piano exam

Advice on Music Exams, Cramming and Number Games

Sometimes, our music students are still scrambling to get ready for their music exams. If you're like my one Grade 9 piano student who has been trying to memorize his Brahms' Intermezzo, it's too late. You need to start looking at the numbers and focusing your energy on the areas where it is do-able to in the time you have left to prepare. Take a look at what he'll be doing at his Gr. 9 partial examination through Conservatory Canada:

  1. List C (Romantic): 10 marks
  2. List D (Late Romantic to Contemporary Classical): 10 marks
  3. Studies (2): 10 marks (worth 5 apiece)
  4. Technical Tests: 14 marks
  5. Memory: 2 marks (1 for List C and 1 for List D)

Now take a look at what examiners are looking to award Honours (70 - 79%)

  • consistent tempo
  • clean rhythms
  • clean notes
  • technical facility
  • clear dynamic contrasts
  • some articulation
  • a sense of phrasing
  • good tone
  • sense of musical style

Memory needs lots of time for the music to settle (and performances). As you can see, memorization is only worth one mark for his Intermezzo. I asked him if he wanted to sacrifice the 70ish marks he'd get for all of the above for that one measly memory mark. For a piece that's not completely secure, there is a good chance that these things will crumble under the pressure of an exam.

If you're like my student, you're better off focusing on getting the basics as stated above. If those are secure, you can still walk away with Honours or even First Class Honours.

Technique is a big area. It's worth 14 - 16 marks alone, depending upon the grade and the music conservatory you are following. If your technical facility is lacking, examiners will penalize you. This is not an area to cram in at the last minute.

Sight-reading, rhythm and ear training are crammable - to a degree. If this is truly a weak spot for you, then it is an area you need to work on throughout the year, not just one week before your exam. However, bear in mind that sight-reading is worth 10 marks (clapping and playing), while ear and rhythm training are worth 10 marks. Those are easy marks to give away but just as easy to keep with some consistent practice.

I used to panic over melody playback (worth four marks). In hindsight, I should have focussed on nailing my intervals, chords and cadences more (worth six marks). That, combined with my clap backs, would have balanced the scales a bit.

To wrap up, when you're trying to play the "numbers game" with your exam marks, keep in mind the following:

  1. Beef up the foundation (the basics) of the areas that are worth the most marks.
  2. If you know that one area is going to be wobbly no matter what, then look at the other elements in that section and try to strengthen those areas.
  3. Just guess on the wobbly areas. You may get partial marks.

Speak with your teacher if you have any questions on this or need more advice. The mark breakdown for each grade is listed in the conservatory syllabi.

Sources: Conservatory Canada Piano Syllabus & Royal Conservatory of Music Examiner's Guidelines for Assessment of Repertoire.

Memory needs lots of time for the music to settle (and performances). As you can see, memorization is only worth one mark for his Intermezzo. I asked him if he wanted to sacrifice the 60 or so marks he'd get for having most of the notes, rhythm and the tempo there for that one measly memory mark. For a piece that's not completely secure, there is a good chance that things will fall apart under the pressure of an exam.

Using the Circle of Fifths to Practice Technique

This popped into my head while I was teaching a lesson  last week. I asked my student to play her Grade 8 piano technique by going through the Circle of Fifths. Not only was it quickly evident that my student needs to review her key signatures, but it also was clear that she was used to practicing her technique in a certain order. However, during a music examination, you have no clue which of the required technical elements you will be asked to play. It is important to mix things up regularly.

In this piano lesson tutorial, I demonstrate what how my student practiced her piano technique using the Circle of Fifths approach.

Ideas for Practicing Piano Technique

Try as I might, some students just loathe practicing their technical exercises. You know the ones - scales, chords and arpeggios. I must admit that when I was their age, I wasn't too keen on practicing them either. However, if you want to "level up" and/or ace this portion of your music examination, you can't get away from it. You have to practice them. A lot.

If I have to ask my students to play a scale more than once in a lesson, I ask my them to play to play it differently. For instance, if a student played it legato the first time, they could play it staccato the second time.

But why stop there? Change the rhythm and make it sound like a real tune. Zig-zag back and forth so it doesn't sound like a scale. Change where you place the accents so that it's on every fifth note instead of every second or third.

