A quick briefing on taking music exams…

Exam-taking is big business in the UK, and here at MusicMaps we are fully aware of the upsides as well as the downsides. Over focus on exam repertoire crowds out critical areas of learning for any instrument. All that time spent on preparing for an exam means less time for mastering techniques and repertoire that happens not to be included in the exam format. However, on a more positive note, exams can give structure, and a sense of achievement and progression – all great stuff.

The Boards

The main exam boards in the UK are the Trinity College London and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). Other examination boards based in the UK include the London College of Music; Victoria College of Music and Drama, the National College of Music and RSL Awards.

Trinity and ABRSM, and LCM offer all the common instruments. We like Trinity and LCM for their specialist support and care with the syllabus, and ABRSM offer convenience and dominate the exam set-ups at schools. All three are equally recognised by OFQUAL and exams can be counted towards UCAS points (the university entry point system) from Grade 6 onwards.

Dates and fees

Exam entry dates and actual examination times are published on the relevant websites so that you can enter well in advance. Preparation for an exam might start anything from three months to six months in advance and normally involves three pieces, some scales and arpeggios, aural tests, and sight-reading. All the music is normally easily available in convenient all-in-one books. Entry fees range between approximately £35 to £60.

How the exams work

Exams are numbered from Grade 1 to 8, Grade 1 being for beginners and Grade 8 being for advanced students and many boards offer a pre-Grade 1, ‘Initial’ exam or Prep Test. It is possible to skip Grades, however to take a Grade 6 or above instrumental ABRSM exam, Grade 5 theory must be passed first. Grade 5 theory is not easy and it is a good idea to include a little bit of theory in weekly instrumental lessons.

Practical tips

It’s essential to speak to your teacher about taking an exam, even setting out your expectations when you first start lessons. Teachers do have the expertise to manage exam preparation but can be curiously lackadaisical in their approach. Ask your teacher:

– their best advice for planning for exam-taking
– if they are covering aural tests and sight-reading
– who is responsible for making the exam entry on time
– what the accompanying arrangements are
– what informal ‘mock’ exam arrangements are in place

Whether you study with MusicMaps or not, we are always here to answer any queries you may have so please do just give us a call.

Useful links:

ABRSM (look for the great section on ‘on the day preparation’
VCM Exams