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ABRSM Exam Certificates

The New ABRSM Syllabus is Here!

Eight years since the last major refresh of the singing syllabus, and five years after the last update, ABRSM have been heavily promoting their new syllabus as a modern update for singing students.

Yes, it’s true to say it’s been refreshed. Unfortunately, it’s otherwise a disappointing update.

But, let’s start with the good stuff!

There’s More Musical Theatre

Loads more songs to choose from, many of which I found myself thinking “oh, this wasn’t on there already?”. Most of the additions are from older, more established shows, and Disney works, but they are good singable tunes.

More for Teenage Boys

I noticed they’ve included a selection of new songs from publications aimed at teenagers with changing voices. This is great news for encouraging singing among boys who could easily be put off during their teenage years.

Simplifying the Publications List

ABRSM have included a good number of songs from some new publications, and expanded the use of some others. I can see they are trying to reduce the burden on teachers and students when it comes to buying materials in general. I’m actually quite interested in buying one or two, like the Songs from the Far East collection.

A Few Bad Options are Gone

I’m glad that As Long As He Needs Me is no longer listed for Grade 2. It’s about domestic violence, so not really suitable for kids! I’m also pleased to see the back of Die Henne, but then I have a personal vendetta against that song!

Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more that I’m less impressed with…

Foreign Languages are Not Required.

The requirement to sing in a foreign language at grades 6 to 8 is no more. This is a bit odd as these are classical singing exams, and classical singing requires the ability to sing in multiple languages. I can only see this as a weak attempt to attract non-classical singers to the exams, even though there’s so many excellent options for other styles of music. Any teacher worth their salt will ignore this change and continue to insist on a foreign language.

Basses can Sing Soprano Arias

There’s two issues here. Firstly, they’ve removed the restriction on key changes for oratorio and opera. As above, this is a weird decision as it’s so contrary to professional practice. Alongside this, this type of song is no longer listed by voice type in the syllabus. All this does is make it harder for good teachers to wade through the material to work out what is right for their students, and encourages weaker teachers to choose inappropriate repertoire.

Money Making Publications

ABRSM are also publishing a new set of books for Grades 1-5. Funny that.

It’s Still OLD

Even though about a third to a quarter of the repertoire has changed, I still feel like this syllabus is built on out-dated ideas about what children sing, and it’s full of difficult folk songs and pop songs from the 20s, 30s and 40s. There’s very little contemporary music, and the music theatre offerings are still mostly mid-20th Century at best.

It’s still Illogical

It’s also very hard to see the logic of the syllabus. A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes is still on Grade 1, and I’d never teach it at that stage due to the huge leaps in it. Popular is on Grade 8 and I’d say it’s closer to 5 or 6. I still don’t know what musical skills students are supposed to develop from one level to the next, which makes assessing readiness for the exam difficult, and encourages rote-learning of songs.

No Change to Supporting Tests

The sight-singing still doesn’t reflect a logical progression for singers. They still organise it by key, rather than starting with pentatonic melodies and moving outwards. The Aural tests still duplicate the sight-singing test. The traditional song requirement also remains the same.

I wish ABRSM would take their singing programme apart and start over. I’d love to see them take a Kodaly approach, starting with pentatonic materials with strong accompanied support at Grade 1, and then develop more complex accompaniments and diatonic music through to Grade 5. I would also love to see more repertoire and publications to support adult learners at the lower grades. And for the love of music, please sort out the sight-singing tests. I’m fed up of having to teach to the test because it’s so badly constructed.

What are your thoughts about the new syllabus?

Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

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

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.

The Mythical Grade 8

ABRSM Exam Certificates

Grade 8 is the highest available graded instrumental exam. For parents and students alike, it can seem like a glowing light in the distance – a magical target that once achieved will bestow the mythical status of ‘musician’ on anyone who can reach it.

Here are 8 myths about reaching Grade 8:

Myth #1 – Grade 8 means I’m good enough to be a professional

Nothing in music qualifies or says you’re good enough to be a professional. The people who decide if you’re good enough to be a professional are the people who pay you! Grade 8 is definitely a good target if you want to have a career in music. It should set you up with a solid technical foundation, and give you extra skills like sight-reading and aural awareness. By the time you reach Grade 8, you’ll also probably have a good idea of whether you want to make a living from music. However, Grade 8 alone isn’t going to get you paid work – you need more skills than what is included in Grade 8. Diplomas, higher education study and participation in plenty of amateur performing opportunities are the things that will help you get started as a professional.

