Category Archives: Series

A History of Music for Singers – Resources and More

So we’ve travelled the best part of 2,000 or 3,000 years as we’ve examined the history of music, and especially the history of vocal music. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series, you can jump to all of them here:

A History of Music for Singers

However, I hope this won’t be the end of your interest in the history of music. In fact, I hope this is only the beginning. Here are some of my favourite resources as a starting point:



(Books bought through the above links will benefit the running of the Discover Singing blog)


Classics for Kids – This child-friendly website features a different composer each week with a five-minute audio podcast feed and loads of information.

Radio 3 Composer of the Week – Each week BBC Radio 3 features a particular composer with features on them each day. At the end of the week a one hour edited programme is released as a podcast and these remain available on the feed. UK access only, though.

Classic FM Discover – This UK radio station plays classical music all day, every day and is usually considered more accessible than BBC Radio 3 in style. Their website has some great resources on the history of classical music, and suggestions of music for various themes and events like weddings or studying. There’s also a section on film scores, since this makes up a large proportion of the more modern music they play.


A History of Music for Singers – The 20th Century (& Beyond)

A History of Music for SingersFor most people, when they think of “modern” music, the first things that spring to mind are either contemporary popular music (which is a story for another series), atonalism, or 4’33. For singers, however, none of these ideas really reflect the vocal music produced in the 20th century.

It feels like stating the obvious to say that the 20th century was a century of massive social change. If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey, you’ll know life in 1912 was very different from live in 2000. Two world wars, one cold war, and a digital revolution. It’s not surprising music changed drastically.

The story of 20th century music begins where we left the Romantic era – Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan. Wagner was the high point of what we now call “Classical” music. Rich in harmony, full of complex musical features but still tonal. This high art continued to be the favoured style for many musicians into the early 20th century. However, there was a new force on the horizon – modernism. Inspired by, and reacting to the growth of industrial cities, artists who began to abandon the “rules” of their genres, rejecting the idea that their work should reflect the real. Fine art began to experiment with abstraction (Picasso), and  playwrights developed new surrealist theatre (Brecht).

Composers began to pull away from the traditional rules of harmony, and tried to invent new ways to create music. One of the most commonly cited examples of this is serialism, where all twelve notes of the keyboard are placed in a random order and are used in that order. For an excellent explanation of how serialism works, click on the first video below (warning: it’s 30 minutes long). If you don’t have time, click on the second video and have a listen to an example of serialist music.

Vocal music was not, however, frequently produced by those working at the cutting edge of modernist music. I suspect this is because very atonal music is not very easy to sing. However, the influence of this disregard for traditional harmony can be felt in many early twentieth century songs which go further than Romantic songs in using chromatic harmonies and playing fast and loose with key signatures. This is an example of an art song by Debussy, who was heavily influenced by modernist ideas.

By the mid-20th Century, composers such as Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti and Michael Tippet were using this densely harmonised music to convey the complex and fractured nature of post-war society. Listen to this aria, The Soul of Man, from Michael Tippet’s Child of Our Time oratorio, composed during World War II.

The early 20th century is also where there is a divergence of music into a range of more defined genres takes hold. While the composers of “high art” music were experimenting with atonalism, other composers drew on the bastard child of opera, the operetta, to develop a new genre of sung music – the musical. This genre completely ignored the deconstruction of harmony and retained a regular and familiar feel . Listen to this song by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who are credited with defining the modern genre of musical theatre:

Popular music also began to develop as it became possible to record music, and share it. Music like jazz and ragtime from the black communities of America began to influence popular song writers from other cultural backgrounds, and by the mid-1950s, popular music was no longer just songs learned by ear in the pub – it was an industry and a genre all of its own. Listen to this early rock & roll song by Bill Haley & his Comets, and see if you hear the parallels with blues and jazz.

