Monthly Archives: June 2013

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause


Are you enjoying the non-musical joys of Wimbledon this week? I certainly am. However, if things aren’t getting too nailbiting this evening, enjoy some strawberries and cream or a glass of pimms while checking out this little lot…


Write Down the Vision (Music Teacher’s Helper) – Have you thought about what you want out of music lessons? This teacher has helped her students to do just that. Why not write down your vision this week? Check out my post on SMART goals for some tips on how to set targets to get there too.

Music Education Helps Kids Learn to Read (Washington Post) – A new study done in Germany has suggested that music education in schools improves the skills kids need to learn to read.

I Think This Kid Just One-Upped Mozart (Teach Piano Today) – An inspiring story about a boy who has turned his piano skills to charitable good. Definitely a challenge to us all too!

Music Alphabet Games for Young Students (Compose Create) – Some really cute printables for teaching kids the letters we use in the musical alphabet.

ABRSM Exams – Supporting Tests: Sight-Reading

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

Sight Singing. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of music students everywhere! I used to be really scared of this part of the exam, but I realised later that this was largely because I didn’t get the level of study and preparation that I should have done until my very last, Grade 8, exam. I even failed my Grade 5 sight-reading…

One of the biggest holes in singing teaching resources is a really good series of materials targeted at the ABRSM graded sight-singing requirements. For most of the other popular instruments there’s a great series of 8 books which help students work through the transition between each grade. Not so for singing.

There are, however, still plenty of good books around. I make use of “Improve Your Sight-Singing” by Paul Harris regularly, as it does have a good progression through from simple tunes to harder ones. I have also got hold of a few sets of tests including some I’ve found online and a big book I first discovered in the university library. Arming yourself with loads and loads of material to sight-sing is the first part of the battle.

Before tackling even Grade 1 sight-singing, singers do need to be able to read music. Some singing students come to me as “second study” singers having previously learned to play an instrument. These singers can already read music, but need to learn to read it in a new way to be confident at sight-singing. Other singers come to singing as their first ever music lessons, and they are often either non-readers, or only know a very little.

For those who can read music, the best option I have found is to switch between using a sight-singing book like Improve Your Sight-Singing and simply presenting the student with real music. Make sure that you know what kind of level you’re expecting your students to be able to read at – for Grade 1, the range is small, and the steps are all tones or semitones within the major scale. (The syllabus has all the information you need). Don’t be afraid to give students more challenging music occasionally, but keep it largely close to the exam requirements.

For non-readers, sight-reading is much easier to teach as it can be built into a musicianship scheme like Go for Bronze or Jolly Music. Both of these schemes use Kodaly principles to introduce written music in the context of “sound before sight” – students sing a song, and then see the notation. By the end of the two levels of Go for Bronze, students should be more than ready to tackle sight-reading at Grade 1.

For all students, when facing the actual exam itself, it’s good to go over a process that students can engage in during the 30 seconds of looking time. I teach students to work through the following questions while using the example tests from the ABRSM book:

  • What is the tonality? Is it major or minor? (For singers, the specific key is not as important as it is for instrumentalists)
  • Are there accidentals? Where are they?
  • Are there any arpeggio/scale patterns I recognise?
  • Are there any large intervals?
  • How does it end? (If there’s time, hum through the first two and last two bars)

Singers, while required to perform with an accompaniment, no longer have an introduction, allowing students to set their own speed. I encourage students to start as slowly as they dare. Students can sing to “ah”, or to sol-fa names. From Grade 6, there are words, but they’re not mandatory. Make sure your student knows what they are going to do on the day.

It’s also worth reminding nervous candidates that they can choose to do their sight-reading first if they want to. The exam order is chosen by the candidate not the examiner.

There are no easy solutions or shortcuts to good sight-reading. The only certainty is that if you neglect it, it only becomes more difficult to catch up. This is probably the one area I would want to be sure a student was ready to pass before submitting them for an exam.

Useful Resources:

Next, we’ll look at the aural tests, which are (thankfully) much easier to prepare for and pass with flying colours.

