Exam Advice

So you’ve been entered for an exam. What happens now? What should I be doing? What is the exam going to be like? When is it going to be?

A pupil having been entered for an exam usually means that the pupil has achieved a certain standard and that the teacher has confidence in the pupil’s abilities to pass the exam. With some candidates, they may have been entered before being fully ready and will be working towards the standard required. Maybe other influences such as to achieve a certain grade on their instrument to move onto the next school or to attend a music course has led to being entered for the practical exam. In these situations, the teacher will anticipate the progress a pupil will achieve based on work covered and past progress. This is not unusual though very much puts the emphasis on the pupil maintaining this level of progress.

The format of woodwind exams with the Associated Board will consist of two exam pieces accompanied by the piano, one piece which is unaccompanied and often called the study, sight-reading, scales and arpeggios, and aural. These can be taken in any order but usually start with the two accompanied pieces. The pianist will leave the exam room when finished accompanying the two pieces. The pass mark is 100/150 with a merit awarded at 120 and a distinction at 130.

For all taking exams, it is important not to give marks away by letting the examiner know that a mistake has been made. A frown, oops or sorry lets the examiner know that things did not go to plan when perhaps they may not have noticed. Above all, never give up. Examiners are on the whole friendly people doing a job like any one else. They have to often conduct exams all day sometimes hearing the same piece of music all day as well. It is in their interest to make the exam candidate feel comfortable and play well otherwise they are in for a difficult day.

My Grade 8 Experience 23rd June 2016

I have always tried to help students deal with stress and nerves when taking their ABRSM Grade exams. I have tried to pass on strategies developed over the years to make it less of an ordeal. Of course, some students thrive on it, but others really feel the pressure.

In April, I realised that perhaps, after thirty years, I had forgotten the reality of preparing for and taking an exam. I decided then to retake my ABRSM Grade 8 on the saxophone. That way I could re-experience it for myself, better empathise with my students and hopefully identify new ways to help them.


Pieces - I chose my pieces and spent about 30 mins a day on them, even recording some of my practice. This was really useful for seeing phrase shaping, intonation and generally bringing musicality to them. I supported this with relevant Studies to help build stamina and finger technique.

Scales - No escape! I practised long and hard. I felt quite confident though challenged my advanced pupils to randomly pick one for me. I revisited any I didn’t nail at the first attempt.

Sight-Reading/Aural - I downloaded ‘˜The Sight Reading Factory’ app, which was useful, and Aural preparation often took place on my commute listening to Aural Training CDs.


I felt relaxed, though I did have ‘butterflies’. I took the advice I offer to my pupils - keep relaxed, take a deep breath, play for fun and enjoy it!. The Examiner was a bit taken aback when I walked in, as I had been accompanying my students only moments before!

Pieces - I felt I played these with confidence, but with a few sticky patches. Parts of the performances were a bit of a blur as my mind was all over the place! ‘Mind melt’ can happen even after all these years!

Scales - Interestingly, I actually found them a little tricky, having to really make sure I had the correct scale type or arpeggio with the requested articulation. It’s easy just to ‘bash off’ scales, so this formality really made me think. I think I got most of them!

Sight Reading - Again, a bit of a blur! Who would have thought it! I suspect I was out with timing though it was a tricky piece - Andante 9-8 with a mix of quavers, semi-quavers, dotted rhythms and no key signature. I rushed it a little, but definitely improved as the piece went on.

Aural - Agony! I suddenly thought I had no chance of remembering the sample phrase but somehow I got it. Identifying the musical features was relatively easy until I got to the musical extract. It was a modern piece with no tonal structure or obvious form. I gabbled about tonality, articulation, tempo etc. and will be amazed if the examiner understood anything I said!

Afterwards, I fell straight into the usual trap - concentrating on what went wrong rather than what went right. I was upset that my concentration had wandered, leading to some silly mistakes. I can see why some students get upset and feel they have failed. I am not really worried about the result (just kidding!). The whole point was to experience the exam and, from it, how I might help my students better prepare.


Pieces and Scales - It is often said about music exams ‘what other exam do you go into knowing the answers?’ Well-prepared Pieces and Scales kept my nerves under control, but even so I still suffered ‘mind melt’. I need to look at strategies that will help students maintain their focus.

Aural and sight-reading - These caused me the most difficulty and can be the most daunting to students being the ‘unknown’ element. Perhaps I need to review the balance between Sight-Reading/Aural and Pieces/Scales that I have in my lessons, so these elements are more familiar.

Post Exam - We are all annoyed when we make mistakes, but that’s all they are. Concentrating on the positive is definitely something I will adopt to help students see their exam experience in perspective.


Are all pupils suited to this type of exam? It is always important to remember that Exams are not the reason for learning an instrument. They are just milestones on a musical adventure taking in all the sights and sounds that music has to offer.

I will now give greater thought to entering students. I know a few of them who are not suited to the pressure even though musically secure. The exam flutters I experienced gave me greater empathy for talented students who have not done well in exams. I need, perhaps, to look at other less stressful ways of measuring progress.

All in all, a worthwhile experience and that, even after 25 years as professional musician, exam jitters can still get to you!!


Just had the results (within two weeks! A bit of a record!). I managed a high distinction with Aural going very well.


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