However, this divide between popular music and high classical music was not completely clear-cut thanks to one last invention in the 20th century: cinema. Since the invention of the “talkies”, background music has become integral to the way in which stories are told on film. This has spawned a whole new genre of classical music which is still listened to by the masses. I’m sure this fabulous piece of classical music by John Williams needs no introduction:

From small beginnings around the firesides and alters of the 14th and 15th centuries, music in the 21st century is a thriving business, thriving on variety as well as popularity. All the way through, the voice has remained at the centre of this development, and now drives the most profitable part of the music industry – popular music.

The key forms of music for voice in the 20th Century era were:

  • New song genres – jazz, pop, musical, blues
  • Musical theatre
  • Rise of ‘popular music’
  • Opera, choral works and religious music still written
  • Non-singing vocal forms like rap develop

 When you’re trying to decide if something is 20th Century music, listen out for:

  • Experimental
  • Often dissonant
  • Based on unusual harmonies
  • Wide variety of trends and styles
  • Development of film and TV music
  • New forms of ‘folk music’
  • Anything goes!

Composers to Remember:


–> Next week: Resources and More

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

A History of Music for Singers – The Classical Era

A History of Music for SingersIf the Baroque Era was the era of music for Kings, the Classical Era was music for escapism. As we learned in the last part of this series, the music of the Baroque era was composed for Kings and Dukes. However, as Capitalism began to rule supreme in Europe, composers became more business minded and began to become more independent.

Fashion in 1700s

From a wider point of view, the Classical Era was a time of social and political upheaval in the Western world. In 1776, after a bloody war, thirteen British colonies joined together to declare themselves independent and formed what would become one of the most powerful nations on earth – the United States. Two decades later, the French declared a revolution and chop off the head of their King. Revolutions were also happening in Belgium, Austria, Haiti, Poland and Ireland. The Swedish and Russians assassinate their ruling monarchs. By the end of the era, in 1820, Britain has been to war with Napoleon twice, both at Waterloo and Trafalgar.

However, in music, this is not the era of Wagner’s Sturm und Drang. No, Mozart is King of the opera house with his tales of love and adventure – escapism akin to today’s trend for comic book superheroes in the midst of financial recession and uncertainty. To be rich enough to go to the opera and enjoy high classical music is to be at risk of being overthrown by the revolutions of the poor. No one wanted to pay money to be reminded how bad life was outside, so the classical composers provided a safe haven where all was right with the world.

Edinburgh Old CollegeThe other key influence on Classical music was the “classics”. Developing on from the Renaissance interest in Greek and Roman ideas, Classical art and architecture drew on the Greek and Roman art which was being rediscovered by collectors. This is the era of the Grand Tour when rich Europeans travelled to the Mediterranean to collect a little bit of history. It’s the era of the British Museum with its classical columns on the outside and Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon (collected 1810-12) on the inside. Classical art is notable for its simplicity, clean lines, formal structures and emphasis on order and hierarchy (an antidote to the challenge to order and hierarchy going on politically). You can see an example of this in the picture of the University of Edinburgh’s Old College which was designed in 1817.

This emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and formal structure extended into music. Classical music is notably less rich than Baroque music, and tends towards a “melody and accompaniment” form. By using this form, there was more scope for other kinds of variety such as greater use of dynamics and changes of mood within a single movement or section. Modulations became more adventurous and more frequent, paving the way for the chromaticism that would be a hallmark of Romantic music (itself leading to atonalism). Here’s an example of classical song by Beethoven:

FortepianoByMcNultyAfterWalter1805Instrumentation became more fixed. In the Baroque era, it was common to miss out certain instruments or add in additional ones, and use a “continuo” bass (similar to a modern leadsheet which shows just the chords and leaves the pianist or guitarist to interpret the chords as they see fit). Classical music moved towards a system whereby the music was played as written every time with the same instruments. The “continuo” bass declined as the piano (see right for an example of an early design) replaced all previous instruments as the keyboard of choice for all music. This alone provided a whole new vocabulary of musical sounds as the piano can be played with much greater expression than the harpsichord or organ. This is one of Haydn’s piano sonatas:

