Monthly Archives: May 2013

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause


Check out this week’s pick of the blogosphere. Do you like the new Friday Favourites log?

The Key to Better Performances and Crispier Waffles (Bulletproof Musician) – a fab post by the master of great advice on the mental and emotional battles of music. This one is focusing on control – specifically the things we can control.

Bashing on Keys (LaDona’s Music Studio) – anyone who’s ever played piano has probably done this.

Express Yourself Vocal Scheme (Helen Russell Music) – The long-awaited Key skills stage of Helen’s vocal scheme, which rewards achievement for beginners before they reach Grade 1. Check out the whole scheme from this page. I’m currently trying to develop my own version with a focus on classical music skills.

Music Apps for Teachers and Students (Color In My Piano) – A new permanent page from Joy, who runs Color in my Piano recommending some good music apps. I’m not sure how many are available in the UK and/or x-platform, but it’s worth at this list if you’re planning to buy some.

ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 1: Know Your Voice

NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here

A Stack of BooksFacing the list of song choices for an ABRSM singing exam can be daunting. For most other instruments there are between 6 and 10 choices per list. Several popular instruments even have their own book published with three pieces from each list in, making it very simple to choose. In contrast, Grade 1 singing has 22 pieces in list A, 21 for list B and 31 for list C. By Grade 8 this has grown to 53 choices for list A, 43 on list B, 45 on list C and 46 on list D!

There is one very important reason for all this choice, and it’s the thing which is most important to remember when deciding on repertoire – no two voices are the same. There are a mixture of male, female and non-gendered songs right from Grade 1, and from Grade 6 some songs are listed with specific voice types.

The key questions I use for choosing repertoire for AB exams are more or less the same as the ones I use for choosing my own concert repertoire:

  • What is the vocal range? Can my student hit every note required with confidence?  – Note that many of the songs on the AB lists are published in several keys. I tend not to do my own transpositions as it’s rarely necessary. However, the syllabus says “all items may be sung by any voice and in any key, published or transposed, suited to the compass of the candidate’s voice, except for those items from operas, operettas, oratorios, cantatas and sacred works in Grades 6–8 (Lists A and D) where a particular voice and key are specified (although original pitch may be adopted in Baroque pieces, if appropriate)”.
  • Where is my student’s vocal strength? – It’s no good to give a student who struggles to hold pitch in their upper registers a song which is almost entirely at a high pitch. Songs should reflect the best qualities of a student’s voice.
  • Does my student struggle with any techniques? Are there technical things they are really good at? – Young students may struggle to sustain long phrases as their lungs are small. Other students might have a knack for crisp articulation, or maintain really good tone on long notes.
  • For foreign languages: does my student already know a little German / French / Italian / Spanish / Icelandic? – Knowing a little of the language can really help a student understand and engage with foreign language pronunciation, as well as with communicating meaning.
  • How old is my student? How good at conveying emotional content are they? – ABRSM exams don’t have the acting component that Music Theatre exams do, but it is important to bear in mind that some songs may not be appropriate to give a young singer. Singers who are particularly good at conveying emotion should be directed to a song which can show off their talents.

I also have two more non-musical considerations:

  • Can you get hold of the music? – There’s an anthology of Icelandic Art Songs, for example, that is on several lists, but I can’t find anywhere to buy it from except the publishers’ website which is in Icelandic. If you can’t get a legal copy of the music, you can’t sing the song in the exam. Period.
  • Is it an overdone song? – Watch out for songs which appear in a lot of anthologies, especially the graded ones. Examiners will have heard these more often than repertoire which is only “published separately”. Watch out for really well known songs too. I’m sure it’s just a legend, but I’m convinced that it helps to offer a programme containing less popular songs!

These questions will start to narrow down the lists, but there’s no substitute for listening to as many songs as possible and singing at least a few from each list. YouTube has recordings of the vast majority of songs and is invaluable for making a first pass through. I try to maintain playlists with as many of the songs as I can find over at my YouTube page.

