Tag Archives: tips & tricks

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.

Winter is Coming…

Yes, it’s that time of year when the Ned Stark memes run rampant on Facebook and we all start wishing we lived in a more equatorial nation. For singers, winter can pose particularly big challenges as we try to take care of our voices. Here are some of the things to watch out for at this time of year

Beware extreme temperatures

Winter in the UK is a land of extreme temperatures. While we’re outside in the freezing cold at one moment, we’re then back inside in a heated building the next. Although our bodies are self-regulating, the temperature of the air we breathe will affect our vocal folds as it rushes by.

In cold temperatures, breathing through your nose is the simplest way to warm air up before it hits your throat. Noses go red in the cold because the body sends blood to it in order to warm the air coming in. Covering your mouth/nose with a scarf can help too, if you’ve got a bad cold.

Once you’re inside, make sure you warm up properly before singing. A bit of running on the spot and gentle stretching will get your blood flowing and help your vocal folds to warm up. Try not to keep the heating in your house too high as this makes going outside even worse, and can contribute to the problem of hydration.

Wherever you end up singing this winter, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to acclimatise, and warm up your body and voice in the venue.

Beware dehydration

Mad as it sounds, dehydration can be a real problem for singers in winter. Central heating often dries out the air, and because we’re not feeling warm, it can take longer to become aware we need to drink more liquid.

The best way to hydrate is to use warm, body temperature liquids as your body can absorb those most easily. Take care also not to drink only caffeinated tea and coffee as caffeine has diuretic properties (i.e. it makes you want to pee more often), and the milk we usually add can cause phlegm issues (ugh!). Switch in warm sugar-free squash or fruit teas, especially before practicing and on performance days. Honey and lemon makes a really good hydration choice as it cleans out excess phlegm and boosts your immune system.

Of course, the dangers of overhydration are as serious as dehydration, so only drink if you are thirsty, and stop when you feel satisfied. If you have chronic dehydration, speak to your GP as this can be a sign of something more serious.

Beware of colds and coughs

Most of us won’t get flu this winter, but we might get some bad colds. If you’re not sure which you’ve got, here’s a handy chart:

Thanks to Jillee at One Good Thing.

Thanks to Jillee at One Good Thing.

Assuming it’s a cold, take care to be alert to how your voice feels. So long as it’s not painful, it’s absolutely fine to sing if you have a cold, cough or other mild illness. If it hurts, stop! Make sure you keep hydrated, though. It’s also important to avoid taking any medication which numbs your throat (e.g. Strepsils) before singing. By numbing your throat, you’re preventing your nervous system alerting you when you’re damaging your voice.

Colds can’t be treated by medication because they’re viruses. Even paracetamol can slow down the healing process as a fever is one of the tricks your body uses to kill of the virus. However, if your symptoms are severe, go on for more than a week or two, or include non-cold symptoms like breathlessness or sustained high fever, do get in touch with your GP, or your local out-of-hours helpline (e.g. NHS 111 in England, or NHS 24 in Scotland). Remember, your local A&E is for emergencies only, and 999 for dire emergencies.

Beware the flu

Finally, if you’re eligible for the flu vaccination for free, go and get it. Most people I know who get it attest that they get less colds over the winter, as well as the benefits of the protection from flu. Eligible groups include under 18s (nasal spray), over 65s, and people with long-term conditions like asthma, heart problems and diabetes. If you’re not sure if you’re eligible, give your GP a call.

If you’re not eligible for the vaccine for free, you can pay for it privately at your local pharmacy. This year, your local Boots store will charge you £12.99. I would highly recommend considering getting a flu vaccine if you are a singer as it will help to boost your immune system all year long!

Whatever else you do, keep singing, and keep taking care of your voice by exercising as often as possible.

Do you have any winter survival tips for singers? Post them in the comments below.

