As spring becomes summer, we pass into the most popular time of the year for students to sit their grade exams. The two major accredited exam bodies in the UK are the Registry of Guitar Tutors and Rockschool (a subsidiary of the long established and highly reputable Trinity Music), and each have a slightly different approach and format for their exams. Over the next few months, I'm going to give you a guide to how to ensure the best results possible as someone who's been on both sides of the examiner's desk.
We'll start with Rockschool. From Grades 1 – 5, their exams funtion in a pretty similar way:
Technical exercises – these feature scales, arpeggios and so on.
Pieces – three chosen from a possible six in the grade book.
Aural (ear training) – this is divided into “Melodic Recall” and “Rhythmic Recall” sections, essentially hearing and reproducing a melody and a rhythm. At higher grades, the rhythmic recall also includes a harmonic element, ie recognising and reproducing chord sequences.
Sight reading / Improvisation and Interpretation – you have the option of choosing either one. Sight reading involves sight reading a passage of tab after 90 seconds of study, Improvisation and Interpretation means coming up with a rhythm and/or lead part based on a chord sheet after 30 seconds of study.
General Musicianship Questions – questions about music theory and instrumental knowledge.
Firstly, some general pointers:
Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail:
Before the exam:
Often, the logistical element is the hardest – simply finding your exam centre and getting there can be the most stressful part (this also goes for the examiners, by the way!). Prepare ahead of time – Google the venue, get a postcode, Googlemap a route (even if you have satnav, it's duty bound to seize up on you at an inopportune moment, or failing that it simply won't recognise the address.. I speak from bitter experience!). Driving? Check parking. It may be simpler and less stressful to get a train or bus. For example, one of the Leicester exam centres is located at Sheehans music shop, a short walk from Leicester train station but in the middle of town with VERY limited parking.
Aim to arrive 15-20 minutes beforehand. This will give you plenty of time to get lost, parked, whatever and still be on time, and time to sit, warm up and focus on slowing your breathing and metabolism after a possibly stressful journey. Clear your mind and limber up your fingers. To play your best, just be in the moment. All you're doing is playing three songs and some scales.
In the exam:
The examiner will ask you what order you would like to do things – pieces or technical exercises first. I recommend doing your technical exercises first.
Something I have seen all too often is students not knowing their technical stuff at all and just flubbing their way through it. I get it – scales and arpeggios are boring and unglamorous.
Tough. You want the grade? You learn the technicals.
To aid this part of the exam, I advise being imaginative in your practicing. Don't just plod up and down the scales. Sequence them. Play them in thirds, fourths, octaves. Use them to improvise. If you're putting in the time to learn these things, learn them – they'll stay with you far after you've done your exam.
Do this part right, and it's fifteen easy marks, setting yourself up nice and confidently for an excellent performance of the pieces. Bluff your way through it, and bang goes any chance of a distinction, you'll be fighting for a pass and your confidence will be in the dirt. Is that really what you put in all this effort for?
Moving onto the pieces themselves, these should be prepared to the point where you don't need to be reading them. No one ever gave their best performance while they were glued to the page. Listen to your pieces in the car, on the bus, while hoovering – really internalise them. There's a big difference between hearing a candidate play the music and one who is just playing the notes.
Aural – the most important thing here is play something. Playing nothing is going to get you zero marks, end of story. If you don't know, just have a guess. The scale and key of the notes are given, so hum the melody, hum the rhythm to yourself and just stick notes from the specified scale onto that rhythm. You're at least going to get points for following the shape and contour of the melody.
Sight reading – the enemy here is panic. 90 seconds, you say? Oh no!!
Relax. 90 seconds is a surprisingly long time. The panic is caused by information overload. We fight that by splitting the information down into three groups and prioritising them:
- Rhythm. Tap the rhythms out in one or two bar groups before putting it all together.
- Pitch. This is fairly straightforward as the notes are tabbed out for you. Having already figured out the rhythmic framework, it's easy to flesh out with the notes.
- Dynamics. Loud (f) and soft (p). hese are the icing on the cake. Nice if you can get them, not something to worry about if you can't,
General Musicianship Questions – nothing too scary here. Generally examiners will ask you which piece is your favourite and focus on elements like key, time signature, individiual notes and rhythms. Be prepared to answer any questions on the theoretical aspects of what was in the technical section too. If your teacher is worth his/ her salt, they'll have already gone over these with you. The last couple of questions are usually general instrument knowledge, so it's worth Googling or Wiki-ing a few prominent guitar or bass makes and models – Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Marshall and so on. This isn't usually too much of an issue for us guitar players, as we tend to be gearheads anyway...
...And that's it! Even at Grade 5, the whole thing is done and dusted in about half an hour. Don't overthink, don't obsess about things – check out the articles on dealing with nerves:
Check back next month for tips on how to deal with the higher grade exams.