Some people might think that singing exams cannot be very hard. After all, it is just singing, a capability most people have, to whatever degree.
As the recipient of hours of singing lessons and music classes who hopes to graduate from any of the UK’s illustrious music colleges or conservatoires, you know the public far underestimates the teaching that goes into developing a professional singer.
Does it matter how many know the rigours of singing exams and the amount of work that goes into preparing for them?
What matters is that you know about these graded exams, that you prepare yourself for each of them and achieve excellence in the vocal arts.
That’s why your Superprof broaches the subject of singing exams.
How Many Singing Grades Are There in the UK?
The short and quick answer to this question is eight.
The longer, more convoluted answer involves a look at the three main exam boards, how they came to establish the standard for exams and why these exams were established in the first place.
ABRSM stands for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It was founded in 1889 as a way to run local exams in Royal music schools. At its founding, ABRSM only supported two grades, roughly equivalent to today’s grades 6 and 7.
Today, ABRSM conducts graded music exams in over 90 countries. Students who complete Grade 8 can enrol at any of our country’s four Royal music schools.
Where ABRSM is a registered charity with no affiliation to a single body of higher education, Trinity College of Music was founded (in 1872) for a specific purpose: teaching classical church music.
Initially, only males who were Church of England members could attend; today, this school's student body is far more diverse.
Besides staffing an exam board for prospective university singing candidates, they offer Junior Trinity classes and exams for precocious young singers.
Trinity was the first college of music to help children as young as five to learn singing. Today, other conservatoires have implemented similar programmes.
London College of Music was also founded around the last decade of the 19th Century. This school started as an independent conservatoire before joining up with the collection of schools now known as the University of West London.
These exam boards' diverse backgrounds give no hint as to why the exams are so similar in structure, scoring or number but the sameness of them makes it easier for singing students to plan their ascension through the grades.
For grades one through four, the levels of difficulty might be negligible to diligent students while Grade 5 is pivotal.
Grades 6-8 revert to incremental challenges, leading students to see the overall structure as three realms of competence rather than eight distinct examinations.
Now learn more about singing grades in the UK
Can You Skip a Singing Grade?
Each singing grade is a carefully crafted step designed to advance students’ knowledge of music and to grow their repertoire.
Still, with eight steps to prove your musical knowledge and singing ability, it is understandable that not everyone would relish the prospect of multiple ordeals.
Remember: these grades are not like textbook learning and examination. If you skip a whole chapter in your math book, for instance, you will have trouble grasping math concepts further on.
Not so with skipping a singing grade exam. Each level is cumulative rather than task-oriented, meaning that no grade has exclusive requirements… save for grade 5, wherein you will test your knowledge of musical theory along with the standard elements.
The grade 5 exam serves as a prerequisite for the higher grades.
If you intend to progress through grade 8 and higher education as a vocal artist, you must take the grade 5 exam.
With that made clear, know that your music teacher or voice coach may recommend that you skip an exam or two, particularly in the lower grades or for those aforementioned precocious singers.
Let’s say that your last graded exam, Grade 2, was only five months ago and, since then, your progress has been so remarkable that you are ready for Grade 4 material. Your teacher would probably recommend you to take that exam rather than the lower grade one.
In all cases, when toying with the idea of skipping a singing grade, you should talk with your teachers and caregivers – both for support and to determine if you are ready for the more intensive challenge.
How Can You Get a Distinction on Your Singing Exam?
Distinction is the highest recognition you can earn on a graded exam; it ranks above Merit, which is awarded when a singing student has performed beyond the marks range for Pass.
If you are an aspiring singer with serious intent, namely earning your Bachelor’s or Masters’ from London College of Music, Trinity Music College or any conservatoire, ‘distinction’ is where you should set your sights.
Besides, after attending all of those music classes and singing lessons, surely you aim to do as well as possible on your graded exam, right?
There’s no sense doing anything in half-measures.
To get a distinction, you need to earn the highest marks possible in five areas of your singing: tone, time, pitch, shape, and performance.
Depending on what music grade you’re testing at and which exam board you test through – LCM, Trinity or ABRSM, you will sing 3 pieces from approved song lists for varying lengths of time. You will also sing a traditional song unaccompanied.
If your performance is spot-on, you don’t rush the song and keep the tone; if your rendering ‘shapes’ the piece well, you can count on high marks. How high?
You may earn a total of 150 points for the entire exam, with 100 indicating you’ve passed that level. Distinction is accorded to those singers who score above 130 points on those five aspects and also do well on their supplemental tests.
Things get tricky with the supplemental tests.
All of the exam boards will test you on sight-reading and aural capability but, depending on which exam board you test through, your syllabus might specify arpeggios, Vaccai exercises or ‘viva voce’, improvisation or music theory.
See? Not only is it easy to get a distinction on your graded exam but you can earn a distinction on every single exam you take!
In support of your diligence, we’ve gathered everything you need to know about earning distinction at every level of your singing exams in one article.
Tips to Help You Prepare for Your Singing Exam
The best possible advice your music teacher, voice coach or singing tutor could give you is: know what the examiners want.
Looking over your prospective grade’s syllabus is the correct first step meeting examiners’ expectations but you also need to know what they consider a passing performance.
- Are you mostly singing on key or it there a bit of a falter?
- Do you know all of your pieces’ lyrics or do you tend to flub?
- Is your confidence audible in your tone and pitch or does your voice waver a little?
- Is it visible in your posture and expression?
- Are you true to the music’s tempo or singing too fast/slow?
Practising new songs while keeping an eye on these criteria will take you a long way to a seamless performance come exam time.
You should also have a strategy in place for your practice sessions: what does this exam cover? Which components are you stronger in and which need more work?
For instance, if you excel in detecting notes and subtlety in music, your aural skills are probably already quite good; you just need to keep them sharp. On the other hand, if sight-reading is your nemesis, you should spend more time reading sheet music and studying music theory.
What about practising singing and doing vocal exercises?
Of course, that is a good idea but, in the weeks ahead of your exam, you should only work your vocals for about 30 minutes per day to avoid stressing your vocal cords or hurting your throat.
A substantial part of your preparation has little to do with singing and much to do with being mentally and physically ready.
Visualise Your Success
You walk into the testing room. Your posture is flawless and you wear a warm smile. Everything from the new clothes you're wearing to your carefully styled hair exudes confidence.
You greet your examiners and give them copies of your songbook when asked. You take your place near the piano and, focusing your vision just above your accompanist’s head, you signal that you’re ready.
Making Your Vision Real
You can pull this off by making a few simple preparations.
Lay your clothes and shoes out the night before, carefully inspecting them for any defect.
Plan everything from how you will wear your hair to how you will get to the testing centre – in fact, plan a few routes, just in case.
Plan your meals, nutritious and sustaining, and build enough time into your test-day schedule to relax and eat well.
The less stress you’re under before you confront your examiners, the more confident you’ll be and the better you will do.
And these are just a few of the things we recommend for getting ready for your singing exam.