Attention to detail is the most important factor when it comes to written theory exams. In ABRSM exams for example you will lose one mark per inaccuracy for written music. This means something that is theoretically correct can become worth no points because of lack of detail such as phrasing and articulation.
Here’s a handy check-list to use to double check your work so you can successfully get all the detail you need into your score.
1. Clef, Key Signatures and Time Signatures
2. Draw in all bar-lines next – this helps to keep your work tidy.
3. Note-heads and Rests
4. Stems and Beams – use a ruler
5. Phrasing, Ties and Articulation
7. Expression and tempo markings.
Here is a handy chart for quickly figuring out the scale shape and spelling of any given mode:
ALL b ALTERATIONS ARE SHOWN IN PINK, ALL # ALTERATIONS IN BLUE
It is important to check the following before you start playing:-
1. Time Signature
How many beats are in the bar?
Is it in simple or compound time (do you know the difference)?
2. Key Signature
What key signature is the piece in? In the key of G Major for example, you will need to play all Fs as a sharp.
3. Tempo & Character
The tempo (speed) or style marking indicates how fast or in what style the piece should be played. Don’t start too fast.
Look at the first dynamic marking (if you don’t know them then learn them) and any changes like crescendos etc. Check what volume the final few bars should be played.
5. Starting positions for RH and LH
Pianists should make sure you know what finger you are starting on in each hand. Always ensure both hands are ready to play.
Look at the piece for any sharps, flats or naturals (or even double sharps and flats in the harder pieces) on top of the key signature and try to make sure you can find them!
7. Clap/tap difficult rhythmic passages
8. Find the Hardest Bar…
… and analyse it quickly.
9. Remember to Breathe…
… or you might fall over!
10. Do as much sight reading as you can.
Music is a language. If you immerse yourself in it you will pick it up.
Taking exams in music can be be rewarding but also nerve-inducing. However, a sensible plan can turn your exam into an enjoyable performance and new qualification. The Week Before
- Practice ALL your scales and ALL your pieces every day. Start with the tricky bits of work (i.e. wherever mistakes occur) and then perform them in the order you will play them in the exam as many times as you can. Practice at least one piece of sight reading per day and ensure you know exactly what aural tests you will have to do.
- Perform your pieces in front of friends and family to help you get used to the atmosphere and your feelings when performing for an audience.
- If possible ask your school to play in Assembly or perhaps organise a charity recital at your community arts centre.
- ABRSM students should practice on a real acoustic piano.
- Eat healthy foods (i.e. oily fish contains Omega 3 oils which are good for the brain) and drink plenty of water. Avoid stress and exercise well.
The Day Before
- Make sure you get a good night of sleep the night before the exam.
- First impressions are important. Choose smart but very comfortable clothes on the day and make sure your hair is tied back properly if it is long. Pianists should trim long nails and all musicians should remove any hand and arm jewellery.
On Arrival at the Exam Venue
- If you need sheet music in the exam then DON’T FORGET TO BRING IT!!!
- Make sure you arrive at the venue at least 10 minutes before your exam. If you are late you will not be allowed to sit.
- Before entering the exam room, drink water and go to the loo!
- Warm up cold hands.
- Above all do not sit in the waiting room thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Think about all the good things about your performance and remember that the examiner is human and wants to give good marks to young and new musicians! He or she was a student once too.
- We don’t enter students who we don’t think will pass!!!!!
- Be polite to the examiner, look them in the eyes and say hello.
- Sit down with correct posture and always breathe deeply. Pianists make sure your stool is at the correct height, guitarists that your amp is turned up correctly etc.
- Pieces: Play your best piece first followed by your weakest piece and play the middle one last. We will have decided what order is best previously. DON’T REPLAY MISTAKES KEEP GOING IF YOU CAN.
- Scales, Arpeggios and Broken Chords: We recommend playing your scales after your pieces. Response time for scales and this is important – the higher the grade the quicker your response time must be. However you must listen carefully to the request for hand, key and major or minor. Always prepare your fingers before playing.
- Sight Reading: Look at the Music and not your hands. (see our guide to sight reading) DON’T REPLAY MISTAKES -ALWAYS KEEP GOING!
- Aural Tests: Concentrate and don’t be embarrassed about singing. Most musicians are adequate singers. Do not be tempted to peek at the examiner’s music or hands.
- And finally….ABRSM Result Statistics for Practical Examinations http://www.abrsm.org/en/press/factfile/practicalStats.html#2009