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A Guide to Music Exams.

by Daniel Moult, ABRSM examiner, recitalist and teacher.

Music exams! These two words can strike fear in to an otherwise brave soul! A music exam, however, can be a useful and enjoyable experience for every single candidate. How can you ensure a happy outcome for you or your child, and what do you need to know about this often misunderstood topic?

WHY SIT A MUSIC EXAM?

  • They can provide a useful focus for the candidate, spurring them on to better or more consistent playing.
  • The glow of exam success can last long after the exam, and inspire them to practice more diligently. The sense of achievement in passing, whether by a small or a very large margin, is richly deserved!
  • They give invaluable and independent musical feedback. Although a good teacher will be aware of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, getting an objective view is still useful in planning for the future.
  • They provide a safe environment in which to deal with “nerves”. If any musician has the potential to develop further, some sort of public performance is probably inevitable. Relatively early exposure to music exams can, if they’re properly prepared, help candidates to overcome these natural anxieties.

 
WHICH GRADE?

  • The major exam boards have grades from 1 (lowest) to 8 (highest). Grades 1 – 5 are often referred to as the “lower grades”, and Grades 6 – 8 as the “higher grades”. After Grade 8, there are various performance diplomas available.
  • Some boards have a test for pre-Grade 1 candidates. This gives relative beginners (especially younger children) a flavour of a music exam. In the case of the ABRSM Preparatory Test, there is not the extra pressure of attaining a pass mark. The Trinity Initial exam is graded.
  •  Although Grade 1 is the easiest exam (Preparatory Test or Initial exam aside), it still requires three fluent pieces (in most cases) and a range of supporting skills from scales and sight reading to aural tests. It is perhaps misleading to call it a “beginners’ exam”, as many musicians need more than a year’s tuition before they are ready for it.
  • Every musician progresses at a different rate, so there is no right or wrong time scale to progress through the grades. In general, the gaps widen as candidates progress through higher grades, as there are more musical demands to master.
  • Some teachers like to take time out between grades to consolidate what has been learned. Some teachers skip certain grades, depending on the candidate, while other teachers might put a candidate in for just one or two “milestone” grades. Some teachers eschew grades altogether for certain candidates.
  • A good, qualified teacher will pick the right grade and exam board at the right time for the candidate. Trust their judgement: they are professional musicians.
  • Entering a child for a grade against the advice or wishes of the teacher is very bad practice. The candidate rarely achieves the level or mark of which they are capable, and it undermines the working relationship between the teacher and student.
  • It is rarely in the candidate’s best interests to be pushed through the grades in quick succession. Such an approach can make the younger musician in particular feel overly pressurised and can take the fun out of music making.
  • Taking plenty of time between exams can allow a candidate to explore the repertoire further or consolidate important musical or technical matters. Again, a good teacher will judge the timing well.

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN A MUSIC EXAM?

  • A steward will welcome you at the exam venue (see below) and might give you the opportunity to warm-up in a practice room, if one is available.
  •  When the examiner is ready, the steward will escort the candidate (and accompanist) to the exam room. Parents are not allowed to wait outside the exam room: only the steward can do so, to keep in touch with the examiner.
  • Sometimes there is a short wait outside the exam room, while the examiner finishes the previous mark form.
  • On entering the exam room, the examiner will smile, greet the candidate by their first name and make them feel welcome and settled. This is part of their examiner training, although being human, it should come naturally enough anyway!
  • The candidate can do the parts of the exam in any order they wish.  It is usual, but not obligatory, to start with the accompanied pieces first. Again, the pieces can be played in whatever order suits the candidate.
  • Unless the candidate requests otherwise, the examiner will move on from pieces to supporting skills.  In a Trinity exam, for instance, the candidate plays scales or technical exercises and can then choose from two out of four other skills. In an ABRSM exam, the skills are fixed as scales and arpeggios (or unaccompanied traditional song in a singing exam), sight reading and aural tests. The order of these can still be changed by the candidate.
  • The examiner will usually ask a selection of scales and arpeggios, starting with an easier one to settle in the candidate. Only in a low grade where there are very few patterns to learn (e.g. a brass exam) might all patterns be requested.
  • The candidate has 30 seconds to try out the sight reading test on their own before the examiner will hear it for real. In this time, it is allowed (and is probably a good idea) for the candidate to try any part of it out loud. The examiner will make it clear when the preparation time is over.
  • The aural tests are led by the examiner from the piano.
  • People are often surprised, at lower grades, at how quickly the exam passes.  Hopefully, this is because the process can actually be quite enjoyable and engrossing once the anticipatory nerves have passed! Many low grades only last about 10 to 12 minutes. A higher grade (normally grade 8 exams) can last up to 30 minutes.

 

AND FINALLY...

  • Depending on the board, results are either sent to the teacher (or whoever entered the candidate for the exam) about 3 weeks afterwards, or might be available for collection at the end of the examining day.
  • Examiners can only mark what they hear on the day, even if they might sense that a candidate is capable of better playing or is having a “bad day”.  The same is true of any live performing. Rather than mourning the loss of a few marks which might have been gained on another occasion, it is better to celebrate what went well – and maybe learn from what went less than brilliantly.
  • Exams are primarily there to guide and motivate the candidate. Perhaps the fear sometimes felt can be turned to excitement as a candidate aims to make music at the best of their ability: and enjoys the experience, too!

 

Daniel Moult