Preparing for Examinations

By Marc Powellthumb

Examinations for music students are becoming more popular each year. These tests can be great to build confidence and give structure for students in their studies. ABRSM, Trinity Guildhall, Piano Guild, NFMC are all examples of organizations who provide assessments for all levels of study. These examinations are also helpful for college bound students, especially those thinking of pursuing a degree in music.

The exams my students participate in each year are administered through the Royal Conservatory’s Music Development Program. I have seen my students who participate really start to be more detailed in their practice and eager to take on more challenges each year. This article will detail some helpful tips that I use to help choose and prepare students for the tests.

How to pick a student

When a student hears the word “test”, the first thing that usually pops into his mind are No. 2 pencils and answer sheets of multiple choice bubbles to color. The mere thought of being examined can sometimes strike fear into a student.

I try to find a student who likes challenges and shows strong practice skills and regular attendance as a candidate for the examinations. Remember, the students will be representing you and your studio when they perform for a judge. If they have a lot of trouble preparing for regular lessons, adding the pressure of an examination may backfire and create negative feelings towards enjoying music in the future.

If I think a student may be a good candidate and want to check their interest in the examinations, I avoid the word test at all costs. I present the idea as an evaluation, or sometimes I call it the smallest recital you can give. If it’s a more competitive student who loves to show off, I present it as a chance to earn a high score for playing their instrument.

For older students, encourage the examinations as a way to keep them focused and to work towards long term goals. For the ones interested in pursuing a musical career, I make it a requirement to try it once as a way to show them how their future classes in conservatory will feel for 4 years.

Picking the right level

The most important part of picking the right level is to read the syllabus and requirements of whichever program you decide to try. If a student can play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” but cannot remember how to play minor scales, it would be much better to find an intermediate level where the repertoire and technical requirements can be well balanced. For the students in these cases, I use this as a chance to work on foundational skills that may still be shaky and to teach true artistry. Using a slightly lower level can also help the student’s confidence for the exam, so that the music feels comfortable and the other aspects don’t feel overwhelming or intimidating.

For my future music majors, the student and I go through and see if any potential audition pieces match a level. If the student is a sophomore or junior in high school, we do the same and then choose a level either at the repertoire requirements or one below so that we can build up to the difficulty for the future audition.

Time to prepare and test

I am in the camp of only testing once a year. I like to take the time in each level to explore the pieces available so that when it is time to take the examination, the student feels like they have the most say in which pieces they would like to use. I also like to make sure the student has time to do fun pieces like pop music and holiday music.

My students and I usually decide testing repertoire about 10-12 weeks before the examination date. This gives us time to pick out new songs or brush up previously played pieces that the student would like to play again. During these weeks, I try to keep the lesson structure the same, and incorporate checks into the progress of their scales and memorizing. I try to make sure there are still new pieces incorporated to prevent the student from feeling like they are having the same lesson over and over for those weeks.

The goal of the examinations should be to enhance the lessons, not completely dominate the curriculum. Students face so many testing requirements at school now, especially with Common Core, SATs, ACTs, etc. The lessons should be enjoyed for creating music and exploring a student’s creativity, not be just about getting a score every 6 months.

The examinations have been well received by my students over the past couple of years and more students become interested when they see their studio mates shine on recital performances. I have had students as young as 10 to as old as 16 take the examinations and have seen a growth in their independence and work ethic. They feel more confident in recital performances and in their weekly lessons.

While not every student may be interested in examinations for music, I highly recommend trying out a program once to see if it can enhance your students’ music potential.

Catoctin School of Music
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