Monthly Archives: October 2013

Top Tips for Singing Practical Exams

Exam season is just around the corner, so here are my top tips for surviving your singing practical exams!

What to do BEFORE the exam

In the days leading up to a practical exam, there’s only so much you can do. Unlike theory exams, it’s often better not to practice too much, especially if the pieces are ready. You should already know everything you’re presenting in the exam really well, but here are some of my tips for the last week of preparation:

  • Circle the DateKeep working on memorising the words – words are one of the things that can often slip under pressure, so looking over them regularly in the week before the exam can help to ensure they’re firmly embedded in your head.
  • Sing every day, but for short periods – you want to keep your voice in tip top condition, so doing something every day is vital, but you don’t want to tire your voice out.
  • Revise your aural tests – CD versions of the aural tests are widely available, and there are also a range of online and app-based subscription services such as Hofnote and Auralbook. Doing as many tests as you can will help you to know what’s coming in the exam and keep your ear on track.
  • Practice the 30 seconds for sight-reading – you get 7 marks just for attempting the sight-reading, so the most important thing you can do is practice making the most of the 30 seconds. Hymns are a great source of sight-reading practice as they’re usually straight-forward, harmonically sensible and singable music. You can get sheet music for many of the older ones for free here. Whatever you use, set a timer for 30 seconds so you know exactly how long it is, and practice looking for all the key information in that time.
  • Practice any other supporting tests – if you’re taking another board, you might need to do a viva, answer questions, or improvise. Take time to be sure you are confident with what you will be asked to do.

In the days before the exam, there are also a few non-musical bits of preparation to take care of:

  • RememberPlan what you are going to wear – if you’re not having to hot-foot it from school, choose something that is comfortable, loose around the chest and belly, and that you feel confident in. The mysterious “smart-casual” is what I aim for – a nice comfortable skirt and a smart (but stretchy) top. Pick shoes that make you feel professional. For music theatre exams, make sure you have theatre blacks that work under all your costumes.
  • Work out how to get to the venue – if you’ve not been to the venue before, check the location and plan your transport to get there. You should aim to arrive at least 15 minutes before your exam time, and if you are travelling by public transport or at rush hour, allow contingency time in case of delays.
  • Make sure you have all your music together – you will need legal copies in the room, and you should ensure your accompanist has copies. For ABRSM, if your unaccompanied traditional song is not in English, you should provide a short translation into English for them. Remember if you’re singing from an oratorio, you may choose to sing from the score, so you’ll need two copies. For musical theatre exams, make sure your costumes and props are all ready and packed.
  • Print and fill in your exam repertoire slip/write a programme – Depending on the exam board you may need to have a list of songs for the examiner. For ABRSM, you can download the exam repertoire slip here. LCM require music theatre candidates to write out their own programme. You should also decide if you want to take your exam in the traditional order (pieces, traditional song, sight-reading, aural tests) or if you want to do it differently (e.g. sight-reading first).
  • Prepare a bottle of water – I always take water into my exam to make sure I have a way of overcoming the dry mouth and coughing fits that can occur under pressure. I usually bring mints to suck on before the exam too. Don’t bring chewing gum though!

What to do IN the exam

For practical exams, I always recommend candidates warm up before travelling, and then do a short warm up at the centre if possible. Not all centres have warm up rooms, so you can’t rely on being able to warm up there. Even if there is a room, you probably won’t have long to use it.

At your exam centre, there will be a steward who will help you find the waiting room and let you know how well the exams are running to time. They are used to nervous candidates, and they are usually prepared for all kinds of disasters.

Waiting can be awful, but use this time to practice your breathing exercises and to run through the songs in your head.