Myth #2 – By the time I get to Grade 8, I’ll be able to sing/play anything right away

There’s some truth in this one. By Grade 8, if you’ve really achieved the all-round standard, you should be able to tackle most music. There’ll be very little that’s off-limits. However, there’ll still be things which take work and could take months or even years to perfect. There’ll be lots of things you’ll be able to sight-read (more or less), but not everything will be!

Myth #3 – Passing Grade 8 means I don’t need any more lessons

At Grade 8, you need lessons more than ever! As you get better, there’s lots you’ll be able to do in your own practice times to improve, but when you’re working at a post-grade 8 level you need a teacher who has experience working with advanced level pupils who can refine and improve your voice. The right teacher will also help you to work out what steps to take next in your music “career” – whether it’s full-time study, diplomas or a summer school.

Myth #4 – By the time I get to Grade 8, I’ll be able to write my own music

Grade 8 is a performance exam, so you never have to learn to compose as part of it. Some boards do have an improvisation option, but there’s no real composition element. If you get to Grade 8 with ABRSM you’ll probably have a good idea of what sounds good and bad, and some of the basic theory you need to back it up. However, composing is a different skill to playing.

Myth #5 – If I get Grade 8 in one style of singing, I’ll never be able to sing any other music

Not at all! Grade 8 is a sign that you’ve hit a good level of proficiency in one style of singing, but very few people who sing professionally (other than perhaps those at the top of their game) only sing in one style or genre. If you’ve reached the giddy heights of classical Grade 8, you can probably start in at a higher level for rock & pop exams or musical theatre exams, though you’ll still have new skills to learn. I’d actually recommend getting experience in two or more vocal styles to give you greater vocal flexibility and a wider range of options.

Myth #6: Once I’ve passed Grade 8, I can teach my instrument

This, for me, is one of the worst myths out there. Graded exams do not qualify anyone with teaching skills. This is, however, a point a which one could consider the possibility of teaching, and look for a mentor to guide you through the early stages of learning to teach. Grade 8 is one of the requirements for taking teaching diplomas, as are more advanced theory qualifications, and I would always recommend getting a teaching qualification so that you and your future students know you know what you’re doing. Please, whatever you do, don’t set up teaching the day after you get your Grade 8 certificate. You’re not doing anyone any favours. If you’re interested in qualifying as a teacher, please contact me. I’m not yet qualified to teach teachers, but I can recommend a number of other teachers across the UK who will be happy to mentor you.

Myth #7: Grade 8 makes me a musician

If you need a certificate to prove you’re a musician, you probably aren’t one. Being a musician is a gut feeling, just like becoming an adult. Whether it’s the moment sight-reading clicks, or the day you perform perfectly in a competition, you will, one day, find that thing which makes you feel like you can hold that title.

Myth #8: Grade 8 is the end

Grade 8 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. Go out and explore where you can go next!


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


The process of learning songs for performance is the subject of hundreds of books, blog posts, websites and conversations among singers. Obviously, this post can only highlight some of the most important issues relating to preparing for ABRSM singing exams, so in this post, you’ll find my answers to some frequently asked questions about exam preparation.

Remember, preparing songs for performance is also a very personal journey. Teachers and students alike will have their own preferred methods for learning notes, memorising lyrics and engaging with the content. Finding what works for you is an important part of the process, so think about how you would answer each of the questions in your own way.

1. Where do you start once you’ve chosen your repertoire?

The obvious response is, at bar one! Certainly, the next step is to start learning the notes so that you are confident with “how it goes”.

With younger students, I will introduce the songs I’ve chosen one at a time over several lessons about a month or so before the closing date for entries. The order is not terribly important, but if one song is substantially longer, or more difficult than the others, I tend to introduce that one first.

For older students, choosing repertoire is usually a more collaborative process, and I aim for us to have decided on a programme a few weeks before the closing date. That still leaves plenty of time for learning the notes and polishing the performance.

2. Do you want a student to be “ready for the exam” before you enter them?

I am a big believer in not putting someone in for an exam until I’m confident they will pass. Failing is very disheartening for a student, and I don’t want to put someone in that situation. Obviously, sometimes candidates do fail despite their teachers best efforts because not everyone practices diligently, or unexpected things happen.

I don’t demand every student knows all their pieces before submission for the exam. Some people need a looming deadline to get them motivated to put the effort in – I’m that kind of student myself! However, if I’ve never submitted a pupil for an exam, I will try to make sure they are absolutely ready before I submit them the first time, and then see how they respond to the pressure.

