It is not uncommon in this day and age to hear success stories of highly talented singers and performing artists rising to fame through their involvement with talent shows and using their subsequent record deals to put themselves in the mainstream of popular music.
You might remember the powerful singer Bonnie Anderson who managed to win Australia's Got Talent at just 12 years old.
It is also possible to find a path to stardom through today's interconnected social media. Videos and clips of people singing have the potential to go 'viral' if they are given enough exposure from sharing and likes, which can really help to boost an artist's following or listeners.
Many popular artists have found fame this way, with their songs introduced on social media and then moving to the radio charts.
It is obviously a hugely positive thing that we can now find fresh new singing talent around every corner of the world.
However, we can't forget that the majority of talented singers aren't born with a perfect vocal range and iron lungs. There are many professional singers, from classical performers at the theatre to lead singers in a rock group, who work and train hard to perform at the top of their ability.
These performers will work hard in their free time studying musical theory and spending a lot of time practicing their style of singing with professional vocal coaches.
Performing artists and singers such as these would normally establish themselves in the industry by first completing a number of graded vocal exams, run by AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board), rather than through social media or a talent show.
These music exams are split between three singing levels; From your preliminary exam which starts singing level one, to finish with a diploma at the end of singing level three. Each stage of this process will help measure and develop your skill and knowledge of musical techniques.
If you dream of becoming a successful vocalist yourself or wish to nurture your child's talent, let this article explain the need to complete professional training alongside the graded singing levels to give you the best chance of future success.
Let's take a closer look at the different singing levels and grade exams in Australia.
How AMEB graded exams came to be
Before AMEB was founded, the progression of musical students and talent was overseen by directors of music academies in Australia from Adelaide, Melbourne, Tasmania, Queensland, and Western Australia who would meet at an annual conference, they were known as the central board.
The New South Wales State Conservatorium of music then joined the board and hosted the conference for the first time in 1918, and it was at this conference in Sydney that the name AMEB was coined and the group formally created.
The board of directors, which included Professor William Adolphus Laver from Melbourne, and Mr Henri Verbrugghen for Sydney, wished to provide standardised testing across Australia to allow talented musicians to set themselves apart.
AMEB began music theory examinations in 1919, with harmony and counterpoint being tested alongside other musical techniques. Then in 1921, AMEB published a nationwide examination handbook for music students all over Australia.
As musical examinations in Australia had previously been managed by the UK's counterpart ABRSM, AMEB's model of exams was based loosely upon the UK's system. This meant that to begin with there were 8 grades of musical exams one could take in Australia, including the preliminary exam.
Originally grade 1 was the highest level you could achieve, with 8 being the lowest. This was reversed in 1949 due to the connection with ABRSM so that the exams ran from preliminary to grade 8.
After a while the board of directors saw fit to introduce the Licentiate Diploma, which acknowledged the outstanding musical achievements of musicians and performers as judged by certified music examiners.
Many rules and regulations changed over the course of the century to protect the integrity of the musical exam system and ensure that national standards were upheld.
Further changes and additions also happened to the exam system, with the aural examination being introduced, and updates consistently occurring to the exam practices and national music syllabus.
Despite all the changes, AMEB has landed on a system of 9 graded examinations which remain in use today, from preliminary to grade 8, with the addition of the associate and licentiate diplomas which can be achieved only by musicians with incredible competency in their instrument or voice.
For singing and vocal performance, these graded exams are split into three singing levels, level 1 runs from preliminary to grade 4, level 2 runs from grade 5 to grade 8, and level three comprises of the licentiate or associate diploma.
You might even feel comfortable enough in your performance that you could skip a grade.
A brief glimpse at AMEB exams
Here we will take a quick look at the exams offered by AMEB and what might be expected of you throughout them. To start off with the basics, there are eight grades of music exam in Australia, from preliminary to grade 8.
If you or your children are learning to sing through lessons at school or private classes with a vocal coach, you are most likely to complete your grade exams with AMEB, however there are other options.
The Australian Guild of Music is one other testing board that you could take your singing and theory exams through.
