If you are currently preparing for an ABRSM exam, first of all good luck and I hope you achieve the best result that you can!
The question is, how can you achieve that and make everything a little more certain? Try exploring the following ideas and tips to focus your practice and achieve the best possible result.
1) Practice regularly
This should really go without saying, however this is much more about how and what you are practicing rather than just simply playing through your exam pieces. The grades are made up of different parts and although your pieces alone can get you 90 of the possible 150 marks (if of course you achieve full marks in all three pieces…) the technical exercises are also very important.
When you practice, try working on the pieces in different ways. Instead of just starting at the beginning and playing the bits that you know you can play, start with the last eight bars and work back through the piece. The brain will always gravitate toward that which it knows and the additional familiarity with the ending of a piece can help to calm nerves as well as giving you a better understanding of the music.
If you have a tricky section with quavers or semiquavers, try using a dotted rhythm and then switching the rhythm pattern around. By this I mean a semiquaver followed by a dotted quaver. Please see below:
You could also try to transpose the tricky sections up or down a second, fourth, or fifth. You will find that when you return to the written music it will suddenly feel a little less tricky and give your more confidence in your exam.
2) Work on your scales and arpeggios.
Take time to consider which scales you need to know and could be tested on and learn them. It is a good idea to write a scale practice routine and plan out the time you spend on these so that you know all of the possible scales that you could be asked have been covered. Listen to them carefully as you play and develop your ear to hear what the different scales and arpeggios sound like. Listen carefully to your intonation (fine tuning) and try to correct any small errors that you can hear. Ask a friend or teacher to pick out scales at random for you regularly to give you the chance to perform them before the exam.
3) Listening skills – The Aural Tests!
Check the syllabus provided by ABRSM as to what exactly is required specifically for your grade. Practice the techniques that you need and make sure that you know the questions that are likely to be asked. When you need to sing back a part of a tune, or a particular line of the tune, a simple ‘Lah’ or ‘dah’ sound is really all that is required. You don’t need to provide a developed operatic sound and feel as though your singing is a problem. Just go for it, try to enjoy it and remember that a half-hearted attempt is always going to get you less marks than a solid and confident rendition. Remember that however bad you think you sound, the examiner will most likely have heard worse!
This is often the cause of some distress for students, but with the correct approach this part of the exam can cause no stress at all. Remember that the examiner wants you to do well. Use the time that you are given wisely and look through the piece. You can also try out little sections if you wish as well. Check the important things like:
i) Key signature
iii) Tempo (speed)
iv) Dynamics (volumes)
v) Mood or character of the piece – is it major or minor?
When you are ready to play it through, think about the music and aim to make the performance you give as musical as possible.
It is possible to practice sight-reading, however the problem exists that when you have seen the piece once you can’t sight-read it again. Working on sight-reading requires you to play lots of different pieces as often as possible. The best way of doing this is to join an ensemble, as you will normally cover a wide range of music within the group. You can also search for free music online and have a go at playing that. Always aim to play music that is in different keys, has different speeds and articulations.
I hope that this has provided an opportunity to think about preparing for your exam in advance. Do let me know if any of the techniques above have proved useful, or if you have any tips or advice that you feel someone else may benefit from.