How to: prepare your students for singing exams
BY: Peter Buckby
18 June 2018
Working towards an exam often gives students a purpose to their learning. Knowing an exam is on the horizon can give the focus they need more than lessons can provide on their own. The feeling of accomplishment and the recognition that they are ready to progress to the next grade, is really important for learners’ confidence. As teachers, it helps give your lessons structure and, of course, the feeling when a student passes their grade is priceless.
We surveyed dozens of singing teachers from across the UK who shared their methods for preparing students for singing exams, from technical exercises to relaxation and helpful confidence-building strategies. Exams can seem daunting for learners and building self-belief was often cited as one of the most challenging tasks for singing teachers. Here are seven of the top tips gathered in our survey to help your students prepare for their next singing exam.
Tip 1: Chunk the technical exercises
Don’t let the exam become an overwhelming prospect. Whether your technical work involves exercises, such as Vaccai and Trinity’s new Vocal Exercises, or an accompanied folk song, teachers recommended breaking it down into manageable sections – BBC Bitesize has more solutions for students, too. ‘Take it one bit at a time,’ recommends private singing teacher, Brian Smith Walters. ‘A graded exam can seem daunting to many, since there are multiple components. But if the student looks at each item separately and works on each individually, it’s an easier meal to digest.’
As with so many things, the big picture can seem too much for some students to process; maintaining concentration and being evaluated by an examiner can be nerve-wracking. If you practise approaching each section in smaller, bite-size chunks, building them up week by week, students will start to understand how the exam all fits together, and that five- to ten- minute segments are far less intimidating.
Tip 2: Manage singing expectations
Students often put pressure on themselves to ‘get it right’ too early-on in the process, so getting them to manage their expectations is vital. For classical singing, focus on the pronunciation of songs, as well as breaking up long phrases to make the task more manageable. While, for Rock & Pop Vocals songs, ‘Practise the difficult passages slowly in a loop before inserting them into the context of the piece at full tempo,’ advises Baz Golin from Felix’s School of Rock. You could also give learners something easy and familiar to sing first; if they’re given something they already know, the new material will prove less of a barrier.
Some singing teachers suggested getting students to build musical features and technical exercises throughout the year and regularly apply them to songs to show their relevance and embed specific skills, rather than just in the run-up to exams. ‘This way they have come to learn and use a lot of the technical language and practices before associating them solely with the pressures of being learnt only for testing within the exam setting,’ says private teacher, Anna Gonzalez.
Tip 3: Practise outside of the classroom
While your time with students may be limited to a weekly lesson, there are many ways to get them into a habit of practising at home. For younger students, ensure parents understand the value of regular practice outside of class; however, be mindful that the quality of practice is important, not just the quantity. As James Oldfield, a singing teacher at multiple schools says, ‘Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Whatever you repeat, you keep, whether it was good or bad. So do less practice, unless it is picky, precise practice.’
Another approach to help students practise outside of lesson time is to encourage them to keep a journal to reflect on their pieces. Donna-Marie Povey, who teaches at Warrington School says, ‘This helps them think in broader terms about their performances; the characters, content and context of their pieces.’ It’s also a clear, physical way to see who is doing their work at home.
She continues, ‘I also encourage peer-modelling and peer-assessment and I run group exam workshops prior to exams so that my pupils can showcase their hard work and learn from one another. I tend to order in a pizza at the end of the session...they love that!’ With plenty of ways to combat pre-performance nerves, one final tip from teachers was not just to practise in different rooms to adapt to acoustics, but in front of different audiences to become more confident.
Tip 4: Familiarise students with technical exercises
Although the majority of the exam marks are awarded for the prepared songs, the technical work makes up 12-14% of the Trinity Singing exam (depending on the grade); enough to make a difference in the overall mark. Singing teacher, Aimée Harris, from Broughton Hall Catholic High School explains, ‘I use the Vaccai books as part of weekly warm-ups as it works on interval intonation, so they know this part well.’
She continues, ‘I often use sight-singing from Grade 1, even though it is not necessary, but this way it builds up their knowledge from the start.’ The Vaccai exercises proved popular over and over again in our survey, with teachers confident this system is valuable to students right from the start of their training. The more routine these exercises become, the more experienced your students will be when performing them in an exam setting.
Teachers expressed how important it is to make students aware of the relevance of these exercises to their learning, too; if they see the merit of an exercise, they’re more likely to retain it. As Grainne McLaughlin explains, ‘I always ensure the students appreciate the usefulness of the particular exercise: for example, how often they will have to sing a song which begins with the interval of a perfect fourth – ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Students will often make more of an effort if they can see how highly specific technical exercises are related to the desired aim of successful singing.’
Tip 5: Focus on musical expression
Depending on the grade, expression and communication accounts for between 33-40% of the exam mark in the Trinity College London Singing syllabus. It’s vital that singers understand its importance and are given songs that stretch them emotionally, enabling them to show expression, as The Naked Vocalist explains. ‘Every song has a unique story with its own set of emotions. We’re lucky that we get words to help us interpret this; unlike instrumentalists,’ explains Sarah McAllister, a private teacher.
Understanding the words of the song is really important – it sounds obvious but, especially for younger singers, teachers must consider if students actually understand all of the words in their songs. Ask yourself: do they understand the context? Do they understand what’s happening in the story of the song? Have they ever been in a similar situation themselves? If so, how did they feel? Can they apply these emotions to the song when they sing?
Private teacher, Lesley Owens, highlighted the importance of dynamics to help tell the story and add emotion to a performance, ‘Vary dynamics to show expression and be engaging.’ Teachers must encourage students to show layers to a song – it is when they achieve these nuances that the examiner will be able to award more marks and the student will enjoy the performance more too, because they’re feeling it.
Tip 6: Learn the songs as well as possible
‘[Learning your pieces well] ...is not the finishing touch, it’s just the start of being able to work on their performance and communication,’ says Frances Israel from Bishop’s Stortford College. If students feel confident with their pieces and have repertoire that they enjoy, it will shine out of their performance. Help your students develop repertoire appropriate to them from the start to help them learn songs more easily.
While some students find memorising songs and technical exercises easy, others may struggle. In Trinity’s Singing syllabus and others, students aren’t required to sing from memory and no extra marks are awarded for doing so. However, students who are able to confidently learn their songs are more able to focus on the expression and technique in their delivery. As Aimée Harris from Broughton Hall Catholic High School explains, ‘I like to ensure that every student knows their songs... so the performance isn’t hindered by staring at the sheet music.’
Tip 7: Find enjoyment in the performance
The exam is a performance – tell your students this from the start – and should be treated as such. The idea of working towards a ‘show’ might be less overwhelming and nerve-wracking for students, than the idea of an assessment. Anna Gonzalez tells her students, ‘There are very few opportunities in the year were we get to perform a repertoire of pieces, with full accompaniment, so relish every minute of the experience!’ If you create excitement around the exam, like it’s an event to be looked forward to, your positivity will catch on.
Trinity is keen to make exams fun and enjoyable for candidates, from wide-ranging repertoire lists with plenty of engaging songs to choose from, to friendly examiners . What’s more, as Abigail Mann, a self-employed private singing teacher tells her students, 'If you are not enjoying singing the song, it will impact the performance as a whole.' Remind students that examiners are there to award marks, not to look for errors – ultimately, they want to have a lovely time and enjoy what they see and hear.
You can find loads more useful tips and advice from experienced singing teachers that we have surveyed, in our new Teacher's Guide to Singing.