Getting the most out of exams

Getting the most out of exams
Girl playing the fluteAt some time or another, most of the pupils I teach (including adults) want to get an independent assessment of their progress – an exam. With another session of exams just round the corner, what can you do to get the most out of the experience?


Firstly, find out in plenty of time when the session and closing dates are and work towards these. Exams usually take place three times a year in February/March, June/July and November/December. The closing dates for entries are usually about six weeks before the  first exam in the session. It’s worth remembering that the sessions come round quite quickly. With my own flute, piano and singing pupils here in Lichfield, we’re already thinking about exams in the summer – the closing date is just after Easter which leaves only about 10 lessons.

Secondly, be very clear what the requirements are. Either get a copy of the syllabus (the requirements are printed inside the cover of some exam books too) or make a bullet point list – stick it up somewhere prominent. Keep an eye on it as you prepare, particularly if you don’t have a teacher or if you’re not having regular lessons. Set some targets too – if, for example, there are a lot of scales then divide them up early on to learn.

In most exams there are likely to be three pieces (four for Grades 6-8 Singing), scales and arpeggios (an unaccompanied traditional song if you’re a singer), sight-reading/singing and aural tests. Make sure that you don’t leave some elements until the last minute. It’s easy to think “oh, aural’s only worth 18 marks..” but so often, it is the scores in the supporting tests which can tip the balance between a pass and a merit, or a merit and a distinction. If you have a weakness in one of the aural tests for example, identify it early on.

Do try wherever possible to play or sing your pieces to other people in the run-up to the exam itself. This might be to friends or family, or at small informal performances or concerts. In my experience, it’s not good to go into an exam situation having never played them to anyone other than your teacher. You can also record or even video your performances which gives a surprisingly realistic simulation of exam conditions.

The exam itself

Above all, enjoy it! I know that’s easy to say, but overall, taking an exam should be a positive experience (even if you’re a nervous wreck on the day!). There are a few things you can do to make sure that the exam itself is as stress-free as possible.

Don’t leave things until the last minute; I know that when you start your preparations, the exam probably seems an age away, but it’ll be here before you know it. Know where the venue is and how to get there – if you’re not sure, it’s worth making a dummy run before the day to check out routes and parking etc. Leave plenty of time to get to the venue too – there’s nothing more stressful than sitting in a traffic jam watching the minutes tick away.

The night before the exam, get together any books or instruments you need. Generally, I suggest to my pupils not to practise the night before or on the day of the exam – to put it bluntly, if you don’t know it by then, it’s a bit late (and there’s nothing worse than a bad ‘dress rehearsal’ the night before’!) Try and warm up before you go to the exam – this is particularly important for singers, but for other instrumentalists too. Not all exam venues have a warm-up room and you definitely wouldn’t want to go into the exam ‘cold’.

Also remember that hard as it might seem, the examiner does want you to pass (it’s in the Board’s interest because you’re likely to enter for the next exam, pay the higher fee etc. etc…sorry…I’m very cynical!). The examiner is human too – I go to great lengths to remind my pupils to say “Hello” on the way in and “Goodbye” on the way out!  Once you’re in there, all you can do is your best. If you make a mistake, keep going – contrary to popular belief, going back and correcting the mistake doesn’t cancel out the original one. Just keep going and keep focussed – someone who goes back to correct mistakes will always get lower marks than someone who keeps going.

After the exam

Once it’s done, it’s done and you can’t do anything about it. When you come out, you’ll probably be thinking about all the things which went wrong rather than the majority which went right – this is perfectly normal. Try to avoid lengthy post-mortems – what’s done is done. Just sit back, keep playing, and inevitably, wait for the result to come!

Above all, the result and the comments are only a snapshot of your playing. They are not a reflection on your enjoyment of playing the instrument which should never change whatever the result.

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