Exam Preparation

Of the many emails we receive the subject of exams is a frequently occuring subject. The question below is typical of those we receive:

I have my grade 5 exam coming up in a couple of weeks. My pieces are ok but I”m a bit worried about the scales and sight reading. Is there anything I can do to practice better for my exam?

Our reply:

The first thing to say is “DON”T PANIC!!”. Even if you only have a few days left until your exams there is still time to pick up extra marks. The important thing is to use what time you do have wisely. Here are some tips that will help you feel confident and more prepared.

Music-Exam-PlanningMake a plan.
There are several parts to making an exam plan.

1. Make sure you know how many days you have left until your exam. A good way to do this is to use a calendar and cross the days off as they go by. Alternatively you could get a large piece of paper and draw a number of squares on it, one for each day. As each day passes colour in another square.

2. Now that you know how many days you have before your exam you can make a plan. You should make sure that you spend an equal amount of time on all your pieces and also an equal amount of time on all your scales. Ideally you will work back from the exam date. For example: 7 days before the exam you need to be able to play everything. 7 days before that you might want to be able to play all of your minor scales and 7 days before that all of your major ones. Speak to your teacher and try to work out a plan like this that means you can have everything planned in advanced.

3. Leave some time in the few days before the exam for final preparation. Please don”t be one of those people that enters the exam having never played through everything from start to finish! In these last few days you should pretend that you are actually in the exam and play through everything (pieces, scales, sight reading, aural etc) from start to finish without stopping. The more times you can do this before the exam the more confident you will be that you can make it all the way through the exam. You might also try wearing the same clothes you are wearing in the exam – there”s nothing worse than an itchy shirt!

Practise the whole exam.
Make time each day to practise all the elements of your exam – not just the pieces. This might include:

  • Scales
  • Arpeggios
  • Sight Reading
  • Aural Tests
  • Technical Exercises or Study

Depending on your exam you might also need to prepare other things but you should practise them all. If you don”t you will be throwing marks away.

Getting-Extra-MarksGet extra marks.
Having practised all your pieces and scales well you are in a good position to do well in your exam. There are however a few other things you can do to get a few extra marks:

1. Dress smartly. Create a good first impression and the examiner will already be well disposed towards you performance.

2. Exaggerate those extra markings on the music. For most exams you will be expected to be able to play the notes. The better marks come when you add things like dynamics and articulations. Make is obvious to the examiner that you are playing these by exaggerating these markings – make them stand out for extra marks.

3. Use Italian terms. Many exams have tests which need you to respond to the examiner. You will show that you have more knowledge and gain extra marks if you can use Italian terms instead of English ones. So instead of saying quiet say ‘piano’ and instead of ‘fast’ say ‘allegro’.

4. Play all your scales the same speed. If you play your best scales quickly and your worst ones slowly it will be obvious to the examiner that you do not know some of them as well as you might. However play your best ones a little more slowly and it will seem like you know them all as well as each other.

Improve-Your-Sight-ReadingSight Reading
There are some definite tricks to being good at sight reading – it is not as some believe ‘pot luck’. Here some steps for making sure you get good marks in your sight reading. Work your way through them methodically each time before you start sight reading and you will get better.

  1. What is the clef? Check as it may not always be the same.
  2. What is the key signature? Tell yourself which sharps or flats are there AND tell yourself which ones are not there.
  3. What is the time signature. Tell yourself how many beats and of what type are in each bar.
  4. Look at the tempo marking and now ignore it. (we’ll come back to this).
  5. Look through the note and find any tricky ones – work out fingering etc for these.
  6. Finally look over the music and see if there is anything else you can notice. This could be dynamics, articulation, tempo changes or anything.

Once you’ve worked your way through this list you are almost ready to play. But before you do there are two golden rules of sight reading you need to follow:
Don’t stop – what ever happens you need to keep going.
Play it as slowly as you can possibly get away with.
Remember we said to read then ignore the tempo marking? What ever the tempo marking says you need to go as slow as you can and try to get all the notes right. You will get more marks for playing all of the correct notes than you will if you rush through the exercise with lots of mistakes.

Finally, slowly count yourself in, you’ll be fine as you’ve prepared the exercise well!

Prepare Properly
Read the Prepare Properly practice method – it has some useful tips for preparing for any performance.

Finally remember it does not matter how much practice you do. The important thing is that you use your time wisely and really focus on the things that will get you marks.

Enjoy your practice.

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