Exams. They're a stressful experience for most students no matter what the subject or the level, whether they're oral or written. Music exams for instruments like percussion, piano, guitar, clarinet and of course, singing are no different.
Given this, you might ask yourself why we put ourselves through such an ordeal. What do we actually get out of it? There are actually a surprising amount of benefits of getting that coveted certificate in your hand.
Once you reach high grades, your certificate could allow you to book work opportunities like teaching. You have proof of your repertoire of technical skills and knowledge of pieces, which will help you on your way to a successful singing career.
Knowing your own level of skill can also mean having more confidence in your own skills. You can differentiate yourself from people who sing for leisure.
Finally, moving from grade to grade can push students to challenge themselves and expand their abilities and knowledge in both the theory and performance areas of singing.
So singing grades are useful for a range of reasons, but it is truly necessary to book these exams at every singing level?
What is involved in exams for Singing Grades?
The main organisation offering voice or singing exams in Australia is the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB), although there are other groups such as Trinity Music College and ABRSM that also provide tests.
These exams provide a pathway for students to gain confidence in their skills and progressively develop their abilities in a range of skills.
It's important to note that these types of exams don't just test students on their performance. Singing is multi-faceted, and students need to show their technical, aural and sight-reading skills.
You also need to show that you can both understand the theory behind pieces of music or songs, and can study a song in a historical context.
The different sections on the exam are designed to test students in a variety of ways so that you can clearly show the amazing results of all the music lessons you've had up to that point.
To encourage students to get a little out of their comfort zones, they also require the study of pieces from a range of genres, like classical, musical theatre, jazz and more.
So how are you actually tested?
Your skills will never be compared to the performance of other students. Instead, you will be marked against the standard criteria that AMEB, ABRSM or any other group has designed for each level.
If you're taking lessons to prepare for one of these exams, it's important that you and your teacher have a thorough understanding of these criteria, so you can work in each lesson to achieve them. You can find all of this info in the syllabus book for your grade.
You can achieve a range of passing grades from a high A+ (pass with high distinction) to a low C or C+ (satisfactory pass). Taking lessons with a professional teacher is just one way to get a distinction on your signing exam.
What are the different singing grades?
People who are serious about taking their vocal skills all the way to the top need to be willing to go through quite a few exams if they want to get to the absolute highest level offered by AMEB; the Associate and Licentiate diplomas.
The structure of the exams for the different grades doesn't vary so much. In each one, the student will be asked to present a vocalise.
This is a singing exercise that uses individual sounds to show technical control of things like pitch and tone.
Students will also need to demonstrate their aural and sight-reading skills, as well as answer the examiner's questions about different songs or pieces of music.
Each student is also expected to present a performance of between three and five pieces of music (depending on the grade) chosen from the song options in the syllabus book for that year.
It's also important to note that the AMEB offers four different types of exams at every grade (except the certificate of performance, associate and licentiate levels):
- Singing Comprehensive: This is the traditional exam, with all elements and a more limited choice of songs, and each song must be accompanied by a piano.
- Singing for Leisure: While this exam still includes all of the normal elements, there is a wider choice of genre and the possibility to be accompanied by a CD or recording instead.
- Singing Repertoire and Singing for Leisure Repertoire: These are simple performance exams, with no technical or theory elements.
Let's take a closer look at the difference between the grades (focusing on the traditional comprehensive exam):
Level 1 Exams: Preliminary to Grade 4
- A technical vocal exercise
- Three to five pieces are performed
- General knowledge examination questions
- Sight-reading tests (not in the preliminary exam)
- Aural skills testing
The choices in pieces of music will come from your syllabus book, which can be purchased by the student or teacher on the AMEB or ABRSM websites.
For the lower levels (Preliminary to 1), students are required to sing three pieces, one unaccompanied and two accompanied. From level 2, an extra two songs are required, chosen by the student. Your teacher can help to make this decision if you're taking prep lessons.
Level 2 exams: Grades 5-8
Now we're getting serious! By this point, students should be working regularly on their vocal skills and theory knowledge through lessons.
These exams are made up of more or less the same elements, but obviously, they will become progressively more difficult.
The main differences are:
- The student will present six pieces of a longer duration (except in Grade 8, where they will present 4 which are more complex)
- Students are required to pass a music theory test to attain the certificate
- Singing in languages other than English is encouraged, and compulsory in Grades 7-8
For a more detailed picture, look at the different graded exams you can take.
Certificate of Performance, Associate and Licentiate Diplomas
The exams are for students who have honed their vocal abilities to an extremely high level.
The elements are all the same as the other exams, except for the number of pieces the student is expected to present. In these exams, there is a timed performance (20-50 minutes depending on the level).
Students perform four pieces, plus enough additional works from the list to meet the timing requirement.
Do I really need to progress through all the Singing Grades?
These exams of course become progressively more difficult over time, but it's not necessarily true that students must complete them.
When it comes to the lower levels, skipping grades is not such a grave issue. There are a few reasons why a student might decide to skip a low-level exam.
For example, you might find yourself between two levels. Grade 2 may be too easy, but you're not quite ready for Grade 3. In this case, your teacher might suggest moving straight to the higher grade.
You may need to wait a little longer and take a few more lessons to be able to pass the exam, but focusing on the skills needed for the higher level may be a better use of your time.
The issues begin at the Grade 5 level if you're taking the ABRSM exams. From Grade 6-8, you'll need to have passed the Grade 5 exam, so skipping this one is not such a good idea.
For those taking the AMEB exams, there is no such requirement, but you will have to take separate Music Theory Exams which have their own grading system,
So to sum up, students can skip the lower grades if they feel they have enough skill and commitment to go straight to the higher levels. However, from Grade 5 onwards, it may be better to follow the pathway as you become a more serious musician.
If you have any doubts about where your level is, talk to the people around you. Your teacher, or perhaps friends and colleagues who have previously taken the exams will be able to use their expertise to help make this important decision.
Teachers will also be able to help you prepare for the exam every lesson, by giving you tips and tricks to prepare that will get you an amazing grade!
Deciding whether or not to take graded exams
Of course, not every student who takes singing lessons actually needs to have their skills graded.
There are so many reasons people decide to start lessons, for example, to improve their vocal range, to get over a fear of public speaking or just because they truly love it!
If you're taking lessons from a singing teacher because of these reasons, and not because you dream of being on a musical theatre or classical opera stage, then you probably don't actually need to take exams of this sort.
These exams are really more focused on those who are learning to sing because they want to follow a more traditional career path in singing, either performing or teaching, or really want to challenge themselves.
Even if you dream of a singing career, there are other, less traditional ways to do it where you probably don't need a Grade 8 certificate. Wedding singers, club singers, buskers, voice-over artists...
These are just a few of the careers you can try out, without having to take a graded test.
Of course, lessons with a professional teacher would still be a great idea for anyone who wants to improve their technical skills. You can work on aspects of your voice like pitch, tone, breathing control and so much more.
So good luck to all those who are preparing to take their next singing exam!