Updated: Jul 3, 2020
I have got several students preparing for their grades at the moment, and I have been doing some thinking about how to help people prepare. Obviously, practice is important, but how you practise can make all the difference to how quickly you learn and how well it sticks.
I have written about practising your pieces here and about getting ready for your exam here but I have had a few questions from students and parents about how to accelerate the learning of key facts, such as:
How to read music (pitch and length of notes on the stave)
What key signature is written on the stave
Scales and arpeggios are for various keys
What the intervals are between notes
What note appears at a given interval above or below a note
What a particular chord or interval sounds like
What modification or cadence is happening in a piece
Of course, you don't need all this from the beginning, but you do need to know all of the previous grades' knowledge as you progress. This could get quite overwhelming as you progress to the top grades but I have a useful tool to help you practice effectively. You will accelerate your learning and fluency. Read on!
It is tempting to trust to your own judgment about whether you have learned something 'well enough'. However, there is an unnerving effect that scientists Kruger and Dunning published, which means that you are not the best judge of your own learning. Put simply: learners usually think they have more skill than they do.
This is damaging, because people often stop practising when they think they are 'good enough' but actually are a long way off!
So how should you practise for your grades, if you can't trust your own impression of your learning style?
The free Anki App
Daisy Christodoulou is a big name in education and learning, and she wrote a blog post which applies to this. In summary, she concludes (from the research!) that you should rely on another source to scaffold your practice. At school, this might be a teacher - but at home, a useful tool is the free AnkiDroid app.
This app allows you to search for, or design, your own set of virtual flash cards. For instance, one free set of cards presents you with either the treble stave or the name of the key signature, like this picture.
Once you think you know the answer, you tap 'show answer' and it gives you the other part of the knowledge (in this case "D Major or B Minor").
Were you right? Was it easy? If so, tell the app and it will only occasionally repeat this question. Were you wrong, or was it hard? The app automatically recycles the question soon. The second photo shows what the answer page looks like.
You could design your own flash cards using paper if you like, but the app is better because it gives you the right questions on rotation until you are really fluent.
You can pick and choose your set of questions and there are lots of ready-made sets for you to take bits from, including those using audio files for aural tests. I have been really impressed with its ability to reverse questions too (e.g. it says 'A Major' and you have to recall the key signature and relative minor).
You will be surprised when it keeps asking you questions you thought you were fluent at - but stick with it, and be ready to succeed!