Help I can’t sing! – Aural Tests

As the music exam period is almost upon us I thought I would look at one of the most neglected areas of any piano exam – Aural Tests. It’s easy to go along to your lesson every week and focus on your pieces, scales and sight reading (although sight reading is another neglected area too) and completely forget about aural tests.

This is an oversight because aural ability should ideally be developed over time; it takes practise to learn how to listen to ear tests and to repsond swiftly under the pressure of an exam. So do try to suggest this to your teacher and perhaps spend 5 minutes of your lesson every week practising aural.

Here are a few ways that you can help yourself;

1. Most grades involve some kind of singing and the  usual complaint from candidates is that they can’t sing! You don’t need to be able to sing properly, you just need to be able to pitch  notes. The best way to practise this is by playing a single note on the piano and singing it back to yourself at the correct pitch. Try this with many different notes. Once you have done that (it might take a while at first as you do need to really listen to what you are singing) then string 2 or 3 notes together and sing those too. Eventually you will get the hang of it and be able to sing, hum or whistle (these are options too!) a whole tune at pitch.

2. Clapping and recognizing the pulse or number of beats in a bar are popular tests. Try to listen to excerpts on the radio or TV – by listening carefully you will eventually work out where the strong beat falls and be able to ‘feel’ how many beats each bar contains. Similarly with clapping, start off with a small section of music – possibly 1 or 2 bars and practise listening – the more you listen the easier it will be to tap the rhythmic pattern.

3. Chordal progressions and cadential points are other common tests in graded exams. You need to be able to spot what chord is being played in relation to the key. Again, it is possible to do some preparation for this yourself. Choose a key and then play the most common chords in that key, i.e chords I, IV and V (1, 4 & 5). These are the chords with either the tonic in the bass, or the fourth or fifth note of the scale in the bass (your teacher will explain this to you). Listen to the bass so that you can decifer the differences in the sound of each chord (chords are easier to spot when listening to the stepwise movements going on in the lowest part ie the bass) and notice the sounds of each cadence whether it’s perfect (V-I) or plagal (IV-I) etc. It’s quite easy for your ears to spot the differences after a while. It’s all about getting ‘used’ to the sound.

4. The last test asks you to comment on a piece from a particular period. The only way to prepare for this is to listen to music from all different periods so that you are aware of the style differences and also of which possible composer/s could have written the piece. Start with the Baroque period (1685 – 1750) and listen to 2 or 3 pieces a week noting stylistic traits like counterpoint and ornaments. Then listen to Classical pieces (1750 – 1850) and work your way forward through all the musical periods. Other possible questions include dynamics (loud and soft sounds), tempo markings, articulation and speeds so make sure you are familiar with all these points then listen out for them.

There are many facets of the ear or aural tests you can work on yourself so it’s not just up to your teacher! If you want to succeed in this portion of your exam then start preparing today – Good luck!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Piano exam success: 9 key points

Music Lessons Glasgow | Violin Tuition | Sound Production CoursesSeveral of my piano teacher friends and colleagues have recently asked me to suggest ways in which pupils can improve their chances of achieving good marks in their forthcoming piano exams. I examined for the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) for 5 years both in the UK and abroad, so I have compiled the following list of important points to remember when preparing for exams.

1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence can equal distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.

2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.

3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.

4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.

5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).

6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.

7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should harbor is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having practice ‘runs’ will help you do this.

8. Do bear in mind that an exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.

9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good Luck.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.