Preparation tips for the ABRSM exam

Music exams from the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music are exacting and challenging, requiring serious preparation, particularly at higher grades. Irrespective of your instrument, they demand a reasonable level of musical accuracy, technique and musicality. This can be somewhat daunting for a candidate entering an exam for the first time, but there several helpful tips and techniques which can make the challenge a little less daunting.

Choose a programme that you will be able to master

If you have a music teacher, this will be his or her responsibility, but some teachers forget to consider this. All ABRSM grades allow an element of choice – there will be a slightly easier piece, as well as something more challenging. This choice depends on your technique, but can be difficult if you have just started lessons and your teacher is not yet fully aware of your potential.

Choose a programme that will engage you for the period leading up to the exam

This is related to the first point, and may be determined by your ability. However, some music teachers, especially at higher grades, choose pieces that suit themselves rather than their students; they are comfortable teaching a certain style or know the composer or piece already. This might not be the best decision since you will have to play the piece for several months before your exam. Be tactful, but respectfully ask about the options, or express enthusiasm for the piece your teacher does not want you to do. Now you have to prove a point – that can be very productive.

Practise all aspects of the exam on a regular basis

Since the vast majority of marks in a music exam are given to the set pieces, many students spend 90 percent of the time leading up to the exam preparing them, and then spend a short time doing scales, aural tests and sight reading. This can be disastrous at an exam, and suggests lack of preparation to your examiner. While you need to spend a serious amount of time on pieces, you should also allocate time to the other elements of the exam at least every other day. You might like to do an intensive session of sight-reading once a week, but don’t leave it until the last week before your exam.

Allow a reasonable amount of time to prepare for the exam

This is your teacher’s responsibility, but you may be self-taught. Depending upon grades, it is possible to allow three to four months for an exam, except at higher levels where more time is required. If your first ABRSM exam is at the lower grades, then it is possible to prepare a few months in advance.

Try to get additional musical exposure prior to the exam

Since your ABRSM exam is going to be a very different situation from your regular music lesson, you need to try and replicate it before the exam day, while still allowing time to revise. There are many ways by which you can get musical exposure. Your teacher might have a student who takes a lesson after you. Would they listen to your pieces? You could do the same for them. If you are at school, you might be brave enough to play for your classmates. If that sounds too challenging, you might have other family members or relatives who can help.

Sometimes it is possible to try the venue in which your exam will be held. Even if it is not in your music school, or at your teacher’s, ask your teacher to contact the ABRSM representative about the possibility of using the venue to ten or twenty minutes. Sometimes they are held in village halls and churches, and the authorities will have no problem.

Above all, enjoy the period leading up to your exam; practise diligently and you will achieve your deserved mark.