Music exams are an excellent way to develop musically for most students, for a range of reasons:
They provide you with a goal to work towards (see my earlier blog on the importance of that);
They give you a structured progression for your study so you don’t try to run before you can walk, or miss out on fundamental skills that would hinder you later;
They expose you to a range of musical styles and skills that you might miss out on otherwise.
They compel you to play to an audience; and provide you with valuable feedback from a new source.
They allow you to play with other people in the accompanied pieces. This is a huge part of the joy of music making but not usually easy to access for beginner musicians.
As a result, exams can be very effective in making you a skilled musician, and not just someone who can parrot out a few of their favourite tunes.
If you’re in agreement with most of these points, then you might find yourself signed up to an exam. I believe that the ABRSM are superior to other boards because their exams (including the Music Medals) hit the above bullet points more effectively and accessibly, so I’ll talk about how you can get ready for one of their practical exams…
Which pieces should I choose…?
Your personal taste and skillset will inform this. Maybe you can showcase your tone, or your precise fingering or technique? Maybe you just really love one of the pieces?
Maybe one of them fits your progression right now, and it provides the right level of challenge?
… and how should I prepare my pieces?
Practise the pieces s-l-o-w-l-y first. Begin at half tempo, or even slower. Aim to get the right expression and feel of the music at that pace and be disciplined. If you practise too fast at first, and make mistakes, these mistakes will be hard to rectify later.
When practising sections of the piece (perhaps a bar which is tricky to finger) don’t just repeat that bar. Imagine there’s a tough bar in the middle of a group of five other easy bars: it would be easy to loop your practice of just that one bar. But if you do this you will learn it in isolation and find it hard to click it into the flow of the piece.
Make sure you loop the preceding and successive ‘easy’ bars, so that you can easily splice your new segment into the whole piece.
Make sure you practise the whole piece many times over: hundreds, rather than dozens. You will improve every time, and find something else to tweak and work on, even after the 150th go.
Once you have got the piece almost to tempo, with the phrasing almost correct, play your piece to a friendly audience – family, or friends. They may have heard you practising in your room, but doing a mini show will give your performance a proper test.
Play along to the accompaniment if you can – and if at all possible, book several runs-through with the accompanist who will be there on the day. If you manage to book a rehearsal then make sure you are up to exam-standard before you meet your accompanist. Their time is expensive and hard to come by, and you don’t want to waste it by being half-baked.
How should I prepare my scales?
Practise your scales and arpeggios daily. Do them as a warm up at the start of your practice session every day. Even if you don’t get chance for a full practice session, never miss out your scales and arpeggios. They are so extraordinarily valuable to understanding structure of music as you develop!
Make your scales and arpeggios into a game. Perhaps write the names of the scales on bits of paper, and pull them out of a bag you keep in your instrument case. Or put a die (dice?) into your case and roll it to choose. Roll 1 or 2: major. 3 or 4: harmonic minor. 5 or 6: melodic minor. Make up your own rules for the rolls. Don’t forget the different styles (tongued or slurred?)
In the weeks before your exam, get another person to call them out for you to play. It’s an easy mock exam for you to set up.
How do I approach Sight-reading?
Find a source of music to sight read. You obviously can’t practise the same sight-reading pieces again and again! Joining an ensemble where you play new pieces is a great way to learn this, but a quick web search turns up a few options.
Use the preparation time to read the time signature (beware of reading cut common time, or 2/2, as common time: 4/4), key signature and musical directions before looking at the notes.
Don’t panic – the examiner wants you to do your best and won’t try to catch you out.
In the half-minute before the actual test, you can try out playing phrases.
This part of the exam can make a big difference to your grade, but it’s easy to overlook.
Despite that, it’s now much easier to prepare for than ever. The ABRSM Aural Trainer App is very good.
Listen to music, and try to spot the intervals, key, or modifications as it goes. Look up the answers later.
Practise singing along to music you know well, or even making up your own harmonies.
When listening to new music, try singing it back after the first time you have heard it.
Reflect on your performance and test yourself by replaying the tune. Mix this up with a variety of genres. Listen out for which intervals are turning up.
And on the big day... THE EXAM
Check you have music, reeds (plural!), strap and instrument before leaving the house.
Get to the venue at least half an hour early (plan for 45 minutes), and into the waiting room with at least 15 minutes to spare.
Use the warm-up room if there is one, but if not, play silently by blowing through the instrument. This will literally warm up the instrument, and limber up your fingers. Don’t overplay before the exam, however.
Smile as you go into the exam room. You’ll get a smile back from all but the most stony-hearted examiner, and you will release brain chemicals to settle your own nerves.
Take control of the circumstances. Remind yourself that you are showing off your skills, and nobody is trying to give you any surprises.
Make sure the music stand is the right height.
Whether or not you’ve warmed up beforehand, it is ok to ask if you can just play a few scales in the exam room to accustom yourself to the sound in the room and warm yourself up.
You can choose the order you do the exam. If you have a preference, tell the examiner.
If you make a mistake, carry on and try not to lose the beat. One mistake does not spell disaster.
Don’t be rattled by the pauses between pieces. Your examiner is writing notes, and will tell you when to start the next piece. If your examiner has heard enough in a piece to make a judgement, then you might be asked to stop. Don’t be fazed by this.
The examiner is there to give you a fair assessment and is looking forward to hearing your music. It is your chance to show off the fruits of all your hard work, and they know the efforts you have put in.
If you want to more about entering for an ABRSM music exam then ask at your next lesson!
For those of you who have examinations booked for March and April...