I like to let my students choose the pieces they wish to do for their exams. I know of some teachers who will choose for the student and for different reasons. One of the reasons is that they “know” what the student is capable of and so will choose items that will play to those strengths. Another reason is that the teacher doesn’t like a particular piece and so won’t let the student do that. In fact there are some teachers who won’t let a student ever do what they want to do which begs the question…why are they teaching in the first place? My feeling is that as a teacher I am being paid to give my students the best possible lessons and experiences, so whether I like something or not is of no importance. In this blog I discuss my ideas on how to choose pieces.
In the previous blog I wrote about the different exam boards available. This of course will have an impact on the pieces available to you. Every board will have a list (or several lists) from which to choose items. Some boards want you to choose one from each list, others will let you choose any items from the syllabus. The only general caveat seems to be that you can’t choose more than one item by the same composer; though this only applies to singing exams (more on those shortly). The exam boards I mentioned in the previous blog all carry the same “weight” when it comes to UCAS points (from grade 6 onwards), and they all use the same qualification framework. So on paper, there’s no difference between each board for the qualification you’ll receive when you pass.
If you enjoy a strictly classical programme, the ABRSM is probably the one to go for. Trinity Classical & Jazz, has a very good mix of classic classical and more contemporary items; there is a big variety and you just choose three pieces (they aren’t grouped in lists). If you want to play modern pop or rock items, then Trinity Rock & Pop exams are excellent. Three pieces are chosen and then a session skill is assessed. Rockschool is good too and in addition to the pieces students learn scales, chords, and riffs. LCME, offer exams in a huge variety of instruments and the pieces on offer are quite varied but again they split them into three lists. There is more information in the previous blog, and I have linked to each board’s website within that blog. I just wanted to give a very brief outline here.
Hearing The Pieces
It can take a while to do this, but it is well worth doing. Most exam boards have demonstration tracks on YouTube…or there is at least a version being played by someone to find. A lot of the exam books have audio downloads now too. A couple of points here: firstly, the demonstration is just one interpretation, so don’t get too bogged down with how the person has played it (as long as you’re not changing notes or rhythms!). Secondly, it’s always worth looking into the additional pieces too - there are some real gems there! Yes, sometimes it can mean having to buy an extra book, or downloading and printing an extra piece but I feel it really is worth it. I don’t believe it’s helpful to restrict oneself when choosing pieces to play, especially for an exam where you’ll be playing the same pieces over and again for the next several months!
This brings me nicely onto my next suggestion. When you’re listening to the pieces have a list of what you’re listening to. Then as you listen to each piece write a mark next to its title. This next bit is VERY IMPORTANT. Mark the piece based on how much you WANT TO PLAY IT; 0 = “If I never hear this piece again it’ll be too soon” and 10 = “OMG I simply have to play this piece, my life depends on it!”. Do NOT mark the piece on how easy or difficult it sounds. If you choose a piece because it sounds easy the chances are you’ll get bored of it very quickly. Sometimes, an easy sounding piece is actually a technically challenging one (and the trickier sounding pieces a little more straightforward).
Rising To The Challenge
I will admit there are times that you will choose a piece that you love, but then have a panic because it looks impossible to play. A couple of things here: firstly a challenge is a good thing. If you coast through life without a challenge you won’t improve or develop. Secondly, you (hopefully) have a (good) teacher who will help you with the technical challenges. There are numerous exercises that can be incorporated into the lessons to help facilitate these. It’s also worth remembering that nothing is ever “easy” straightaway. Whenever we learn a new piece or technique it always takes a bit of time to get familiar with it, and even longer to master it.
Remember, an exam board pores over hundreds of pieces to choose the best ones that fit a certain learning outcome. There will be aspects of a piece you will find straightforward, and other aspects that will be challenging. Stick with it, especially if it’s a piece you really love; the sense of achievement you get when you pass is incredible particularly if you’ve found something challenging. It’s like going on a walk up a really steep hill or mountain (on a sunny, clear day) - when you reach the summit you are blessed with a breathtaking view; the hard slog has been worth it!
I will never choose a piece for a student. I will guide them. I will give them information about each piece. If a student likes a piece I will highlight any potentially tricky passages and tell them how we can work on them to help them gain the confidence they need. It is always worth remembering that this is your musical experience. You should be playing the music that excites you. As a teacher I feel I should get excited for the student and enthuse about their music - whether I like the piece or not. If I can show passion for music, regardless of what it is, there’s a strong chance the student will develop a similar passion. I see it as being a very big part of my job to make the music enjoyable for the student, and not to force my musical tastes on them.
A Little Advice For Singing Exams
Choosing songs for singing exams can be extremely difficult, especially if it’s a Classical or Musical Theatre exam. The demo tracks available (on Spotify usually) very often don’t do much to inspire a selection. It is very important that you try to detach yourself from how that particular singer has sung the song. It is also worth remembering that just because a song is being sung by a male or female voice, doesn’t mean that you are restricted. You can choose any song you like, and where necessary switch pronouns to suit you. Also, if the key isn’t suitable you can transpose it. If your teacher tells you otherwise, it could be that they are trying to get out of doing a bit of extra work! The only exception to that is when the syllabus says “This version only” or the equivalent.
I hope this guide will help you choose your pieces. Remember, you’re the one who’s got to play the same stuff for the duration of the exam preparation, so you must choose items YOU like. It’s also handy to have a couple of distraction pieces as well, to break up the monotony; though some students prefer to just focus on the exam stuff. In the next blog I’ll be giving you some advice on how to practise effectively. Happy choosing!