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.


 

Scales & Arpeggios – love them or hate them? 6 reasons why you need to practice them.

‘Now for the scales and arpeggios, C major hands together please’, the examiner smiles glancing at the student who is waiting with baited breath…

This is a typical scenario when pupils are faced with scales and arpeggios in an examination. Most pianists don’t like scales or scale practice. Some ask if they are really necessary. For me, they are the most important part of exam practice. Not only do they teach piano students much about playing at speed (or fast passagework) but, if practised correctly, they also build up finger technique or firmer fingers, they can hone good tone production, and they provide the opportunity to learn every single key and key signature. And I feel they should be approached as an enjoyable part of the practice process.

I love scales, and particularly relish watching my hands running up and down the keyboard. Technique is essential for good playing and it really means the ability to get around the notes accurately. Scales and arpeggios are important for all of the following reasons:

  1. Regular practice of scales and arpeggios can develop excellent hand co-ordination. Absolute co-ordination is paramount between both hands as they flow up and down the keyboard. Focusing on the left hand as you play can help you to ‘hear’ it clearly and subsequently finger articulation will hopefully become clearer, and eventually, the left-hand will easily keep pace with the right.
  2. They can establish accurate fingering as in order to play them rapidly, you need to be very precise with your fingers. The fingerings should ideally be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit which will be repeated in every octave as you move up the keyboard. Aim to concentrate on remembering where the fourth finger sits in every octave; it’s surprising how this can help finger memory.
  3. Scales and arpeggios can form the basis of firmer fingers, sometimes known as ‘finger strength’; every finger is utilized when playing scales. Play on the finger-tips and practice with a deeper touch at slower speeds.
  4. They can improve keyboard geography; much of the keyboard needs to be covered quickly building a sense of keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing. When tackling four-octave scales, ensure you begin as far down in the bass as possible.  This makes it easier to remember where to stop and turn around at the top!
  5. Scales and arpeggios help the student learn all 24 keys – which is no mean feat. It’s an extremely useful and vital feature in itself. To assist memory, study the circle of fifths; a chart which clearly sets out all the keys in relation to each other.
  6. They can establish a strong sense of pulse and articulation, which are both crucial for playing the piano. Try practising with a metronome. Start with a very slow speed – one ‘tick’ to every note, in order to really ‘place’ each note rhythmically. After a while set a faster pulse, and slightly accent the first group of every four notes (or every three if playing three-octave scales). And finally, practice up to speed.

When you next sit down to do some practice, why not start your session with scales and arpeggios? This way you’ll not only get them over and done with, but you will also practice them when you are fresh and receptive. And you may just end up enjoying them.


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.