Practical tips for your music exam

Photo courtesy of www.artmathmusic.com

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 (so if you are going to work at the key of C then you would play the similar motion scales in C major and C minor, thirds apart, contrary motions, arpeggios and so forth). All keys will then receive the necessary attention every week. Some exam boards require other technical work as well as scales so 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 (obviously they will be from the list selected for the grade you are taking) and it can be a shock to have to recall keys in a different sequence from the one you have been used to.

4. You will normally need to prepare 3 or 4 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 and you will have a sympathetic audience too.

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 easily 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 so try playing single notes on the piano (to start with) 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. So don’t worry if you weren’t in the front row when God was bestowing vocal chords! Similarly, you can also train your ears to hear intervals and chord progressions by just playing them everyday to yourself on the piano.

Hope these basic tips are some help and very good luck with your exam.


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.


 

Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?

 

Image courtesy of www.semiahmooacademyofmusic.ca

In the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked about the Grade 5 theory exam, so much so that it has inspired me to write this post. I am talking about the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) theory exam. To those who haven’t yet taken any piano or instrumental tests,  this exam board is the most popular in the UK and the world (according to the ABRSM).

The Grade 5 theory exam is significant to pupils because according to the ABRSM’s rules once a grade 5 practical (i.e. piano exam) has been achieved it’s not possible to take a further exam (grades, 6,7 or 8) until you have passed the theory test. Many view this as a major drawback to taking ABRSM exams and I know plenty of teachers and students who have purposely switched boards to avoid this. Other boards don’t have a grade 5 theory requirement to take higher exams. Some pupils go to TrinityGuildhall, The London College of Music or Victoria College of Music exam boards instead.

Whilst I can understand the logic here, I can’t help but think this to be a major mistake. Yes, Grade 5 theory is tricky for many, but it has so many benefits for those wanting to go beyond Grade 5 level that it really shouldn’t be ignored. Music theory is bascially learning how to write music down or the ‘study of how music works’. It distils and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, texture, etc.

The exam contains some valuable exercises and for those considering skipping this test here are a few reasons to make you think again:

1. In Grade 5 theory you will need to recognise all 24 keys and learn how to write them down. This will prove extremely valuable when taking higher exams (scales are based on these keys!) and for those going on to study A level music.

2. You will need to recognise intervals (a very important part of the exam) which will prove useful in sight reading development (especially sight singing) and will improve note reading in general. It will also help you grasp melodic movement quickly too.

3. Transposition is another beneficial exercise. That is, transposing music from one key to another. Woodwind and Brass instruments sometimes play in a different key to the rest of the orchestra and it’s useful to be able to ‘move’ or change their parts. Learning Alto and Tenor clefs are important as well.

4. Chord recognition. I think this is possibly the most crucial Grade 5 test. Understanding basic chord structure or harmony and cadential points (musical endings) is vital in writing or analyzing music. Assimilation of this exercise will prepare pupils for higher exams like music A level or practical music exams (piano, violin etc).

5. Writing or composing short melodies is great practice for the would-be singer songwriter or those merely wanting to express themselves musically. It also makes students adhere to writing logically in musical patterns.

6. Grade 5 theory also demands analysis of a short piece. This is an excellent exercise. Analyzing music will help you to grasp many musical elements swiftly. You need to know time signatures, rhythmic patterns, ornaments, as well as  dynamic and articulation markings.

There are so many advantageous exercises in this important exam and it really isn’t too difficult when you apply yourself. Do get a good teacher – one who is able to patiently explain everything and do make sure you complete all available past papers – this is the key to passing in my opinion. Don’t skip it – what you learn whilst studying for Grade 5 theory is far more important than passing. 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.