Once you’re inside the room:

  • Man at deskSmile at the examiner – I know this sounds ridiculous, but if you greet the examiner as though you’re not nervous it will help you feel more at ease!
  • Be patient – the examiner will tell you when they are ready for you to begin, and then you will need to wait between each song while they write their notes. This is normal. Again, breathe slowly and deeply if you find yourself getting nervous.
  • Look just above the examiner’s head – eye contact with a one-person audience can be intimidating for everyone. The examiner will also spend quite a lot of time writing, so won’t always be there to look at. Instead, find something to look at about a metre above their head, and then flick down to look at their eyes once every so often.
  • Play the note if you need to, but don’t if you can manage without – the examiner should not dock marks for playing the starting note for your traditional song. However, try before the exam to see if you can find the right key without the piano, and if you can do it without it shows you have a good sense of internal pitch.
  • Go for it with sight-reading – you get 7 marks for just trying, and the more you go for it, the better. You’re much more likely to get the right answer if you are instinctive about what you think it should be than spend the whole eight or ten bars second-guessing yourself.
  • Take your time with the aural tests – the examiner doesn’t expect you to answer right away, so if you need to think for a moment, that’s fine.
  • Thank the examiner – if they’ve been nice to you, say thank you. I always feel nice examiners deserve to know they’re appreciated!

What to do AFTER the exam

Be sure to thank your accompanist, even if they’re your teacher. They’ve come to the centre for you and played, which can be quite a high pressure environment for accompanists – they want to do their best so you can show off your best.

Once you’ve packed up, breathed and left the centre, head out into the world and…

  • Do something nice for yourself. Get coffee, or cake, or just chill out at home. Why not enjoy a cream cake?
  • Try not to worry about what happened in the exam. You can’t do anything about it now!
  • Remember why you’re doing this – it’s because you love music, and want to play your instrument well. Put the exam books away and treat yourself to some fun practice time, singing the songs you love.

A Note About Complaints

If you have a problem in your exam, such as someone bursting in and disturbing the quiet, or a heavily out of tune piano, you can complain to the exam board. However, most of them require you to do this right away, so make sure you are quick to get in contact.

What are your top tips for exams? Add them in the comments below.

Winter is Coming…

Yes, it’s that time of year when the Ned Stark memes run rampant on Facebook and we all start wishing we lived in a more equatorial nation. For singers, winter can pose particularly big challenges as we try to take care of our voices. Here are some of the things to watch out for at this time of year

Beware extreme temperatures

Winter in the UK is a land of extreme temperatures. While we’re outside in the freezing cold at one moment, we’re then back inside in a heated building the next. Although our bodies are self-regulating, the temperature of the air we breathe will affect our vocal folds as it rushes by.

In cold temperatures, breathing through your nose is the simplest way to warm air up before it hits your throat. Noses go red in the cold because the body sends blood to it in order to warm the air coming in. Covering your mouth/nose with a scarf can help too, if you’ve got a bad cold.

Once you’re inside, make sure you warm up properly before singing. A bit of running on the spot and gentle stretching will get your blood flowing and help your vocal folds to warm up. Try not to keep the heating in your house too high as this makes going outside even worse, and can contribute to the problem of hydration.

Wherever you end up singing this winter, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to acclimatise, and warm up your body and voice in the venue.

Beware dehydration

Mad as it sounds, dehydration can be a real problem for singers in winter. Central heating often dries out the air, and because we’re not feeling warm, it can take longer to become aware we need to drink more liquid.

The best way to hydrate is to use warm, body temperature liquids as your body can absorb those most easily. Take care also not to drink only caffeinated tea and coffee as caffeine has diuretic properties (i.e. it makes you want to pee more often), and the milk we usually add can cause phlegm issues (ugh!). Switch in warm sugar-free squash or fruit teas, especially before practicing and on performance days. Honey and lemon makes a really good hydration choice as it cleans out excess phlegm and boosts your immune system.

Of course, the dangers of overhydration are as serious as dehydration, so only drink if you are thirsty, and stop when you feel satisfied. If you have chronic dehydration, speak to your GP as this can be a sign of something more serious.

Beware of colds and coughs

Most of us won’t get flu this winter, but we might get some bad colds. If you’re not sure which you’ve got, here’s a handy chart:

Thanks to Jillee at One Good Thing.