Planning Your Practice – Some Ideas

Practicing is the most challenging part of every musician’s life. Whether we’ve been playing six months or sixty years, we all face days when we just don’t want to sit down and work, or if we do, we don’t want to do what we should be doing. We face many competing demands on our lives too, so even when we want to practice, it’s important to make the best use of the time. As the mantra goes – quality is more important than quantity when it comes to practice.

So if you’re trying to get the most out of your practice time, it can really help to make a plan for what you’re going to do. Here are some of the ideas I’ve seen and tried for planning practice.

Have a routine for when you practice

Clock borderThis is pretty obvious, but if you put practice time into your schedule, you’re more likely to do it. I find after work is a good time – I go right to the piano before I turn on the TV. Other people find first thing in the morning works, or after dinner. Stick to the same slot every day, or at least the same routine of slots every week.

Advantage: You’re much less likely to put off practicing when it’s planned as part of your day.
Disadvantage: Another disruption to your routine can mean practice gets skipped out on.

Have a routine for what you do in your practice session

One of the things which can work wonders is to always go through the same routine when you practice. For singers, this should be a warm-up, vocalised exercises, and then full songs. I usually do my classical repertoire first, and then musical theatre work.  For instrumentalists, it might be that you play your scales first, or that you look at a piece and then play a scale before moving to the next one.

Routine is especially important if you need to practice skills like scales – whether you use a tick chart, a box with slips of paper in or an online random number generator, making some kind of rule about how you practice scales is the only way to make sure you cover all of the relevant materials. This might include studies or vocalised exercises for singers too.

Advantage: You know exactly where to start, so no lost time at the beginning.
Disadvantage: Can get dull and repetitive.

Circle the Date

Plan your practice for the week after your lesson

If you’re quite an organised person, it might work best for you to sit down after your lesson, look at what you need to do for next week and divide it up over the days you have available to practice. For example, you might look at Study A on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Study B on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Perhaps you’ll focus on the A section from Wednesday to Saturday, and the B section from Sunday to Tuesday. Or maybe it’s Bb major on Monday, Eb major on Tuesday, Ab major on Wednesday and so on.

Try these two free printables for planning your practice over a week:

  • Horizontal Weekly Planner with goals – [purchase_link id=”1313″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]
  • Horizontal Weekly Planner without goals – [purchase_link id=”1312″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]


Advantage: Know you can get through everything you’ve been set and nothing will be forgotten.
Disadvantage: It might take more or less time to do things than you’ve allowed for.

Establish some goals for next lesson

Goal settingIf your teacher hasn’t set you a goal for next week, and you’re not keen on planning your week entirely, why not write three goals to achieve by the next lesson, and put them on your music stand? Then you know exactly what you need to work on when you come to practice.

Advantage: Keeps you focussed on what you’re doing.
Disadvantage: Your goals might not be what your teacher expects them to be!

Make a list of objective tasks to check off this week

Chances are your notes from your teacher are a bit random, vague and possibly even scruffy. When you get home, why not turn your teacher’s notes into a neat list. You could even try my free printable ([purchase_link id=”1314″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]) which gives you space to plan three tasks for each piece, and then a second side to note down which ones you’ve achieved.

Advantage: Having a list gives you small tasks, and a sense of achievement for doing them.
Disadvantage: It’s not always easy to create small, objective tasks for instructions like “play with more character”.

Write down some goals/tasks at the start of your practice session

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Keep a notebook by your music stand and use it to write down three things to accomplish each day before you start practicing to help you focus. You could also do this at the end of each session – writing three goals for tomorrow.

Advantage: Flexible to take account of what you achieve each day in your practice.
Disadvantage: Doesn’t necessarily take into account any set homework for the week, and uses up a few minutes of practice time each day.

Keep a record of what you’ve done and when

There’s nothing like record keeping to help you realise what’s really going on with your practice. Keeping a practice journal can be really helpful, as it allows you to make notes on what was hard today, or any questions you might have for your teacher. It’s also helpful to keep a note of the times you’re practicing from time to time, and note how effective your practice is. You can grab my practice audit printable here, and try it yourself: [purchase_link id=”1302″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

Advantage: Gives you a really good picture of what you’re doing
Disadvantage: Doesn’t directly improve the quality of your practice at all!

