Exam Technique

In conversations with students of all ages, over several years of teaching, one of the most common pieces of advice I give for students sitting an exam is about exam technique. The following points should be useful to anyone sitting a music exam but will be centered around those students studying for exams with the registry of guitar tutors.


·      Scales and musical knowledge sections are easy marks: repertoire pieces and improvisation are designed to be testing and carry a higher percentage of marks in the exam. Scales however should be so well known by the time you sit your exam they should feel like easy marks, ensure you have definitely heard the correct scale to be played so as to not play a different scale by mistake, take a breath, play the scale accurately and don’t be tempted to play it as quickly as you can, better to play it accurately and smoothly remembering to turn around on, not to repeat the highest note. Also where appropriate play the scales in as many different keys as possible (not applicable to early grades). Likewise with musical knowledge, write ot model answers little and often and test yourself, all the answers are in the book.

·      Read each section of the book carefully, recently I had a student assume a chart would be in the same form as in the grade book, however the book clearly states that the chart could take any form in the exam, avoid unnecessary surprises caused by your assumptions. It has to be said that students with more exam experience have an advantage, not that I insist on students taking every single grade. If in an aural assessment such as a pitch test, your are torn between two answers, it is always possible that the possible outcomes are limited at each grade, for example grade 5 pitch tests will be limited to 5 scales. Knowing the grade criteria may be the difference between passing and getting that distinction.

·      Write a list of everything you need to bring the night before, don’t practice too late and ensure you are calm. I turn up to exams with spare tuners, books and strings just incase for my students but there is nothing worse than seeing a student walk into an exam in a real panic because they’ve forgotten something.

·      Don’t ignore sections of the exam. Many students play more lead or bass patterns and ignore musical knowledge or scales, many classical students put off their sight reading. Identify your own weakest areas and make sure they get more attention in the run up to your exam.

·      Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure. If you want to be a grade 8 classical player enough you will get there but at any age each grade takes time to study and trying to put unrealistic time pressures on yourself never helps achieve the goal.

·      Practice little and often, but make sure it’s practice. Playing that song you know really well is great fun, but it does little to help you progress as a player. Have a routine and a structure to your practice time, this should include pieces for fun so it’s not all exam work, though this might decrease in the fortnight before exam date.

Buying a New Instrument

Students often ask me for advice on buying a new instrument. Here are a few points that hopefully will help you find a guitar that lasts you and makes practicing ad playing as pleasurable as possible.

1) There is a popular misconception that having a more expensive instrument doesn't make you a better player, and this is true to a point. However, In my opinion a student who really loves their instrument will pick it up more often and improve as a player as a result. . Compare this scenario to the student who desperately wants to play guitar but has an instrument that is hard to play. This is eventually going to lead to frustration and the belief that playing guitar is too difficult. 

2) Some new instruments are completely unplayable. There are many excellent student instruments in guitar shops that are within reasonable budgets and are fun to play. Sadly there are also a large number of instruments in some music shops and many charity shops that whilst they may look similar to more expensive instruments, are built so poorly as to be difficult to play.

3) Buy a second hand instrument. For all but the lucky few, budget is a large factor when buying an instrument and there are a large number of good quality second hand instruments available and buying second hand can result in a much better quality instrument for the price. New strings and a clean can often transform a preowned instrument. I am always happy to be sent links before you make a purchase if you would like specific advice.

4) There are so many guitar companies as to be impossible to give advice, however  many of the larger companies that have been building instruments for a long time such as Fender, Epiphone and Yamaha make consistently good quality guitars and hold their value better should you sell your instrument to upgrade later. 

5)  Go into your local guitar shop and play as many guitars as you possibly can in order to see what is comfortable to you or ask a friend or the assistant to play so you can hear the differences and don't be afraid to ask questions. I regularly demonstrate for local guitar shops and invite students  to come along so i can demonstrate the differences between instruments. 

Finally, my life is made much easier as a teacher if my students are playing fully working, quality instruments and from time to time i may have instruments available. Please email if you have any questions on the above or need further information.