Alin Lugasi, 18, of Ashdod, smiles at the two testers in Petah Tikva's municipal conservatory and starts playing Johann Sebastian Bach's First Violin Concerto. She plays without notes, as required for the classical music matriculation exam held Wednesday.
Some 900 music students take the Education Ministry's matriculation exams in music every year. Piano and string instruments' students must study their music at least eight years before qualifying to take the exams. Students of jazz, pop and rock music can qualify after only five years of study. Students may also be tested on artistic singing, Arab music and composition.
"The exam is a sort of gift to the students, a recognition of their effort and investment," says the head of music education in the Education Ministry, Dr. Yael Shai.
Lugasi has been studying violin for eight years, two to three lessons a week, some 45 minutes a session. As the exam approached, she stepped up her pace, practicing almost every day. On Tuesday evening, after the last lesson before the exam, she promised herself and her teacher in the Ashdod conservatory not to think too much about the exam.
A few days ago she looked for another piece - a violin and piano Mozart sonata - on YouTube, to see how other musicians perform it.
"I think how the piece should be heard, then start to play," she says, trying to explain the process.
Most conservatory students opt for the classical music exam. The private music students prefer other styles. Some 30 percent of the students play wind instruments, and some 20 percent play the piano. Shai says the demand for violin has increased in recent years.
Lugasi's recital has clear procedures: The student must play the central piece of his or her choice by heart in addition to three to four additional sections from different periods, which are played with notes. Every recital lasts some 20 minutes. The testers' grades are based on the performer's skill and musical understanding. The grade is given in numerical form, but the testers explain their decision on an evaluation sheet, where they also assess the student's professional potential to continue.
One of the testers, Leonid Rosenberg, says he judges each student according to individual investment, control of the instrument and other standards, rather than by comparing one person to the others. "This is not a competition," he says.
But comparison is inevitable. "We are looking for a talent that is special, for musicians that are interesting to hear," says the other tester, Bat-Sheva Savaldi-Kolberg.
The grade is also determined by a hierarchy based on the difficulty of the pieces the students choose, from Bach's violin concerti, which are considered relatively easy, to those of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Sibelius.
Students must also submit a theoretical essay, mainly of musical analysis of a certain composition. This makes up 10 percent of the final grade.
Lugasi is excited. When she arrives at the Petah Tikva conservatory for the exam, she admits, "I started feeling my heart beat strongly."
The testers try not to add to the pressure felt by the students. "We should encourage these students. I wish all teenagers would devote their afternoons to such activity," says Shai.
Sonia Reut, also from Ashdod, says that "before the recital your hands tremble and you think what would happen if you fail - if you get confused or play off key or like a robot."
But when she begins to play, she says, "I enter a bubble and think of nothing else. It's just me and the notes," she says.
Reut started playing the violin at the age of seven. Despite her investment in classical music, she prefers South American music. "It's much more upbeat," she says.
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