Top Tips for Singers for the DipABRSM Quick Study

Note: the advice here is aimed at singers entering for the DipABRSM in either performance or teaching; however, the advice applies more generally, particularly to the LRSM and FRSM.

As I have blogged previously, the quick study can often be the scariest part of an ABRSM diploma, and this is true for singers as much as it is for any other instrumentalist. That said, the quick study does present a particular challenge to singers as it is provided and administered in a slightly different way.

Like other candidates, singers also receive five minutes to look through the test and try out any bits they want to try before performing it. Singers will note from the quick study example on the ABRSM website that the test contains an accompaniment; however, the piece is to be performed unaccompanied in the exam. To quote the syllabus:

The Quick Study tests for singers are printed with a simple piano accompaniment, which candidates may use if they wish, to any degree of fullness, during their preparation time. During this time, candidates may also play any part of the vocal line at the piano. The actual performance of the test is unaccompanied, although candidates who need to relocate their pitch may play a guide note (from the vocal line), as appropriate. Candidates may also use the piano to play the key-chord and their starting note before performing the test. Examiners will not assist candidates as accompanist, nor will any other party be permitted to. Candidates must sing the text and will be offered a choice of English or Italian words.

ABRSM. (2017). Teaching Diplomas. London: ABRSM. p.11.

With that in mind, here are some top tips to help you with this somewhat unusual test.

What’s the point of the accompaniment?

Good question! Although an accompaniment is provided, it is not used in the performance of the quick study. As a singer, you may be used to performing an unaccompanied folk-song, but the repertoire of unaccompanied songs is fairly limited. In that sense, the accompaniment makes it much more like a standard song you’re used to learning and performing. It can also help you during the preparation time, and during the performance, can give you an outline of the harmony and harmonic progressions in the piece. Watching out for modulations, more obvious in the accompaniment, is especially useful.

Tip: when you next work on a song in your repertoire, think about how much you look at the piano accompaniment? I expect you look at it more than you may have thought. How does it help you?

How should I use the accompaniment?

How you use the accompaniment (if at all) is entirely up to you. If you are a competent pianist, you may like to play the accompaniment whilst you sing the vocal line; however, I don’t think this is the intention. Rather, as I say above, the accompaniment offers some sense of the overall harmony and structure of the song.

One thing I think is quite important here is that although you won’t be accompanied during the quick study performance, the accompaniment nevertheless exists. In that sense, I would advise that you perform the test as if you were being accompanied. This helps you to not only keep the momentum going but to shape the performance too.

Avoid falling into the trap of meandering through the notes with only an approximation of the rhythm. By all means, put your own stamp on it, sing it with expression and character, but perform it as if you were being accompanied.

Is it a good idea to play the vocal line during the preparation time?

When we learn new song, we often ‘bash through’ the vocal line to learn the melody. You could do this during the preparation time, but five minutes will fly by. Also, you won’t be able to play the vocal line during the performance so it’s wise not to be too reliant on it during the preparation time.

My suggestion is to try singing the vocal line yourself, and only use the piano the check or to play through any tricky bits.

Should I use the piano during the performance?

During the performance, you are allowed to use the piano to relocate your pitch (from the vocal line), and to play the key-chord and starting note before you begin. You should definitely use the piano to play your key-chord and starting note – no question. If you’re not used to doing this, I encourage you to do it with songs you’re already learning. The key chord will help cement the key and help the harmonic flow of the piece, linking it to the accompaniment I talked about above.

Whilst you are allowed to use the piano to relocate your pitch, I would urge caution. Try to do this only at the beginnings and ends of phrases as to not disturb the flow of the piece. Also, try to use the piano rhythmically as part of the performance. Don’t just sound random notes here and there. It is unlikely that you’ll want to sit at the piano to perform the quick study test, so you don’t want to be bending back and forth down to the piano.

Tip: if you do need to relocate your pitch, do it when you’re not singing, as suggested, at the beginning and ends of phrases. Using the piano to find notes whilst you are singing not only disturbs the flow of the performance but also highlights note errors which may otherwise have gone unnoticed!

In summary:

  1. Use the accompaniment to get an idea of the form and harmonic structure of the song;
  2. Perform the song as if it were accompanied;
  3. Don’t rely on the vocal line during the preparation time. Try to practise as much as you can without it, then use it to check;
  4. Do play the key-chord and starting note before you perform the test;
  5. If you need to relocate your pitch, try to do it only at phrase endings and beginnings, and not at the same time as you’re singing.

Working on your own towards a teaching diploma can be a lonely, and often, overwhelming experience. If you’re not sure where to start or how to approach your teaching diploma preparations, then one-to-one online mentoring could be for you. I can also offer one-to-one advice and guidance for the quick study itself.

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