For singers, the Classical era saw developments in of both opera and song. Oratorios fell out of favour, and instead, Mozart made opera a real genre of its own with his engaging stories drawing on literature as well as mythology and theology which had previously dominated. As composers were drawn more and more away from the church and into the drawing room, secular songs became popular with composers setting poetry to music. Many of the new art songs were “serenades” dedicated to a specific person. Vocal music in this era was really a prelude to the flowering of the voice as an instrument that the Romantic era would bring. Words were important, but the melody became more important. Here’s a great example of Mozart melding melody with words in the opera The Magic Flute:

For the ordinary people, song became the means of protest. The music of the people was key to uniting them around a cause and expressing the fears of the participants. It’s no co-incidence that the very successful musical Les Miserables is set against a background of revolution with its rousing chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”. Songs had always reflected the political circumstances, but now it was a unifying force for war. (Another thing which foreshadowed the role of popular song in the 20th Century). Here’s a song from the American Revolutionary War which is still sung today:

The key forms of music in the Classical era for voice were:

Most of the new forms were for instruments, and these included:

When you’re listening to decide if something is music from the Classical era, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Simple but beautiful
  • Restrained and elegant
  • Clear in melody and accompaniment
  • Usually singable, with clear phrases

Composers to Remember:

The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Aus) is the most notable “transition” composer who bridged the Classical and Romantic styles.

–> Next week: The Romantic Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

A History of Music for Singers – The Baroque Era

A History of Music for SingersLast week, we began journeying through the history of music with the Renaissance period. The Renaissance slowly transitioned into the Baroque (Bar-RO-ck) period around the start of the 16th Century. The name Baroque developed from a Latinate word meaning “rough or imperfect pearl” and was actually initially used to make fun of the elaborate style of music and art which became popular. Now, it is just used in a more technical sense to talk about the creative arts in the century from about 1650 to about 1750.

Fashion in 1600sIn Britain, the Barque era saw the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (which included the English Civil War) and the union of the English and Scottish Parliaments to create the United Kingdom. This was a time when many Empires were being built, and the aristocracy were enjoying a golden age (that would soon come crashing down around their ears…).

One of the key aspects of music at this time is that it was mainly funded either by the church (as it had been in the Renaissance) or by the aristocracy. Musicians were employed by courts, or by theatres owned by rich noblemen, and they worked on commission. One of the most enduringly famous works of George Frederick Handel (the epitome of Baroque composition) is Zadok the Priest, which was composed for the coronation of George I of Great Britain in 1727:

The patronage of the upper classes encouraged the growth of formal ceremonial music, but it also saw new forms develop. The leisured classes wanted entertainment, and so the genres of opera (for secular stories) and oratorio (for religious and mythological texts) developed. In the early days, operas looked very similar to modern musicals with dance sections, scripted elements and songs. Here’s a song from Purcell’s early opera King Arthur.

Chamber Music

Chamber music also developed as a way for the rich to enjoy music in their own homes – in their “chambers”. Chamber music has a very small orchestra because the whole group had to fit in someone’s living room. Many of the chamber works at the time took inspiration from dance music like minuets, gavottes and sarabandes.

Church music also continued to be popular and important. One of the most influential writers of church music was J S Bach. Bach wrote hundreds of choral hymns, which are now known as “chorales”, and some of them are still sung in chuches today, and others have become famous in their own right, like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Ordinary people too, were exposed to this church music. The Reformation had changed Sundays forever, and people were now singing hymns and psalms like never before. One of the principles of the Reformation was that every man should learn scripture and choose faith for himself. Singing hymns was one way to help the average Joe in the pew memorise bible verses and scriptural truths.

Outside church, broadside ballads still ruled popular music, and they would come to play an important role in motivating the general population to take sides in everything from the Reformation to the Civil War. The governments of the day also paid writers to produce warning songs about excecuted criminals. It was a little bit like setting the news stories found in The Sun to the music of Adele!

