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How to prepare for your practical exam
What to expect and how to prepare.
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How to prepare for your practical exam

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Posted by Samantha Christopher, 3 years ago
Tags: exams, preparation, guide

How to prepare for your practical exam

You took the plunge and entered for your first graded music exam; so what’s next?   It is likely that there are less than six weeks before the exam period starts. Understandably, some candidates might feel pressured that they may not have enough time to prepare or that they won’t be ready.  

Apologies in advance for stating the obvious; but, scales should not be neglected, and always be practised. At this point, if possible, they should be rehearsed in the manner that they will be asked in the exam.  It would be most helpful if a parent or friend can pretend to be an examiner by calling out the scales – at random; this would help with recall by thinking about the required scales out of regular sequence.

If there is little time in a practise session to play all of the required scales, a good practise technique would be to break them into groups; over the weeks’ practise, they would have all eventually received a complete play-through. In the exam, though answers must be prompt, there is an allowance for thinking time, however, I once had an exam candidate who took an awfully long time to respond to a given scale – over a minute – that another was asked instead; this would affect your marks greatly.

The three pieces chosen for the exam (four if the candidate is a singer, omitting scales), should be practised in the order that they will be performed on the day of the exam, and always from start to finish; at this point, the music should not be rehearsed in sections.  If there is a piece that requires more breath-control or stamina, it would be favourable to play that one first when energy is high.  From my past experiences with students, a piece that is particularly disconcerting is best programmed in-between the two or three stronger pieces; this is for psychological reasons and does not affect the examiner’s marking of the music.

Sight-reading and aural tests should not be neglected either; these skills are required in all aspects of music making. A way to improve sight-reading proficiency would be to select a new piece and aim to read it from start to finish without stopping regardless of any mistakes.  Any marks received will be reduced if you do stop to correct any mistakes; it would be good to get into the routine of playing through them.

A good way trains the ear outside of practise sessions, would be to listen to music with the aim of finding the beat, discerning instruments or simply identifying a period - if classical. At this point in your preparation, attempting to do this at least six or seven times daily, will boost confidence.  

To learn more about exams, or to get a different perspective, pretend to be the examiner for a grade 5 piano exam with ABRSM's ‘on your marks’ video.


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Samantha graduated her music studies with honours at Colchester Institute, where she studied with clarinettist Charles Hine, and composer Jeffery Wilson. In high demand, Samantha has established herself as a clarinet and recorder tutor in Colchester founding Da Capo Academy with Dylan, in 2010. Previous faculty positions include Claydon High School, Sudbury Ormiston Academy and Suffolk One College.


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