Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Taking music exams - ten tips

A friend told me recently that her daughter was soon to take her Grade 5 flute exam. The problem was that she had played the three set pieces to death. Is there any way to revive a piece of music that has died on you?

Not all my students take exams. Exams suit some and not others. They can bring people on, or they can turn a student into an 'exam junkie'. Exam junkies just want to get through the grades as quickly as possible. They do very well until they reach a point where they just don't have the breadth of experience and technique to progress further. Being addicted to success, this where they would rather give up than put in the necessary work. Exams are a learning aid only and should be part of a balanced diet.

If are taking an exam you will find people are only too willing to give you advice. Here's mine. Just like everyone else's, take what is good for you and ignore the rest.

  1. Remember why you chose to play the instrument. Is it because you love the sound it makes? Have you become so bogged down in the mechanics of the pieces that you have forgotten about the sound?
  2. Remember why you're taking the exam: to get one person's objective and informed opinion of how well you play on a particular day, under pressure. And this in the hope that they can tell you something useful.
  3. Forget any other reasons you may have for taking the exam. These may include pleasing your teacher, impressing friends or family members and gaining entry to some band or orchestra. While these may seem important in the short term they are ephemeral. Don’t let them come between you and your enjoyment of the instrument.
  4. Your teacher may well be piling on the pressure. This should be constructive: about you and improving your performance. But beware, and challenge if you feel able, any negative pressure to do well. Your teacher may feel nervous on your behalf or may feel it reflects badly on them if you achieve a poor result. That’s their ‘stuff’ and it’s unfair for them to make you responsible for that.
  5. If you have been ‘bribed’ to do well by the promise of some material reward try, to put it from your mind. This is negative pressure by the back door. If you can bring yourself to do this, politely decline the reward in advance and free yourself of the distraction. You never know, perhaps you’ll be rewarded anyway.
  6. It doesn't matter how well or badly you do. It's not a GCSE or your driving test. If you do well, tell the world. If you do badly, keep it to yourself. As soon as you take another grade, or have any other musical success, this result becomes redundant
  7. If your pieces are ‘dying’ on you because you have played them too often, give them a rest. Play something else. Play an easy piece but make it sound great. You may have already mastered Greensleeves or Bach’s famous Minuet but remind yourself why they were so popular. Improvise with friends or to a backing track.
  8. Consider a stage actor who must perform the same part night after night. It is not enough to learn the lines and repeat them. For each performance they must breathe life into their character. They must become that person. Learning the ‘To be or not to be’ speech will not, by itself, make you Hamlet. Find the character in each of your pieces.
  9. Look for your blind spots. If possible record yourself playing your set pieces and listen back. Where do your fingers stumble, where does the intonation suffer? What other technical errors are you making? Now, rather than play entier pieces, concentrate on those passages and gradually expand them by playing the bars either side.
  10. Dare to contemplate failure. The fear of failure makes failure more likely. What are you really afraid of? Is it your teacher, your family, your friends? (Please don’t say the examiner! You will probably never meet them again and whether they smile or frown during your performance is rarely reflected in the mark they give.) Any storm you have to weather afterwards will quickly pass. You are doing this for yourself. It’s a hobby, maybe even a passion. Enjoy the event.

And a final note on failure. Call me a woolly liberal if you like but I hate the word. People give up instruments because they don't pass. This is the downside of exams. People fail for all sorts of reasons while less able musicians scrape through. It doesn't mean they have no affinity for the instrument they played the day before the result came through.

Everyone finds their level. I dropped out of A-level geography but I still enjoy travel and reading about other parts of the world. Stopping formal study is no barrier to continued enjoyment. I'll never be as good a flautist as James Galway or Hariprasad Chaurasia. That hasn't made me give up the flute and failing your exam is not a good enough reason for you to quit your instrument.


  1. I strongly agree with the positioning as exams as an aid, rather than the be-all and end-all. For me on the piano it was unfortunately the latter, and to an extent for my teacher too, so when I stopped doing exams because I hated them, she rather lost her direction as a teacher too.

    I've never taken an exam on my flute. I sometimes wonder if I'm odd: so many other adult learners do it without a problem, so why not me?

  2. I think you have been wise to keep your flute exam-free, especially given your experience with the piano. Children like to earn badges and certificates but they grow out of it. If, as an adult, you decide to take a grade you will do it for your own reasons. I have adult students who go through the syllabus but don't take the exams, being content with the knowledge for its own sake. The parents of my younger students may be alarmed to learn that I've never taken a saxophone exam in my life. When I was a lad the sax was just for me and my rock'n'roll dreams, not for the school or anyone else. By the time I started teaching there was no point in duplicating the grades I had on related instruments.