So, those are my tips for planning your practice. Do you have any planning methods that work for you? If you’ve tried any of these, how did they work for you?

How to Memorise Lyrics

RememberOne of the most challenging things about singing compared to playing an instrument is memorisation. Singers are expected to perform from memory in most situations, while instrumentalists are much more likely to have the music out in front of them. Certainly, for examinations, singers must sing from memory, but instrumentalists perform from copy.

So how do you go about facing the challenge of memorising lyrics? Well, here are some of my top tips for learning songs in English (or any language you’re fluent in). Foreign language songs have their own challenge – watch out for a follow up post on special tips for learning songs that aren’t in a language you speak.

1. Start learning the song with the lyrics first

When you learn a song, it can be tempting to start with the melody, and leave the lyrics until last. This isn’t actually going to make it quicker and easier, it actually just stores up problems for later… Instead, when you first start learning a song, start by reading the lyrics out aloud several times as though they were a poem or speech from a play. Try to find the natural inflection and absorb the meaning of the words. Then read them a few times in the rhythm of the music – in a well crafted song, this should fit the natural inflections from reading the words as a speech.

By reading the lyrics through a few times on their own, you’ve already started the learning process, and you’re tying the melody and the words together right from the start.

2. Understand the meaning and the journey

Path through woodsThis is where acting skills come into play. Once you’re familiar with the song and the melody is secure, the next stage for the song is to develop the emotional understanding needed to convey the song convincingly. Taking time to think about the emotional journey the song makes is vital to a great performance, but it also helps with memorising the lyrics. Let’s take a really famous example, and say you’re memorising I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables. Look at the first lines of the three “verses”, all of which have very similar tunes

I dreamed a dream in time gone by…
He slept a summer by my side…
And still I dream he’ll come to me…

Notice how there’s a sense of order and chronology which means it’s obvious which order they come in – remembering the past, telling the story of the past, sharing the pain of the presence. Click the link above to see the rest of the lyrics and see if you can see the story. By consciously considering the story, it helps you to remember the lyrics in the right order.

3. Write them down. Repeatedly.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailOne of the most fool-proof methods for lyric memorisation is to write the lyrics down over and over and over and over again. And when I say write, I mean by hand. Typing just won’t cut it. The physical action of forming the letters with a pen or pencil is proven to improve learning (it’s why I took all my university lecture notes by hand, and still do most of my music-related academic study writing by hand).

One method, supposedly used by Barbara Bonney is to write out each line three times, and then write out that verse or section three times before moving on to the next one. Then, write out the whole song three times. Lots of paper, and not quick, but I bet you’ll not forget the words in a hurry!

Once you’ve written them out, carry a hand written copy with you and read them over whenever you have a minute  – waiting at the dentist, travelling on a bus, or even just before bed. In fact, just before bedtime is a good time to review them as your brain can continue to learn them while you’re sleeping.

4. Listen to the song. Repeatedly.

Once you’ve done the legwork of learning the song and you’re not going to be overly influenced by someone else’s version, grab a copy of the song and listen to it on repeat. Even better than one copy, see if you can find several versions (YouTube usually has plenty) and listen to them all. Hearing the words over and over in the right order with the music will help your brain to absorb the words and link them with the music. For example, it makes it much easier to find the words for the verse after the instrumental break if you know how the instrumental break sounds.

5. Practice, practice, practice

Man singingFinally, the only surefire way to know the lyrics is to practice singing the song diligently. Practicing the song in its entirety is the key, and being bold enough to put down the book as soon as possible is vital. Put the sheet music down as soon as you dare, and don’t sing from a lyrics sheet either. The sooner you get off book, the longer you’re giving your brain to get used to remembering the words without prompting. Remeber, putting the book down doesn’t mean you can’t check them afterwards, or pick it back up again while you’re focusing on getting the notes right.

