and to progress far more quickly without being held back by the schedule of an exam board

Combine this with the no-fuss ability to take graded exams using a simple app in the lesson, and the fact that the MTB allow candidates to play any three pieces of their own choice so long as they are appropriate for the grade, and here is an exciting opportunity for learners to move away from an exam-driven mentality and embrace their own personalised piano journey, without losing the benefits of independent, fully accredited assessments along the way.

But I’m not one to simply jump on every latest trend or fad; ABRSM have been a friend on my musical journey for more than 40 years and I have used their exams almost exclusively with my students. Were ABRSM continuing to meet the needs of my students, I wouldn’t lightly make a decision to switch board.

When looking for advice and support, the Pianodao Tea Room is the natural place to ask, its members always willing to share their experiences in a friendly way. I knew several members had tried MTB exams with their students in recent months, and several were willing to share their experiences…

Here then are four teacher interviews I arranged, which answered my own questions and will, I hope, help you find answers to yours…

• Christina Barrie •

Christina Barrie is a pianist and teacher who has taught for
more than 30 years, both in Australia and the UK.

How many students are you teaching at the moment, and what proportion use exams?

I teach around 30 students, five of whom are adults. Most use exams, and before lockdown I was using the ABRSM.

What drew you to the MTB Exams?

I was attracted to the MTB exams as I found they can be taken at any time using the MTB recording app, with the teacher conducting the exam online in the same way as a normal Zoom lesson.

Which grades/exams did you enter students for?

I have students going for Grades 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8.

How easy was it to register with MTB and work out their exam processes?

Very. Their website is excellent and easy to follow.

Any hiccups delivering the exams?

No hiccups. The other good thing is that if the student is not happy with the way they played, the whole exam can be re-recorded as many times as they like.

What thoughts do you have about the quality of the marking and comments received back?

I have so far only received results for Grade 2, and to be honest, I found the standards expected to be higher than those of the ABRSM. In particular with reference to dynamic contrast and tempi of pieces.

What did you like BEST about the MTB Exams?

The flexibility of when these exams can be taken, the wide range of repertoire options, the way the teacher is the one conducting the exam…

Anything you are less keen on, or improvements would you like to see MTB make in the future?

The only aspect of the MTB system which is not truly representative of the student’s performance is the fact that it is an audio recording, not video. The examiner for a start has no idea what age the student is other than hearing their voice when the pieces are introduced. Also, you could argue that anyone could record the exam; how do they know it’s actually the candidate?

Will you be using MTB Exams again, and what exam boards will you use?

I will continue to use MTB for the rest of this year, but ultimately have to say I’ll probably go back to the ABRSM.

• Josh Winiberg •

Josh Winiberg is a UK based pianist, composer and producer who specialises in soundtracks. He is also active in music education, tutoring piano, composition, production and music theory on a private basis as well as in schools and charities.

How many students do you regularly teach, what proportion use exams, and which board(s) were you using before lockdown?

Pre-lockdown I was teaching about 20 students privately, plus group sessions in primary school three days a week. I only put my private students through exams (if they’re interested in going down that route) and was previously using ABRSM exclusively.

What attracted you to the MTB Exams?

I had two students who were nearing the end of their Grade 1 when lockdown started. I didn’t want them to get bogged down practicing the same pieces indefinitely, so I considered giving them a private assessment myself, then moving onto something new. Then I heard about MTB on Facebook and was immediately interested in the possibility of online, Ofqual accredited exams.

I suggested it to the parents, who were happy to be guided by me on the matter. I think they were grateful not to listen to the same pieces for another six months! And on a more serious note they were happy that their kids could move on and keep some momentum going.

How easy was it to register with MTB and work out their exam processes?

Couldn’t be simpler – very self-explanatory.

You ‘buy’ the exam entry, then print out the PDF to be signed. This also serves as a checklist to help you run the exam without forgetting anything. When you’re ready you can then use the website or the app to submit the exam. I recorded mine and submitted a WAV via the website.

What thoughts do you have about the quality of the marking and comments received back, and how long did you wait for the results?

