If you're reading this, it probably means not only that you're preparing to take one of the AMEB, ABRSM or Trinity singing exams, but also that you want to understand how to achieve the best grades on your certificate.
After all, what's the point in taking any type of exam if we don't put our absolute best foot forward? If you've been doing singing courses for a while, you could probably get good enough marks.
But is earning marks that are just 'good enough' really be worth the time and study a candidate puts in? Isn't it worth it to go that extra mile and merit the highest grade possible?
No matter your singing level, earning high marks in singing exams is a type of success that you can carry with you, giving you confidence and even spurring you onto bigger and better as you progress with your music.
So let's have a look at how you can give a distinction-worthy voice performance!
Why does earning a distinction grade matter?
During courses, you may hear a teacher note to a student not to focus on the grade, and only worry about giving a performance that accurately shows their music skills.
While this can help the student to stress a little less about a particular song or part of theory before a test, it can also lower their own expectations of themselves.
A quote that truly embodies why we should desire excellence, and which is often quoted by people to inspire those around them, comes from Sir Phillip Stanhope, a British politician from the 18th century.
The following phrase was written by Stanhope in his letters to his son, to encourage him to give his best in any situation:
Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well – Phillip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
So if we care about something enough that we decide it's worth doing (like say...a singing exam), then why not do it to the best of our abilities?
Personal pride is not the only reason to aim for a high grade in your AMEB music exam.
For students looking to study music at university who didn't quite achieve the marks needed, a high-level AMEB certificate with a distinction could help you gain entry into courses.
There are also music scholarships at a range of universities and schools in Australia and some of these include grades as part of the application criteria.
What's involved in the singing exam, and what grade do I need to get a distinction?
If you're in Australia, you're probably going to be taking an AMEB exam, rather than the ABRSM or Trinity style test, which are more popular in the UK.
There are exams for a range of skills, from piano to guitar and of course voice.
The grades run from preliminary to grade 8, as well as a more advanced certificate or diploma. Most of the exams are run in the same way but change based on the length of the performance.
They can be done in person with an examiner and piano accompaniment, and some AMEB state organisations also offer performance by video exams, which are submitted online.
Here is a list of the musical and theory skills that are generally tested through the grades:
- Performance of a number of selected pieces from the syllabus, with a piano accompaniment.
- A technical voice exercise without being accompanied by the piano
- Testing student's technical skills like sight-reading and time signatures
- An aural section which is given by an examiner
- General knowledge questions that test understanding of musical theory and history.
- Some levels also include a written test
Grading varies depending on the level and type of exam, but in general, there are 5 possible results the examiner will award a candidate:
- Pass with High Distinction (A+)
- Pass with Honours (A)
- Pass with Credit (B or B+)
- Pass (Satisfactory) (C or C+)
- Not Satisfactory (D)
If a candidate is undertaking a diploma exam, your certificate will show an award with distinction, award or no-award, rather than a letter grade.
You can look online at the AMEB website or contact them for a more detailed review of the marking system or download a syllabus.
How to get started on the road to a distinction
Courses with a singing teacher
There's one extremely important step here, which is to contact a vocal coach or find a course that will help you perfect the musical skills you need, lesson by lesson.
While it is possible to study the AMEB syllabus for music and written exams on your own and practice in your own time, having a teacher can make the process that much easier.
Music teachers are generally used to preparing candidates for these types of tests, so they know the issues that they're most likely to come up against and have the skills to get their student through any issue.
Taking part in courses, whether in person or online, will also ensure that you remain consistent with your music practice, and are continuously building upon your vocal skills with each lesson.
Know what the examiner is looking for
Teachers will give their candidates lots of tips every lesson to pass the exam, but the most important one is this: show the examiner what they want to see.
Like the ABRSM and Trinity exams, AMEB examiners measure student performance against a set of criteria that differ for each musical instrument.
For example, a piano student needs to have the correct posture, control their hands well when moving from note to note, articulate fluently and more.
This means you know exactly what is expected of you, and simply have to work to make sure your music performance matches (and even exceeds) the AMEB examiner's expectations.
Vocal coaches generally know the marking criteria inside and out which is why they are such a valuable resource in the journey. In each lesson, you can focus on a different aspect of your music skills, like aural abilities, accurate performance of pieces etc.
Otherwise, you will need to buy a written syllabus from AMEB, where you can find the marking written criteria and objectives for your level.
Practice makes perfect
Of course, a student will never be able to achieve an excellent grade unless they practice consistently and with purpose.
It brings to mind another theory from a man who was pretty successful in his day; Aristotle.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
We don't just wake up with skills. A person might be pre-disposed to something, but to truly excel, we need to be determined to practice and improve a little bit every day.
You'll need to have highly-developed sight-reading skills, meaning you can read a piece of music or song, and accurately produce the time, tone, notes and rhythm, as well as articulate well and dynamically.
Another key criterion is aural skills. Performing well in this section of the test means you're more likely to read a 'plus' grade, and teachers usually recommend practising this as soon as you can.
You might be asked to reproduce a specific note pattern, memorise melodic phrases, identify song pitches and more.
You will also need to choose the pieces you want to perform early, so you have plenty of time to study, practice and perfect your performance.
You're free to choose any pieces from the different lists on the syllabus, which generally span baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary genres. When choosing, think about which pieces showcase your singing ability.
This doesn't mean, however, that you should choose the pieces you think are the most difficult. Accuracy and control are important criteria for the examiner, so choose pieces where you can master the technical aspects like tone and time.
Another good tip is to memorise all of your performance pieces, as it generally sets a good tone with the examiner and shows a high level of skill.
Finally, don't forget to brush up on your general knowledge related to the pieces you perform. You should know information about the writer, style, period and more
Know which exam and level is best for you
As we said above, there are 8 levels of singing exams AMEB can award, plus the advanced diplomas. The key to getting a distinction is ensuring your taking an exam that matches your abilities.
When making this decision, think about how long you have to prepare, whether you're going to do a vocal course and why you're taking the exam in the first place.
This is especially important for candidates who are in between different levels. If you have plenty of time and resources to prepare, challenge yourself and go for that higher level! Remember, you can even skip singing exam levels.
AMEB also offers a variety of singing exams, like Singing for Leisure, Comprehensive and even Rockschool. Make sure you've got the correct syllabus for the exam you want to do, so you're preparing the correct pieces.
Imagine arriving at your Rockschool exam and performing a song that wasn't on the syllabus, because you had the wrong one!
We can tell you this for free, achieving a distinction grade takes time, practice and a whole lot of determination from the candidate. Of course, these rules go for any type of singing exam; AMEB, ABRSM, Trinity, Rockschool etc.
If you have this, plus a little help from your singing teacher, then you're sure to merit the very best marks on your final certificate!