Lyrics are what makes singing special, as well as what makes it hard. By taking an organised and focussed approach to lyrics, you’ll find they’re your friend in no time!

Don’t forget to follow the blog for more helpful tips and tricks!

Exercises for Beginners: Tongue Twisters

Tongue TwisterOne of my favourite kinds of warming up and technical exercises is tongue twisters. They’re great for warming up all of the muscles needed to form words when singing and help singers practice good diction and articulation (i.e. the ability to sing words so that the audience understands what they are).

If you’re new to tongue twisters, or new to singing, start by saying one slowly. Try this one:

How many boards could the Mongols hoard, If the Mongol hordes got bored?

Once you’ve mastered repeating it slowly, speed up gradually. Each repetition should be fractionally faster than the one before. As it gets faster, you’ll need to exaggerate the movements in your face to keep the words clear. Don’t do this where you can see yourself – you’ll end up laughing too much! Stop when the words become too muddled, and then have another go.

Once you’ve got the hang of saying them, the next challenge is to sing them. Pick a comfortable note and sing this one all on the same pitch:

Black background, brown background

Again, keep getting faster until the words become muddled. Repeat a few times before trying the last exercise.

The final way to use tongue twisters is to sing them over a pattern. For example, try singing this tongue twister

Seventy seven benevolent elephants

On a slightly higher note each time you repeat it, so you’re singing it once on each note in the pattern below:

Again, keep getting faster and repeating the words and the pattern in a circle until you can’t say the words clearly anymore!

You can use tongue twisters on any warm up pattern – scales, arpeggios, pentascales, pentatonic scales, anything you like!

If you need more ideas for tongue twisters, or want a list for sharing with students, you can grab my free tongue twisters printable by clicking this link: [purchase_link id=”1316″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

Wake Up! Warm Up!

SunOne of the most important things you need to do when practicing singing is to warm up properly. Warming up is not quite the same as vocal exercises, although a good warm up routine will go from physical warm-ups to vocal exercises without feeling like the warm-up stops and the vocal exercises start.

Different people find different things helpful. For example, some people like to practice yoga, or use dance-based warm-ups before singing. However, if you have no idea where to start, here is a simple physical and vocal warm-up to use.

  1. Jogging on the spot helps to get the blood flowing – this is especially important if you are sat down for most of the day. Do this for about 30 seconds.
  2. Make big sweeping circles with one arm and then the other. Be sure to go in both directions – backwards and forwards. Take deep breaths as you do this, letting your belly move rather than your shoulders.
  3. Stretch right up, and then relax down, one joint at a time until you’re hanging right over. Breathe out slowly as you go down. Rest there for a few gentle breaths and then roll back up to standing one vertebrae at a time, breathing out as you go up.
  4. Roll your shoulders backwards and then forwards a few times. Shrug up your shoulders to your ears and then relax them.
  5. Rub your cheeks, jaw muscles and neck with your hands to get the blood flowing.
  6. Stretch up and over to your right with one arm, and then repeat in the other direction.
  7. Give your body a gentle shake out to loosen off all your muscles.
  8. Finish by adjusting your posture to make sure you are standing up tall and balanced with your weight evenly on both feet.
  9. Take a few more deep and slow breaths – you might want to go through a few rounds of square breathing, or other breathing exercises.

Once you’ve warmed up your body, you can start getting your voice going:

  1. Gently, start to siren over a small range of notes. Each time, let the range get bigger until you’re swooping up and down through your whole voice.
  2. Using a hum, or a lip trill, sing up and down some simple patterns in the middle of your voice
  3. Sing some tongue twisters on comfortable notes in the middle of your range.

From this point, you can then move on to start working on the exercises set by your teacher for your practice which will probably include things like singing arpeggios and scales. You should also now sing through your full range properly, as this will help to extend and strengthen the highest and lowest notes.