Marks were received about a week later. The feedback was reasonably detailed, including a breakdown of marks for each of the criteria. Each piece is marked out of 20, with seven points allocated to accuracy, seven for expression and six for technique. Scales and technical exercises are marked together, out of 25 points, 15 for accuracy and 10 for fluency. Reading skills are marked out of seven, and aural out of eight.

This makes a total of 100 marks, with the following boundaries:

Distinction: 87-100
• Merit: 75-86
• Pass: 60-74
• Blue 45-59
• White: Below 45

Marking does appear to be more generous than with ABRSM, with both of my students doing slightly better than I had anticipated. This contrasts my last batch of ABRSM submissions, which I felt were marked harshly with little in the way of encouraging feedback. Somewhere in the middle would be ideal, maintaining high standards without demoralising children!

What did you like BEST about the MTB Exams?

Free choice pieces. I had a student who was working towards their Grade 3 a while back when they broke their arm. They lost momentum and didn’t recover in time to sit the exam. I don’t like to have students in perpetual ‘exam’ mode, so we decided to skip Grade 3. Having discovered MTB, this student has dusted off the two pieces he learned from the previous syllabus, and is looking forward to completing what he started.

Online is great as an option, especially at the moment, and it’s refreshing to not have to wait until the next exam period to take the exam. For students who only play for fun but get nervous in an exam setting, online assessment could be ideal. 

What did you like LEAST, and what improvements would you like to see MTB make in the future?

While online has its benefits, for a more ambitious student, performing under pressure is part of the game and I would not be happy only submitting online assessments.

How would you compare MTB with ABRSM?

Like ABRSM, MTB has supporting tests in the form of scales, technical studies, reading, and listening. Grade 1 scales consisted of:

• B major (two octaves, hands separately)
• D harmonic minor (two octaves, hands separately)
• E major contrary motion (one octave)
• C major similar motion (one octave)
• C major and D minor broken chords (hands separately)

I personally love this approach, introducing lots of sharps, harmonic minor and similar motion all in the first grade. It’s great to see the most natural scale to learn first, B major, in Grade 1.

Every exam has two technical studies as well, which I am very grateful for. These begin with studies from ‘A Dozen a Day’, and progress to include Hanon and Dohnányi in later grades.

The reading and aural exercises work very differently to ABRSM since students and teachers are given the assessments to learn and practice prior to the exam (downloadable from the MTB website for free, along with scales and the technical exercises). Therefore the ‘reading’ component (for example) is not about sight reading on the spot as much as it is about learning the given exercises, all of which are basic.

There may be a learning curve with more demanding later grades, but grade one does seem too easy. I think it’s best to think of these supplementary exercises as a syllabus of sorts, a starting point for more in-depth study during lessons. 

Will you be using MTB Exams again, and what exam boards will you use?

I am very happy to have MTB exams available as an option now. I do think that in person exams are incredibly valuable, so I can’t imagine I would use MTB exclusively in normal times, but I am sure I would use them again.

Right now, I am open to exploring all exam boards, and picking those which suit each individual student best. 

• Berry O’Rourke •

Berry O’Rourke is a Norwich based piano teacher with a private studio of around 25 students. She also works part time in a city centre Primary school.

How many of your students enter exams, and which board(s) were you using before lockdown?

I have a studio of 25 students, and I would usually enter 3 – 6 students each exam session (always ABRSM) every year. Probably around 15 annually.

Why did you decide to give MTB exams a go?

I listened to a webinar lead by MTB early on in March, when ABRSM had cancelled their existing provision. I had 4 students ready and another 5 in one stage or another of preparation.

The silence and lack of clarity even in March from ABRSM was a good enough starting point, and the equality of UCAS points from MTB persuaded me that Ofqual judged the rigour of assessment between the two boards to be equal. This was important for persuading parents. We have used a mix of ABRSM pieces and non syllabus free choice pieces; each free choice piece that I have submitted for approval has been moderated successfully by MTB.

How easy was it to register and work out MTB’s way of doing things?

It was easy to register with MTB, whereas I had found re-registering with ABRSM very difficult, and I was sad to have lost data (exam results) from previous years. 

Working out MTB’s exam processes required a leap of faith, and could be improved. I felt that I did not really know what things would look like until the payment was made and the front cover produced. For my 3rd exam the front cover did not come through until I chased it (about 20 hours after paying). I learnt then that you couldn’t pay and take the exam on the same day necessarily.