–> Next: “Supporting Tests: Aural Tests

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause


This week’s Friday Favourites kick off with Cardiff Singer of the World, which can be seen on BBC Four. If you’ve not seen it, click the first link to find out what’s going on and see highlights from the competition.


BBC Cardiff Singer of the World – The biennial competition for opera singers, with only one entrant allowed to represent each country. Catch my thoughts on the blog all this week.

First Rehearsal-A-Phobia (Beyond the Notes) – Why you shouldn’t be afraid of the process of “putting it all together” – vital for anyone involved in collaborative music making.

Nightmare (Don’t Shoot the Pianist) – Ever had one of these dreams…? *shudder*

How Can We Talk to Young Students About Performance Anxiety? (Bulletproof Musician) – A great post for teachers and parents with a little interactive task to help us think about how to help the youngest performers face up to stage-fright.

Write it Out (Practicing the Piano) – A great idea I’ve not come across for tackling those slips and errors which plague us.

Can your students “mapify” and “tonalize”? (Music Teacher’s Helper) – An interesting take on sight-reading which tries to verbalise some of the aural processes of listening to music and playing on sight.

Why Choose a Qualified Music Teacher?

ABRSM Exam Certificates

I often come across students who ask the question “Can I start teaching once I’ve got my grade 8?”. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, to which the legal answer is “yes”. In the UK, we do not have a licensing system for private music teachers. There are no official qualifications, or routes into the profession. There is no single professional body one has to join. Legally speaking, anyone (literally anyone) can teach any instrument they fancy to anyone willing to let them.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s why I’ve titled the post the way I have. If you’re a student wanting to teach, this post should give you some idea of the benefits to you and your students to getting a qualification. For those of you looking to find a music teacher, this is why you shouldn’t just ask about performance qualifications, even degrees.

Qualified music teachers are qualified as teachers not just performers

Graded exams don’t have any requirements which test teaching – they’re designed to test learning, and these are different skills. A candidate with a distinction at Grade 8 might be a wonderful performer, but they might also find it hard to explain to a student how and why they do what they do to achieve that performance. There are some wonderful performers who may be so comfortable with their abilities that they find teaching a beginner frustrating! Music degrees, whether from universities or conservatories, also don’t generally include any training on how to teach music to others. If your prospective music teacher has only taken performance qualifications, how did they learn to teach?

Qualified teachers have invested in their own development

It’s not cheap to sit a teaching qualification. For qualifications in private music teaching, a candidate will be required to spend upwards of £200 (rising to £600-£1000 for top level qualifications) just to sit the exam, never mind the hours of reading, study and preparation that have gone into the qualification. Anyone who is committed enough to put that kind of investment in is going to be someone who is invested in teaching for the long term, and is far more likely to be taking an interest in Continuing Professional Development. If your teacher isn’t a qualified teacher, are they taking steps to improve their teaching through books, courses and networking?

Qualified teachers know they way they learned isn’t the best way for everyone

Of course, this can be true of non-qualified teachers too, but part of getting teaching qualifications involves reading about pedagogy, and developing new ways to teach old skills. At higher levels, many exams require understanding of child development, psychology, sociology and even anatomy. I would never have learned so much about the physical nature of the voice if I had not studied for a teaching qualification, for example. By taking the time to study teaching as a skill in itself, qualified teachers are more likely to have a wide vocabulary of activities to teach each skill covered.

Qualified teachers have respect for their profession

Again, I realise many non-qualified teachers do have respect for the profession as a whole, but I feel that taking a qualification in teaching has two key benefits with regard to the whole profession. Taking a qualification, as has already been said, is an investment and one which directly reflects a commitment to teaching. Teachers who invest in training are likely to be teachers for the long haul – they’re not going to disappear once their music degree ends, never to be seen again! The other benefit of qualifications is that many of them help teachers develop a network of other teachers for support, help and ideas. Is your teacher undercutting their colleagues? Or do they have respect for their fellow teachers?


