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Blog posts tagged with 'Exams'

Why Aural Tests Count!

 

Why Aural Tests Count!

 

Just because aural tests are the last bit of the exams doesn’t mean they should be the last thing you practice!

 

But sadly they are.

 

Even some teachers leave them until the last minute – putting more emphasis on getting marks up for the pieces as well as worrying about scales and finally sight-reading.

 

Just recently I was asked to accompany a grade five exam and in the rehearsal a week before the exam date the student asked me when she was supposed to start practising her aural tests?!?!? And after a bit of a twitter rant it seems that this isn’t unusual. Some teachers do indeed not rehearse the aural test section at all and leave it to the accompanist to do.

 

But why?

 

They’re a good chunk of marks so they can make the difference between a pass and a fail.

 

Also aural is important.

 

It shouldn’t just be something that gets dragged out near an exam date. It should filter through into every lesson. Yes I know it’s difficult when you have students who only have 20 minute lessons, even 30 minutes is a push to get everything done in time.

 

But people should be well rounded musicians.

 

The aural tests are annoying I know, but their focus is on elements that students should be encouraged to do and should just be part of lessons regularly (then they become less of an exam only worry).

 

The clapping – this is great to see whether their musical memory is working and if they can externalise what they hear in their head. Clapping the pulse is also perfect for working on their sense of ‘in time’. If the rhythms flow then everything else will make sense and then they have a bit more brain power free to think about other things (hint hint… dynamics!)

The singing – has so many benefits including memory, pitch and getting students to understand the relationship between the distances between the notes

The listening – students should be regularly encouraged to listen and appraise what they’re playing, so if they’re listening to a teacher or another student play it starts to get their ear used to listening while they’re thinking.

 

Like everything I’ve written about recently that’s focused on the exams – it all boils down to regular practice.

 

Aural skills should be part of a regular lesson and it should be things that students are working on their own too.

 

So – if you’ve got an exam coming up – don’t just leave it to the last five minutes of your lesson to work on them. Ask your teacher what will be in the exam and get friends, family and loved ones to sing at you, or clap things for you to copy. Or be self-reliant. There’s loads of examples on youtube for all of the aural tests for every exam board. So go and look.

 

Practice. Practice. Practice.

 

You can find some clips I’ve done for the aural tests here

 

And if you want some more hints and tips about loving the singing element – check out the blog post here

 

Everyone Hates Singing

Everyone Hates Singing

 

Unless it’s in the shower or with their favourite CD – that’s different.

There’s loads of studies available to tell you why singing is good for you physically and mentally. It’s also not just good for your general playing, but also your sight-reading. But everyone always hates the singing element of the aural tests!

Every grade level there’s a singing element – a lot say this isn’t fair and I really can understand. But singing is so good for you. It works on your ear, your memory and if you can sing what you have heard it’s a great to show that your brain has understood and can externalise sounds.

For the early grades it’s just copying sounds and repeating them, then as the grades progress they do get harder. If you want help with the singing element of the aural tests – check out my youtube channel for some handy videos.

Once you get to grade four that’s when the singing takes on a new edge with: sight-singing

What is sight-singing?

Sight-singing is basically singing something you’ve not seen before and pitching it out loud rather than using an instrument to find the notes (unless you’re a singer).

Just from a confidence point of view you will be more likely to play a new piece better if you know how it goes. And if you can sight-sing then you can hear how it goes before you play it!

You can start working on this at any level of your music experience and even if you’re not thinking about exams.

Start with something simple like just singing back a few notes that you hear, then increasing the length of the piece you copy. This will help you get used to singing and listening to the sound you make, as you will need to make sure it is the same as the original.

Then start by practising singing your scales and arpeggios -remember this is what music is built on.

Then pick a nice key and draw a few notes (unless you have a handy aural test book - grades 4-5 have good examples of this) on a piece of manuscript paper. Just work on the first 5 notes of the scale. Draw them, sing them, play them.

