ABRSM Tips & Suggestions
Prioritize the Pieces. Exam pieces by far have the largest contribution to a students’s score. Always keep in mind that as much as you might want to focus on the other areas, if you have to choose where to concentrate attention, head to the exam pieces.
Understand Your Timeline. Think through your deadline and measure out what needs to be accomplished by when and share this with students and parents.
What if Your Student Is Ready Ahead of the Exam? If your student is already prepared but you have a couple of months left - good job! One of the challenges can be, “What do I do now?” There are a couple options to help spend the time while still adding value to the student’s development.
Continue learning the other exam pieces. There are nine available pieces in each book. Once a student has learned one from all three lists, progress onto the other pieces. When exam time approaches, choose the piece from each list that the student is most successful at.
Begin learning the next exam grade.
Expect It Will Challenging and Painful for Most. This is the most common area for students to underperform. With diligence and a methodical approach, students will be gradually work their discomfort.
Pragmatism Works Best. Finding a step-by-step process that students can then quickly assimilate, practice, and implement into a habit when approaching a new piece will ensure success. Here are few steps.
Clap the rhythm. Are there any repeated patterns? Did you also see intervalic patterns? (identify steps/skips)
Find your starting positions. For piano students, follow these three questions: “What hand? What finger? What note.” Teach them to quickly find the starting position then adjust for flats and sharps (this will be easy for grade 1, and nearly impossible as ascending to higher grades).
In some cases, in the beginning, it might be useful to have them circle accidentals to teach how to scan the piece for them mindfully.
Identify details one-by-one: What is the tempo? What dynamics do you see? Are there any performance markings?
Play 3-5 times, and eventually only 2 when the exam approaches. Once ready, have a “run through” practice. Have the student work through the exercise. After, ask what they missed and guide their identification. Continue playing through until they can do it on their own. As it gets closer to the exam, gradually decrease the number of times they can play it.
Closer to the exam, use a timer to demonstrate how much time 30 seconds is (students are allowed a half-minute to look through and play portions of the piece).
Assign Supplemental Materials. Don’t stick to only the ABRSM book. Some students may need more aggressive guidance. The Royal Conservatory of Music books for sight-reading are more methodical with day-by-day questions and exercises. These can be very useful for students who are struggling. Actual repertoire can be used as well.
SCALES, BROKEN CHORDS, and Arpeggios (SBCA)
Make Sense of Their Connections When Assigning. There are several options for how to assign this portion of the exam. The earlier grades begin with only a few, while the later grades dramatically expand into more than 50 different exercises. Here are some commonly used approaches:
Relative major/minor: If learning C major scale, combine with the A minor scale; take it a step further for advanced students by adding the arpeggios as well for the week.
Sections: Some students and teachers prefer to learn section-by-section: 1) major scales, 2) minor scales, 3) chromatic scales, 4) arpeggios, etc. as they go.
Start Right Away. While aural training can wait a little while, start the scales (and sight reading for that matter) as soon as possible. Don’t hold off.
Flash Cards Work Great. The SBCAs become numerous. A good way for students to both organize their knowledge while also practicing the spontaneity of the exam environment, is to create flash cards for every exercise. One on side write, “C Major Scale” and on the other write, “No Sharps or Flats,” and so on for the remaining exercises. Here are two great ways to make the most out of the finished flash cards:
Create three groups: Unassigned, Learned, and Needs Work. Students should practice through all of the exercises and assign each one to one of those groups. As they continue to progress, the goal is for all of them to be ini the Learned group.
Shuffle the flash cards and then select the top one; play through it as thought it’s the exam.
Three Key Areas. Concentrate on the three following areas of this portion of the exam: correct notes, fingering, and shaping. Students tend to concentrate on the first while neglecting fingering and shaping. Judges DO subtract points for a lack of shaping, however, as long as the scale is accurate, will not subtract points for unorthodox fingering.
Establish Quizzes. A useful technique when a student is preparing is to assign an upcoming quiz day, for example, “Next week you’ll be quizzes on all of the SBCAs. They’ll be randomly selected. You’ll be expected to have correct notes, fingering, and shaping for each one. If you do not pass next week, you’ll continue each week to take the quiz until you pass.”
Is it 2, 3, or 4? The difference between 2 and 4 is often difficult to establish. Here are a couple ways to differentiate them:
If in 2, it will feel like a march. Have the student walk to the beat around the room to see if it feels natural.
If in 4, it will feel elongated compared to 2. It will tend to be slower than compositions written in 2 as well, though not always - use that as a guide.
What Is the Character of This Piece? Try using this formula:
The [insert dynamics, articulation, tempo, key, etc. qualities] create a [insert emotion in the form of an adjective] character in the piece.
Here’s an example: “The loud detached playing combined with a minor key create an angry character in the piece".”