3. Do you have any tips for learning songs quickly but still making sure you know them properly?

It’s best to mix things up with singing between working “line-by-line”, singing the whole song, and listening to how it goes. I usually start by sight-reading through the whole song, and then I work through it phrase by phrase to make sure I am accurate. Then I sing it as a whole a few times. Each practice time, I tend to use this “Sandwich Method”  of sing/play through and notice mistakes, isolate the bits that went wrong and then sing the whole song again. In between practices, I listen to recorded versions of the song to help me memorise them (you can find my YouTube playlists for the ABRSM exams here). It’s laborious to break down the song and work on individual phrases, but you’ll be glad you did when you get into the pressured situation of the exam (or concert).

Make sure you make notes in pencil on your score marking where you need to take breaths in long passages, and add other reminders about things like tone, vowel modification and dynamics. I often circle notes that I regularly get wrong, or add in accidentals that I forget about.

4. Do I have to memorise the words? How do I do that?

Singers are required by ABRSM to perform from memory, unless they are performing a work from an oratorio, where the custom is for soloists to use the music in regular performances. I ignore this last caveat as, even if you are performing with a score in an oratorio, it’s far better to have memorised it and just have the score there for reassurance/show than to be reliant on it. So yes, you have to memorise the words – even the ones in foreign languages.

I tend to find a combination of listening to the song and practicing it with the words from the beginning get me to about 90% certainty. Where I’m struggling with the words, I usually try to copy them out from the score a few times. Then I write them down from memory a few times. I also “mark” the song by half-singing the words in the shower or walking down the street to keep them circling round in my head.

5. What do I need to add to my performance to get really good marks?

The syllabus has a detailed mark scheme which you can read yourself, but the first key to great marks is to be absolutely spot on. Know your words, know your notes, and be really confident in yourself that you can sing your songs really well. The ABRSM value technical skill above all the other aspects of performing at grade level, so don’t neglect that side of it.

Make sure you get good advice from someone who can a) hear you and b) is trained as a singing teacher about your tonal quality. Most of the songs on the ABRSM syllabus should be sung in a classical style, where there is a purity of tone. Vowel sounds should be the focus of each note, with consonants bracketing it. You’re aiming for a vocal sound with an open throat and low larynx position – often described as “bel canto”. Some of the musical theatre songs require a different vocal set up. This is where a trained teacher’s advice is vitally important to doing really well.

The final aspect which is often neglected but is key to high marks is acting. All songs are being sung to someone. Know who your song is being sung to, and why. Try to feel the emotions of the song as you are singing it – think about times when you’ve felt the love or sadness being sung about. The last thing you want is to sing a song in an exam which is beautifully executed from a technical standpoint but is completely soulless. I’ve produced a worksheet I call “Understanding Repertoire” which can be found on my Resources page.

6. What about accompaniments?

Most ABRSM exam songs are available as downloads on one of the backing track websites on the Recommended Clicking page. It’s important to make use of these so you can be confident about holding your own against the piano. The higher up the grades, the less helpful the accompaniment is to the singer.

While you are practicing, think about whether you need to give your accompanist any instructions like “slow down here” or “don’t play this bit too quietly”. I never accompany my students for exams as I think it’s very important for singers to learn how to work with accompanists. We need to know how to be confident enough to ask for what we want, and we need to be able to trust the person manning the keyboard to work with us for a good performance.

7. Anything else I need to think about?

This is the time to make sure you have legal copies of everything, including the words/translation of your traditional song for the examiner.

You also need to do what you can to prepare for the practicalities like knowing how to get to the venue, and choosing what you’re going to wear. Once you have a date, make sure your accompanist can make it and arrange a rehearsal.

Further advice and guidance can be found in the ABRSM publication These Music Exams, which can be picked up in most music shops or downloaded from this page.

Oh, and don’t neglect your supporting tests – the aural and sight-reading tests can make all the difference to your exam results. They’re the subject of our next two blog posts. Next week’s is on the most “dreaded” element : sight-reading.

–> Next post “Supporting Tests: Sight-Reading

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

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 ]

ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 2: The Lists

NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here http://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/singing/

ABRSM did a wise thing when they invented the lists. It might initially seem restrictive to have to pick from a list, but as I’ve already noted, there’s plenty of choice on each one for singers. In fact, rather than being restrictive, the ABRSM list system means students must pick songs from at least three different styles and periods.

