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.


Do music examiners account for nerves?

Do music examiners account for nerves? Several readers have asked me this question recently. Everybody feels some kind of anxiety before an exam. It doesn’t really matter what type of test is being taken, it’s just the fear of being scrutinized. Some students deal with nerves better than others and the most effective way to cope is to be very well prepared. I have already written about performance anxiety several times on my blog as it is a hugely important topic and you can read my suggestions here.

Examiners do bear in mind just how nerve wracking a music exam can be – they know that students are human and will make mistakes. However, they will only mark what they hear and are likely to comment if too many errors are made. It is worth remembering that even if you don’t play to your usual standard due to nerves, but have fulfilled the basic exam criteria and manage to play reasonably well, then you will pass.

Candidates exhibit nerves in different ways; some will forget scales, others will restart one of their pieces. If the errors are fairly minor (and they generally are amongst most candidates) then very few marks will be lost and the overall result won’t be affected too much. It’s easy for candidates (especially adults) to magnify their errors whilst in the exam room. They let the odd mistake create worry and doubt in their minds. This negative thinking can affect the rest of the exam so it’s best not to dwell on past imperfections.

If you have prepared extremely well for you piano exam and have had several practice runs (to friends and family or maybe other pupils at your teacher’s practice) then you should feel confident. This is the only way to deal with pre exam worry. The examiner DOES want you to get a good mark so try to enter the exam with a really positive mindset and don’t let the odd wobbly moment undermine your ability. Remember most students do pass and you should be no exception. 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.