I’ve been entering students for LCM Music Theatre exams for nearly 20 years. Whilst many students still opt for ‘traditional’ singing exams, music theatre exams suit many, allowing them to combine singing, acting and dance skills in one exam. They’re certainly not for everyone, but as I’ve often said, what a joy it is to have so many exam options to choose from these days.
In this blog post, I want to share seven top tips for making a success of your LCM Music Theatre exam. Some elements of the music theatre exams can be overlooked, but drawing together all the various aspects is, in my experience, the key to success. I’ve focussed here on LCM exams, but it’s worth noting that ABRSM, Trinity and others also offer a music theatre option, and I’m sure much of the same advice applies.
1. Movement is essential
According to the syllabus:
“It is recognised that candidates with a wide range of skills and principal studies may enter for these examinations: some are principally singers, some dancers, some actors. Dance and movement are both encouraged and expected”LCM Music Theatre Syllabus 2019-21, p. 8
Most of the candidates I enter are principally singers, and movement doesn’t always come as easily. Movement can take many forms: it might be hand gestures, full body movements or dance. All songs are different too: some require more movement than others, and some favour certain types of movement. Movement is nevertheless an essential part of any performance.
With that in mind, try to choose a programme of songs which allow for different types of movement. If one of your songs is fairly static, perhaps relying mainly on hand gestures, try to balance this with another where you can move more.
You need to practise your movements too. This isn’t always easy if you’re going to be performing in an unfamiliar space. Try to find out what the exam venue is like beforehand. At ours, it’s a raised platform at front of a church. It’s not a huge space on which to perform, but there is plenty of scope for forward, backward and sideways movements. Practise using the space available.
Remember too that movement doesn’t always have to be a choreographed dance routine. Clearly, this isn’t going to suit some songs. As the syllabus states:
“movement should not obstruct the performance by being in any way superfluous – it should always serve the purpose of enhancing the performance.”LCM Music Theatre Syllabus 2019-21, p. 8
2. Spoken introductions matter
Candidates are now required to introduce their songs at every grade:
“Information given should include the title of the number, the show from which it is taken and its composer/lyricist.”LCM Music Theatre Syllabus 2019-21, p. 7
This is something which is often overlooked because in theory, it doesn’t attract any specific marks; however, confident spoken introductions give a professional and polished feel to your performance. They shouldn’t be seen as an ‘added extra’. They should be memorised, rehearsed beforehand as part of the performance and delivered with confidence. My students find it useful to have a template, such as for the first song:
My name is ___ and I’m taking Grade ___ Music Theatre. My first song is ___ from ___ by ___.
Then for subsequent songs:
My next song is ___ from ___ by ___.
Everyone’s performance is different but these are a good starting point.
3. Make the songs your own
Many of the music theatre students I teach learn songs by listening to and watching recordings rather than from the sheet music. This seems fairly commonplace within the musical theatre sphere, and indeed, learning by ear is a skill in itself.
The downside of this is sometimes, candidates simply replicate the performance they’ve been listening to or watching. From an examiner’s point of view, this is often noticeable when it comes to well-known songs such as ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (from Les Miserables) and ‘Defying Gravity’ (from Wicked). In my view, it’s really important that candidates make the songs their own.
This means that they need to research their context, and understand both the character and the place the song sits within the rest of the show. Of course, this is all useful for the discussion part of the exam anyway. By researching and understanding each song, candidates can develop a personal response to them, and I’m sure examiners appreciate and value this as part of the overall performance.
4. Prepare for the discussion
From Step 1 to Grade 5, the discussion element of the exam attracts 10% of the marks, whilst at Grades 6-8, it attracts 20%. We might argue that at the lower grades in particular, the vast majority of the marks are for the performance itself; however, as one of my own students pointed out recently, those 10% could be the difference between a pass and a merit, and a merit and a distinction.
Much like the spoken introductions which I’ve written about above, the discussion questions need careful preparation and practice. Each question needs to be unpicked and researched. This also enhances the overall performance and is a good discipline in itself. Candidates also need to understand about the history and development of the musical theatre genre, particularly at the higher grades, from opera and operetta, to music hall and revue.
It is also worth noting that in my experience, although the syllabus lists a series of questions for each grade, in the exam, this element is much more of a discussion. Rather than a question and answer session, one conversation leads to another drawing on different parts of the expected knowledge. In that sense, whilst candidates should prepare answers to each question, they should also be able to talk more generally about each song.
5. Choose songs which suit your age and voice
This is one of my pet hates! The repertoire on which candidates can draw for the LCM Music Theatre exams is huge, to name a few genres:
- Musical theatre
- Music hall
- Film and television
Choosing songs which suit your age and voice is important as it means you’re far more likely to be able to deliver a convincing and confident performance. As a teacher, I have always been particularly concerned the the songs being learnt are suitable for the age of the student. For me, for example, under-10s singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ (from A Little Night Music) and ‘I Can’t Say No’ (from Oklahoma) is a big “no”. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I believe it does matter. I’ve seen some uncomfortable performances in my time, and I’m sure examiners have too.
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The syllabus now lists a selection of songs for each grade, as well as eight pages of suggestions at the back of the booklet. This is just the tip of the iceberg too. Search far and wide, high and low for songs which inspire you, which mean something to you, which you can relate to, and which suit your voice.
6. Become the characters in your songs
Characterisation is not easy, especially when songs are removed from their original context. For example, in the space of 15 minutes, you might be Mrs Wormwood, Eliza Doolittle and Elphaba Thropp. No mean feat! Because LCM Music Theatre exams assess the whole performance, becoming the characters you’re portraying is important. How do they move? How do they stand? How old are they? How are they feeling?
Again, understanding the wider context is important too. What was happening in the show before this song? What’s going to happen next? How does their mood and character change and develop over the course of the song.
Another thing worth considering, and which I again think adds to a professional sense of performance, is the need to be the character for the whole song. You don’t become the character after the 8-bar piano introduction. You don’t stop being the character for the 4-bar piano interlude in the middle of the song. You don’t cease to be the character and start looking out of the window during the three piano chords at the end of the song. Again, this needs practice because we are all easily distracted by what’s going on around us.
7. Practise with the costumes and props
LCM Music Theatre exams encourage candidates to use costumes and props as part of their performance, and to my mind, this is necessary. It’s worth noting that only an ‘impression’ of costume is necessary, and inevitably, some candidates go a bit overboard! An exam such as this is quite a stressful undertaking anyway, so complex and often unnecessary costumes and props simply add to that stress.
Much as with the spoken introductions and discussion, the costumes and props can be left to the last minute. As a teacher, and I’m sure the same is true for examiners too, it’s quite easy to tell when someone hasn’t practised wearing the costumes and using the props. But, both these impact upon other elements of the performance, bringing us full circle back to movement. The movements you choose will be affected by what you’re wearing and what you’re holding, and vice versa.
You also need to consider your costumes in particular as part of the programme as a whole. How will you change from one to another? Again, you need to practise these changes too because they are also part of the timings for the performance.
Whilst challenging, LCM Music Theatre exams offer a lot of scope for performers to develop their skills across a range of areas including singing, dance and acting. Every candidate is different, and every performance is different, but I hope that the above tips give you a few things to think about as you prepare for your exam.
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