Ultimately, I do find that as much gut instinct as analysis goes into selecting songs for exams. With my younger students, I usually choose a list myself, but with older ones it can be a great journey to go on together to listen, sample, try out and choose a programme both of you love.

Join me again next week for a look at the types of music which can be found on each list.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 2: The Lists

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

ABRSM Grade 6+ Theory Resources

the_hand_writes_musical_notes_a_featherMany a theory student has reached the dizzy heights of passing ABRSM Grade 5 theory and thought ‘I’m enjoying this, why not do more?’, only to fall at the first hurdle by buying the wrong materials to learn with.

If you, or someone you know, would like to take ABRSM Grade 6 theory, here are my tips and book recommendations:


  • The exam format changes dramatically from grade 5 to grade 6, and many say it’s the largest leap. Have a browse through a past paper at a music shop to familiarise yourself with where you’re going.
  • Allow plenty of time to study for it – I would recommend at least a year.
  • Start with more general workbooks on harmony before trying to tackle the exams. This is not an exam which is simply regurgitating facts any more!
  • Listen to plenty of music, and get to know more about styles and composers as this will help with the score-reading questions.
  • Make time for learning musical terms and instrumental names throughout your studies.
  • If in doubt, find a teacher. You are best to look for someone who specialises in theory at advanced level, so use a resource like ISM’s musican directory to ensure you’re going to someone who knows their stuff.


  • Harmony is Fun (Maureen Cox & Claire Liddel) is your best starting point. Although these books don’t look like much, they review all the core harmony content from Grade 1-5, and then introduce more advanced building blocks with fun illustrations which will help you remember Mother chord, and Father chord for many years to come. Link is to the Boosey & Hawkes shop listing for the first book.
  • Harmony in Practice (Anna Butterworth) is a mighty tome, and can appear both dense and dull on first reading. It is kinda both. However, you will never forget how to write out all the chords you might ever need since there are extensive practice exercises. Answer book is sold separately. Link is to Amazon listing.
  • Practice in Music Theory (Josephine Koh) provides the best ‘graded’ introduction to the skills required to pass the exam itself. These books work through the new harmonic vocabulary and key concepts before seamlessly moving onto tasks which echo the exam questions. There is one book for each grade, and the link here is to Grade 6 on Musicroom.
  • My Music isn’t a book, although you can buy their lessons as a pdf, which sort of counts. They do, however, provide a careful introduction through the theoretical concepts leading towards the exam questions int he same way as Practice in Music Theory. Well worth using, though there’s nothing for 7 and 8 yet. Link is direct to the grade 6 page.
  • Theory Workbook (ABRSM) gives a more exam-direct approach with each question as encountered on the exam itself being broken down into manageable steps. The authors work the questions slowly and methodically from start to finish, with working shown at each stage and then a selection of examples to practice. Again, there is one book for each level and the link is to Musicroom.

Reference Books

  • AB Guide to Music Theory (Part I & Part II) (Eric Taylor) are recommended reading for all theory exams. The information contained in Part I covers up to grade 5, and is recommended as a reference book from the start. Part II goes on to cover useful information like the names of instruments in multiple languages, which is required at grade 6 and above.

Hopefully, I will add to this list over time, but if you have any suggestions of things you’ve used and found helpful, please let me know!

Theory Exam Top Tips

With the ABRSM (and other boards’) theory exams only weeks away, I thought now would be a good time to offer up some of my top tips for revising for the exam, and then for what to do in the exam room.

What to do BEFORE the exam

Too many books!Revision is a word which strikes fear into the heart of anyone who has ever sat a written exam, but thankfully music theory exams are not revision heavy. If you’ve worked carefully through whichever materials your teacher has given you to use, you should know all the information and have a good idea how to attempt the questions which will be on the paper by this stage (three weeks before the exam). In the last few weeks, here are my top suggestions:

  • Practice taking the exam – Complete at least one exam paper under the same conditions you would have in the exam. Find some space away from distractions and go for it. Going through the paper like this will show up anywhere you have serious problems, and help you get an idea of which questions you’re confident on, and which you’re not.
  • Work on learning the vocabulary – While the list of terms for ABRSM is so extensive that no one remembers all of them, even a small amount of time spent working on the terms tested means a) you have a better chance you’ll know the answer to that question, b) you’ll have more choices for the “compose a melody” question and c) you’ll know more terms when you come across them in music. Click here to access my Quizlet page for ABRSM exam vocabulary (I hope to get a Trinity one up soon).
  • Get familiar with symbols – Make sure you know what all the symbols which might be used up to Grade 5 mean. You need to be ok with naming ornaments, phrasing and articulation marks and a selection of other things. has some great flash quizzes to help with revision.
  • Practice drawing a piano – it’s really useful to be able to map out a piano keyboard on the top of your working paper in the exam. Click here for a visual guide.
  • Make sure you are sure about cadences and chords – not only will this make the chord identification question guaranteed marks, but it will help you with the underpinning of your “compose a melody”. Practice working out what the triads are for I, IV and V in any key. Practice creating melodies over these chords. I hope to put up some information about this in the future, but you can get some great advice over at in the meantime.
  • Know your orchestra – just like with the chords and cadances, knowing the vital statistics (range, phrase markings, clef, family) for standard orchestral instruments means both marks on the question direcly testing this, and more marks on the “compose a melody” question. Again, has some great information. In future, you can also check out my resources pages for more revision tools.
  • Decide if you’re doing the “compose a melody” for instrument or voice – it might seem like a good idea to wait and see what’s there, but, in reality, it’s much better to pick one and put all the effort into that question rather than dividing your energy over the two.

Revision is best done little by little, so carve out ten minutes a day in the weeks leading up to the exam to revise. If you can rope in a friend or family member, they can test you on vocabulary, ornaments and the instruments of the orchestra. Don’t forget on the day to make sure you have a couple of pencils, a sharpener, a ruler and a good quality rubber/eraser with you. Leave anything with musical images at home.

What to do IN the exam

2B or Not 2B PencilsI always advise my candidates to tackle the exam in this order:

  1. Read the whole paper cover to cover. Make a note of anything that looks tricker than expected, or super easy.
  2. Turn next to the compose a melody question. It’s the part most candidates are most worried about, so tackling it first gets it out of the way while you’re fresh. Decide which one you’re doing in advance, to take off some of the pressure on the day. Do the question using the method you’ve practiced at home.
  3. Go back to the rest of the paper. You can tackle the questions in any order, though I usually then go for the score reading question as a break from the technical work and then do the rest in the order it’s printed.
  4. Attempt every question. A blank space cannot be awarded any marks, but if you make an educated guess there’s a chance you’ll have the right one.
  5. Once you’ve written an answer for everything on the paper, go back to the compose a melody. Hum it through in your head, try to imagine how it sounds. If there’s anything that sounds awkward, you can change it. Only do this if you are really sure, though. Make sure you’ve put in appropriate tempo markings, volume markings, phrasing, articulation and ornaments. Check you’ve written everything neatly and there’s no ambiguity as to what note you’re writing.
  6. Go back to the front cover of your paper. Read through every answer you’ve given and check you’re happy with it. Take a final look at your compose a melody as part of this.
  7. If you feel content you’ve given the best answers you can under the circumstances, it’s time to hand in your paper and head out of the room.

This shouldn’t take you more than the time allowed (it’s very generous), but if you are finding you’re taking almost all the time, make sure that when you see there’s 20 minutes left, you stop writing and move on to the checking stages. Give yourself around 10 minutes for stage 5 and 10 for stage 6.

What to do AFTER the exam

  • Piano hands

    Image from Robert Couse-Baker on flickr

    Do something nice for yourself. Get coffee, or cake, or just chill out at home.

  • Try not to worry about what you wrote – it’s ok to look up the answers to questions when you get home if that will help you to let go, but don’t do it if you’ll just be more worried.
  • Remember why you’re doing this – it’s because you love music, and want to play your instrument well. Treat yourself to some fun practice time, playing the music you love.

Good luck, everyone. I know you can do it! If you have any more tips, why not comment below, and I’ll add the best ones into the post.