If you need a reminder to put up in your practice space, or want to share this warm-up routine with your students, you can grab a free printable copy of this blogpost by clicking here: [purchase_link id=”1317″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]


What’s the Point of My Practice Book?

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For every musician, practice is a problem. No matter how we write about it, talk about it or think about it, the only solution to the problem is to do it. However, there are lots of useful things that can help you get over that barrier that tries to prevent us from starting in the first place.

Today, I want to talk about practice books. Every teacher I’ve had has used some system to make notes on what to practice for me. Sometimes, it’s been books. Sometimes it’s been bits of paper. I know some teachers who print their own forms to put into binders, and others who just write in pencil on the music. My system is to use a copy book. I write the notes in the lesson and give the top copy to my student to put in the front of their binder, then I type up the notes from the copy into Music Teacher’s Helper and email them a copy as well.

However, the question remains. What’s the point of this?

For me, some of the point is to help me remember what I’ve taught my students. I only teach part time just now, so my other job can zap all the details of lessons out of my brain. Full time teachers will have lots of their students confusing their brains. A practice record helps us to build from one lesson to the next in an organised fashion.

What about for you, though? What’s the point of the practice book for you? Ultimately, your practice book contains what you need to focus on this week and usually some way of recording what you did.

Practice books help you focus on what you need to work on right now.

Practice books need to be seen to be used. They are useless if they’re left in your music folder/rucksack/pocket/teacher’s house over the week. Instead, when you get home from your lesson, why not put your practice book on your music stand open on the last lesson? Putting your book in a visible place that you’ll see when you come to practice means you’re immediately working on the key things you covered in your last lesson. It means you’ll know you’re supposed to be doing Bb major not B minor, so when your teacher asks you to play it next lesson, you’ll be able to.  I’m always forgetting the studies my piano teacher sets me, so leaving my practice book open reminds me to play a couple each day.

Practice books help break down long pieces into smaller chunks.

Remember that bar you stumbled on in the lesson? Or maybe not? Your practice book will probably say things like “focus on high notes at the end of the verse” or “smooth out register changes in chorus”. These give you smaller chunks to focus on that will mean you learn your songs faster and more accurately.

It can be really tempting to just start at the beginning of a song, sing it to the end and never really focus on the parts which are causing you problems. This is even more of a temptation for singers compared to instrumentalists as we are masters of “keeping going”. We usually work with a piano accompaniment which means we can’t stop, so we fudge over the weak parts and make it work. This often means we learn to sing things wrong, which is much harder to sort out than fixing mistakes when they first happen.

Breaking down songs into smaller chunks and working on specific passages or skills means harder work in the short term, but much greater reward in the long term.

Practice books help you see what you’ve achieved

Sheet music curled edges

Have you ever flipped back through your practice book? Simply looking back through the notes can help you realise just how far you’ve come. If you fill in the check boxes in some of the printed ones, you can see a visual record of how much practice you’ve done too. All of us hit plateau points in our art, and sometimes we need to realise that we’ve come a very long way and achieved an awful lot. Practice books are one of the most obvious records of what we’ve done. Why not pick up a song you were learning three, six or twelve months ago and sing it again? It will almost certainly come back to you and be better than it ever was before.

Your practice book is a record of all the repertoire you’ve learned and worked on too. I tried to make a list once of all the songs I could call “repertoire” (I could polish them for a performance in less than two weeks). It’s a pretty long list these days.

Don’t have a practice book? Ask your teacher for one, or just buy a cheap notebook from the supermarket and bring it to lessons. If your teacher doesn’t write in it, use it to make notes on what you’re supposed to be practicing during the lesson.

And, don’t forget to put it out where you can see it when you get home!

What do I do if I’ve failed?

F gradeI was having a look through the search terms that led people to look at this blog, and I noticed that a couple of them were things like “failed sight reading on singing exam”, “abrsm grade 6 theory fail” and “abrsm grade 8 fail”, so I thought perhaps it was time to address the horrible question of what to do if you fail a music exam, or a section of the exam.

