Wednesday, 10 December 2014

How to Ace Piano Exam's Scales, Aural and Sight Reading sections

Grade 8 Piano, ABRSM, 2009
Grade 8 Theory, ABRSM, 2012
Diploma in Piano Performance (DipLCM), London College of Music, 2011
Associate in Piano Performance (ALCM), London College of Music, 2014
Grade 5 Piano, Yamaha, 2012
Grade 5 Fundamentals, Yamaha, 2010

As listed above, these are my achievements in Piano playing in my music learning journey since age four. 

In this post, I am only going to talk about ABRSM Scales, Aural and Sight Reading sections, which you will find similar to other boards as well.

Marks Allocation:
1) Scales/Broken Chords/Arpeggios/Thirds/Sixths/Octaves/Dom & Dim 7th - 21 marks
2) Sight Reading - 21 marks
3) Aural Tests - 18 marks

The most important element to succeed in these sections are NOT hours long practices, but

(I) Attitude
In all things that students do, having the right mindset / internal self-talk (what you tell yourself when doing the activity) is very important. 

If you already have a negative attitude towards your ability to play smooth scales, achieve perfect score for Aural test and get high marks for sight reading, you have pre-planned to perform below the standard.

Let me set this straight for you. 

1) There is no ''magic". Don't expect to do well in any of these sections if you only start hardcore practising one week before exam. 

2) Work hard and work smart - Being determind to work hard and having the skills to know what to emphasise on is key.

(II) Consistency
Consistency is also crucial in ensuring your success. I would recommend short but frequent practice sessions.

Strategies for the Sections:

Scales (Aimed at higher grades - Gd 6, 7, 8)

1) Master your Circle of 4ths and 5ths
Know your Keys and key signatures inside out and upside down. Test yourself regularly by either writing on the left side of a paper (Key), and on the right side, test yourself and write the key signatures without referring to the charts.

2) Break it down
That book of scales may seem overwhelming, yes, undeniably so. This simple principle will solve the problem of (i) Unable to take it so much at a time and (ii) lack of motivation to push on during practice sessions

3) Accelerando
You have already learned this in Grade 1, start slow first, then you increase your tempo. 
I encourage trying a few notches up on your metronome / reducing the speed. For instance, in Grade 8 scales, you are required to play at 88 crotchet beats in a minute. Slow it down. Try it at 72, 76, 80, 84. Then when you can play let's say 9/10 marks for the scale, play a little faster, yet maintaining the even tone.

4) Practice session
I remember when I used to practice my scales during the lower grades, I hated it so much. It's just boring and I did not know what were scales for then. Only now, I realised its importance. 

Learning stage
During this stage, do the simple Separate hands first. This is to lay down the crucial foundation to ensure you really know your notes for the scales before proceeding to Hands together.

It includes randomising the scales, asking someone to test you and follow your teacher's instructions on the homework for every class.

Approaching your exams,

Grade 8: 30 minutes to 1 hour, randomly by sections (Similar motion, Contrary motion, Arpeggios, Third apart, Sixth apart, Dominant/Diminished 7th)

Play only selected sections during each session, don't overload, it will get pretty boring as you repeatedly move your fingers up and down the piano.

Play variations of the scales. Sometimes, you can play just solid staccatos for the scales (for lower grades) and add rhythm to it such as syncopating / long-short long-short, feels like bouncing. 

I would recommend Schmitt - Preparatory Exercises Op16 for the Piano for drills on proper articulation, lifting the notes, producing a solid clear sound. 

Sight Reading

Rule 1: Don't STOP !!!

When your heart stop beating, you die correct? Think as if Sight Reading is your heart beating. If you stop, you will die, as your marks for fluency will be cut so low that you will never see another day. Set this mindset. For example, you are playing the piece as a performance, the first bad impression the audience get is when you stop.

When you stop = You don't know your stuff.
So when you play fluently without breaking down, it gives an impression that the awkward tunes are minor slips. Master this technique and you have already won half the battle!

Rule 2: Note similar patterns throughout the piece

Many students asked me, "What do I do during the 30 seconds?" 
The 30 seconds preview can be used in so many ways. Methods differ depends on your teacher.

Combining what my teachers (yes, I have more than five piano teachers (Yamaha and ABRSM) over the years) and my own experience dissecting the art of sight reading

1) Key, key signatures, any modulation / key changes, time signature
2) Similar parts of the piece
Structure of a piece can be Ternary form (A-B-A) or Binary form (A-B). Motives, repeated sequences/phrases should be identified when you read the piece.

Rule 3: Use the Sight Reading book (ABRSM) only as a guide
Aim to surpass the level of the sight reading tested in exam. If you always aim for something higher than the required standard, you will likely perform much better and even if you don't, you fall on the clouds. 

Rule 4: Use a variety of material such as Czerny pieces (Op. 299 or 599), simply anything a few grades lower than the one you're sitting for.

I use Improve your Sight Reading by Paul Harris for my students. But personally I prefer just picking up any piece (Beethoven, Chopin, Lizst, or even Richard Clayderman) and just try 5-6 lines or 1-2 pages if you can. 

Back when I studied music, I did not have the luxury to buy really good books (mostly properly written and structured to enhance learning and absorption - from USA or the UK). So, I used the rote-learning a.k.a. Asian way of learning, emphasising on variety and consistency.

Nowadays, many books are available, so teachers explore them, and students, please be thankful you have much more resources now compared to what we have a decade ago.

Aural test

I always did exceptionally well in my Aural test (I'm not boasting) for the grades that I sat (2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). How did I do it? 

1) Know the questions right from the start of your preparation for Grade (insert) exam.

2) Build up your listening skills
Secondly, I have to give credit to Yamaha as I learned solfege (sight singing) and hearing from young so it makes it a lot easier to master the parts where you say "la, la, la" or listening then identifying cadences, major/minor keys, intervals etc.

3) Boost your confidence
Ensure that you are confident to speak up, answer the questions in audible voice (please.... It's not worth losing marks if you are just shy and speaking softly). Positive affirmations help. You can do it mentally before exam or consistently every morning if you are shy / introvert / anxious.

If your teacher tests you regularly on Aural, then you should do fine as he/she would have a plan for you. 

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Additional Readings:

There are more quality advice out there, do explore them and I hope my two-cents can help you or your students / children in their performance in exams.

Do drop me a line below for comments and share it with your friends so that others can benefit too!