Music is not all about raw, gripping talent, and a meteoric rise to fame. Yes, Shawn Mendes did it when he stormed the online world with his compelling vocals and incredible mastery of the acoustic guitar.
Justin Bieber also did it at the young age of thirteen when he suddenly skyrocketed to fame after he was discovered on YouTube by Scooter Braun. But the truth is, while there are certain exceptions – individuals who are seemingly gifted with unbelievably incredible vocals, most singers achieved career success by building their skills through practice, feedback, and sheer consistency.
The social media and extensive music auditions like Canada's Got Talent might be fertile grounds for opportunities to spring into the limelight quickly. Still, not all 'show-downs' take place on video-streaming platforms or before judges and a cheering audience.
Many key players in the Canadian music industry and even throughout the world go through hours, days, and even months of learning the basics, music theory, and taking voice lessons. They top this up by passing through a music certification program. This includes passing standardized singing and music exams designed to test their understanding, ascertain their performance, and professionally qualify them.
While this process sure looks a lot less sensational and more work-inclined than, say, posting a singing video that hopefully goes 'viral' on Instagram, it is a well-proven track to develop your music career. One that is not entirely left to chance and wishes.
So what are singing grades? Let's dive more into this subject.
Overview of Graded Exams in Canada
Grades are music examinations designed to assess the proficiency of a singer or a learner of musical instruments. Graded exams usually are in eight levels, which include music theory and practical. Any of these exam levels can be taken without going through the previous grade. Well, at least the first five grades.
Grades 6 – 8 practical classes do have a requirement of having to pass either a grade 5 practical or a grade 5 theory. These exams' goal is to provide an objective guide to skill, proficiency, and measure progress. Hence, as you climb up higher in the grading levels, the exams become more complicated than the lower levels. Discover the best ways to pass a singing exam.
While there are no age or level restrictions, some subjects have a pre-grade level to accommodate students who are not confident or proficient enough to fit into any of the traditional eight grades.
There are three types of graded exams, each existing in the eight-levels we've already talked about:
- Music Theory Exams
These are written tests that deal with the theory of music. The first grades music theory exams (1-4) deal mostly with understanding the basics of music, notation, and other technicality. However, advanced classes can get very challenging and require passing the grade 5 theory exams in other to qualify. Read more tips for success in singing exams.
- Practical Exams
The practical graded exam tests the candidate's performance skills using musical pieces, their musical perception via aura tests, and the quality of their technical skills with scales and arpeggios. The exams are scored over 150 and require at least a score of 100 to secure a pass.
- Practical Musicianship
These tests are more concerned about testing the student's sense of melody, rhythm, flow, and form. They are more intuitive than analytical and, as such, are not officially scored. Instead, they are used as a kind of internal assessment to evaluate the candidate's singing performance.
These standards were initially developed by ABRSM but are now widely used by other grading examination boards.
How Were Graded Exams Established?
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) is a significant singing examination board that provides graded exams for assessing Canadian singers. It was the brain-child of Alexander Mackenzie in 1890 when he decided to merge the Royal Academy of Music in London with the Royal College of Music.
Mackenzie, along with the founding director of the Royal Academy of music, George Grove, believed that combining these two musical institutions into one single entity would go a long way in creating a highly standardized examining board. This board would be instrumental in running support programs, examinations, and music certification program.
The board now boasts of a significant presence in more than 93 countries, with more than 600,000 students taking graded exams in Singing, Piano, Guitar, woodwind instruments, and voice lessons. It was finally in 1986 that ABRSM music support and exam eventually took off in Canada.
ABRSM graded exams' structure was designed to facilitate a framework that supports musicians' progression from beginner to advanced stages.
However, ABRSM is not the only graded examination board you can go through as a singer in Canada. The royal conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada, is also a very viable option to consider.
It is a non-profit music education institution that designs the music standard in Canada and internationally, providing more than 100,000 graded examinations in 300 communities worldwide. The program is also considered an essential entrance requirement for many professional programs in universities. The Royal conservatory has a background that is pretty similar to the ABRSM. It was founded in 1924 by merging the Toronto College of music and the Canadian Academy of music.
Although Trinity College has roots in London, the graded exams are very much available in Canada and other countries. It is considered to offer one of the most authoritative graded singing exams.
You can also take lessons in musical instruments such as the piano. If you plan to enroll in a music certification program either at Trinity College or the London school of music, taking these institutions' graded exams is just for you. Whereas if you are eyeing any of the four royal colleges of music, taking the ABRSM is the way to go.
The structures of the exam boards are almost similar, with uniform requirements and singing grades.
Requirements for Practical Graded Exams
The graded practical exam is the most widely attempted type of graded exams. And frankly speaking, this is understandable.
Many students taking graded exams are often trying to compare their performance against internationally recognised standards. While music theory is also an important component, this knowledge can be easily picked up by taking advantage of online learning and education platforms. But the practical exam is different. To pass this exam, a candidate must perform well on four different types of exercises:
With this series of tests, the student has only 30 seconds to go through a previously unknown piece and then deliver a representation as accurately as possible. This tests how quickly the candidate can pick up unknown musical pieces and do justice to them.
These exercises assess a student's level of skill in listening to and analyzing music correctly. Depending on the grade level, the tests may range from singing a melody of a piece given by the examiner to explore the dynamics and style.
- Set pieces
Here the student is required to play three pieces that are given beforehand. These pieces will reflect the singing grade or the type of instrument selected and cuts across different musical styles and timelines. Often, the goal of this exercise is to encourage musical versatility and exposure to a range of musical styles. The accompanying musical instrument (piano) for these set pieces is the distinctive feature of the exercise.
- Scales and arpeggios
The complexity of this exercise is determined primarily by the singing grade. This exercise is where having a good understanding of music theory, and voice lessons will be of significant help. The pass mark for this test is often scored over 14. What about skipping grades?
Which Singing Grade Exams to Go for?
Some of the questions on the mind of many students planning to take singing grade exams in Canada often include:
- Which Particular board examination should I go for?
- Which grade level should I attempt?
While these questions are real concerns and may have different implications, their answer is pretty straightforward – it all depends on you.
While there are four boards with a physical presence that can conduct singing grade exams in Canada, the learning and exams framework is similar. A useful ground-rule which you might have spied earlier in this article is:
- If you want to attend any of the Royal School of music, go for the associate Board Grade exams.
- If you plan to attend either of the remaining three, take their grading exams. However, you should note that ABRSM is a bit more internationally recognized.
However, the singing grade exam you should attempt is based on your current level of music understanding, skill, and proficiency. You should also try to take voice lessons or online singing lessons if you doubt how well you can sing. The grading exams are only designed to assess your performance and voice-quality against set standards, not pass a vote for or against your singing career.
That said, if you're a skill-full singer, you should fit easily into the 1-4 grades, while as an experienced singer, you can start from grade 5 since subsequent grades and levels will require you already passed grade 5.
Are you in Canada and you are looking for where to take singing lessons or register for any of the singing grade exams? Visit Superprof today and finding a singing lesson and tutor close to you.
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