Yes, there are many good and experienced teachers who are not yet qualified. If you are one of them, I would urge you to invest the time and money in getting your skills and talents attested to by an independent body. To you I say, help us raise the bar with teaching and make it the norm for music teachers to be qualified as teachers not just performers.

Perhaps you are someone who wants to be a teacher? Please take the time to study teaching, to learn about how to help others learn, and get rewarded for that effort. It marks you out as someone worth learning with.

To prospective pupils, a qualified music teacher may charge you more, but they will be worth it in the long term. They are far more likely to be a teacher you can stick with right the way up the grades and on to greatness. Qualified teachers are a good investment.

If you’re looking for singing lessons in Edinburgh, click here to contact me – I am, after all, a qualified teacher.

ABRSM Exams – Preparing for Performance

 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


The process of learning songs for performance is the subject of hundreds of books, blog posts, websites and conversations among singers. Obviously, this post can only highlight some of the most important issues relating to preparing for ABRSM singing exams, so in this post, you’ll find my answers to some frequently asked questions about exam preparation.

Remember, preparing songs for performance is also a very personal journey. Teachers and students alike will have their own preferred methods for learning notes, memorising lyrics and engaging with the content. Finding what works for you is an important part of the process, so think about how you would answer each of the questions in your own way.

1. Where do you start once you’ve chosen your repertoire?

The obvious response is, at bar one! Certainly, the next step is to start learning the notes so that you are confident with “how it goes”.

With younger students, I will introduce the songs I’ve chosen one at a time over several lessons about a month or so before the closing date for entries. The order is not terribly important, but if one song is substantially longer, or more difficult than the others, I tend to introduce that one first.

For older students, choosing repertoire is usually a more collaborative process, and I aim for us to have decided on a programme a few weeks before the closing date. That still leaves plenty of time for learning the notes and polishing the performance.

2. Do you want a student to be “ready for the exam” before you enter them?

I am a big believer in not putting someone in for an exam until I’m confident they will pass. Failing is very disheartening for a student, and I don’t want to put someone in that situation. Obviously, sometimes candidates do fail despite their teachers best efforts because not everyone practices diligently, or unexpected things happen.

I don’t demand every student knows all their pieces before submission for the exam. Some people need a looming deadline to get them motivated to put the effort in – I’m that kind of student myself! However, if I’ve never submitted a pupil for an exam, I will try to make sure they are absolutely ready before I submit them the first time, and then see how they respond to the pressure.

3. Do you have any tips for learning songs quickly but still making sure you know them properly?

It’s best to mix things up with singing between working “line-by-line”, singing the whole song, and listening to how it goes. I usually start by sight-reading through the whole song, and then I work through it phrase by phrase to make sure I am accurate. Then I sing it as a whole a few times. Each practice time, I tend to use this “Sandwich Method”  of sing/play through and notice mistakes, isolate the bits that went wrong and then sing the whole song again. In between practices, I listen to recorded versions of the song to help me memorise them (you can find my YouTube playlists for the ABRSM exams here). It’s laborious to break down the song and work on individual phrases, but you’ll be glad you did when you get into the pressured situation of the exam (or concert).

Make sure you make notes in pencil on your score marking where you need to take breaths in long passages, and add other reminders about things like tone, vowel modification and dynamics. I often circle notes that I regularly get wrong, or add in accidentals that I forget about.

4. Do I have to memorise the words? How do I do that?

Singers are required by ABRSM to perform from memory, unless they are performing a work from an oratorio, where the custom is for soloists to use the music in regular performances. I ignore this last caveat as, even if you are performing with a score in an oratorio, it’s far better to have memorised it and just have the score there for reassurance/show than to be reliant on it. So yes, you have to memorise the words – even the ones in foreign languages.

I tend to find a combination of listening to the song and practicing it with the words from the beginning get me to about 90% certainty. Where I’m struggling with the words, I usually try to copy them out from the score a few times. Then I write them down from memory a few times. I also “mark” the song by half-singing the words in the shower or walking down the street to keep them circling round in my head.