Let’s take a closer look at the styles and periods. Where I’ve mentioned specific songs, I’ve linked to them on YouTube. At the end of each section, you can access my playlists on YouTube for each grade. The playlists aren’t always complete as not everything has been put on YouTube, and I’ve not done every grade list yet. If any of the links become defunct, please use the comments box to let me know so I can update them.

List A (all grades) – From Folk to Baroque

List A is the earliest list in terms of composition date. At Grade 1, it is dominated by folk songs such as “Golden Slumbers” and “The Miller of Dee”. Although folk songs are not necessarily hundreds of years old, they are usually unknown in terms of date, so fit into the idea of ‘early music’. By Grade 5, students are expected to manage simpler baroque arias such as Handel’s “Where ‘Ere You Walk”. Grade 5 candidates are also offered their first taste of Renaissance music with Arne’s “Where the Bee Sucks”. Handel, Haydn and Purcell are regulars on this list. Mozart and early classical composers also feature, straddling lists A and B. At Grade 8, candidates can choose Renaissance songs such as Dowland’s “Flow my Tears” or “Weep You No More Sad Fountains” , oratorio and mass settings such as Mozart’s “Agnus Dei” or operatic recitatives and arias like Purcell’s “Ah Belinda/When I am Laid”. For Grades 6 to 8, there is a general section, and then four sections for soprano, mezzosoprano/alto/countertenor, tenor, and baritone/bass.

List A songs tend to be quite word-y, in that the words are as important as the melody. Clear diction is important. The Baroque songs usually require a level of vocal agility in tackling the long  runs of quavers on a single vowel, while the Renaissance songs often change time signature every bar. Many of these songs have the opportunity for students to learn about ornamentation (both written by the composer and added by the performer).

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

List B (Grades 1-5) – From Classical to Classic Art Songs

List B for Grades 1-5 covers simple repertoire from about 1750 to 1950 in date. The ABRSM have a bit of a love-affair going on with Brahms, and his songs feature heavily. High romantic songs (Faure etc) are notably absent, primarily because of their difficulty. They start to appear on the Grade 6-8 list B. Grade 1 offers songs such as Brahms “Die Nachtingall”, Schumann’s “Der Abenstern” or Lin Marsh’s “Seagull”. By Grade 5, the choice is a little more varied with Chopin’s “Smutna rzeka”, Finzi’s “Boy Johnny” and Copeland’s famous arrangement of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”. There is no requirement to sing any repertoire in a foreign language at Grades 1-5, even though much of the B list was not originally written in English.

Vocal music became more and more about the music and less about the words as it progressed into the 19th century, and so these songs often provide opportunities to show of breath control and depth of tone along with emotional communication.

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

List B (Grades 6-8) – The Foreign Language List

At Grades 6 to 8, list B is the mandatory foreign language list. While other songs may be sung in translation, list B must be sung in its original language. At Grade 6 high romantic music in the form of Faure makes an appearance with the likes of “En Priere“, and students can delve into German Lieder with Schubert’s “Stanchen”. By Grade 8, Faure is a stalwart appearance, joined by his contemporary Debussy’s “Beau Soir” and Verdi makes an appearance with “Perduta ho La Pace”.

The key to a good B list choice at higher grades is finding a language your student is comfortable singing in. Good pronunciation will be essential, as will communicating the meaning through tone and facial expression. Thankfully many of the songs on this list have strong emotional content making them easy to engage with as performances.

YouTube Playlists: 6 – 7 – 8

List C (Grades 6-8) – The Art Song List

I will freely admit to hating List C as a student, but then I love baroque music, opera and music theatre! List C for Grades 6-8 covers modern art songs. Several of Roger Quilter’s Shakespeare settings are on the lists like “How Should I Your True Love Know?” at Grade 6. Madeline Dring’s Shakespeare setting of “It was a Lover” features at Grade 8. Britten’s “When You’re Feeling Like Expressing Your Affection”  features at Grade 6 and Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night” is on the Grade 8 list.

Modern art songs can be comic, emotional or pretty. All of them require confidence against more complex accompaniments which are often less helpful than those for the other lists. It can be quite a balancing act to get the emotional content across while maintaining good tone and technique.

