Tag Archives: performing

Review: Sing Musical Theatre

One of the things I had been intending to add in to my blog posts is reviews of new materials. Now I’ve finally been shopping, here’s my first review.




Title: Sing Musical Theatre; Wouldn’t It be Loverly? (Foundation, Grades 1-3)
Type of Material: Sheet Music with Backing CD
Publication: 2011 Faber Music
RRP: £14.99



I was delighted when I discovered this series as I have been looking for a “graded” approach to musical theatre songs for a while. Musical Theatre is dominated by vocal selections, or anthologies sorted by theme or voice type, rather than difficulty. This made it hard to give students a single text to buy. Thankfully, Trinity developed these volumes which help students up to Grade 5 work on easy but satisfying songs.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? has a good selection of songs, many of which are well-known. A good number, however, are taken from UK Youth Music Theatre productions which are less known. This could be a disadvantage, but I like that the book isn’t just the standard songs. There is a good range of styles and dates which means one could pull an LCM programme out of this book alone for the early grades.

This book is also an educational manual as each song has some background on the show, and tips on both musical and theatrical performance. This makes it a great buy for learners as they have reference material to support their practice. For LCM candidates, the information about the song is really helpful for the viva too.

The backing tracks too are good. They’re nicely paced (not too fast or slow) and have a fuller sound than just the piano, with some percussion etc where appropriate.

I would recommend this book to any beginner or teacher working with beginners. It’s not too condesending to use with adults either, and the inclusion of backing tracks really makes this a value for money choice.

Content: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Layout: ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Value for Money: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Overall: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

How to Find the Right Choir

Evensong in York MinsterFinding the right choir for you can be tough, but as I’ve said before, joining a choir is a great way to improve your singing and musical skills. Here are five really important questions to ask yourself before you start looking at the myriad of options available.

How Does the Choir Learn the Music?

Some choirs use sheet music, while others learn “by ear”, or more accurately, “by rote”. Using sheet music opens up a range of more difficult (dare I say, interesting) repertoire than can be learned just by listening and repeating. It also means things can be learnt more quickly. If the choir uses sheet music, you will get a real boost in your sight-reading abilities. However, you want the choir to challenge you, but not leave you behind, so ask the director if you can find out more about what kind of repertoire you’ll be singing and how fast you have to cover it.

Do I Have to Audition?

A good number of choirs audition, and they auditon for lots of reasons. Some want to check if you can keep up with the sight-reading needed. Others might be looking for a particular vocal sound. The most prestigous will want the whole package. You might find a choir auditions sopranos and altos, but doesn’t audition tenors as they’re a bit short handed. The size of the choir will give you an idea of how difficult the auditions are to pass, and you should definitely ask the director what you have to do and how formal the process is. You might also ask how many people are successful, and how many are turned away too.

What kind of music do they sing?

There’s a choir for every genre of music, but the main types you find are traditional choirs (singing classical music usually with sheet music), pop choirs (singing contemporary music learned by rote) and church choirs (singing religious music, usually with sheet music). You definitely want to look for a choir whose music you enjoy, so why not go along to a concert or service to hear the choir and decide if you like the general kind of music they sing. You won’t like every peice, so consider the overview more than the specifics.


What kind of performance do they give?

The TV show Glee has led to a rise in the “show choir” in the UK. There are now more and more choirs who really go to town with their performances including dance and costume. Some choirs are more sedate, going for some swaying and clapping. Others are much more formal and just stand with book in hand. Think about what is most comfortable for you. You should be able to find out about this easily.

This is also the point to consider if you have any mobility or health issues that might affect your ability to stand still for a long time etc.

How much does it cost?

Some choirs are free. Some might even pay you to be part of them (church choirs, for example). Others charge a membership fee to cover the cost of the musical director and accompanist, hall hire and books. There may also be charges for loan of music or buying choir t-shirts. You should ask what costs are entailed, and make sure that you check about extras, not just the membership fee. If you do have to pay, ask about the arrangements for leaving the choir – do you get money back, or can you only leave at the end of a subs period?

Useful Websites

Here are a few directory sites that might help you find a few choirs to try:

  • http://www.choirs.org.uk/home.htm
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/sing/findachoir.shtml
  • https://www.nationalassociationofchoirs.org.uk/

Are you part of a choir? What kind of choir is it? How did you find it?

Movement for Non-Actors (Part 3) – It’s the Little Things

As we have been discussing in previous posts, the use of movement in a performance is always tied to the information you’re trying to communicate to your audience. So far, we’ve talked about the big movements – walking around and changing levels. In this post, we’ll take a look at a few of the smaller things that are really important.