The Australian Guild of Music will allow you to continue on to tertiary studies, such as a bachelor degree if you wish to take your vocal talent to a professional level. However, you can still very much expect to gain a place of tertiary study at a music college of your choice should you achieve grade 8 or a diploma of singing beforehand.
The exams of each of the testing boards are very similar in general to allow for exams and results to be as standardized as possible across Australia.
Here is a small list of the requirements for music students, relevant through all grades:
- Complete a performance of 3 approved songs from your repertoire, accompanied by the piano
- Sing part of a song, from classical to contemporary, without the piano accompanying you
- Perform several pieces of vocal performance from sight-reading
- Undertake an aural exam managed by the examiner
- Perform a number of additional tests looking at your grasp of rhythm, time signatures, and keys
The additional tests your examiner may present you with an aim to ascertain your knowledge of musical techniques and theory. You might be asked to clap in time to a tune and tell the time signature, at higher levels of grading you might be required to transpose a piece of music.
It is possible to achieve anything from a pass, equivalent to a C, to a pass with high distinction, equivalent to an A+, at each grade exam you take.
A more in-depth review of graded singing exams
As you can imagine, the exam grades progress in order of skill and knowledge required to pass each level. Therefore beginner or novice vocalists could start anywhere within the first singing level, from preliminary grade to grade 4.
Once you have a firmer grasp of musical practice and theory in regards to singing, you may look at progressing to singing level two, from grade 5 to grade 8.
The exams get increasingly difficult as you progress through the ranks until grade 8 where you will need a fully comprehensive knowledge of musical theory and singing to succeed.
The next section will show the exam grades split into their singing levels, giving you a better picture of what skills will be expected at each level.
Singing level 1 - Grade preliminary-4
As previously mentioned, this singing level is meant for beginner vocalists who have just started their formal training towards becoming a classical, opera, choir, contemporary, or even jazz singer.
The grades remain fairly similar within this singing level, with just basic knowledge required in the aural exam and additional tests. However, the difficulty of the songs available for you to perform will increase between each grade, meaning you will have to add ever more complex tunes to your repertoire.
It would still be unwise to jump from preliminary to grade 4 immediately, as the increased difficulty of the sight-reading and additional tests will be a challenge.
The most noticeable change throughout the first singing level is the requirement of musical theory knowledge. At preliminary grade, the candidate will only be quizzed on the very basic such as names of different notes and different time signatures.
Once grade 4 is reached, candidates will be expected to demonstrate a more comprehensive knowledge of music theory, including major and minor keys in relation to the wheel of harmonies, more complex time signatures, and other technical aspects of sheet music and notation.
Singing level 2 - Grade 5-8
Achieving your grade 5 in singing is an important milestone for anyone who wishes to make a successful career out of their passion for music; Especially important if you wish to go a prestigious music college such as the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music or the Australian Institute of Music.
Passing grade 5 singing is necessary to continue on to the next grades of exam in your path. It is set as the first base achievement of entering the world of more advanced musicians and performers.
In the exam itself, you will notice the practical exams and performances will require the most difficult songs from your repertoire that you have learnt to date. However, the layout of the practical exam will be familiar to your previous grades.
The music theory exam at this grade is very in-depth and requires a lot of knowledge in the area, so it is wise to invest plenty of work and time into your study of theory before this exam.
Continuing with the trend, the songs you will need to perform for grades 6-8 get progressively harder, but you are offered more approved songs to choose from. The sight-reading you encounter will be very challenging, and the additional tests will require a comprehensive knowledge of musical nuances.
As expected, the music theory exams will increase in difficulty, ensuring that you are well studied on the methods behind performance as well as capable of singing a vast repertoire of songs.
You may be asked to transpose a piece of music whilst you sight-read it, or improvise an in-key melody that your examiner began.
At each grade music, students will be required to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge and skill in performance before they can move on to the higher grades of examination. More information can be found by researching the AMEB syllabus for each grade.
Just like learning and studying anything new, the progression of the singing levels and grades will help you master different abilities before moving on to more advanced techniques.
If you're passionate about singing then you should aim to get started on your grades as soon as possible, check out these tips to help you prepare.