To the uninitiated and people who envy those with golden, soaring vocals, a singing exam must seem effortless. Sing from the diaphragm, maintain good posture, feel the music and let’er rip.
Three of those are actual best practices of singing, in case you didn’t know.
As with any other expression of ability from writing computer applications to performing on the stage, aspiring singers must devote countless hours and strenuous work to honing their craft.
And, while it might be easy to deduce how a future mathematician should prepare for exams, it is less clear how one with a natural talent such as singing should get ready for theirs.
Today, Superprof singing teachers discuss the full spectrum of best practices for singers to ready themselves for their potentially life-changing time in the exam spotlight.
Planning Your Strategy
For many, planning an artistic endeavour runs contrary to the spirit of art itself. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the unrestrained passion? Where’s the spontaneity?
Winging it is not a strategy.
You may have been blessed with a set of pipes to rival Liverpool Cathedral’s grand organ but raw vocal power alone will not earn you top exam marks. You have to have every other exam component in place, too.
That means you have to know which aspects of singing this exam will test.
- Sight-reading: you get less than a minute to demonstrate that you can read music
- Aural ability: you are expected to describe various aspects of the piece(s) played
- articulation, dynamics and style are just some of the features you are expected to discuss
- Improvisation: depending on your exam board, you may be required to improvise a selection
- Exam repertoire: you might have to present the examiners a list of songs you plan to sing
Those are just the high notes. Now, let's go deeper into each of these aspects.
Whether you play a musical instrument or that instrument is your voice, you are expected to know how to read music. Fortunately, this segment of the exam is very short – only 30 seconds.
How to get good at it? First, find sheet music to read.
Among the millions of choices available - of old and new music alike, why not hymns? They tend to be very singable and their structure is generally not complex. Furthermore, hymn music is abundant and readily available, usually at no cost.
You only have 30 seconds to demonstrate your music-reading ability. Successful students make the grade by practising within that limit at home. All you have to do is set a timer for a half-minute and off you go!
Be sure to note the key and tempo of the piece and other notation characteristics; don’t forget the pauses!
It might be handy to record your practice sessions and compare your sample interpretations point for point against the sheet music. That way, you can track improvements in your sight-reading as your level progresses.
Depending on your exam board - and even if you're testing through ABRSM, you might be allowed to bring your preferred sight-reading sheet music to your exam. Otherwise, expect to be given a piece you’ve not seen before.
The maximum score students can earn on this portion of the exam is 7.
The Aural Exam
There are only a handful of singers who are completely deaf, Mandy Harvey and Janine Roebuck among them. Still, both of these artists have a musical ear.
Having such an ear is vital to all aspects of making music and, whether singing in your head or the shower, developing your listening abilities is a key ingredient to good musicianship.
The aural exam is designed to test how well you can sing in tune and catch off-key notes. It then goes further to probe how well you can capture a piece’s texture, dynamics and style and how well you can keep time.
You may practise to a CD – they are not hard to find, or make use of subscription-based apps to help train your ear. Auralbook and Hofnote are two particularly good tools for aural exam preparation.
Students can earn a maximum of 18 points on this portion of the test; passing is 12 points.
Do you know ABRSM marking criteria? At what level can you earn distinction on your singing exam?
Waiting until the eve of your exam to fill out your repertoire slip could be a costly mistake.
You might not know months in advance what you intend to sing come the time for your exam but it would still be a good idea to pencil in songs that work well for you a few months ahead of schedule. You can always revise it later.
Maintaining a repertoire so far in advance serves two purposes: to keep you focused on practice and to prevent overlooking a crucial aspect of the exam.
Memorising lyrics tends to be overlooked while preparing for exams and dropping words is a particularly pernicious problem for students - during a singing lesson or test session.
More than one examinee has flubbed their lyrics while remaining pitch perfect!
To earn the maximum number of points, make notes in your song book or in the margins of your sheet music so you do not overlook lyrics. Keeping an active repertoire will help you remember lyrics too.
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Depending on your exam board and which grade you’re testing at, you may be required to improvise a piece, most likely with piano accompaniment. Should that be the case, it would be best to have a few selections at the ready.
Establishing your repertoire early in your preparations comes in handy here, too…
Getting Ready for Exams
A key component of exam success is knowing what is expected of you.
Knowing who you will test through - ICMA, ABRSM, Trinity or LCM and getting familiar with your board's standards would go a long way to getting familiar with what examiners expect.
For your singing exam, you are expected to recognise aspects of music such as clefs and notation, to sing on key and to read music at a level appropriate for your grade. Those aspects are obvious but others aren’t, like showing proper deference and restraint, and how you present yourself.
There is nothing you can do to practise those required aspects but there are things you can do so that they flow naturally in the course of your exam.
Exam stress is a primary cause for earning lower marks for people who otherwise know their material cold. The obvious solution is to minimise stress.
Besides practice and review and to minimise stress, on the night before your test date you should:
- prepare what you’re going to wear on exam day (comfortable, nice-looking clothing and shoes)
- plan more than one route to the exam hall
- aim to arrive at least 15 minutes early
- gather up all of your materials including copies for your accompanist
- don’t forget your repertoire slip!
- Pack any props and costumes you might need (if you’re testing in musical theatre)
- a bottle of water
Taking charge of your exam in this manner will ensure confidence come exam time, allowing you to perform at your best.
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Best Practices During Your Exam
A crucial part of preparing for your exam is to visualise how it will go and what you will do.
When it comes to singing exams in the UK, knowing how to sing is just half the battle.
It can be quite intimidating to walk into a room where your dreams for the future hang in the balance but, if you stride in with confidence and know just how to work the room, you will emerge a singing success.
You should arrive at the testing site early to give yourself plenty of time to warm up before your exam lest you risk your singing voice or limit your vocal range. You might do a few breath control exercises, while you’re at it.
Don’t forget to smile. Not an overbright, maniacal grin that stays plastered to your face even while singing a dirge; one that says “I can handle anything you ask of me with skill and grace”.
Don’t get ruffled if it seems the examiners aren’t paying attention to your performance. They have a lot to keep track of so expect them to take notes as soon as you start singing.
Don’t forget patience! The examiner/piano accompanist will need time to finish writing their notes and change their sheet music.
Remember: your exam is more an audition than a singing performance; you should expect starts and stops. By that same token, don’t rush things!
It’s perfectly normal, when nervous, to jump to answer questions. However, it would work to your advantage to take a few moments to think about your aural exam answers; your examiner doesn’t expect an immediate response, anyway.
And, when it’s all over, don’t forget to thank your examiners.
Exam Preparations Don’ts
After that list of ‘don’ts’, there are two, more general thoughts to pile on.
Avoid straining your voice. The main component of a singing exam is to sing but, in the run-up to exam day, you may want to limit yourself to only 15 minutes of singing per day.
Don’t forget to eat well and get enough sleep – even during practice.
Vocal health is a part of your general health; they could both suffer from lack of rest and improper diet.
Taking care of your voice – every day, not just in the run-up to exam day is as vital to your future as a vocalist as singing lessons and developing singing techniques.
Follow these tips to ensure a good result on your upcoming exam and the confidence to further your music education, even if you're skipping a singing grade.