10 ways to ensure a successful exam

Originally posted on CBC Music by Andrea Ratuski on Jun 17, 2013

Chris Foley is a senior examiner and teacher at the Conservatory and an avid blogger on playing piano, so he has a pretty good idea of what goes into a successful exam. Here are his dos and don’ts, in his own words.




DO choose repertoire that you love.

Let's face it: if you're going to be spending months learning and perfecting a piece, it should be quality rep that has some kind of resonance for you. Taking the time to learn a wide variety of rep every year is a big help. The 2008 piano syllabus (the latest edition) also has suggestions at each grade for popular repertoire, teacher's choice and substitutions. Taking advantage of these can help you to find works that inspire you to a new level of intensity


DO memorize your music.

For most disciplines, there are marks to be earned for performing repertoire from memory. For example, in grades 1–7 piano exams, you get two extra marks just for playing your pieces from memory. In other words, even if you choke in your Sonatina, play it from memory and you still get the extra two marks. On the other hand, in the higher grades you can often get burned with mandatory mark deductions if you use the score.


DON’T neglect your technical requirements.

Just as most martial arts consist of a mix of punches, kicks and throws, music consists largely of scales, chords and arpeggios. Practising your grade's technical requirements can help you to not only get a better mark, but gain a better understanding of the building blocks of the pieces you play. Not to mention the pride of being a technical master of your instrument.


DO work on your ear tests and sight reading.

Royal Conservatory exams are all about building the complete musician. Working on your ear tests can help you develop that all-important faculty of discerning musical detail. Being a confident sight reader can help you drastically minimize the amount of time needed to learn a piece and experience a lifetime of discovering new and interesting music. And did I mention that these are worth as much as 20 per cent of the final mark?


DON’T play too fast.

Getting high marks on rep isn't just about speed. It's about notes, rhythms, steady pulse, beauty of tone and knowledge of musical style. If you've spent time learning about articulations in baroque dance forms, balance in sonatinas, and rubato in Chopin, chances are much greater you'll be able to get your marks into the stratosphere for each piece.


DON’T leave practising to the last minute.

I'm no fan of last-minute preparation. The earlier you learn your notes and get your program off the ground, the earlier your teacher will be able to work on artistry and fine-tuning. Instead of yelling, "Learn the bloody notes!," your teacher will be advising, "A little more aquamarine at bar 25, please."


DO run through your program in advance.

Each exam follows a specific order of events. For example, most piano exams are either technique/studies/repertoire/ear/sight or repertoire/studies/technique/ear/sight. Find which order works for you and do practice runs with your teacher. Once you get comfortable with the flow in practice exams, the real thing will be like just another dry run, with far less panic.


DON’T arrive late.

Come on, people. If you show up late, you're holding up not only the examiner, but the rest of the day's exams as well. Worse yet, you might even lose your exam time. A best practice is to allow plenty of time to check in, use the restroom and compose yourself for the main event.


DON’T wear cut-off jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt.

What you wear won't affect your final mark, but it sends a clear impression to the examiner about your commitment and attitude. It's better to wear something professional. You'll feel like a winner and show the examiner that you mean business.


DO take your time during the exam.

Examiners have busy days. I will often hear more than 25 people daily, and one of my job skills is staying on time through the morning and afternoon. That being said, don't let the examiner rush you. If you need a few extra seconds to find the dominant seventh of B major or to take a breath before you start your Bach invention, take that time. Your composure and focus are more important than anything else once you're in the room.

Best of luck to everyone playing, accompanying, and organizing Royal Conservatory exams this June!

Dr. Chris Foley is a pianist, teacher, vocal coach, and blogger. Chris is a Senior Examiner for RCM Examinations and a member of the Studio Company at Tapestry New Opera, where he’s involved in the creation, rehearsal, and performance process of many new works for the opera stage. Over the last few years, Chris has also adjudicated numerous festivals. Full Bio

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