The bottom line is that some degree of repetition is needed, so why not make it interesting for yourself?

Post-Examination musings

I had a terrible dream the other night that I got an 83% on my Conservatory Canada Level 7 Contemporary Idioms examination. Normally, I'd be happy with an 83, which is First Class Honors. However, having turned music into a profession, I was aiming for higher. I also wanted to beat my highest exam mark from my youth, an 88% on my Grade 8 RCM practical, which I got on my second attempt.

[Note to students: Get a good night's rest the night before an exam and don't spend it staying up all night to read a juicy novel or else you wind up botching your exam and need to re-take it.]

I digress. I was therefore delighted to log into ConCan's site and find that I scored 88.7% (on my one and only attempt). Now I'm itching to see my exam comments.

So, how was it, you ask?

What a surreal experience. It didn't feel like an examination at all. It was far more relaxed than my RCM examinations in my youth.I vacillated from feeling calm, almost lackadaisical to thinking, "Oh my God! This is my exam. For real. Eek." It felt more like a lesson with a very relaxed examiner. As for the improvising section, I was just jamming along with another teacher.

I felt pretty confident in my technical elements, although my hands weren't completely in sync on my first mode (B Aeolian). Growing up, this was one of my weakest areas so I was determined to show that I've matured.

The same goes for ear, rhythm, sight-reading and keyboard harmony. Gone are the days when I was a panicking mess over two lines of sight reading, stumbling and pausing all the way through. It's amazing what a difference a slow, steady tempo makes, as well as counting out loud!

The repertoire went generally well. A few tiny slips in Gershwin's I Got Rhythm and a few more oddities in Vince Guaraldi's What Child is This? Hey, I was just glad my tempo was there for both. Manteca went quite well as did Thriller Rag.

The examiner stumped me on one of the Viva Voce questions. I didn't research jazz waltz enough so I was winging it with my answer. When he asked about Dizzy Gillespie and Manteca. I said the first thing that popped into my head, "He had big cheeks...I heard him play a while back."

It didn't help that the room had many hard surfaces. I should have compensated more for it but the excitement of the moment kicked in. So, the examiner said I was a little percussive and not melodic enough. Too technical. I've never considered myself a technical player. I've been called "expressive" and "analytical" but never "technical". Until now.

I thought I had dynamics but if anything, I suspect he'll say I needed more contrast and shaping (it's something we always say to our students, why should this time be any different?).

I had a mini-lesson afterwards which was basically like a master class. This added to the "non-exam" feel of the experience.

I felt all right about the exam. I didn't feel terrible either. I simply felt that I could have done better. That is probably what fuelled my dream the other night.

One colleague asked whether I'll prepare for the Level 8 exam. I'd have to think about it. I'm too busy trying to incorporate all these new tricks I learned into my gig repertoire.

(c) 2009 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Music Exam Preparation Tips

Exam timetable  

With music students across the country taking exams next month, I thought it would be apropos to post some exam preparation tips. Some of these are "general exam" tips, but for the most part, they can be applied to music exams. After all, an exam is an exam, whether it is theoretical or practical.

A few other things I've been constantly reminding my students are:

  1. You can't cram technique: practice those scales, chords and arpeggios (and vocalises if you're a singer) and get everything faster than the listed speed. The required speed gets you a pass. If you want a higher mark, go faster (just make sure it's a tempo you can maintain, play cleanly and with good tone).
  2. Spend more time on the areas that need work. For many students, it's the technical requirements or the ear and sight reading tests. For others, it's memory or "that one dreaded piece".
  3. Look at the mark breakdown, spend more time on the areas that are worth more marks and also make sure that you're not giving any "easy marks" away. If you're in Conservatory Canada, that information is in the back of your piano book. If you're in RCM, check the Syllabus for your instrument at any music store (perhaps consider investing in one).
  4. Practice frequency is the key. Right now, the more "airtime" your pieces and technical elements get, the more opportunities you give for everything to sink into your mental and muscle memory.
  5. Perform often between now and exam day - it's the closest you can get to simulating exam performance conditions. See if your teacher can sign you up for a student recital hosted by one of the local teaching associations or schedule your own mini-recital and invite all your family and friends to hear you run through your exam repertoire.

(c)2009 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary. AB, Canada. All rights reserved.