NervesEye contact & Posture

One of the key ways we communicate with others is through our eye-contact, or lack thereof. If you want to appear confident, or in charge of the situation, you’re likely to look someone directly in the eye. If you’re afraid or someone, or aware you’re in the wrong, you’ll probably avoid looking at that person’s eyes as much as possible.

Here are some of the questions you can ask yourself to establish where you should be looking, and how you should be standing:

  • What status does your character have? Are they a powerful person in society or a weak one? A pauper or a king?
  • What relationships does your character have with others who are on stage during the song?
  • How does your character feel about themselves? Do they feel confident or insecure? This will determine how you look at the audience.
  • How do these feelings change throughout the song? Does your character increas in confidence through the song, or do they get more insecure?

One of the exercises that is really good to do, is to try to communicate your status just through posture and eyecontact. Practice this with your teacher.

Inhabiting the body of your character is very important, so you could also try a technique called “hot seating” where your teacher asks you questions and you have to respond as though you were this character. By thinking like the character, you will find your body responds to your thoughts and moves like your character.

I hope to do a series on characterisation in the future to help with just this issue.


Gesture is a tricky area in theatrical performance. Many people do talk with their hands, so standing still is unnatural, but you don’t want to be waving them around aimlessly, or worse, in a choreographed “hand dance”.

We usually gesuture to emphasise particular things we are saying. Consider where the most important lines are in your song. These are the points where you should consider moving your hands. To take an example, in the Gilbert & Sullivan song A Lady Fair of Lineage High, there’s a repeated line: “but it would not do / his scheme fell through” which has an accompaniment that is emphatic too. When performing this song, I chose to make a repeated gesture at the same time as singing these lines to emphasise the shortcomings of the character the song is speaking about. You might want to consider similar actions.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure it’s a natural action, and a simple action. Unless you are deliberately communicating the whole song through Sign Language, too many motions which interpret specific words will look downright weird!


The final aspect I want to mention is props. The LCM syllabus encourages the use of props and costume, and so I always encourage students to use a prop in at least one song. This might be anything from a ruler to a suitcase. Including props creates simple movement and action, and helps to communicate character and meaning.

If you want to make use of props, start by selecting your prop carefully. You want something simple, small and safe. An entire car is probably unrealistic, but a mocked up steering wheel might be do-able. Don’t use any props which involve fire, chemicals, or liquids etc. If you want to drink, it’s much safer to mime the wine than to try to pour it while singing, slop it on the floor and end up slipping over in your next number. Note that in the UK, at least, smoking is not permitted indoors, so you’ll need to keep cigarettes fake or unlit. Over the years, I have used folded letters, lipstick, picnic baskets, rulers, suitcases, and mugs.

Whatever you choose, mark all your actions into your score so you can rehearse them.

Oh, and don’t forget to pack your props on the day of your exam!

That’s the end of the whistlestop tour of movement for non-actors. I hope to come back in a week or two and talk about choreography for non-dancers, and also look at characterisation for singers. If you’re interested in any of these, click the RSS feed at the top right to subscribe to the blog.

In the meantime, do any of you have tips on how to add movement into your performances? Add them in the comments below.

Movement for Non-Actors: Part 1- Why Move?

If you’re preparing for an LCM Musical Theatre Performance exam, you might have noticed this rather ominous line in the syllabus:

dance and movement are encouraged and expected, and credit will be given for appropriate dance and other movement which is in context and is integral to, and enhances the performance of, the pieces… (p14, section 2.5.2, emphasis added)

To the first study singer, this kind of instruction can strike fear in the heart of even the most confident. So, how do you start to bring movement and dance into your performances? In this post, I’ll talk about movement, and then in a future post I’ll discuss dance.

Why Do I Need to Move?


Standing still in the middle of the stage makes a statement. It’s very intense, and it’s very direct to the audience. Some songs are definitely those kinds of songs, but most of them aren’t. Think about it. How many times have you seen someone be completely static in a musical? Have a look at this example from Ghost. Although most of the song is static, there’s still a point at which Molly moves (at 3:35). Note how the choice to move conveys a change of mood as the song breaks from the sad and depressing verse to an angry bridge.