Like everything – it does just come down to practice.

 

How to Take the Nerves out of Nervous

 

How to take the Nerves out of Nervous

 

You’re sat in the waiting room. Your mouth’s gone dry. Legs are shaking. Palms are sweating. You feel sick and dizzy, your mind has gone blank. It can only be… time for your next music exam.

 

But it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience.

 

It can be easier said than done *but* nerves can be overcome… or at least they can become less of an issue.

 

No matter your age or level experience, nerves can really turn an exam into a really terrifying experience. But they don’t need to ruin it completely. I’m not saying you’ll ever really love your exams, and indeed if you really hate them I would ask whether they’re worth putting yourself through the stress. For why you shouldn’t do an exam maybe read this post

 

But if you’re determined to do exams but the nerves are something you want to tackle then read on!

 

There’s three things you need to remember about nerves:

 

Everyone feels nervous (yes they do – it’s not just you!)

Examiners know the difference between nervous mistakes and what’s just wrong

The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll feel nervous

 

For me I find exams a really nervous time – even when I’m just accompanying. But I do have quite a nervous disposition, so I find supermarkets at Christmas a stressful situation!

 

Being prepared can really help anxiety on the day. Don’t leave your scales to the last minute. Don’t just practice the aural with your teacher (find extra examples on youtube etc) and don’t neglect your sight-reading practice either.

 

Also embrace the fact that it won’t be perfect. You won’t get full marks in everything – it’s just not possible. There will always be more you could do on dynamics and articulation, the intonation can often be stronger… so don’t put the pressure on doing amazingly well. Just do your best – and that will be more than good enough.

 

There will always be an annoying bar or phrase, or even piece, that’s not quite as good as the rest. That’s fine. Over prepare on everything else and relax on the bit you’re not sure about – you might just surprise yourself.

 

BREATHE!

 

Deep breaths. Slow and steady. Breathing really can help calm nerves, or at least help your body regain a bit of control. Breathing too fast will only raise your level of anxiety, so do try slower breaths and take a moment before you start to play your first piece and in between the sections on your exam.

 

Embrace the nervous feeling.

 

The worst that will happen is that you will feel nervous.

 

You might feel sick, but you won’t be. You might be dizzy, but you won’t faint. Small sips of water will help your dry mouth, your hands won’t slip off the keys – but maybe just wipe them before you go in.

 

That’s all.

 

Breathe.

 

Embrace them.

 

It’s all just part of a performance. I would be more nervous if I wasn’t nervous (as weird as that sounds).

 

And you know what – the exam will be over in the blink of an eye and you will be wondering what you were so nervous about in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

Exams: What *is* the examiner looking for?

Exams: What *is* the examiner looking for

 

Now, I know there’s no real answer I can give you to ensure you get a distinction in your exams (sorry!). And although the exam boards have a strict marking scheme that can tell you boundaries and what examiners should be awarding marks for, I thought I’d just dedicate this blog post to my experiences as a teacher, student and trainee examiner to what I’ve found that this means.

 

The examiners are LOOKING FOR REASON TO GIVE YOU MARKS

 

YES! Yes they are!

 

It’s so easy to concentrate on the bits you’re not so sure about, the tiny mistakes, the bits you’re not confident about, the missed dynamics. But actually the examiners are always wanting to find reasons to give marks (partly because they don’t want to fail you – otherwise they’ll have to hear you play the same pieces next term!).

 

So – don’t worry about any mistakes you make, concentrate more on giving it a positive spin.

 

One area they really concentrate on is intonation and tuning. Now this is a bit of a tricky area, because when you get anxious you might find that you note control is harder to maintain. So do remember to keep listening while you’re playing.

 

DYNAMICS!!

 

This isn’t just a bug bear of mine (my students will be pleased to know!) but it is one of the more commented on aspects in the report sheets.

 

Examiners are looking for colour and depth to a performance – not just note accuracy. They want a performance. So that means ensuring the articulation is precise and that the dynamics are there.

