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:
- Keep 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:
- Plan 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:
- Smile 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.