The ABRSM exams can be very unnerving, especially if it’s your very first time, which is why you should be more prepared for it than you think. The exams come into a few sections; let’s see what we can help you in each of them.
1. Practised pieces
Yes, and I mean practised pieces. This section takes up the most of the marks in the exam, and should take up a great proportion of your time devoted to perfecting them. Discuss the choice of pieces with your teacher, and make sure they suit what you can grasp. They should also be what you enjoy playing, as you would be practising them for months up to a whole year. Understand the pieces: the rhythm, dynamics, the composer, the period it was written in; these can help you express the pieces better.
During my piano-learning period, I found it very repetitive because my teacher only taught me my exam pieces. That, as you can guess, was very boring. Try out other music outside of the syllabus! It can help you understand music more and add a bit of maturity in your playing. Believe me – examiners can smell that.
Mechanical and boring as they seem, how well you play the scales is a demonstration of the level of technique you have achieved. Devote some time every practice session you have to scales alone. The key to getting high marks in scales is to play accurately and playing each note evenly. You don’t have to play with great speed, but it needs to be consistent – try not to linger on notes while breezing through others.
Even though scales are pretty much the same, there are still ways to impress the examiner. Throw in some articulation and dynamics (yes, even in a scale!), and play confidently! It also helps to have a teacher, parent or friend to call out scale names while you try to memorise and play it out.
3. Sight reading
If you are a great sight-reader, then you’ll probably don’t have to worry too much on this part. The harsh reality is most of us aren’t born to sight read. I used to lose a lot of marks on sight reading – once I was even blinded to a change from the bass clef to the treble clef! Shame on me, but recently I’ve realised a few clues to sight reading.
There is generally a “reading time” before you play it to the examiner. During this time, you should take note of the clefs in play (and the changes too!), the key and time signatures, accidentals… If you see anywhere with a bit of difficulty, try it out during the “reading time”.
While playing, play slowly if you have to, but keep to the rhythm. Don’t panic if you play something wrong – no one expects you to be perfect!
Of course, sight reading can be practised as well. Try flicking to any page of your music books and practise sight reading on it. You will understand more what it feels like and you will get better at it.
Surprisingly, many students only practise them once or twice before the exam. The aural tests in the exam do take up a smaller proportion of marks in the exam, but there is no need to leave it to the last minute to give yourself panic attacks. Like sight reading, there are only a few of us who are born to be good at them; so have your teacher prepare you for them a few months ahead of your exam! You can also practise them listening to any sort of music – invite some friends too, just for fun! My teacher used to gather a few of her students together, and geeky as it seems, it was pretty fun!
5. One month up to your exam…
– Practise, practise, and practise! – and that means EVERY day!
– If you can, try to visit the examination location. Get your teacher to book one lesson in there. Take notice of trivial things: is the air-conditioning too cold? Where will the examiner be sitting? How long does it take you to get there? If you’re a pianist, have a feel on the piano (it can be very different to yours or your teacher’s). All these will prepare you more than you think.
– Arrange to play in front of a few mates (those who wouldn’t tease you!). Playing in front of others can be very different playing to your teacher/family.
– On the day, have a full breakfast. Practise a bit (but not too much) if you have the time. Allow ample amount of time to get to the examination location.
– Smile and greet the examiner – then give your best shot!