The first thing to say is don’t panic. I know it’s hard when you first see the mark sheet and it doesn’t hit that magic pass mark. Failing an exam doesn’t mean you aren’t good at playing your instrument, or that you don’t understand the theory. It doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals. All exams are there to do is mark points on our journey and give us feedback about where to improve.

Remember, it’s also ok to be sad, frustrated, angry and disappointed. Do what you need to do to process the feelings. If you need to have a cry, that’s ok! Or get someone you love to give you a hug. Make a cuppa and treat yourself to your favourite chocolate bar. Don’t try to figure out your next move until you feel ready.

Once you are ready, the first thing to do is reflect on what you did well:

  • Where did you get good marks? Did you pass your pieces, or do well in your sight-reading?
  • What kinds of positive comments did the examiner make? Even on a marksheet that records a fail mark, examiners still try to say what you did do well.

If you need to, write these out separately and read them to remind you that you did do some things well.

The next stage is to look for the things you didn’t do so well:

  • What sections or questions did you do worst on?
  • What sort of comments are there on the marksheet? Does it say something like “pitch was insecure” or “forgot the words repeatedly”? This will give you an idea of what needs to be better next time.
  • Do you agree with the examiner’s comments/marks? Do you remember making the mistakes?
  • In a theory exam result, do you remember finding the question hard to answer?

You might find it helpful to make a separate list of the things you need to work on for next time.

The last thing to do is to answer the question of “what do I do now?”. Here are some of my suggestions

  • Talk to your teacher to make a plan to tackle technical problems like pitch, rhythm or memorising.
  • Make a plan to focus especially on developing aural and musicianship skills if you failed the aural tests.
  • For sight-reading, challenge yourself to sight-read as much material as you can. Sight-reading is often a fail point in exams because it takes a lot of time and effort to build up the skills to do well.
  • Join a choir that uses sheet music – this will help your aural, sight-reading and performance skills
  • Get some performing experience – are there local competitions or concerts you could participate in?
  • Do something totally different for a while. Switch genres, try learning some duets, work on a bucket-list piece.
  • Think about how you’d teach the things you do know to someone else
  • Move away from formal theory and try doing some more creative things like composing or arranging

Finally, it’s important to remember that unless  you were taking a theory exam at Grade 5 or a practical exam at Grade 8, you don’t have to retake the exam if you don’t want to. If your teacher is happy, you could skip the failed exam and just move on with a view to taking the next one when you’re ready. You could also consider taking the same level exam again, but with a different board. If you stick with the same board, consider learning a new set of pieces.

If you do decided to retake the exam, you can find links to a range of different posts about taking music exams on my Advice from the Blog page and by checking the “exams” tag.

Whatever you do, don’t let a fail stop you from enjoying music. Exams are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and sometimes a fail is just what we need to remember that we are not exam taking robots – we’re musicians.

The five most important questions to ask

singing-teacherWhen choosing a new teacher, we all ask lots of questions like “how much do you charge?” and “what hours do you teach?”, but there’s more to finding a good teacher than just cost and time. Here are five really important questions to ask a prospective teacher to help you find out not just if you can afford the lessons, but whether you’re getting good value for money.

1. What qualifications do you have?

Qualifications, as we all know, are not the be all and end all of ability. They are, however, an important baseline to help you weed out unsuitable teachers. I would recommend choosing a teacher who has at least grade 8 performance in the instrument you want to study. Ideally, you should look for someone who also has either a higher level of performing qualification and significant experience or a teaching qualification in the instrument you wish to study, or a closely related one (e.g. a viola teacher may have grade 8 viola and a teaching diploma for violin). By selecting a teacher who has qualifications, you are choosing someone who has been assessed independently for their ability to teach and has met a baseline standard. Teaching qualifications and music degrees also require a good knowledge of theory, which is important too.