5. What do I need to add to my performance to get really good marks?

The syllabus has a detailed mark scheme which you can read yourself, but the first key to great marks is to be absolutely spot on. Know your words, know your notes, and be really confident in yourself that you can sing your songs really well. The ABRSM value technical skill above all the other aspects of performing at grade level, so don’t neglect that side of it.

Make sure you get good advice from someone who can a) hear you and b) is trained as a singing teacher about your tonal quality. Most of the songs on the ABRSM syllabus should be sung in a classical style, where there is a purity of tone. Vowel sounds should be the focus of each note, with consonants bracketing it. You’re aiming for a vocal sound with an open throat and low larynx position – often described as “bel canto”. Some of the musical theatre songs require a different vocal set up. This is where a trained teacher’s advice is vitally important to doing really well.

The final aspect which is often neglected but is key to high marks is acting. All songs are being sung to someone. Know who your song is being sung to, and why. Try to feel the emotions of the song as you are singing it – think about times when you’ve felt the love or sadness being sung about. The last thing you want is to sing a song in an exam which is beautifully executed from a technical standpoint but is completely soulless. I’ve produced a worksheet I call “Understanding Repertoire” which can be found on my Resources page.

6. What about accompaniments?

Most ABRSM exam songs are available as downloads on one of the backing track websites on the Recommended Clicking page. It’s important to make use of these so you can be confident about holding your own against the piano. The higher up the grades, the less helpful the accompaniment is to the singer.

While you are practicing, think about whether you need to give your accompanist any instructions like “slow down here” or “don’t play this bit too quietly”. I never accompany my students for exams as I think it’s very important for singers to learn how to work with accompanists. We need to know how to be confident enough to ask for what we want, and we need to be able to trust the person manning the keyboard to work with us for a good performance.

7. Anything else I need to think about?

This is the time to make sure you have legal copies of everything, including the words/translation of your traditional song for the examiner.

You also need to do what you can to prepare for the practicalities like knowing how to get to the venue, and choosing what you’re going to wear. Once you have a date, make sure your accompanist can make it and arrange a rehearsal.

Further advice and guidance can be found in the ABRSM publication These Music Exams, which can be picked up in most music shops or downloaded from this page.

Oh, and don’t neglect your supporting tests – the aural and sight-reading tests can make all the difference to your exam results. They’re the subject of our next two blog posts. Next week’s is on the most “dreaded” element : sight-reading.

–> Next post “Supporting Tests: Sight-Reading

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

Review: Viva Forever

The evening choice for my London visit, as promised to my sister as a birthday gift, was Viva Forever touted as “a new musical based on the songs of the Spice Girls”.


Where and When: Picadilly Theatre London, Thursday 13 June 2013, 7:30pm

The Show

I did have a wobble about seeing this show as the reviews have been at best mixed, since the opening in December. Some were pretty brutal. (See the Daily Mail for a selection of quotes, the Guardian for a gently disappointed review and the Telegraph for a complete trashing). However, I don’t think it was quite so bad as to deserve half a star out of five (The Telegraph)!

I’ll start with the show itself, as usual. The real highlight was the book – the script was witty, especially the exchanges between Viva’s mother, Lauren, and her friend Suzi. Some of the songs were also used to great effect, such as “2 become 1” as a duet between Lauren and her new boyfriend Mitch.

Like all jukebox musicals, some of the songs were put in places where they felt forced or awkward. I didn’t think the problem was half as bad in this show as it was in We Will Rock You. However, the big group numbers worked really well, and I loved the duet/trio arrangement of “Goodbye/Mama/Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)”.

There were, ultimately, two big problems with this show. Firstly, the sound mixing was terrible on many of the songs sung as solos. The vocals were left very bare, so the sound felt thin, even though my musician’s ears could hear that the orchestral backing was designed to make up for it. This was noticeably better in the second half, but remained an issue.

The second was the overall plot. I’m not sure that the talent show story was the right way to go. The story itself did work from beginning to end, but it has been done before several times over, and once you’ve seen Charlie Brooker’s fabulous Black Mirror: 15 Million Merits which satirises talent shows, the plot of Viva Forever is saying nothing new.