Thanks to Jillee at One Good Thing.

Assuming it’s a cold, take care to be alert to how your voice feels. So long as it’s not painful, it’s absolutely fine to sing if you have a cold, cough or other mild illness. If it hurts, stop! Make sure you keep hydrated, though. It’s also important to avoid taking any medication which numbs your throat (e.g. Strepsils) before singing. By numbing your throat, you’re preventing your nervous system alerting you when you’re damaging your voice.

Colds can’t be treated by medication because they’re viruses. Even paracetamol can slow down the healing process as a fever is one of the tricks your body uses to kill of the virus. However, if your symptoms are severe, go on for more than a week or two, or include non-cold symptoms like breathlessness or sustained high fever, do get in touch with your GP, or your local out-of-hours helpline (e.g. NHS 111 in England, or NHS 24 in Scotland). Remember, your local A&E is for emergencies only, and 999 for dire emergencies.

Beware the flu

Finally, if you’re eligible for the flu vaccination for free, go and get it. Most people I know who get it attest that they get less colds over the winter, as well as the benefits of the protection from flu. Eligible groups include under 18s (nasal spray), over 65s, and people with long-term conditions like asthma, heart problems and diabetes. If you’re not sure if you’re eligible, give your GP a call.

If you’re not eligible for the vaccine for free, you can pay for it privately at your local pharmacy. This year, your local Boots store will charge you £12.99. I would highly recommend considering getting a flu vaccine if you are a singer as it will help to boost your immune system all year long!

Whatever else you do, keep singing, and keep taking care of your voice by exercising as often as possible.

Do you have any winter survival tips for singers? Post them in the comments below.

Repertoire Corner



This week’s songs are both full of joyful music and cheerful thinking – just what we need when the evenings are suddenly that bit darker.

Funiculi, Funicula – Denza


This is a bright and happy tune which requires a good measure of confidence to bring off. Time should be taken to ensure that the singer is certain of the words before increasing the tempo to  it’s full allegro. Each chorus section is a chance to demonstrate the ability to build in volume and intensity, making this song a great opportunity to develop performance skills at an early stage.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

I Whistle a Happy Tune – Rodgers & Hammerstein (The King and I)

Unlike it’s Sound of Music counterpart, this Rodgers and Hammerstein number betrays none of the nerves of the characters who sing it. Instead, this should be sung jauntily and with the confidence that the lyrics speak of. All the words should be crisp, firm and confident – they need to be really well known. Watch the intervals at the end of the middle section – they need to be accurate even with the rallentando. The whistling is optional for exams, and does require some technical skill, but it is worth the effort to lift the central section.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause


Don’t forget, the clocks “fall” back this weekend, so there’s even more excuses to curl up on the sofa and read some excellent blog posts.


Posts on learning

Why You May Want to Avoid Watching the News Before an Audition (Bulletproof Musician) – Anything to stay calm, right?

Bottling up a small but significant musical moment (Beyond the Notes) – A lovely anecdote to remind us all of what we’re really doing this for.

Finding Time To Practice (The Musician’s Blog) – Some thoughts on how hard it is for professional musicians to actually find time to practice!

Choosing Repertoire (The Musicians Way) – Three key tips for choosing the repertoire you want to sing or play for concerts, competitions and events.

Posts on teaching

Now Available: Composition & Improvisation Prompts for Piano eBook (Color in my Piano) – A lovely new resource to inspire creativity for piano students. I’m definitely inspired to create some similar ideas for singers.

Posts about other things

Classical Music and Social Media: A Changing Landscape Within a Changing Landscape (The Collaborative Piano Blog) – How social media has changed musical careers, and some musings on the current state of affairs.

Why Children’s Theatre Matters (Guardian Theatre Blog) – Children’s theatre is often maligned, but it’s been getting better and better in recent years.

Five unexpected reasons to embrace Brahms (Guardian Classical Music Blog) – You’d never think this stalwart of the singing repertoire lists was so interesting as a composer!

