Ah, the music exam. A staple of British instrumental education for more than a century and a half. Like all music teachers in the UK, I prepare a fair number of my students for exams from grade 1 right up to grade 8.
While the suspension of face to face exams has definitely challenged the assumption that exams are a requirement for musical progress, I know that for many students they are a helpful motivator, and bring a strong sense of pride in their achievement. Now Covid restrictions are (fingers-crossed!!) slowly lifting, I know I will have more students wanting to explore exam repertoire this year.
Some requirements of the exam are fixed – sight-reading and aural tests are set by the board – but choosing songs is down to the teacher and student. Singing is unique among the exams because the repertoire lists are very long to provide maximum flexibility to suit the voice, and they don’t change often. Some songs have been on the lists for at least 25 years! I know this because they were there when I started singing lessons back in the late 1990s. Some exam boards even offer what amounts to a free choice of any three songs.
The HUGE choice for singing can be overwhelming when you’re used to buying an instrumental pack with nine pieces in. So how do you navigate the singing repertoire lists to find songs that will show off everything you/your candidate can do?
I’m going to talk you through three case studies of real students I’ve worked with, explaining how I picked the exam songs we entered. Two worked, one did not!
Know your voice
Before even opening the exam syllabus, you have to start with the voice. Every voice is different – a light teen soprano will be very different from a middle aged male baritone and we want to pick songs that suit the singer.
Think about the compass of the voice. While most songs can be transposed (another unique feature of the singing exam), it makes no sense more sense to bring Think of Me from Phantom down a fifth than it does to pull Mama from Chicago up a fifth. The songs are written with very different voices in mind. I rarely transpose songs for exams – it feels like opening up a can of worms to me! Some art songs come in high and low editions making them more accessible to a wider range of singers.
Think tone and timbre. Is the voice you’re choosing for naturally light or heavy? Full or thin? The songs you choose should work for this kind of voice. If your singer is versatile, you can go for more varied styles across the lists. If they like to stick to one style, you can go for a variety of moods.
Think strengths and weaknesses. Where is the richest part of the voice ? Which notes always crack or wobble? How about breathing and controlling long phrases? Lots of things to think about!
Once you have a sense of the voice, this will mean you can quickly score off a number of songs from the list before you even start.
I like to physically print out the list and use a combination of crossing out unsuitable songs (e.g. usually discarding the songs for the opposite gender) and highlighting songs I know the candidate will like/sing well.
Know your songs
When you’re starting to consider the songs, definitely listen to them while you’re choosing. I’ve slowly started putting together playlists on Spotify of all the exam lists I use regularly. ABRSM have kindly done this in advance with their Singing for Musical Theatre exams (not that I use those exams myself).
No singing teacher is going to know every song on every list – there’s almost 1000 songs on the ABRSM classical lists alone! So don’t discount anything that you know you can get your hands on without listening to it.
It’s a good idea to know what you/your candidate already has music for. Perhaps you bought a book for one song, and now you can use another in it.
I usually have to eliminate a few songs because I know I can’t get hold of the books or a pdf version of the song. You MUST have legally obtained sheet music for every song submitted for an exam, so this can be a good way to cut the lists down!
Creating a programme
Or, do the songs fit together?
Once I’ve narrowed the list down, I start to think about the songs as a group. Do they cover different moods, time periods and voice qualities? For classical exams, the lists mean it’s hard to avoid some variety in time period, but you could still choose three sad songs, or three happy ones.
While there’s no rules about variety and contrast, I think it’s good training for singers to think about how the songs flow together as a group so they can pick their own songs if they’re asked to do a concert or show.
Do also think about keys – it can be jarring to sing something in D right after something in D♭! This can easily be avoided by singing the songs in a different order to the syllabus listing.
All of this comes into play even more at diploma level, so it’s good to start early with the conversations about programme planning.
I’m going to talk about three sets of ABRSM exam songs that I have submitted over my teaching career. I’ll give examples of how we chose the songs – and how well they worked. Some of my programmes have been great, but I’m also going to tell you about one which was not so you can learn from my mistakes!
ABRSM changed their syllabus in 2018, moving from a “one from each of three/four lists” to “three from five lists”. The new structure still broadly groups by the old system of:
- (A) folk music, renaissance, baroque & classical
- (B) romantic and modern art song
- (C) modern opera, music theatre and jazz standards.
The main change with the 2018 syllabus is that all earlier opera works (that used to be in group A) moved to the same list as musical theatre (now group D or E).
Case Study 1: A strong grade 8
My first example is an older teenage girl who was ready to do her grade 8. She was developing a nice light soprano voice, which had a lovely light tone. Her voice was improving all the time, coming out of the teenage voice changes. She didn’t have a particularly strong low register. She was most comfortable with classical styles, but was developing more confidence with expressing the emotion of songs.