Still, if you don’t go expecting much, it is an enjoyable evening as as you get into Saunders’ Ab Fab-esque comedy there are some great moments of this show to enjoy. I certainly found myself laughing right through the show.

The Cast

Despite many of the failings of the show, the cast themselves did a great job with the material. The characterisation award has to go to Tamara Wall as the scarily plastic talent show judge Karen. A cliche of cliches, maybe, but Wall pitched her character just right. Sally Ann Triplett (Lauren, Viva’s mother) bounces really well off Lucy Montgomery (Suzi) and it’s in their conversations you can see Saunders’ style most clearly. Simon Slater also does extraordinarily well as Mitch. In particular, I must say that Triplett and Slater responded beautifully to some heckling which made them both laugh. Thankfully, the scene was already meant to be funny and awkward for the characters, so they were able to return to the script without too much trouble!

Unfortunately, the vocal performances of the girls cast as ‘Eternity’ left a lot to be desired. They did well enough, but they weren’t strong enough as a group to really be convincing. Hannah John-Kamen did sing well as Viva. However, she was a rather lacklustre heroine overall, not least because she was playing straight to the comedy of the ‘adult’ characters. Her sub-plot romantic interest (Angel, played by Ben Cura) was never developed enough to be convincing.

Credit must be given to Hatty Preston who was cast in the dire role of Minty who seemed to be scripted to end every sentance saying “hashtag” as though her character could not tell the difference between real life and twitter. However, Preston carried the role off with apolmb. I don’t imagine she will miss her script much after the end of this month though!

Notable Songs:

  • Goodbye/Mama/Headlines (Friendship Never Ends) – Viva/Lauren[/Simone] (Medium, Duet[/Trio]) 


Since I went in not expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised at some very funny moments in the book, and some really well arranged songs. There were some strong dance performances, and some good examples of characterisation. The overall plot/premise was really the problem here and I think the same creative team could have produced something really special if the plot had been more innovative. I don’t think this show will get a transfer or revivals, but I’m still glad I saw it, and I’m glad I shared one last Spice Girls moment with my little sister (even if she did cringe when I attempted to join in with the dance to Stop during the encore!).

Rating ♥ ♥  (2/5)  [I’d give it 2.5 if I could, but alas, I chose the Fringe 5-star rating system]

Review: Billy Elliot the Musical

As part of my trip home to see my family in England, I was lucky enough to be able to pop into London to see a couple of shows. First off, the matinee choice:


Where and when: Victoria Palace Theatre London, Thursday 13 June 2013, 2:30pm

The Show

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this show as I’ve seen the film which inspired it, but had not heard much about the musical other than about the rigorous training required for the child actors. It very quickly becomes apparent that this is a show which casts dancers who sing. I was overwhelmingly impressed by the choreography throughout, though in particular the “Solidarity” scene will be the one I remember. Police officers and striking miners dance their war of attrition while young ballet girls weave in and out of them. There are some longer dance scenes for Billy which, while impressive, did not do much to forward the story.

The music has been written in a way that retains a traditional musical theatre sound while drawing on the sound of 1980s music. There are a few solo song numbers which convey beautifully the tense and fractured relationships between members of Billy’s family, as well as Billy’s personal grief at the death of his mother prior to the start of the story.

I will freely admit to finding the opening number of the second half “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” more than a bit uncomfortable, after her death earlier this year, but I think that was an issue of timing more than anything. I did read on Wikipedia that: “On 8 April 2013, it was announced that Margaret Thatcher had died at the age of 87 of a stroke and there was uncertainty whether the song ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’ would be included in the performance that day due to the lyrics including: “We all celebrate today ’cause it’s one day closer to your death”. Director Stephen Daldry said that after “much discussion”, the audience were given the choice to decide whether the song should be performed and, with only 3 audience members voting against it, the performance went ahead as normal.”

