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 http://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/singing/


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

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