Unusual challenges on the platform

26th November 2013 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching | 5 comments

I was doing some teaching at Oxford University the other day, and we were discussing the challenges of making a good entrance on to the concert platform when giving a recital as part of your exams. I was discoursing on the need for calm or confidence, and trying to recommend various thoughts and mind-games that might help as the performer crossed that strange space between the entrance door and the piano stool, chair, music stand or whatever.

My students agreed politely and then added that it was perhaps especially difficult to make an elegant entrance with your instrument if you were wearing a long academic gown and ‘mortarboard’ hat.

I had had no idea that Oxford students taking exams were required to wear academic dress, but it seems that they are. Nobody is exempt from this long tradition, not even musicians giving a concert performance. Apparently they may, once they reach their chair, take off the academic gown and mortarboard and put them aside while they play, but at the end of the performance, these items must be picked up and put on again.

I asked whether it was not possible to ask for a dispensation in the case of musicians who are, after all, trying to prepare themselves for the world of public performance, but was told that it was out of the question. All sorts of other groups would object to the exemption, asking (understandably) why it is any more relevant for engineers, doctors, IT specialists and so on to have to wear academic dress for their exams. In fact, not so long ago, it seems that there was a vote on the subject at which students displayed a preference for keeping the old traditions going.

I was fascinated by this unusual spin on the challenges of the performance situation. It may even be that wearing a black academic gown and mortarboard can be used to advantage when making a dignified entrance, but I imagine it is not so easy to make a dignified exit, especially if you have to carry a large musical instrument.


  1. Mary

    Was it different at Cambridge?

    • Susan Tomes

      Yes, as far as I know, Cambridge students do not (or no longer) wear academic dress to exams, and certainly not for concert performances when they are part of exams. Academic dress is worn for graduation ceremonies, and in some Cambridge colleges, gowns are worn for formal dinners and so on, but in general there seems to be more of a tradition of wearing academic dress in Oxford.

      • Susan Tomes

        In fact, A Correspondent tells me that at Cambridge you can come to exams in your pyjamas if you like (and some do).

  2. Alison

    Having sat university exams at both Oxford and Cambridge, I have to say that I was astonished at how laid-back the latter was compared with the former. Certainly one was not permitted to enter or leave the Exam Schools in Oxford without wearing full subfusc. Rumour had it that, so long as this was the case, one could sit the actual exam naked, although I didn’t feel moved to test this out. The funniest thing I experienced was turning up to one exam, to find myself waiting next to a male student who was dressed impeccably in female subfusc (including, as I recall, fishnet tights) – not sure whether or not this actually breached any existing regulations. Would be fascinated to find out!

  3. Rebecca

    I have a feeling that the performance side of a music degree at Oxford is not too secure, so I don’t think it would be worth trying to argue out of wearing sub fusc for performance exams, as they might simply withdraw the module. On another note, you’re not allowed to wear the mortar board until you’ve graduated–similar exemption from exam if you walk in actually wearing it rather than just holding it.


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