There were a number of popular vocal forms during the Baroque period. Some, like masques, masses and oratorios were new. Others, like Monody, were developments from Renaissance inventions like the Air:

These forms also developed for chamber orchestras:

When you’re listening to decide if something is Baroque music, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Elaborate – usually embellished with ornaments like trills and turns
  • Rhythmic – it’s easy to hear the beat
  • Complex and detailed – the different parts all keep moving around
  • Dramatic – thick harmonies, and changes in dynamics and tempo
  • Follows all the ‘rules’ of harmony – no chromatic chords, or strange arrangements

Composers to Remember:

–> Next week: The Classical Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

A History of Music for Singers : The Renaissance

A History of Music for SingersThe Renaissance – a time of grandeur, of experimentation and of scientific progress. For me, the Renaissance (ruh-NAY-sonce) conjures up grand Italian and Spanish courts with explorers and architects lining up to impress the monarchs. (Well, unless you pronounce it REN-ess-ahns, in which case, it’s bad wench costumes and spit roast pig in an American field!) I don’t, generally, think of Britain, or the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, as having much to do with this flowering of culture.

However, Henry VIII (1507-1547) was considered to be just a much a “Renaissance prince” as any other monarch. Yes, England was a little late to the party, thanks to a long running civil war (the Wars of the Roses) and a dour king who favoured an austerity policy (Henry VII). Scotland didn’t fare much better with the Stuarts getting themselves imprisoned by their own people (James III) and defeated by their old enemies (Battle of Flodden Field 1513). Yet, James V (1513-42) was a keen lutenist, and supported the growth of the arts in his country just as other European monarchs did.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth”. Around this time, there was a rediscovery of lots of Greek and Roman thinking and ideas which is what gave the inspiration for the term “renaissance” (which first appeared in the 19th century – it wasn’t used at the time). Another important element at this time, which matters for our story, is that the landed elites – the rulers of the day – were developing a system called “patronage” for funding the arts. Artists no longer had to either work for the church, or sell their wares. Instead, they were given a commission by a patron to create their work. Some were even paid on a retainer as court musicians, artists, poets and even scientists. Finally, there was also a grand new modern invention – the printing press – which made it easier to distribute music on a mass scale.

At the top of the social scale, music began to branch out beyond the church music that had dominated high art before this time. There were new ideas about composition which flowed from the rediscovered Greek and Roman thinking – music became more complex, and during this time the modern scales we use today were slowly refined. New forms of harmony also developed – polyphony (the weaving of multiple melodies) became more complex and homophony (block chords as used in hymn tunes and contemporary popular music) started to be included.

Renaissance singersSo what did this mean for vocal music? Well, the biggest change was the development of secular song. Traditional secular music had existed for a long time (see last week), but now the printing press allowed mass distribution. For ordinary people, this came in the form of the broadside ballad. Broadside ballads were new lyrics to popular tunes and followed the same themes as our pop music does today. There were political songs about current affairs (“Times, they are a-changing” – Bob Dylan). There were comic songs with lewd lyrics (“Thong song” – Sisqo) and without (“Earnie, the fastest milkman in the west”). Gallows songs, about the fate of criminals were very popular (“03 Bonnie & Clyde” – Beyonce & JayZ), as were the ever popular love songs (uh, everything else?). Broadside ballads were posted up on pub walls where those who could read would share the lyrics with everyone else. Here’s an example:

At the more elite end of music, songs began to be produced. Even Henry VIII wrote a few, with Greensleeves being one of the most famous to be attributed to him. This period saw a flowering of English composition. Works by Dowland, Byrd, Morely and others still appear on singing exam syllabi today. Many of these songs retain the characteristic uneven time signatures and slightly irregular tonality of this period, making them more challenging to sing than music from the classical era, for example. You can hear one of Dowland’s compositions below:

Music also entered into the fledgling world of theatre. Shakespeare’s songs, for example, have no surviving music, so large numbers of composers have set the same lyrics to different tunes. You can hear some selections of settings of “It was a Lover and his Lass” from As You Like It in the playlist below.

