Practical tips for your music exam

December is upon us and the music exam period is now in full swing. Many may have already taken their practical exams, but for those who have yet to endure these worthwhile tests, here are a few ideas which might just help your preparation. I tend to focus on piano playing on my blog but this advice could be applied to any instrument.

Irrespective of the grade or level of music exam for which you are studying, hopefully you will have been practising consistently throughout the term. It isn’t a good idea to leave all the preparation to the week before the exam because little can be achieved this way. Here are a few tips:

1. Establish a practising schedule; it’s far better to practise little and often especially when working towards an exam.

2. Scales are probably the best way to start your daily practice; they will get your fingers moving and are a good way to warm-up. If you don’t have time to practice them all in one session then establish a rota; you could asign two or three keys a day and practice all the elements in those keys; for example, if you are working at the key of C, you would play the similar motion scales in C major and C minor, thirds apart, contrary motions, arpeggios, and so forth. Every key will then receive the necessary attention every week. Some exam boards require other technical work as well as scales and you can incorporate these elements into your scale practice, too.

3. It’s also a good idea to practice scales in a completely different order to that which they appear in your scale book. The examiner will generally ask scales at random, and it can be a shock to recall keys in a different sequence from the one you have been used to.

4. You will normally need to prepare three or four contrasting pieces for most exams. It’s a worthwhile exercise playing through each one everyday without stopping or correcting yourself; this will get you ready to perform under pressure in your exam. Once you have done this many times, and feel happy and confident with each piece, you can start playing them through to friends and relatives. Or better still, enter yourself for a local music festival where your performance can be appraised or judged by an experienced adjudicator.

5. Don’t neglect your sight-reading. This is an important part of the exam but many students seem to leave it to the last week to start their preparation. The sight-reading element should really be incorporated into your practice schedule months before your exam. When practising, focus on two or three exercises a day playing at a very slow speed so that you are able to observe all the details in each exercise. The most crucial part of this test is to keep going right until the end. Once you stop and correct yourself you will probably fail this element of the exam.

6. Rather like sight-reading, aural tests (or ear tests) can be over looked or forgotten. It’s not easy to practice aural tests without the help of a teacher but there are ways to help yourself. Most tests require some singing; try playing single notes on the piano and then sing them. Listen to whether you are actually pitching the correct notes. This isn’t really about producing beautiful singing sounds, it’s about attuning your ear and sharpening your sense of pitch.  Similarly, you can also train your ears to hear intervals and chord progressions by just playing them everyday to yourself on the piano.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Can't Play Won't Play says:

    And don’t be having any exam room panic attacks whilst your nice little AB examiner smugly looks on. If you don’t feel like doing it, don’t do it – it’s only a music exam at the end of the day. Your health and well being comes first, as always.

    1. Calisto says:

      I think that’s a little bit insulting to AB examiners, CPWP. They’re not all little, either!

      1. You are right, an AB examiner’s job is a tough one! I did it for 5 years so I know all about it – thanks for reading 🙂

      2. I get feedback from EVERY pupil after exam and not one of them has said anything but positive, even thoughs who come out in tears from the relief of finishing! I see Julian Hellaby a couple of times a year and he has to be one of the nicest, most re-assuring teachers/examiners ever 🙂 My pupils tell me my “mock” exams are for more scary than the real thing. ABRSM have been nothing but supportive with all my pupils and I have told you in an email CPWP that they will probably be even more helpful if you share your mental health issues with regards to anxiety. Just ask your teacher to help or just ring them or email them for advice, If you have a diagnosis as you said you have then use it to get you through it, its not cheating, its working with you and not against you. Keep going and work towards grade 4 – especially after your massive mark on your grade 3 🙂

  2. I cannot spell – even those not even thoughs 🙂 omg the shame being a teacher who cannot spell check!! 🙂

  3. and my final comment – be careful CPWP about slandering on twitter – ABRSM will see it and could take offence, just a word of caution,

  4. Can't Play, Won't Play says:

    Actually it is my final word on THAT subject but Mel, could I PLEASE have an explanation as to why some of my comments on this piano blog have been censured without explanation from yourself. Regardless of my views on exams, exam boards and my mistrust of piano teachers, are alternative viewpoints not welcome on this blog then, or maybe you like to propagate the viewpoint that learning to play the piano does not have any disappointment and misfortune at all?? Or both?????

    For instance I would like to see much more debate on here about learning the piano on sufferers of depression and other mental health issues, and the benefits that it can bring, but also the effects of m.h medication upon concentration, which has an effect upon picking up new piano skills, such as the ability to learn to sight read, or to multitask using both hands easily and effortlessly.

    If you do not want me to contribute to your blog, Mel, please say so politely and I won’t post any more comments – simple as. Just censuring comments like that is an affront to democracy in my opinion.

    1. I’m very happy and delighted when people take an interest and comment on my site but I don’t want commenters bickering and I’m afraid this has descended into that so I won’t allow this to happen.

  5. Well said Mel 🙂 i help my pupils with practice rotas, some with depression, anxiety, stress, Aspergers, learning disabilities so cover a broad spectrum of needs. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

    1. I love that……Failing to prepare is preparing to fail……how true! 🙂

  6. Something I learnt as estate agent, failing to plan, is planning to fail 🙂 still stand by that now. 15 of my graded pupils have an A4 spiral diary for 2014 so they can forward plan their practising. Great for busy pupils and removes the stress of what to do and when. happy 2014 🌈⛄️

    1. Absolutely! Thanks for your comments……. Happy 2014 to you too 🙂

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