If you don’t ask this question, you could end up with a teacher who has no idea what they are doing with the instrument. Not only will you probably be undermining quality teachers who probably charge more, but you will be putting yourself at serious risk of both a bad musical education and physical damage from bad technique.

2. What level/kind of experience do you have in teaching and performing?

What kind of experience level you would be happy with is a matter of personal taste, but I would recommend you find a teacher who has a good level of performing experience, and who continues to do some performing (even if not at a professional level). Teaching experience is also important. A music degree or performing qualification does not necessarily include any teaching skills, so ask about how long they’ve been teaching, and what kind of training they’ve had.

There is nothing inherently bad about choosing a brand new teacher – after all, we have to start somewhere, but you should be sure that you are satisfied with the level of supervision and support a brand new teacher has (do they have a mentor or teacher themselves?), and you should definitely ask them question 4.

3. Are you a member of any unions or professional bodies?

While this is not essential, the advantage of choosing a teacher who is a member of a body such as the Musician’s Union, Instituted Society of Musicians or the European Piano Teachers Association is that you know your teacher has suitable public liability insurance and legal support. Some of them also provide assurance the teacher has been through a criminal record check. A teacher who is a member of a union or professional body will also have to uphold certain standards, and I think it shows a good attitude to be a member of a professional body. It’s a good idea to check out the organisation after you’ve asked too.

4. What do you do to improve your teaching skills?

This is known as “continuing professional development” and is vital for any teacher. If they don’t have a teaching qualification, do they plan to get one? Do they attend courses or conferences? Are they continuing to take lessons in their instruments themselves? A teacher who invests time in learning is going to be constantly getting better as a teacher. Plus, a good CPD programme means teachers will be keeping up to date with changes to exam systems and requirements and new pedagogical ideas. No matter how experienced a teacher is, if they’re still teaching in exactly the same way they did 20 years ago, you’re not going to get the best teaching out there.

5. Do you have a set of terms and conditions or a tuition agreement?


It is really important that everyone knows where they stand. A contract, set of terms and conditions or tuition agreement should set out how much you should pay and when, what happens about missed lessons and how to stop taking lessons. It might seem easy at the start to be informal, but if anything goes wrong it can get really messy. For example, your agreement should set out how much lessons cost so if your teacher bills you for more than you’re expecting, you have the agreement to prove that they’ve made a mistake. Make sure you look carefully through the document – the teacher should take you through it – and keep a copy in a safe place for when you need to stop taking lessons.

If you ask these five questions, you should be well on your way to finding a good quality music teacher.

Do you have any suggestions for other questions to ask?

AMusTCL – Topics for Section C

Trinity LogoTaken from the past papers (2009 sample, 2010 and 2011 so far), here are a list of the topics which have been covered by previous essay questions in Section C: Stylistic Development – Musical Responses.

Toccata: Jacques Loussier Plays Bach

  • Spontaneity and improvisation
  • Inspiration from Baroque features
  • Creative limitations of arranging
  • Commonality between Baroque and Jazz
  • Compositions in their own rights?

Popular Music

  • Worldwide appeal
  • Variety of cultural backgrounds
  • Innovation
  • Distinct musical sound
  • Musical qualities that lead to success
  • Non-musical qualities that lead to success (video/fashion/publicity etc)

Film Music

  • Hallmarks of film music as a specific genre
  • Importance of music in film as an art form
  • Integration of music within the film
  • Music and emotional response
  • Relationship to Programme Music
  • Role of music in enhancing drama


  • Conflict between speech and music v. unified artistic whole
  • Treatment of ‘the outsider’
  • Social and contemporary issues
  • Role as ‘Protest music’
  • Ingredients of a successful musical
  • Popularity of the music v. other reasons for success

For details of the full questions, the past papers can be purchased from Trinity. I have no insider knowledge, so this is by no means a guarantee that these topics will come up again. However, it should give an idea of what kind of areas to focus on in preparing.

I hope this is helpful if you are preparing for this exam. I’m hoping to get a resources post up soon with links to websites I’ve found useful.