Using Technology to Help with Practice

By the start of the 21st century, the globe had already been gripped by the digital revolution, and now computer technology is part of our everyday lives. In comparison to some hobbies, learning to play an instrument or sing can seem remarkably lo-tech. However, there’s a huge range of ways in which using technology can enhance your practice time, and help your musical studies.

Listening to iPodiTunes and Mp3 downloads

When I first started taking singing lessons, my teacher gave me a cassette tape with backing tracks recorded by her accompanist and carefully copied over so I could practice with them. Aside from being awkward, this was probably borderline illegal! Now, with the wonders of iTunes and the internet, singers can gain access to an ever-increasing range of legally recorded backing tracks at modest prices. I keep all my backing tracks that I’m currently using in a special playlist on iTunes too, and now it’s all there, ready and waiting for me to plug-in some quality speakers and go for it. Click here to see my list of online shops for backing tracks.

Audio manipulation software

There are now some great little bits of software which can really enhance your music practice. Speedshifter is software produced by ABRSM which can slow down that backing track you bought without it changing the key. This comes in downloads for computer and Apple touch screen. Changing the key isn’t yet something you can do easily for free, although I’m making use of Song Surgeon’s free trial download, and they do offer an online service (although it seems to be quite glitchy so you do need to be patient).

For more complex needs, you can also get hold of Audacity which is free industry-leading open source software and allows you to do all kinds of sound production on any computer platform.

Piano apps on tablets, mobiles and online

Another problem faced by singers, and other instrumentalists, is that pianos are expensive but really useful. I was lucky to have a second-hand digital piano, but for others, it was difficult to practice without any way of checking even a start note.

Now, the internet has brought the piano app! My mobile phone has an app called Musical Lite on it which has a scrolling piano for checking the pitch of musical phrases, and a metronome to help with keeping a steady rhythm. It’s not a replacement for a cheap keyboard, or a piano, but it’s definitely portable, flexible and great for beginners. Tablet piano apps are even better than the ones available on mobiles. If you don’t have a touchscreen device, you can also try this online piano and this online metronome.

Sheet music editing software

My favourite kind of technology which really helps with my practice time is music editing software. This is, essentially, a word processor equivalent for sheet music. You can enter the music into the programme and then print it out. This is great, but what it’s useful for in practice is the playback function. I regularly use my programme to type in tricky phrases so I can hear them back and concentrate on singing them rather than playing them on the piano and dividing my concentration. Sometimes, if I can’t find a backing track, I’ll type the whole accompaniment in so the computer can play it for me. You can download MuseScore for free on any platform, or use Noteflight online. There’s also Maestro (on Android), which is a good tablet app, but probably more useful for short phrases than whole accompaniments.

Music with CDs and headphonesI hope you find all of these tips helpful, and can try some of them out in your daily practice. I’ve deliberately not looked at technology to help with exam preparation, but do follow this blog as I hope to address this in a future post.


What technology do you use to help with your music practice? Add your ideas in the comments below.

Why I Love Teaching Kids

I love teaching, partly because each and every student is unique. You never know what you’re going to get. Both kids and adults come with their own special joys that make them very different to work with. This is what I love about teaching music to kids.

Kids are unpredictable

You can be fairly sure that most adult lessons will more or less be similar every week. The late ones will be late, the hardworking ones will have worked hard, and the forgetful ones will have forgotten something! Part of being an adult is learning and developing consistency of character and behaviour. Kids haven’t got there yet. Some days, they’re bouncing off the ceiling, others they’re tired and unmotivated. Even when they’re fairly average, you never know when they’re going to turn around and say something totally bizarre, or incredibly insightful. Lessons with kids are never the same twice!