So we know that vocal music came in a wide range of different forms (click on each one to go to an example on youtube):

When listening to Renaissance music, here are the key features to listen for:

  • Renaissance musicModal harmony – use of different modal scales (see future post on modes)
  • Acappella singing – limited use of instruments – recorders and lutes were popular
  • Polyphonic sound – interweaving melodies
  • Contrapuntal – use of imitation
  • Word pictures – the music matches the words (the word “flying” might be on the highest note)

Composers to remember:

–> Next week: The Baroque Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

ABRSM Exams Series – Putting It All Together

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

In this series, we’ve talked about choosing repertoire, and we’ve looked at how to prepare the repertoire, and we’ve covered the supporting tests. Now it’s time to look at the last few details.

Booking the exam


ABRSM offer online applications, so booking your exam has never been easier. Teachers with more than 3 hours of examining can organise a private visit, hosted at their own venue. However, the vast majority of candidates use a public centre. ABRSM has plenty of centres, so there should be one near you. You can apply online and pay by card. ABRSM currently only offer a choice of which week you’d prefer the exam to be and a choice to say “not Saturdays”. Hopefully, this will change in the near future, but in the meantime, be prepared for the possibility that you might end up with a strange or less-than-convenient time!

To use the online booking system, you’ll need to register for an applicant number. Once you have that, make sure you have all the details about your candidate ready, including the name they want on their certificate, their date of birth (for under 18s wanting UCAS points this is vital) and you know which exam you’re applying for. The process is a piece of cake!

ABRSM send through appointments in plenty of time and they even give an estimated date for results to be available – it’s by far and away the best exam board in terms of this part of the exam process.

In the month before the exam

By the time you’re booking the exam, you should have got to a point where the candidate knows what they’re singing and has some idea about the supporting tests. In the weeks before the exam, the focus should be on memorising the pieces, and doing plenty of practice of the supporting tests. There are lots of good resources for the aural tests, and the more sight-reading practice the better. Now is the time to start using the official sight-reading practice tests.

Once you have a date, make sure you know where the venue is and how to get there. You’ll also need to book an accompanist and arrange a rehearsal with them (if it’s not the teacher who is accompanying).

Make sure you have proper, legal copies of all the music available, and if you are singing an unaccompanied traditional song in a foreign language you’ll need a translation of the lyrics for the examiner.

The syllabus has full details of all the rules and regulations. Now is the time to go through them and make sure you’ve covered everything!

Two weeks before the exam

By now, the learning and memorising process should be over, and it’s time to really shine up the performance. Practice singing your songs for an audience so that you are used to singing for someone other than your teacher. Think about where to look while you’re singing – you don’t want to stare at the examiner, but you also need to make sure you make eye contact with them occasionally.

Take some time now to think about the meaning of the song. You should have been doing this all the way through the learning process, but it’s much easier to focus in on the acting once you know the notes. Who is singing this song? Why are they singing it? What do they want to happen? Who are they singing to? Click over to the resources page to find a copy of my Understanding Repertoire worksheet and use this to help you think about the emotional content of the songs.

As you go into the final week, make sure you have everything ready! Think about what you’re going to wear – the right clothes and especially shoes can make a huge difference to how you feel on the day.

The night before

I know everyone says it, but getting a good night’s rest is vital for any exam – even more so when it’s your body doing the work! Diet is important too. Make sure you drink plenty of water and cut back on caffeine and dairy in the 24 hours before the exam.

Do one last check that you have everything ready, including your list of songs for the examiner, your sheet music and anything else you might want, like a bottle of water.

Don’t do a big sing session the day before. Just focus on gentle exercises and mark your songs rather than going at it full-force. You don’t want to overdo it and then have trouble the next day.

On the day

Warm-up before you leave home – it will help you relax and feel prepared.

Arrive at your exam centre in plenty of time. There’s supposed to be a warm-up room at the centre too, if it’s a public one, so do a little more warming up. Don’t sing your pieces now, just sing exercises or another song you really like.

