Examinations & Festivals

Music Examination Systems in Canada

An overview of the music conservatories used in Canada and the music examination boards, including RCM, ConCan and CNCM.

Google Docs Makes Music Reports Easy

Two ways that my students can earn bonus points (and thereby Maestro Bucks) through my incentive program is to do a research project or concert report. One of my students, Grant, is pretty technologically savvy and has been using Google Docs to complete and submit his reports.

He simply emails me the link, I print it off to store in my Student Composition and Projects Binder and he gets his bonus points and Maestro Bucks.

Here's an example of just how simple it can be.

(c) Copyright by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved. Grant owns the copyright on his report.

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.

Piano Exam Tips

Many thanks to the authors who have put together these informative articles on preparing for a piano exam.

I especially like the second one, which gives you a timeline from three months prior your exam to afterwards:

Piano Exams - A Guide to Preparation
Tips for Preparing for your Piano Exam
Piano Exams

Happy reading!

(c) 2008 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Shining Stars

Week One of the music festivals is nearly over. It's been exhausting driving back and forth from North Calgary to High River to catch students. As soon as I walked into the house, it was back to a full afternoon/evening of teaching and practicing my own songs, soothing ansty parents, pushing stubborn students who are dragging their feet on the exam preparations (and assigning names of students to the influx of white hairs on my head) and collecting registrations for next year. My students who have played so far played as well as expected. Some were still scrambling till the last minute to memorize their songs (which were supposed to be memorized two months ago). Not surprisingly, their performances were wobbly. Some succumbed to nerves, while others fell back to bad habits that I had been trying to break for months.

There were a few shining stars. There's my nine-year old student R who is steady as a rock. Steady progress and steady work habits. She got excellent comments at the festival and a mark just a couple of hairs off Honours with Distinction for her composition. Now, we just have to work at getting her rhythm in trouble spots steady as a rock.

Then there's my little showman S. This 11-year old consistently selects toe tapping songs that get the entire audience engaged in the performance. It also helps that he really gets into whatever song he's playing and flirts with the audience with his sparkling eyes and smile.

The next two are opposites: C is a 15-year old with a really good musical ear. She improvises for hours at home. After months of hounding her to write down her song, she finally did for the festival. She just missed Distinction by a couple of hairs also with her composition.

Finally, 12-year old D. She's been with me since the beginning of my teaching career. She's gone from a quiet and shy girl who only wants to play what's on the page, scared to make a mistake to a performer who impressed the adjudicator with her beautiful improvisations based on a catchy tune.

I just have a handful of students yet to perform. Then, my students and I will tear apart their songs a few more times to work on attaining a higher level of passion and technical precision for the next round of recitals and exams.

May 12, 2007 note: I need to add one more "shining star" to this list. Ten-year old R surprised his parents and myself earlier in the year when he expressed his desire to take his Gr. 5 piano exam in June. Since then, we've been working hard on his songs and technique. Fingering and rhythm have always been a challenge for him (or perhaps it's just the detail work). Prior to his performance last Saturday, I had him tap out his opening rhythm to Christopher Norton's Danger Danger. As I thought, the rhythm was a little off. I corrected the rhythm and had him practice it while I went to give two of my students who were also performing a pep talk.

When this guy is "on" he can draw the audience in. And that morning, R was "on". He nailed that rhythm and delivered the strongest performance in his class. (c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.