The Cast

The adults in this cast were very good (frankly, it’s the West End, they should be). The particular highlight for me was Ann Emery in as Grandma, who has the wonderful solo “Grandma’s Song”. Anna Jane-Casey also does brilliantly as the insecure but forceful Sandra Wilkinson. Both Deka Walmsly as Dad and Kevin Wathan as Tony also carried off their parts brilliantly.

It’s obvious that Billy (I believe it was Tade Biesinger on for our performance) is cast almost entirely on dance ability rather than singing or acting, and the acting was the weakest skill by miles. Zach Aitkinson as Michael was much better, but the role of Michael doesn’t require so much dancing, and needs greater acting skills than Billy. The wee, nameless, boy who opens the show did a marvellous job, especially given he couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7.

Overall, I would say that the energy did feel a little flat compared to other shows I’ve seen. When you’re playing eight shows a week, it’s not surprising that the medweek matinee doesn’t quite sparkle as much as it should do.

Notable Songs

  • Grandma’s Song – Grandma (Hard)
  • Born to Boogie – Sandra Wilkinson (Technically an ensemble, but could be a med-hard solo)
  • Electricity – Billy (Easy-Med)


I really enjoyed this show, and I expect it to have a good long time to run yet. I do wonder how well it plays internationally, but it seems that overseas transfers have all done well, so the book clearly does a good job of explaining the British politics!

I wasn’t outright blown away by this show, but I feel we made a really good choice and I enjoyed the story thoroughly.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ (4/5)

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause


It’s been a busy week on the blog this week with all the theatre I’ve been out seeing, but I’ve had some chances to check out other people’s stuff too. So here’s the picks for this week:


Call centre boss motivates staff with sing-alongs (BBC News) – Great news story about the positive power of singing.

The 3 Biggest Values of Adult Piano Lessons (Music Teacher’s Helper) – This could easily be retitled as “music” lessons as the points apply to singing as much as any other instrument. Are you an adult in Edinburgh who’d like to take up music for the first time? Contact me!

The Tumbling Piano. An Instrument of Death (LaDona’s Music Studio) – A warning story about the dangers of music! (Singing is definitely less likely to kill you than the piano!).

Sex still sells classical music but attitudes are changing (Tom Service on Classical @ The Guardian) – The best response I’ve read so far to this week’s media discussions of the sexualising of women in classical music.

We are building cathedrals (LaDona’s Music Studio) – A short inspirational post about the big picture of music education.

ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 3: Unaccompanied Traditonal Song

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

Bartok Recording Folk MusicMany years ago (I’m not sure how many) the ABRSM syllabus used to have scales and exercises for singers, just as they do for instrumentalists. However, following feedback from teachers and students, the board decided to change this component to the “unaccompanied traditional song”. This segment of the exam, while it might seem easier than memorising scales, brings particular challenges as students do not have the support of the piano to keep them in tune and in time.

Choosing a song for this section can be a pleasure, but it can also be a nightmare! There has been a decline in traditional songs in schools and general culture, so many of our students have no knowledge of their own traditional songs, never mind those of other cultures. For this reason, investing in some good resources are essential for teachers.

Let’s look first at what kind of song is required. The ABRSM syllabus gives a very clear definition:

“A traditional song is defined as a folk song originating among the native people of a region and forming part of their culture. The following genres are not suitable: hymns; national anthems; stylized folk song arrangements.”

The main sign a song is suitable is that there is no composer listed. Arrangements are more tricky as many publications have piano accompaniments added. However, the key test is really whether or not the song can be sung without the piano accompaniment and still sound complete in itself.