Asthma and Singing

As someone who was diagnosed with asthma around the age of 7, it’s been my life longer than singing has. My symptoms are generally mild, and I’ve never been hospitalised, but my diagnosis does still affect my day to day functioning.

Asthma InhalersA few years ago, I went to my routine asthma appointment and discussed my medication as usual. As a result of the appointment, my asthma nurse transitioned me onto a new daily inhaler. The new inhaler helped with my symptoms as expect, but it also had the effect of almost instantly improving my top range! I gained three or four extra notes almost overnight.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, firstly, because if you suffer from asthma, getting the right medical treatment can make a huge difference to your singing. Secondly, I genuinely believe that my singing lessons have helped improve my asthma.

Asthmatic Singers: Getting the Right Medication

If you are diagnosed as asthmatic, when did you last see your asthma nurse? In the UK, all asthmatics should see the asthma nurse at their local GP surgery at least once a year. For under 16s, that should be every six months. If you’ve not seen anyone about your asthma in more than a year, the first thing is to give your GP a call, and see your nurse. It takes 15 minutes a year, and could save your life.

Asthma UK LogoAsthma UK has a short test they’ve called “The Triple A Test” which can help you determine if you are at a high risk of an asthma attack. However, if you find yourself struggling to breathe, or getting wheezing or coughing symptoms, you should make an appointment to see the asthma nurse or your GP rather than waiting until your routine checkup.

Singers use their lungs as the “power” for their sound, and so all singers need to take good care of their lungs. I’m a big advocate of the important of a healthy lifestyle as part of good singing practice. For asthmatics, this means we need to be on the right medication.

As singers, it’s also important to pay attention to your breath control. If you are struggling to sing through phrases, or need to snatch breaths more often, it is worth making an appointment to see your GP/asthma nurse. If you are newly diagnosed, tell your GP that you sing. If you’ve just taken up singing lessons, let your asthma nurse know at your next appointment. Part of the care you should get at an asthma check-up is a personalised asthma management plan, and your singing should be considered when making that plan.

Why Singing Can Help With Asthma

One of the core things singing lessons focus on is breathing. Part of learning to sing is learning to control the muscles that help us breath, and to build strength in our lungs. This is really important for asthmatics as it improves general lung health.

Singers rehearsingMany singers also find that practicing breathing helps when they feel that first indication of their asthma “flaring up”. While singing techniques are unlikely to help in a full-blown asthma attack, they can help to slow down the cycle of panic which can worsen asthma symptoms. Deeper breathing also helps to get more oxygen into the lungs, which means less gasping for breath.

Although there’s been little research directly into what Asthma UK calls “complimentary therapies”, they do say that “some people with asthma find that some complementary therapies and treatments help to relieve stress which can be a trigger for asthma. Others have been shown to help reduce asthma symptoms, such as breathlessness.” Singing is likely to fall under both of these categories. I have certainly found that using singing breathing techniques have been helpful, both to keep me calm, and to help my symptoms pass (alongside using my inhaler).

Of course, singing lessons are not designed to replace medical treatment, and singers should never stop taking their asthma medication without being told to by their GP or asthma nurse. However, if you’re asthmatic, don’t be afraid that your diagnosis might prevent you from succeeding at singing. It’s far more likely that singing will benefit your asthma.

If you want to know more about controlling and manging asthma, please visit Asthma UK’s website, or call their asthma nurse helpline on 0800 121 62 55.

For international readers, a simple google search will usually bring up your local organisation, but here are links for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, The Asthma Society of Canada and the National Asthma Council Australia, all of whom have advice on getting treatment and managing the condition.

Friday Favourites

Here’s a round-up of the best music-related blog posts of the week:

How to pass a music diploma (Cross-Eyed Pianist) – A great blog post reviewing the writer’s experience of taking piano diplomas. Anyone interested in taking a music diploma will find this interesting and useful, and many of the tips apply beyond just diplomas – they’re useful for graded exams and recitals too.

Why We Should Eliminate “Shoulds” From Our Vocabulary (Bulletproof Musician) – Anther wonderful post from the Bulletproof Musician about the mental game of music. This time he’s looking at why “should” isn’t always very helpful.