 

I hope this helps calm the nerves a bit.

 

Remember: they want to award marks, not take away. So give them reasons to give you more!

 

 

 

Exam Prep: What to do, what to do...

 

Exam Prep: What to do, what to do

 

Exam season is on us once more and once again – practice becomes that little bit less enjoyable and that little bit more fraught.

 

So – how do you prepare for an exam…

 

Well, the easiest thing to say is – you practice.

 

You do the same as you would in a normal lesson in a normal week in a normal moment of your life. Exams are easier if you make less of a big deal of them (easier said than done I know).

 

When you’re on the run up to the exam you really do need to make sure that you’re working on all elements of the exam – obvious I know, but I do know a lot of students that leave sight-reading and the aural tests practice to happen only during their lessons. And I also know many, many students who leave the scale practise until the last minute too!

 

DON’T!

 

Make all elements of the exam elements of a normal practice routine. They they will become something that you do, rather than something that only happens in exams (so therefore something to worry about).

 

DO:

 

Make your practice session a really effective one.

 

Warm up – long notes, dexterity exercises, octave jumps, articulation work, see how fast you can play, see if you can work over tricky jump sections without getting extra ‘blup’ notes in between.

 

Scales: Make sure you work on all of them (not just the ones you like – the tricky ones won’t get any easier!), make flash cards or just write their names on a piece of paper and pull them randomly out of a hat. Mess around with the articulation, add some rhythms… do you know the scales inside out and back to front?? (For more practice ideas see our Scale Blog Post)

 

Pieces: Don’t feel you need to practice all three *every* session – split them up over the week (maybe keep notes to remind yourself which you practised and when).

 

Sight-reading: Find an old piece, turn the book upside down. Play it backwards. Try a couple of lines of the other exam pieces. Just look at something new!! If you want a super sight-reading boost – check out the Horrible Sight-reading for Lovely People Course

 

Aural Tests: Don’t just leave it to the lesson time to practice. Ask your teacher for a list of what you need to work on. There’s loads of great aural test clips available on youtube! Including mine!

 

DON’T

 

Just play through your pieces. Play through once but then isolate the sections that need working on. Do slow practice to ensure your fingers know what they need to do. Start in the middle of the piece so your mind’s fresh for when you get to the challenging section. Be really, really fussy!!

 

DO

 

Remember to focus on your dynamics. Examiners love dynamics! Make them really, really obvious.

 

DON’T

 

Worry about the singing bit of the aural tests. It’s not worth stressing over – and remember everyone hates it, it’s not just you!

 

DO

 

Have a mock exam. Get your teacher to give you a practice exam so you know what to expect. Get a parent, grandparent, friend, partner, whoever to listen to you while you play. Get them to pretend to write things down as you play (as this is what usually makes people feel the most nervous about).

 

DON’T

 

Don’t forget – your scales, aural tests and sight-reading etc. are easy extra marks – they really can make the difference between the results you get. So do remember to practice them in your own time as well as your lesson time. (I know I said this a second ago – but it’s so important it needs mentioning twice!!).

 

DO:

 

Have fun – try and relax and enjoy it! It’ll be over before you know it!

 

Good luck!

 

Why Shouldn't You Do An Exam?

 

Why Shouldn’t You Do an Exam?

(Or Why Exams are Bad for You)

 

I guess I need to start this blog post with an apology. This post might start sounding a bit ranty, but it really is something that needs saying and I really don’t mean it to sound negative. I have written many posts about the importance of exams (and will write more soon!) and I do teach students with exam focus in mind. Personally I really enjoy them (except the nerves on the day) – only last month I did my grade 1 cello exam (and somehow got a distinction). And I’m even training to be an examiner – I love music exams that much! But over the last few weeks I’ve been chatting to some parents and other tutors online and face to face and I really do wonder if as a culture we’re starting to miss the point about exams.