Taking all that into consideration, we chose the following songs:
- Britten – For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey from Rejoice in the Lamb
- Brahms – An die Nachtigall
- Sondheim – Green Finch and Linnet Bird from Sweeney Todd
The Britten was a new addition to the syllabus, which appealed to me. I had previously learnt another aria from Rejoice in the Lamb, and was interested in the song. The range was very suitable for her voice. For my student, the lyrics held a strong appeal being both a committed Christian and committed cat lover! This song had its limitations for the exam as the original score was with organ rather than piano, but she still performed it well in the exam. I was also treated to her performing it with organ at a concert later that year.
For this student, German was the most comfortable language to sing in after English. With many students now learning only Spanish at school, it can be challenging to work on non-English repertoire. ABRSM have removed the requirement in the syllabus for multiple languages, though Trinity retain it. I wanted to include a foreign language song, we had settled on German, which limited the list. After listening to recordings of the songs I had copies of, my student settled on this one as the one she liked the most. And really, there is no better reason than that!
Green Finch and Linnet Bird was the easiest pick. I just knew hen I looked through the list that this light fluttery song, written for a young woman would be ideal to show off the newly developing soprano voice while still providing a challenge in terms of communicating the emotional content. Sometimes instinct proves to be the best judge of which song you should go for. I often find at least one song jumps off the list at me for my candidates.
I still love this programme as it had a wonderful, and accidental, theme of nature running through it!
Case Study 2: Modestly successful grade 5 (pre-2018 syllabus)
My second example is a young woman in her late 20s. She had a developing soprano voice with not much confidence in her upper register. She was used to singing different styles of music, not just classical, but didn’t have much confidence with the emotional communication.
The songs we chose were:
- Mozart – L’Ho Perduta, me meschina from Le nozze di Figaro
- Rodrigo – Una Palomita Blanca
- Rodgers & Hart – Johnny One Note from Babes in Arms
In planning a programme for this student, I started with what was the B list first – the art songs. As my student was a proficient Spanish speaker, we were keen to choose a song in Spanish for her exam. at the time of this exam, there were only two Spanish songs on the list. We listened to both of them, and she preferred Una Palomita Blanca. It’s a beautiful, mournful song.
Having chosen a very down-beat song, we looked for a more upbeat piece. Musical theatre was the obvious option. After limiting down the lists further by what was available, we settled on Johnny One Note as being bright and upbeat, but still in the legit vocal style that my student was comfortable in.
Which left us with folk, renaissance, baroque and classical. After deciding against folk songs and the renaissance options out of personal preference, that helped to limit down to baroque or the one classical piece – the Mozart. After listening to the options that I had access too, we both decided that the Mozart would show off my student’s developing soprano and provide a good emotional balance – the song is intense and anxious, which worked well with mournful and joyful.
This programme was also a success with my student attaining high marks for the pieces and a solid merit overall.
Case Study 3: Mistakes made at Grade 1
My last case study is an older lady who came to learn in retirement. She had an underused voice but was developing a good soprano sound. She had a good ear for songs but lacked some confidence without piano support. I’m including this case study because looking back I didn’t choose good songs because of this last
The songs we chose were:
Grade one is nearly all folk songs and children’s songs which makes it challenging to choose songs for an older beginner. A lot of songs were crossed out because they were not going to suit someone of retirement age!
The Crocodile is one of my absolute favourites for Grade 1. The song has four verses and is a fun expressive song. I teach it to nearly everyone. So I put it into this programme. Why was this a mistake? The Crocodile does not have a supportive piano part. I now use it with students to help them develop confidence when the piano doesn’t support them by playing the melody. This student needed a more supportive accompaniment to do well.
After going through the options for list Art Songs, I settled on a lovely Schumann lullaby. It’s really pretty. But it’s also high. I made a mistake in asking my student to sing this song because the range was too much for her underdeveloped vocal skills. I should have either sought out a lower song, or just chosen something with a much smaller range.
Dona dona was the most successful choice – a folk song that I find really moving and use in musicianship at a more advanced stage. I selected this after limiting down to the songs I had, and wanting something in a more sad mood. I think that’s where the error with this song came in. This song is in the minor mode and needs a strong sense of key. When combined with the more challenging accompaniment in the ABRSM book, the song wasn’t great for my student.
Overall, looking back on this programme, I did not set my student up for success! I could have selected songs where the piano would have helped support her, and the range was more manageable. I could even have made the decision not to put her in for the exam.
Am I embarrassed about how bad these choices were? Yes. Do I still think it’s important to share my mistakes? Yes. Learning to build exam programmes takes time, and experience, and I am still learning how to do it for different boards and different stages.
I hope that by reading about my choices – good and bad – you’ll learn more about how to make your own choices for exam programmes whether you are a student or a teacher. Remember, it’s about showing the best of what you can do so play to your strengths!