Preparing for an ABRSM Singing Exam – A New Blog Post Series

ABRSM Mark SheetsABRSM classical singing exams are the most rigorous exams I prepare candidates for. Not only are students required to sing a song in a range of styles from a variety of periods, but they are also required to sing unaccompanied and pass supporting tests. Although the other boards do offer classical singing exams, ABRSM continues to have a better reputation, and the other syllabi do not offer anything that I think is substantially better than ABRSM. I have also taken the ABRSM exams myself, which makes it much easier to support my students through the process.

ABRSM Prep Test BookABRSM does not specify any minimum entry requirements for Grades 1-5, although I would be reluctant to put any child under late primary school in for formal singing exams. For young singers, ABRSM offers an unmarked Prep test, and a marked alternative is Trinity’s Initial grade.

To enter for Grades 6 to 8, candidates must have a Grade 5 theory qualification. Although this might seem arduous, it is vital that singers come to grips with the theory of music covered in this syllabus as it can be all too easy to miss out otherwise. As I have worked on my theoretical studies, I have found that it has made it easier to understand the music I am studying, which in turn has sped up the learning process. Rather than try to crash through theory after Grade 5, I include theory right from the very beginning so students can pass with confidence with the time comes.

Preparing for practical exams should be both a long, slow process and a fast, focused one. Singers have the privilege of the longest exam repertoire lists of any instrument, which means there is a huge range of songs to choose from. In fact, it’s quite hard to find repertoire for students that doesn’t appear on an exam list for ABRSM or one of the other boards! In this way, exam preparation is a long, slow process of singing different songs and exploring lots of repertoire before making the final decision on the exam content. Sight-reading and aural activities also form part of this long preparation period.

The fast, focused part of the process is the time spent during the exam session. I always try to have decided on the repertoire we (the Candidate and I) are presenting, by the closing date for submitting applications for the exams. Then we use the next six weeks to focus on these pieces and practicing sight-reading and aural tests in the exact form a candidate will meet them in the exam.   I don’t like to spend months and months, or even a year on exam pieces. It’s too easy to get bored, and it results in students becoming performing monkeys who can pass exams, but do nothing else. Being more focused for a shorter period of time is also much more like the real-life process of preparing for concerts, shows, or auditions which might only come with a few weeks’ notice!


ABRSM Exam Certificates

Of course, the most important question is: is it worth it? My answer is a resounding “yes!”. Exams make wonderful targets to work towards, and it’s really useful to get feedback from an independent person about how you’re doing.  It’s really nice to have a certificate which declares to all the world what you can achieve too.

The rest of this series will take you through the process of preparing the exam from choosing your repertoire, to those last minute tips to help you on the day of the exam. If you haven’t already got one, having a copy of the syllabus to hand will be useful as we explore preparing for these exams. The syllabus can be downloaded from the ABRSM website here.

Check back next week for part two of this series.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 1: Know Your Voice”


Setting Goals for your Music – Why You Should be SMART

No matter what it is you’re learning, setting yourself a target is essential. You need to know where you’re going to know how to get there. It’s one of the main reasons why schools have a curriculum – there’s so much information in the world, so a curriculum gives teachers direction, and creates targets.

Most young learners come to learning music with the same expectation as in school. We learn things, and then we take exams to prove it. Young students are also used to teachers setting the pace and direction. Some will come in knowing they want a career in music, but many are happy with moving from one target (usually graded exams) to the next with no long-term goal in mind.

For adult learners, however, musical targets can be a huge problem! Private teachers often struggle with students whose targets that are far too ambitious “I want to go from nothing to Grade 8 in one year”, or who flounder when things get tough because they have no goals and “just want to play for fun”. Both of these extremes usually end up with the student giving up.

I first came across the concept of setting SMART goals on my gap year, where we were challenged to set ourselves personal goals for the year beyond completing the course. Although I didn’t manage to achieve all of mine, simply making the goals meant that I made more careful choices about how behaved and what I did with my free time.