ABRSM published a very helpful article in Libretto magazine last year which gave ten key points to doing well in this section. I’ve added my own notes to this list:

  • Excellent communication – choose a song with a story, or emotional journey to help candidates know what they’re
  • Totally secure memory – this goes without saying really, but often these songs require more in terms of memorization as the tunes are repetitive and the songs are wordy.
  • Overall pitch sustained with assurance – secure pitch without the piano should be something developed long before exams, but this can be more difficult for some singers than others.
  • Accurately controlled intervals and intonation – songs can often have wide or unusual intervals, so it’s important to make sure you work on securing these early on.
  • A well-chosen, comfortable key for the candidate’s voice. Ideally a singer will know this instinctively and not need a starting note from the piano – I did not know before this article that there were marks for not using the piano for starting a song, and it’s something I certainly hope to encourage my students to try! The songs can be sung in any key, so do try taking songs up and down in pitch.
  • Effective tempo choice and inherent sense of rhythm – Reading the article has also illuminated to me the possibilities of using more rhythmic songs.
  • Instinct and ability for story-telling – narrative songs are often a great choice as it makes it much easier to develop this aspect. Encourage singers to delve more deeply into the words of these songs and link them to their own experiences of story-telling (after all, these songs are often little more than playground gossip!)
  • Facial involvement – a singer’s eyes are so important – this should be true for all the songs, but it can be easy to forget how important it is when singing unaccompanied
  • Expressive use of colour and dynamics – dynamics are entirely controlled by the singer, and so it’s worth taking time to explicitly talk about when to use different volumes and textures
  • Use of rubato where appropriate – same goes for slowing down at dramatic moments. Unaccompanied singing gives the candidate all the control, which is terrifying, but also fantastic for their development as a musician.

With young candidates, it can be good to use this part of the exam to help them connect with their own cultural music heritage. I love working with young Scottish singers and encouraging them to find folk songs they can sing in their natural accent. I’ve also encouraged candidates from Christian backgrounds to submit traditional spiritual songs which are part of their faith heritage. Older students can be encouraged to learn about new cultures, and musical traditions.

My final word of advice is not to leave traditional songs to the last minute! Traditional songs should form part of the diet of singing lessons throughout the year, not just at exam time. They act as fantastic as studies for technique. Many of them follow traditional harmonic rules and provide practical demonstrations of theoretical concepts like cadences. By selecting tunes from an international background, students can also explore alternative harmonies and scales such as pentatonic, whole tone and blues scales (all included in the Trinity theory books).


  • Sing Together – A core text for beginners covering a good selection of British traditional songs
  • ABRSM Songbooks – each has a selection of traditional songs in the back which provide good examples of the difficulty expected
  • Songs of… (series) – A series of six volumes including one for each of the four nations of the UK, Christmas and the Americas.
  • Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – Another big collection of folk songs
  • IMSLP Petrucci Music Library – an online repository for out of copyright sheet music. You do need to be careful about the copyright dates as not everything on the site is out of copyright in the UK, but there are some 19th century folk song collections which are available for legal download.
  • Beth’s Music Notes – a great blog with loads of folk songs from all sorts of cultures.

Now you’re all set with some repertoire, it’s time to submit for the exam and move on to looking at how to prepare your songs for performance in the exam.

–>  Next post “Preparing for Performance

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

Repertoire Corner

Two lullabies for you this week. Both beautiful, but both very different.

Reger – Maria Wiegenleid
[ABRSM 5(B); TG Int.Cert.(B); LCM(5)]

This song shifts frequently between major and minor tonality so the singer needs to be confident at adjusting between the two. The “chorus” element (“Schlaf kindline…”)of this song needs a good understanding of how to bring colour to long notes which should sit in the middle of the singer’s range. The German pronunciation should not be too taxing, and since the song is short, it should be manageable to sing in its original language. [YouTube]

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Brown, Jason Robert – Christmas Lullaby (Songs for a New World)
[LCM MT 6-7]

On a first listen this song sounds simple, but, like all of Jasno Robert Brown’s songs, it is surprisingly challenging. The chorus passage (“and I will be like mother Mary..”) has large vocal leaps which need to be executed with accuracy, while maintaining the same volume and tonal quality of the lower sections of the melody. The emotional communication of the song is also key as the lyrics are not explicit about the meaning (so much so that Brown reportedly had to explain them himself). This song should be sung with a sense of mixed emotions: joy, fear and most of all awe. Not a song for the faint-hearted, but a rewarding one to master. [YouTube]