Of course this is a long way (improvement) from ABRSM where you pay 6+ weeks in advance and then the student is too ready / not ready / broken their arm / etc.

Did the exams go smoothly?

Exams have gone smoothly and this is in part because I have made every candidate do a mock exam. Also because I have learnt to be SUPER organised (paperwork, script, list of scales in order, whiteboard next to piano with our agreed order).

All of this puts a small amount of accountability on the teacher to run the exams competently, where in ABRSM you wave goodbye to your candidate and wish them luck and have nothing further to do with the “conducting the exam” process. 

I charge my students for both the rehearsal and the exam, making it actually a more expensive process for them.  However knowing I will be paid means I am willing to rehearse for “as long as it takes” which has been more than a 45 minute lesson in some cases. Equally, for students who have botched the exam first time we have had time to re-record.

What thoughts do you have about the quality of the marking and comments received back, and how long did you wait for the results?

All the results have come through as promised within 2 weeks. Marking has been spot on. Not generous, not harsh. Quality of comments has been fine!

What did you like BEST about the MTB Exams?

I like the flexibility of entering when you are ready. I expect some of my future G4 candidates will be ready mid to end of September, as they have had some holiday lessons.

I used to dread November / December exams as it takes away from the Christmas recital preparation.

Previously, one Year 6 child got the lead in her end of Primary School play in July and had to miss participating in it because of her ABRSM Grade 2. Another student is an anaesthetist and has never been able to take an exam because her shifts change.

I’ve always hated not knowing which of the five weeks exams will be scheduled. When a student is ready, they are ready. It’s a timing thing!

Another strength is that if you are Grade 4 you are Grade 4. If you don’t prove that first time you can have another go in the same recording session. If something goes wrong you can re-start. If you have trained for an exam for 4 months, you deserve to be able to reflect and improve without it being an expensive disaster.

However, re-recording is a gamble: the previous attempt is wiped out so you have to be sure that any subsequent attempts will be an improvement.  One child just said “Let’s leave it there” and another said “I can definitely play it better than that” so it’s a collaboration with the teacher taking the lead. Again, its about judgement and accountability.

Additionally I like the aural element and think it is insightful and intelligent.

The customer service is excellent too, very responsive, polite and willing.

Will you be using MTB Exams again?

I will be for the next year or so.  My students have found the technical exercises a challenge and the aural interesting!

• Megan Skinner •

Megan Skinner is a pedagogue, performer, conductor, and composer. She has an active and thriving teaching practice, and has guided hundreds of pupils through exams over three decades.

How many students do you regularly teach, what proportion use exams, and which board(s) were you using before lockdown?

I have around 60 students, and about 70% use exams, exclusively ABRSM.

What attracted you to the MTB Exams, and why did you decide to give them a go?

So many reasons! Online obviously; free choice pieces; no time constraints; teacher led exams; and they are easily as rigorous as ABRSM (more so if you consider the additional technical exercises).

How easy was it to register with MTB and work out their exam processes?

Absolutely sailed through it.

Did the exams go smoothly? Any hiccups?

Ha, my first one has a segment including Radio 4, as my iPad decided to enter BBC Sounds! Apart from that, no hiccups at all.

What improvements would you like to see MTB make in the future?

I’d like there to be a video option, and for sight reading to be examined in some way. Also I did not like the fact that aural tests were preprepared. Is there really a need for this?

What were the similarities and differences between MTB and ABRSM?

Similarities, everything bar sight reading (which is omitted in MTB), and the MTB Technical Exercises and Reading Skills; I liked these!

Will you be using MTB Exams again?

Absolutely. I tend to stay with one board, so if subsequent exams go as well as the first few have, I’ll stick with them.

Any other comments?

I had become more and more disenchanted with the ABRSM of late, and have been delighted to find such a great alternative.

I have a feeling that MTB will change the face of music exams forever. And this is a good thing!!

Many thanks to all the teachers who took part in these interviews and provided such hugely helpful and insightful answers!

PIANODAO includes more than 600 articles and reviews,
which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
Please support the site by making a small contribution.

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.