 

Exam’s are brilliant for focusing your practising and they’re a brilliant thing for a personal sense of achievement. For those looking for a career in music in any shape or form they’re invaluable. But I do wonder if parents are just seeing exams as extra credit boost for secondary schools (well, I know some are!) and whether people have forgotten why music is important.

 

There’s been so much in the news recently about music and arts in general at schools. Some students having to pay to take GCSE music, other schools are reporting an amazing turn around in general levels on all subjects across the school because they’re focusing on arts and music. I do worry about the future for the arts and also the future for children that aren’t given the opportunity to take part and make music – either because the schools are under too much pressure for maths and literacy levels, the government have decided that this year’s focus will be English or that parents just can’t see the point of paying out for lessons when they don’t see the reward…. Which apparently just seems to be having a shiny exam certificate.

 

I’m not going to quote those countless studies that show the importance of music, no matter what your age. It’s got health benefits for all ages, especially those who are older, both mentally and physically. Creativity is key for self expression, self being and self worth. Also creativity is the key for engineering, maths and physics. How can we create new things is no one has the creativity to think about something new.

 

As a parent I also know the difficulties many are facing over spiralling costs of living, lower wages, longer hours, pesky bills as well as the physical cost of paying for lessons.

 

But if a parents is to say that they think a student isn’t progressing fast enough get to the first exam, or that the time taken between exams is too long and that they ‘should’ be on the next grade by now… should they stop lessons? No.

 

Why is there a specific time frame to get to grade one…. Or from grade one to the next one. Do people have to have a specific numbers of driving lessons to pass their test….

 

What difference does an exam make?

 

As a teacher I’ve found that the difference an exam makes is actually what happens after the exam. Students suddenly have that little bit more self confidence. They’ve practised that little bit harder. They’ve looked at their scales a bit more… so really it’s not actually the piece of paper that makes the difference.

 

I’ve taught many students who don’t do exams – either through not being interested at all or just looking at other things. Does this mean they’re not as good? No! It means they might not see that sudden spike in knowledge and performance that you get after exams, but instead they have a more gentle learning curve. But the end result is the same.

 

If you only did exams you would only learn 24 pieces of music. That’s it. Three for each grade and you’d be all the way up to grade eight. Ta da? Don’t think so! Learning fast and being taught by rote means that you just copy and regurgitate someone else’s approach to the pieces. Learn slower, enjoy yourself and explore other styles and you get a better sense of how that piece should feel when you perform it.

 

The best analogy I’ve come across recently was after chatting to a colleague - Lynne Phillips - (and friend!) on twitter about parents seeming way pushier about students doing exams and ‘it taking too long’. She compares playing pieces to reading books. (Her lovely blog post about repertoire is here). If your child only read 24 books would that teach them to read? Would you expect decent SATs results from 24 Captain Underpants books. Or if you got them to memorise an encyclopaedia (which grade eight can feel like!) would they understand the concepts in it?

 

So why is there such a push for students (children especially) to take exams in a predetermined time frame? Yes it would be lovely if they were all naturally gifted and going to the worlds greatest pianist of all time… but the odds are they’ll just be great at it. Or if they’re not the greatest should that mean they should stop? If they enjoy it and are progressing – surely that’s the most important thing? I love painting but I’m terrible at it. Do I stop? Nope. Do I expect them to be exhibited anywhere…. Only if it’s in a room with the lights off maybe…

 

I must also add that piano is difficult! There’s two hands doing different things at different time but at the same time trying to work together to make one thing sound beautiful. The piano takes longer to get up to a good grade standard. If you want to get your children up to a grade to tick the box to get into the decent secondary school – choose something else! Recorder is easy and accessible and you can get up to speed reasonably quickly.

 

But why do you want that?

 

Why just get them to do something when all you want is the end result?

 

As a teacher I love to teach. Students love to learn.

 

Could we please take the pressure off students (and the teachers) by just remembering.

 

Exams are not everything.