Research presentations and Verdi’s Requiem


Today is presentation day on the MPhil in Advanced Computer Science. Fifty Masters students have twelve minutes each to explain their Masters project. They will be assessed on style, comprehensibility, and content. That is, two-thirds of the assessment is on the quality of the presentation and only one-third on the academic content. This bias is because the presentation is assessed as part of my Research Skills course: we want to know how well they have acquired the skill of presenting. As the module convener, I teach them how to present and I moderate the assessment. The buck stops with me.

Last night, by contrast I played the eighth trumpet part in Verdi’s Requiem. This is the last and least of the trumpet parts. I played for less than two minutes in over an hour of music. Along with the fifth, sixth, and seventh trumpets, I was off stage. The audience were able to hear us, but not see us. I was a tiny part of the overall experience.

It is important to me to have this contrast to keep me grounded. While I may be the king-pin in the research presentation assessment machine, I was just a little cog in the “machine” that produced a performance of the Requiem.

My experience last night, as one of the most nervous and least confident cogs, helps me to remember what it is like for some of the students today. I was not confident at rehearsal, was anxious before the performance, had massive quantities of adrenalin pumping round my system, and hated waiting for the off-stage trumpets’ entrance. Looking back, the actual playing went past in a blur.

Today there will be students in the same position: anxious, lacking confidence, hating the wait, with adrenalin coursing through their blood streams. These days I can give a presentation with little trouble, but my experience at last night’s concert means that I can empathise with the students.

It also reminds me that, no matter how nervous and how weak the performance, each student on the course has already proved themselves many times over the years to get the grades to admit them to the course. Just as I had had to pass tests to be good enough to play in the orchestra, I will be judging people today who have already passed many hurdles to be here. It is good to know that the weakest student has already proven to be very good and that this assessment is part of the process of training them to be even better.

The Art of Painting, by Vermeer, painted circa 1666, shows an early trumpet. By the time Verdi was composing his Requiem, just over 200 years later, he had more sophisticated valved trumpets to call on.

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