Movement is just as important as the music in helping the audience to understand the meaning of a song. Just as you map your song vocally, you’ll need to map your song out physically. Here are some questions to help you start figuring out how to build in movement:

  • Who am I talking to? Am I singing to the audience or another character on stage, or who has just left the stage? e.g. There’s a Fine, Fine, Line (Avenue Q) is directed at the audience, but Daddy’s Girl (Grey Gardens) is sung to Jack, and Bring Him Home (Les Miserables) is directed at God.
  • Is there a particular point where the mood changes? e.g. With You (Ghost) or Still Hurting (The Last Five Years)
  • Do the lyrics describe what I’m doing? e.g. in On My Own, Eponine talks about walking through the streets.
  • Are there instrumental sections where you aren’t singing?

Grab a copy of your music, or the lyrics, and in pencil write the person to whom you’re talking to on the top. Then mark in the other points in the music. Once you have these key aspects you can begin to map out where and how you’re going to move.

Kate Monster

Move with Intention

One of the most important rules in theatrical movement is always move with intention. You don’t, in real life, wonder around aimlessly. You always move for a reason, even if it’s unconcious. Sometimes we move closer or further away from someone to show our feelings about them. We might pace the room to help us think. We move to pick something up or put something down.

The same is true for your character. For every movment you make, you need to make an active and considered choice about why you are moving. As you map out you movement, write in the reasons why you’re moving in pencil next to the action.

Starting Point

Before the beginning of any number, something has already happened to your character. Even if it’s the opening number of the show, the character hasn’t popped into existance at that very moment. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is already in prison. He’s had a whole life before that point which has landed him there in the first place. In the immediate moments before he sings his first solo number, What Have I Done? he has been speaking to the Policemen and the Bishop. This means he will already be on stage, and in a particular location.

In your song, you need to know what has happened before. Write this at the top of your music too. Is it that you have just finished talking to someone? Have you just come on stage? Where are you entering from, or where did the conversation take place? There’s no requirement for anyone to start a solo number in centre stage. Look again at With You from Ghost. Molly sings the whole song downstage left, which adds to the atmosphere of weakness, pain and fear.

Making Choices

From there on, you can make choices that work for you. Perhaps your character gets frustrated and starts to pace? Or they’re happy and they want to dance around? Do they give up by the end and need to collapse on the floor? I sang one performance where I began lying on the floor and slowly stood up towards the end. At each of the change points you’ve marked, make some decisions about whether or not to move and where to go. Look at some videos on YouTube of actual performances and see what aspects you like. A friend of mine has been preparing Steps to the Palace from Into the Woods, and she found it very frustrating that for someone who was supposed to be stuck to the spot according to the lyrics, an awful lot of Cinderellas kept moving around! I, on the other hand, borrowed most of the movement from the original show for The Wizard and I from Wicked.

In Part Two

On Thursday, you can pick up on part two of this post, where I’ll talk about how you can use space, levels, eyes, gesture and props to help bring movement to your performance.

What do you do to help bring more movement into your performances for Musical Theatre? Add your tips in the comments below!

My First Singing Exam (yes, your teachers took them too!)

ABRSM Exam CertificatesI took my first singing exam in… oh, I won’t tell you, but I was aged 14 and in year 9 at school in the south of England. I had been taking violin lessons since I was eight, but my interest had waned, not least because my teacher refused to let me take any exams (I was about grade 4 when I stopped, but have only grade 1 to show for it).

My singing teacher let me skip over grade 1 as I had sung in choirs since I was seven or eight and knew a bit of music already. We prepared three songs, as well as covering the aural tests and some of the sight-reading. I can’t remember what I sang any more…

*goes to look up on the syllabus…*

Ok, I had prepared The Mallow FlingDie Henne and The Little Spanish Town. All of them are still on the lists, and I enjoy teaching both The Mallow Fling and The Little Spanish Town to students. I can vividly remember hating Die Henne, but we had chosen it, and so that was the song it was to be! Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m always keen to help students find songs they enjoy singing for exams.

I rehearsed several times with my accompanist, who was a good friend of my teacher’s. My first singing teacher did not play the piano, so her friend accompanied for exams. My second teacher played and accompanied me for my exam, and my current teacher does play the piano, but does not accompany me for exams.

Man at desk

My Grade 2 exam was scheduled as part of a special visit at my school. Examiners will come to any location at any time if there are enough candidates, and so there were a range of students nipping out of lessons to take exams. The room they used was the Old Library – a very large room with a grand piano. It was a lovely space, but intimidating to fill as a new singer. Quite different from the other venues I have taken exams in – a church sanctuary, a musicians society room, a conservatoire opera studio and someone’s lounge! I remember the examiner being very kind and reassuring, and that once I started singing everything felt so much easier and less nerve-wracking than it had minutes before. After that, I don’t remember much, so it can’t have been a bad experience!