While “SMART” goals are a bit 1980s Yuppie, they are effective, and I encourage my students to set goals annually that match more or less to these criteria:

S is for Specific – The “just play for fun” student quickly falls at the first hurdle. Playing for fun isn’t very specific. Exams are, of course, very specific. However, specific could be something like “I want to learn to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables” or “I’d like to reach a top Bb”. If you’re coming into music with a loose goal like “singing for fun”, try to define what you mean by fun right now. Is singing in a choir fun? Or is “fun” singing solos for an audience?

M is for Measurable – Goals also need to be something you can know you’ve achieved. There’s a chasm of difference between “I want to climb a couple of mountains” and “I want to climb Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike” [the highest mountains in Scotland, Wales and England respectively]. The first one is fairly specific, but it’s not as easy to measure.A signer might say “I want to improve my vocal range”, which is a specific goal, but “I want to have a solid Bb” is even clearer.

A is for Attainable – Attainable is where our “I want to get to Grade 8 in a year” goal fails. While it’s very specific and measurable, it’s not realistically attainable. Even in singing, where a student might very well start with Grade 5, a year is not going to be enough time to develop the skills required to pass at Grade 8. It’s a bit like saying “I want to run a marathon in one week’s time”. Even a professional athlete makes decisions about what races they’re going to run months or years in advance because they know it takes time to prepare. A goal like “I want to be on (or, worse, win) the X Factor” is also going to fall down on the attainability. You might be talented enough, and you might have allowed enough time, but it’s still statistically unlikely (and why would you want to be on a show like that anyway…?).

R is for Relevant – Relevance is not normally a problem for musical goal setting, but it is important to keep your goals connected to what you’re doing. If you’re studying singing, make sure your musical goal is related to singing, not playing the piano!

T is for Time-Bound – Ideally, time-bound should mean you give yourself a deadline. The “grade 8 in one year student” has given themselves a great deadline, even if it’s completely unrealistic! Sometimes, time-bound is “by Christmas” or “in two years’ time”. Time-bound can also be a little less specific. I have goals which have are “soon”, which translates to “somewhere in about the next three to six months, maybe”. I do have a sense of time, but it’s a bit vague. Depending on what sort of person you are, you may find fixed deadlines more or less helpful than vague ones. Usually more driven people are ok with vague deadlines, while naturally reticent people respond better to more concrete time restrictions!

If your goal meets all these criteria, it’s a great goal, and your teacher should be able to help you get there. Not every goal is achieved, of course. Some change before we get to the end. That’s absolutely fine. I once heard someone point out that “you can’t steer a ship that’s not moving” (Think about it. It’s absolutely true). Of course, if you never reach your goals before you change them, you might want to think about why that happens.

Goals are great. Everyone should have at least one. Why not have a think about what goals you could set for your music, and let me know in the comments below?

If you’re a teacher, keep an eye on the blog, as I hope to post later in the year about the resources I use to help my students set their own SMART goals. You can follow me on Twitter, like my page on Facebook or get posts delivered by RSS feed.

Friday Favourites

I’ve followed a number of music and music teaching blogs for a while now, and to encourage you to check them out yourself, I hope to flag up my favourite articles of the week right here on Friday afternoons.

So, without further ado, this week’s top musical blog posts:

Discord (Don’t Shoot the Pianist) – One fantastic cartoon. Who hasn’t wanted to do this to someone?

Piano Exam Success: 9 key Points (ClassicalMel) – A great list of tips for taking ABRSM exams. Some aren’t relevant to singers, but many of them apply for all practical subjects. If you’re taking an exam this term, it’s worth checking out Mel’s list.

A Piano Practice Game That Will Make Piano Pieces “Stick” (Teach Piano Today) – A great game idea that uses Naughts and Crosses (or Tick-Tack-Toe for Americans) to challenge students to practice bar by bar. Designed for pianists, but suitable for adaption to other instruments including singing.

#FollowFridays on Twitter include our favourite exam board, @ABRSM, and @edinplayhouse where Ghost: The Musical is touring. Follow @discoversinging on Twitter for more.