Kids are ambitious and take challenge in their stride

Most kids don’t really have much experience of failure, and none of them have learned the life-lesson of adulthood that ambitions have to be tempered with realism. Kids want to be actors, pop stars, astronauts and superheroes – they have no idea about gas bills and council tax. This means kids tend to take all the challenges of music like taking exams in their stride. Everything in their life is about learning, so they just take learning music as normal. It’s delightful to see them go forward with a level of confidence adults rarely exhibit. Give kids a challenge and they’ll almost always rise to it.

Kids are endlessly inventive

Adult life tends to crush creativity. We’re so busy keeping afloat and doing what we have to, that creativity is often squeezed into small portions of time, or applied to very practical problems. Kids don’t have this issue – so they’re always coming up with new ideas and thoughts. I always find I learn new ways of looking at music from the kids I teach because they just think in a more creative way than I do.

Kids are full of potential

With adults, you usually know where their musical journey is headed. Sometimes, one will surprise you, but most of them enjoy music as a hobby, or are already working professionally (or have ambitions to). Kids aren’t even close to a career plan, so you never know where their musical journey could take them. Some will go on to study music at university or conservatoire, and others will take non-academic routes to a music career. Many will find a non-musical career, but hopefully, they’ll take both the primary and secondary skills learned from music lessons into those careers and succeed at them. The delightful thing is, when you start the journey of music lessons with kids, you have no idea where they’re going to end up in the end.

Those are just a few of the reasons I love teaching kids!

If you have a child who is interested in singing lessons and you live in the Edinburgh area, why not arrange a trial lesson for them with me? I offer specialist tuition for primary aged children which develops all-round musicianship and develops vocal technique in a safe way for young voices. High school aged children are able to take formal singing lessons.

Repertoire Corner



More songs of love this week, but this time they’re taken from two different cultural backgrounds. One is a traditional Antipodean love song, and the other strongly inspired by Russian musical traditions.

Pokarekare Ana – Trad. New Zeland (arr. Sarah Class)

This traditional New Zeland song was made famous by Haley Westenra, and should be treated with a light touch. The lyrics speak of a distant love, and need to be communicated with sensitivity. Watch for the large slurred intervals at the end of each line – the movement between pitches should be legato, but clean – there should be no portamento effect. Some of the intervals between the lines in the middle section are tricky, so attention should be paid to accuracy for each starting note.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

Somewhere My Love – Maurice, Jarre & Webster (Film of Doctor Zhivago)

As with Pokarekare Ana, care should be taken in this song to ensure all the interval jumps in the vocal line are accurately placed. Each phrase should be sung through, avoiding the temptation to pause after the high note in the middle of the line. This provides a smooth, lullaby-like melody which echos the gently optimistic lyrics. The rallentando at the end of the second section should be used to create a build point, but there should not be too dramatic a drop in energy as the third section begins.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

Exam dates are starting to roll out this week, but never fear, we will be here to support you through. Plus, if you need to chill out after practicing, here’s the pick of this week’s music blogs.


Posts on learning

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight (Bulletproof musician) – Some thoughts on using interval training principles during practice to help you remember things.

Chess or Checkers? (Practicing the Piano) – The benefits of slow practice.

No tortoisian ambling, please (La Donna’s Music Studio) – Why slow practice isn’t enough on it’s own.

Cleaning Your Instrument (Music Teacher’s Helper) – Don’t know how to clean your instrument properly and safely? Here’s a collection of links to guide you.

Posts on teaching

The Top 4 Piano Studio Policies That Will Make You and Your Clients Happy (Teach Piano Today) – Key things to establish right at the beginning.

Your Studio Environment (Music Teacher’s Helper) – Some thoughts on how to set up your teaching space.

Music Advocacy and the Independent Music Teacher (Color In My Piano) – Are we advocating music lessons for the real reasons, and not for the secondary benefits?

5 Games to Bake… I Mean Make… Note Reading Fun! (Teach Piano Today) – Some cake-related ideas for practicing note reading.

Posts about other things

Should theatre fund audiences and not just artists? (Guardian Theatre Blog) – It’s great to fund finding new talent, but what if there’s no one to see the work?

Music in the News