For any aspiring guitar player, an exam represents a chance to present your knowledge and skill in playing your instrument in a structured, formal and assessed way.
Even just having an exam to prepare for will likely push you to improve your performance skills, your knowledge of music theory as well as your ability to sight read.
Assess your level, take an exam!
There are two types of guitar exams one can do through AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board):
- Classical Guitar
- Rockschool Guitar
In 2021, AMEB discontinued CPM (Contemporary Popular Music) Guitar exams, so students will now only have classical or rock guitar to choose from.
Nevertheless, students can find a variety of songs and playing styles within the broad umbrella genres of classical and rock guitar.
'Rockschool' Exam format and what you will need to know
If you choose to do a face-to-face exam, you can either complete a 'grade exam' or a 'performance certificate'.
The grade exam consists of 3 performance pieces, 2 of which you may choose and 1 which will be featured on the syllabus.
There is also a component of 'technical work' which refers to scales and arpeggios and lastly 'unseen tests', which involve either sight-reading or improvisation as well as ear tests and general musicianship questions.
The performance certificate, on the other hand, does not require the student to complete technical work or unseen tests and instead focuses purely on the performance component.
In this format, the student will perform 5 musical pieces, 3 of which will be free choice and 2 of which will be part of the grade's syllabus.
There is also an option to do the graded certificate or performance certificate in a video/recorded format.
The requirements are very similar, except there are no unseen tests for those completing the graded certificate.
Playing music every day to improve your technical knowledge
If you play music in a band or for leisure, this will help you with the technical and practical aspects of your AMEB exams.
Playing music every day builds performance skills as well as comfort with the technical aspects of playing an instrument.
The joys of music are a crucial factor to overall motivation of the long term.
If you treat music as too much of an academic pursuit, the chances are you are likely to end up giving up y0ur instrument down the track, due to the incessant negative associations you are creating between your instrument and highly stressful and disciplined environments.
That's why it is important to mix up y0ur instrument playing with frequent 'jam' sessions and band playing whereby the focus is on 'feeling' and enjoying the music as opposed to regimented and disciplined playing exactly how things are described on sheet music.
If you play guitar, mix it up and have a go of the piano. If you are a violin player, give the guitar a go! Remember, mixing things up with allow you to continue to rediscover the joys and wonder of music over and over again instead of treating it as something which must always be done as it was written down 300 years ago!
Believe me, this will help you become a master of music down the track!
All the knowledge you've learned playing other instruments is good for your music exams, with a bit of tweaking. For example, if you're a great piano player already, the theory you learned on the keyboard will help you to better visualise the fretboard when playing the guitar.
Use this knowledge for scales, arpeggios and sight reading in order to become a better overall musician.
Prepare for sight reading
Perhaps the most difficult component of the grade exam will be the sight reading, since it is impossible to be entirely prepared for what may be presented to you at this stage of the exam.
However, there are a few things you can do to ensure you are able to play the piece to a good standard the first time around. Here's how you can prepare for sight reading written music in the exam.
Practice reading music at home and playing it after just a few minutes. After that, listen to it and see how you did! Any sheet music book with an attached CD will do perfectly!
A sheet music book will generally have a specific AMEB level so that you can ensure each piece of music you sight read is at the correct standard.
When listening back to the piece you've been sight reading, pay attention to the degree to which you were able to encapsulate the different dynamics, particularly movements in volume and tempo.
Another tip you can do is practice clapping out rhythms before you play the piece. The notes may be the easiest part of the sight reading, with the rhythms actually requiring a lot more nuance and experience to fully get the hang of.
Don't get overwhelmed by trying to learn both at once and begin by just clapping out the rhythm before you attempt to play the piece.
This will also help you recognise the different musical notes and their duration within the musical chart.
Once you learn to associate the notes with the rhythms, the entire repertoire of pieces they may ask you to sight read become a whole lot simpler!
Get a private music tutor
One of the best ways to build confidence in your skills prior to an exam is to hire a tutor to give you the personalised feedback you need to perfect your playing, sight reading and technical work.
So do yourself a favour and get help for your exams by hiring a tutor, either online or in-person!
Teaching can be done through Zoom nowadays, giving you access to any great tutor around the country, or the world for that matter!
Study is a crucial component of your AMEB exam preparation, and the best people to help you prepare are those who have been there before with the certificate and diplomas to prove it!
One great platform for finding a tutor to suit your grade level is Superprof. Just view the profiles of teachers by searching a query such as 'guitar', 'bass', 'acoustic guitar' or whatever types of lessons you are looking to take.
The tutor's profile description should reveal whether they have experience preparing students for AMEB exams and whether or not they can help you with aural work as well.
You may also ask your tutor what grades they have completed before booking classes with them. If you are instead taking Trinity exams, you may ask the teacher if they are familiar with this format.
However, most experienced teachers will be comprehensive in the way that they teach you to ensure that you do well in any exam, regardless of the exact requirements of that assessment.
What songs should I play for my exam
When building up a repertoire for your AMEB exams, you may choose to begin by looking at the recommended books for each grade level of the guitar exams.
The exam requirements do allow you to use at least one 'free choice' piece within your performance repertoire, however you must ensure that this chosen piece displays your general competencies suitable for the grades being studied.
You may also need to find a suitable backing track whereby you can be accompanied by bass and percussion or some sort of band arrangement.
When playing for leisure, you may view the pieces and play alone however it will help a lot to have at the very least a drum beat to keep you in time while playing.
The songs you might choose are ones that you feel motivated to practice frequently. They should also be ones which highlight your technical competencies in terms of left and right hand skills.
They should be ones that naturally play into your strengths as a player.
Start practicing these pieces a sufficient time out from your exam to ensure that you can play them perfectly by the time you reach the exam room.
Remember, the nerves are going to be a major factor in your exam performance!
So over-preparing is a good strategy to ensure that the nerves don't affect your playing too much.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, playing for leisure in situations such as in a band is a great way to build confidence and performance skills necessary for peak performance in exams.
So get out there, associate with other musicians and start playing and learning to feel the groove while playing!