Remember, you can do your exam in any order you like, so if you want to start with the sight-reading, aural tests or unaccompanied song, you can. Normally, however, candidates do their pieces first as it means the accompanist can come in with the candidate play and then leave the room for the rest, rather than waiting to be called.

Examiners with the ABRSM tend to be very formal in their behaviour  compared to other boards. I am sure that this is mainly so that it is clear that they are being fair to everyone. Examiners are always polite and clear about what is happening, such as when they’re writing notes in the gaps between songs. For the aural tests, they will use the exact wording given in the specimen test books. Don’t be put off by the formality, it’s actually meant to be reassuring because it makes it clear that everything is under control and going smoothly.

Enjoy singing your songs – you know them well, and have hopefully come to like (or even love) them. Make use of introductions to think about the content of the song – focus on the emotional story and let yourself become the person singing the song rather than thinking about the fact you’re in an exam and someone is scribbling away at a desk a few metres from you. Singing is more about what goes on in your mind than anything else, so really let yourself get absorbed in the music.

Once the exam is over, try not to dwell on what you did or didn’t do. Do talk it over with someone if you need to, and then enjoy the freedom of it being over!

After it’s over

he ABRSM publishes approximate dates for results to be released, and they go up online first if you booked that way. Certificates are posted out and should arrive within a week of the results being put online.

Whatever the result, the most important thing is to read the comments carefully and discuss them with your teacher. Pay attention to the compliments as well as the criticism! Talk with your teacher about what you’re going to do together to do even better next time.

If (and I say if not when!) you fail the exam, it’s not the end of the world, and nor do you have to retake the same level. Yes, you might have work to do, but there’s no requirement to take and pass every grade so you and your teacher can still talk about where to go next.

Whatever the outcome, you can feel very proud because taking an exam is a daunting process and you survived! Hopefully, you even had fun doing it and you will want to do it all again soon.

–> The End

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

Thanks for reading this series. I hope you’ve found it helpful. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer as best I can. If you’ve been inspired to take an ABRSM singing exam, and live in the Edinburgh area, why not get in touch with me about starting singing lessons?

If you’re not so local, you can still stay tuned for a new series on the History of Music for Singers coming soon on the Wednesday series slot. In the meantime, there’s Friday Favourites, Repertoire Corner, and a whole host of other posts to keep you inspired to Discover Singing.

ABRSM Exams – Supporting Tests: Aural Tests

NB. The Information about the content of the aural tests is not in the singing syllabus, but instead can be found here:

Aural tests are very easy to neglect. They are a small portion of the exam marks, and only take a few minutes at the end of the exam. They can seem unimportant. Nothing is farther from the truth!

The marks for aural tests can make a big difference to the outcome of an exam, especially when a candidate is borderline. Don’t leave them until the last minute!

Unlike for sight-singing, there are several good resources on the market. I’ve used all of these:

The first two books are essentially collections of tests which can be used in lessons. They both now come with a CD which means candidates can buy Aural Training in Practice for use at home. Improve Your Aural is more of a workbook which covers preparation exercises to help students unpack the requirements and transition from the skills in one grade to the next.

Aural training for the next grade should, ideally be started after the last one, so that students are confident with the requirements long before the exam rolls around. This aspect of general musicianship can also be supported using the materials for practical musicianship exams which have activities which are similar to the aural tests, but more wide-ranging. I have also found that Hal Leonard’ s Basic Skills Rhythm Without the Blues and Ear Without Fear  work really well as supporting materials for aural perception, particularly for students who already read music (and so Go for Bronze and Jolly Music aren’t appropriate).

From around Grade 5, it’s also important to supplement the aural test practice with wider listening to help students get more confident with identifying styles and suggesting composers. From around aged 9 or 10, I start doing listening activities with students, and help them create a History of Music binder which supports this aspect of aural training. Follow this blog for more on the History of Music project, which I will be posting about over the next few months.

With all this in place, candidates should be approaching the day of the exam with confidence. Next week’s post is on tips for putting all this together and succeeding on the day itself.

–> Next post: “Putting it All Together”

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

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 ]

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 ]

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 ]