How do I get a distinction?

We’ve had a number of questions this week about the best way to get good marks in an exam. The questions below from one young lady are typical of others we’ve received. I’m posting the exchange in the hope that it will be of use to all those others preparing for exams in the near future.

I have an exam (G3 flute) in a term. It seems quite a while a way, but I really want to get merit/distinction because I’ve never got them before.
How should I go about practising so I can get the grade I want?

Our reply:

There is an article in our advice section that deals with exam preparation which will be useful. Pay particular attention to the section on ‘Getting Extra marks’

In short I would advise that you put together a plan now, a term might seem like a long time but it is only 12 weeks or 84 days!! – (Perhaps put a chart with 84 days on the wall and begin marking them off) Aim to have everything ready a week before the actual exam date so that you can practice running through your exam. If you can run through the exam several times in front of other people (and get them to pick the scales!) that will get you really ready for the actual day.

You could try the Bag Full of Scales method to help with learning all your scales. If you have a scale or two that is not as good as the others – don’t worry this happens to most people and you can still get that distinction. Just make sure that you play all the scales the same speed so that your weaker ones do not show up too much.

For grade 3 flute you do not need to be a complete whizz to get a distinction but what you do need to do is to play everything well and with confidence. I made lots of mistakes in my grade 8 exam and still got a distinction so don’t worry about small mistakes.

Over the next 12 weeks try to set yourself a goals for each week. So that you can see how well you are doing towards getting that distinction. For

  • Week 12: Learn all fingerings for all scales.
  • Week 11: Be able to play 1st piece all the way through without mistakes
  • Week 10: Play 2 scales from memory at good speed
  • Week 9: Be able to play 2nd piece all the way through without mistakes
  • Week 8: Be able to play all arpeggios from memoory Week 7: etc

So by 1 week before the exam you can play all scales and pieces really well.

This will give you a week to be running through (try to do this at the same time and in the same clothes as for your exam). If you give yourself a list like this you can track your progress and take action before it is too late.

So if for example you reach 10 weeks before the exam and you can’t play your first piece without mistakes then you know you are behind schedule.

Perhaps at your next lesson you could discuss the plan with your teacher. Take a sheet of paper with you with 12 weeks marked out and ask them to help you fill in what you need to do each week to get a distinction for your exam.

I hope this helps. Keep reading the website as there is lots of help available there. Also please let me know how the exam goes – I’d love to know what result you get!

Enjoy your practice!

Do you have any advice on how to get really good at my pieces and sight reading also?

I think my exam is more 18 weeks because there is the summer hols before, which is good…

Our reply:

Good news that you have an extra few weeks – just add them into your plan!

For sight reading there are a couple of things. First read the text on sight reading from the the Exam prep article.

The other thing to do to get really good at sight-reading is to do some everyday. You can use anything to practice – the right hand part of piano music would be good for you as a flute player. If you can try to sight read things in the same keys as the scales for your exam – the sight reading is almost certain to be in one of these keys.

For the pieces perhaps try the Climb The Steps method. Another way to make sure you are ready for the exam is to try and memorise the pieces before the exam. You can still use the music but you’ll feel really ready if you can also play without music. When you are learning the pieces make sure you don’t begin at the start every time. Get a pencil and put a ring round all the difficult bits and practice those bits for the next few weeks. This article has more about doing this.

Finally to get those extra marks in the exam you need to make sure you EXAGGERATE. This is really important. You need to show the examiner that you are doing all those extra things on the music that will get extra marks. For example, louds and softs, short and long etc. If you make the louds really loud and the shorts really short you will give the examiner the best chance of awarding you extra marks. Make these markings really obvious and the examiner will give you extra marks.

Enjoy your practice!

I have done my 18 week plan. Would you please have a look at it and see if it’s any good? 

  • Week 18: Practice trickiest parts of all pieces. Start trying a couple of sight reading pieces. Play scales daily.
  • Week 17: Work at tricky rhythms. Try with metronome or CD.
  • Week 16: Make sure of fingerings for all scales; try to get good
    speed for them. Be able to play all of 1st piece all the way through without mistakes. 
  • Week 15: Learn all major scales from memory, at a good speed. Start work on arpeggios. Keep at sight reading. Be able to play all of 2nd piece all the way through without mistakes.
  • Week 14: Learn all minor scales and chromatic scale from memory. Be able to play 3rd piece all the way through without mistakes. Keep working at sight-reading. Keep working at arpeggios.
  • Week 13: Know half of 1st piece from memory. Learn 2 arpeggios from
    memory. Don”t forget sight-reading and scales! Practise scales in a different order. 
  • Week 12: Know all of 1st piece from memory. Learn another 2 arpeggios from memory. Increase speed of scales slightly.
  • Week 11: Know half of 2nd piece from memory. Learn another 2 arpeggios from memory. Keep working at scales and sight-reading.
  • Week 10: Know all of 2nd piece from memory. Learn last 2 arpeggios from memory. Practise scales in a different order.
  • Week 9: Make a few mini scales tests. Know half of 3rd piece from memory. Keep working at sight reading.
  • Week 8: Know all of 3rd piece from memory. Use aural tapes. Be
    tested on scales. 
  • Week 7: Work at dynamics on pieces. Really exaggerate them. Make sure all rhythms are completely correct. Use CD but just the backing track part.
  • Week 6: Make sure all scales are same speed so it is not obvious
    which are weaker. Make sure all pieces are really well known, and so are scales and arpeggios. Keep working at sight reading. 
  • Week 5: Learn Italian terms e.g. piano instead of quiet, to pick up extra marks. Keep running through all pieces and scales.
  • Week 4: Run through with piano accompanist if possible. Perform to people as if in exam. Get them to pick scales etc.
  • Week 3: Run through everything daily from now on. Make sure
    everything sounds really confident. 
  • Week 2: Do extra sight reading and aural practise. Make sure there are no mistakes at all in any piece if possible. Run through with piano accompanist or CD backing track lots of times. Perform as if in exam again.
  • Week 1: Do dress rehearsal. Make sure everything for exam is really confident. Lots of aural, sight reading and scale/arpeggio practise.
  • Day of exam: Run through everything silently in practise room. Make sure to look smart, and confident.

Our reply:

Having taken a look at your plan. I think it is really good. There are only a couple of things I would change.

Firstly I would encourage you to think more in terms of goals. For example your overall goal is ‘Get distinction for Grade 3 flute exam’. Below this you have a number of smaller goals; ‘Be able to play all scales fluently’ or ‘Learn piece by memory’. So whilst I think all the tasks you have for each week are good I think perhaps you should rewrite them as goals. For example:

18 weeks before exam: Have played through and be aware of all the trickiest parts of the pieces. Have done sight reading on at least 3 days. Have played scales every day.
17 weeks before exam: Have practised all tricky rhythms with a metronome or CD Etc.

If you write your goals down in this way you can tick them off each week as you complete them. As you see the items being ticked off you will know you are going to be really ready for the exam. If however you have not ticked of items from previous weeks you will be able to see how much catching up you need to do!

The second thing I would do is to turn your list into something you can stick on the wall/fridge for everyone to see. If everyone in your house can see your list you are much more likely to stick with doing the things you need to do to get that good mark. You can be creative here – use colour and tick boxes – even draw pictures if you like. Anything to make it stand out and get noticed. Also make sure to put it somewhere where you can’t fail to notice it everyday.

Finally once you’ve finished your plan and stuck it on the wall – stick to it. Don’t be like some people and waste time revising and drawing up new plans. The one you’ve got below is fine and if you stick to it I’m sure you’ll do very well in your exam.

Enjoy your practice!

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