I’ve just come back from Vancouver, where I spent the last of hearing and marking exams for RCM Examinations, also known as the National Music Certificate Program in the US. While in Vancouver, I had the pleasure of hearing a wide variety of musicians of all ages and ability levels. As an examiner, there’s nothing like hearing a finely prepared and executed exam, and I’m always glad to reward a fine performance with a high mark. If you’re a student, feeling confident and excelling in an exam situation is perhaps less about talent and more about preparation, the right kind of work done ahead of time, and regular practice.
If you’ve got an exam coming up and you want to do better than you did last time, here are some things to take into consideration if you want to be even more prepared next time around:
1. Make sure your repertoire is memorized. From Grades 1-7, 6 marks are awarded for memory (2 per piece), regardless of how well the performance goes. If you play the piece from memory in Lists A through C, you get the memory marks. Period. In Grades 8 through 10 (as well as Prep A and B), the memory marks are rolled into the marks for the piece as a whole, so you lose the memory marks out of the total of the entire piece if you use music (Note: In ARCT Performance exams, memory is absolutely mandatory so it is not included in the mark). Either way, it’s a winning bet that memory pays big dividends when playing repertoire selections, However, remember that studies don’t need to be memorized (except at the ARCT Performers level).
2. Learn your technique early, and learn it properly. Scales, chords, and arpeggios. Know them well. Learn the technical requirements for your grade early. Practice them every day. Mix them up, starting with major, then minor, scales, then chords. The possibilities are limitless. Once technique becomes part of your practice routine, the better you’ll get at it.
3. Work on ear training. Depending on the grade, you’ll need to either clap or play back a melody and identify intervals, chords, and cadences for 10% of your grade. Unlike the subjective marks for studies, repertoire, or technique, ear training marks are much more objective. Either you get them or you don’t. For this reason, I recommend to everyone that they spend the time learning the ear training system for each grade, so that they can score as high as they can on this section of the exam. Ear training counts for 10% of the total mark, and these are marks you really want.
4. Work on sight reading. If you can sight read well, you’re developing the ability to eventually sit down and play any piece of music that is set down in front of you, a skill that can bring you years of pleasure as a musician. Sight reading is another 10% of your mark on the exam, broken down into 7 marks for playing and 3 for clapping. Although I regularly teach various tips and tricks to make your sight reading more effective, none of these are as powerful as simply sitting down in front of the piano every single day and making yourself play a new piece from sight. Practice this skill and you’ll get good at it. Many students whose playing would otherwise be adequate enough to propel them to a mark of 80% (First Class Honours) don’t get there because in the closing minutes of their exam, they stumble on sight reading. On the other hand, get a good mark here and you will definitely raise your chances of scoring above 80% for the entire exam.
5. Learn a lot of repertoire early in the learning process for the grade. Preparing repertoire for a grade level consists of much more than learning three pieces and two studies. It consists of learning about styles, about composers, listening to the music of different times, learning the difference between them and being able to play lots of new and fascinating pieces. Therefore, I recommend an initial learning period in each grade level where you’re taking in a lot of repertoire when everything is new, fresh, and a little uncomfortable. Then slightly later down the road, you can limit yourself and focus on what you’re going to play for festivals and exams, polishing your performance and doing the memory work well ahead of time (see #1).
If you have any comments or questions about RCM/NMCP exams, leave a comment and I would be glad to respond. You can find the 2008 Piano Syllabus here. Don’t forget that the registration deadline for Spring 2011 exams is February 22 in the United States and March 1 in Canada.