YouTube Playlists: 6 – 7 – 8

List C (grades 1-5)/List D (grades 6-8) –  The Musicals List

Well, strictly speaking, this isn’t exclusively a musicals list, but the vast majority of candidates choose from the musical theatre or opera choices. At Grade 1, the musicals choices include classics like “We’re Off to See the Wizard” (The Wizard of Oz) and “My Favourite Things” (The Sound of Music). There are also some lovely songs written for primary aged children that I’m keen to look into further, such as Jenkyns’ “The Crocodile” or Lin Marsh’s “Pirates!”. Grade 5 has gems like “Sunrise, Sunset” (Fiddler on the Roof) and “I Could Have Danced All Night” (My Fair Lady). By this level, Gilbert and Sullivan are also on the list (“The Policeman’s Song” and “When a Merry Maiden Marries”) expanding the genre into operetta. There are also still art songs such as Rowley’s setting of “From a Railway Carriage”. By Grade 8, the musicals content like “Adelaide’s Lament” (Guys and Dolls) is thinning out to make way for opera arias such as “The Dew Fairy’s Song” from Humperdink’s Hansel und Gretel or “O Columbina” from Leoncavello’s I Pagliacci.

This list has a great range of choices all the way through the grades, with a mixture of musicals, jazz standards, and art songs for early grades, and more opera arias later on. This list allows students the chance to show off different skills, like characterisation, accents and a greater depth of emotional communication. It can be a real joy choosing a song from this list as students are likely to have several songs they enjoy and can perform well.

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

Now you’re getting to grips with the accompanied repertoire, it’s time to choose an unaccompanied traditional song.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 3: Unaccompanied Traditional Song

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 1: Know Your Voice

NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here http://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/singing/

A Stack of BooksFacing the list of song choices for an ABRSM singing exam can be daunting. For most other instruments there are between 6 and 10 choices per list. Several popular instruments even have their own book published with three pieces from each list in, making it very simple to choose. In contrast, Grade 1 singing has 22 pieces in list A, 21 for list B and 31 for list C. By Grade 8 this has grown to 53 choices for list A, 43 on list B, 45 on list C and 46 on list D!

There is one very important reason for all this choice, and it’s the thing which is most important to remember when deciding on repertoire – no two voices are the same. There are a mixture of male, female and non-gendered songs right from Grade 1, and from Grade 6 some songs are listed with specific voice types.

The key questions I use for choosing repertoire for AB exams are more or less the same as the ones I use for choosing my own concert repertoire:

  • What is the vocal range? Can my student hit every note required with confidence?  – Note that many of the songs on the AB lists are published in several keys. I tend not to do my own transpositions as it’s rarely necessary. However, the syllabus says “all items may be sung by any voice and in any key, published or transposed, suited to the compass of the candidate’s voice, except for those items from operas, operettas, oratorios, cantatas and sacred works in Grades 6–8 (Lists A and D) where a particular voice and key are specified (although original pitch may be adopted in Baroque pieces, if appropriate)”.
  • Where is my student’s vocal strength? – It’s no good to give a student who struggles to hold pitch in their upper registers a song which is almost entirely at a high pitch. Songs should reflect the best qualities of a student’s voice.
  • Does my student struggle with any techniques? Are there technical things they are really good at? – Young students may struggle to sustain long phrases as their lungs are small. Other students might have a knack for crisp articulation, or maintain really good tone on long notes.
  • For foreign languages: does my student already know a little German / French / Italian / Spanish / Icelandic? – Knowing a little of the language can really help a student understand and engage with foreign language pronunciation, as well as with communicating meaning.
  • How old is my student? How good at conveying emotional content are they? – ABRSM exams don’t have the acting component that Music Theatre exams do, but it is important to bear in mind that some songs may not be appropriate to give a young singer. Singers who are particularly good at conveying emotion should be directed to a song which can show off their talents.

I also have two more non-musical considerations:

  • Can you get hold of the music? – There’s an anthology of Icelandic Art Songs, for example, that is on several lists, but I can’t find anywhere to buy it from except the publishers’ website which is in Icelandic. If you can’t get a legal copy of the music, you can’t sing the song in the exam. Period.
  • Is it an overdone song? – Watch out for songs which appear in a lot of anthologies, especially the graded ones. Examiners will have heard these more often than repertoire which is only “published separately”. Watch out for really well known songs too. I’m sure it’s just a legend, but I’m convinced that it helps to offer a programme containing less popular songs!

These questions will start to narrow down the lists, but there’s no substitute for listening to as many songs as possible and singing at least a few from each list. YouTube has recordings of the vast majority of songs and is invaluable for making a first pass through. I try to maintain playlists with as many of the songs as I can find over at my YouTube page.

Ultimately, I do find that as much gut instinct as analysis goes into selecting songs for exams. With my younger students, I usually choose a list myself, but with older ones it can be a great journey to go on together to listen, sample, try out and choose a programme both of you love.

Join me again next week for a look at the types of music which can be found on each list.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 2: The Lists

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]