Graded exam tips: What is the examiner looking for?

So here at Jambo we believe that exams can be useful for some and not for others. Some children thrive off working towards a set goal alongside their peers taking a similar path while others can be altogether put off by the idea of being put in a room with an examiner ticking boxes. It’s important to note that working solely towards exams does not encompass many of the other important aspects, when learning an instrument and enjoying music as a whole, such as composition, learning chord structures for different types of music and playing with others. A balanced program of learning should also include these. There is no right or wrong way as long as you or your child is enjoying learning and progressing with their instrument.

If taking an exam is something you or your child decides to do, either out of choice, or a necessity for school read our tips to help you get the best out of preparing towards ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall exams:


1. Choosing your repetoire:

Listen to the whole syllabus of pieces and choose the ones you like best. You will be working on these pieces for a good few months so make sure you’ll enjoy playing them! Have your teacher play them all through for you and decide for yourself. Remember the shorter pieces aren’t necessarily the easiest and the ones with the most complicated looking notes/rhythms aren’t necessarily the hardest! Try to choose the ones you most like the sound of.

2. Scales:

These need to be even, moderately loud and from memory for the best mark. Remember to apply the recommended speed for each grade. Have someone test you on them at random - it’s unlikely they will ask for them all.

3. Pieces:

It’s all about the attention to detail. The examiner will be looking for pieces to be polished and accurate. Take note of the metronome marking to play at the correct speed. For pianists, when beginning a new piece make sure you practice with fingering that works so you don’t have to readjust something you’ve already become familiar with. Apply articulation and dynamic markings and ignore repeats for exam purposes except for D.C al fine/da Capo unless specified otherwise.

Each piece will have it’s challenges, be it the finger work, speed, dynamic variation etc. Preparation needs to focus on polishing these areas. Remember good practice should involve isolating any difficult parts and practicing them on their own correcting finger work, speed, and dynamic variation as well as running all the way through from start to finish. Try to perform them for your family/school/friends before the exam.

4. Aural tests:

These can often be overlooked when preparing pieces and scales but remember they do contribute 18 marks towards the over-all outcome. Make sure you have your teacher tests you on these lots before the exam. Some children can find the singing exersizes a bit daunting in the early grades so it’s important to get used to these before doing it in the exam room. Sing out loud and clear and sound confident (even if you don’t feel it!)

5. Sight-reading:

Practice, practice, practice! There is no shortcut here. Buy the sight reading excersizes book and work through these and read any other new music - it all helps. Try to glance ahead to the next bar or so as you play - you will already have taken in some of the information when you come to it.

6. The exam:

If given the choice, ask to do your scales first so your fingers are a bit more warmed up when you play your pieces and for pianists you get a feel for the exam piano. Remember to try and relax and take your time - there’s no rush! It can be a nerve wracking experience especially for youngsters. Take a few seconds before you begin each piece/scale rather than rush in. If you make a mistake, try to continue rather than stop and start again; you may be penalised more for this.