I did well in my exam – I got a solid merit. I went back and completed my Grades 3, 4 and 5 over the next few years, and I am now working towards a performance diploma for classical singing and for musical theatre.

My first exam experience was just as scary as anyone else’s, but it was the beginning of a life-long passion and a life-long journey to become excellent at music so that I can share it with others.

What was your first exam experience like? Are you preparing for your first exam right now? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Conquoring Exam Nerves

NervesEveryone gets nervous, and when it’s something like a singing exam, it can feel like your nerves are out to get you – they’re just determined to make you fail even when you know you’re capable! So here are some of my key tips to help you conquer exam nerves.

Counteract every bad thought with two good ones

In the weeks leading up to your exam, every time you finish a piece or section, tell yourself two things you did well for every one mistake you think you made. That way, you’re training your brain to focus on the positive things and not to dwell on the negative – it builds confidence and self-esteem. This should be a year-round, life-long habit, but at exam time it’s never more important.

Let yourself process the (actually possible) worst case scenario and realise that’s it’s ok

If you’re a “what if” person, you’ll be used to thinking “what if I forget my words?” or “what if I freeze up in the aural tests?”. It’s so easy for these kinds of thoughts to get out of control and small things seem bigger and bigger. Somehow, forgetting your words begins to feel like the start of a domino effect which brings down governments and destroys countries… Crazy as it sounds, fighting the worries is harder than giving in. So let yourself answer the “what if”:

“Ok, what if I forget my words… I could sing to “la” – that shows I can still do the rhythm and pitch… It’s also only one song, so I have a chance to do better on the others, so I might even still get a decent mark… If I keep forgetting them, the examiner will still look for the positive things I did and try to give me marks… And worst case scenario where I forget them so much that I fail? I never have to see the examiner again, as they probably live on the other side of the country, no one but me and my teacher have to know how badly I failed (I can tell my family it was by one mark) and I can take the exam again next session…!”

Somehow, the what if just seems less scary when you answer the question rather than leaving it hanging and open-ended.

Give yourself permission to be nervous

Reverse psychology is a fact! If you give yourself permission to be nervous, you’ll find it’s less intense. By denying yourself the right to be nervous, you’re both nervous and stressed.

If you get a dry mouth, stop wishing it wasn’t like that and focusing on it as this will make it worse. Instead, just let it be dry and concentrate on breathing properly and standing well. You’ll probably find it’s less irritating, and might even stop altogether.

For more about performance psychology for musicians, click on over to the Bulletproof Musician where you can read articles on lots of topics from performance anxiety to effective practicing.

Exercise, eat well and sleep properly

Exercise releases endorphins and makes you happier. Physical activity also helps to regulate adrenaline and stress hormones in your body. Eating healthily will help to stabilise your mood – too much sugar can cause you to have big highs and lows, so aim for slow-release carbs like whole grains. Watch out for caffeine and alcohol as they can affect your mood as well as your behaviour. Sleeping properly is vital too – aim for a regular routine, and do gentle, calming activities before bed. You can read all about what are good sleep habits on this page from NHS Choices

Meditate, breathe, pray or just be still

Taking time to practice meditation and stillness is a really good way to help calm yourself if you are nervous. Find a quiet space, sit comfortably and breathe in and out slowly and deeply – just as you should do for singing. Focus your mind on a single positive thought, or just on your breathing. If your mind wanders, bring it back gently to your breath. It can take a lot of practice to get the hang of it, but once you know how to do it, you can get into that space anywhere. Some people find a string of beads or something they can handle makes a good focal point, others like to light a candle. There are some useful apps for timing meditation and providing background noise. You can find guidance online such as this site about secular Buddhism.

If you are from a religious tradition, many have forms of meditative prayer that you may find helpful to use as an aid to calming your mind. For Christians, I can recommend resources from the Northumbria Community, Shane Claibourne’s Common Prayer and Sacred Space. You can also access this guided Prayer Garden online. If you’re a fidgety sort of person you could also using an Anglican or Catholic rosary prayer. If you are from another faith tradition, do ask your local faith leader for some ideas such as scriptural verses to focus on or prayers you can repeat.

Whatever kind of meditation you choose – secular or religious, being able to relax your mind is a vital skill for combatting nerves and stress for music and beyond.

What are your top tips for combatting exam nerves? Share them in the comments below.

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.

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

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