Preparing for a classical guitar exam: Part one – deciding when the time is right

I’ve decided to put together a series of posts (a ten-parter on less!) based on some of the key stages in preparing for a grade exam on the classical guitar. It is intended to be a general approach to preparation rather than a specific guide to a particular syllabus (AMEB, ABRSM, Trinity and so on) or any specific grade level.

This, of course, is not the way to go about things; it is just my advice based on approaches that have worked for me personally across maaaaaany years and nearly as many exams across not just guitar, but other instruments too. And of course I’m now passing this advice on to my students, helping them to successfully navigate studies and exams that can be exciting, nerve-wracking and exhilarating (and a number of other emotions) often at the same time.

So in this series we’ll take a look at:

  • Part One: Deciding when the time is right to take a grade exam and a bit of a checklist of things to go through to help you make this decision.
  • Part Two: Picking your repertoire
  • Part Three: Working on the technical elements
  • Part Four: Working on the aural elements and general knowledge
  • Part Five: A schedule of practice and things to focus on 8-12 weeks out from the exam
  • Part Six: A schedule of practice and things to focus on 4-8 weeks out from the exam
  • Part Seven: A schedule of practice and things to focus on in the 4 weeks before your exam
  • Part Eight: Two weeks out from the exam – what to focus on and making final preparations
  • Part Nine: It’s the final countdown! Tips on preparation in the week before your exam
  • Part Ten: Exam day is here! What to do in the lead up to performance time.

Of course, grade exams aren’t necessarily right for everyone, or indeed at all necessary. They can, however:

  • provide a benchmark for your progress
  • provide some insightful and highly experienced feedback on your playing from a third party that you may not otherwise receive
  • give you a great sense of achievement, being able to hang that certificate on the Pool Room wall!

Please feel free to contribute your own comments, suggestions, tips and advice on preparing for exams on this page and as we go along.

So how do you know when the time is right to put the application in the post for your next or even first exam? Well, I would suggest going through a number of checks with yourself to help make the decision.

(1) Do you really want to do it?

I’m not talking about the jittery, nervousness that can sometimes accompany the thought of a performance, that little voice creeping in saying “nope, don’t do it”. I’m talking about the bigger picture in your life – is this something that you want to do? Is this the next accomplishment you’d like to have under your belt? Is this something that you’d like to say you’ve done?  Answering this question should be relatively straightforward – and no fibbing to yourself now! If no, that’s fine. As I said earlier, it’s not for everyone. If yes, good, now its time to ask yourself some other questions….

(2) How much work do I need to put in to do my best in the exam?

If you’re working on the higher grades or diploma level qualifications you may have a reasonable feel yourself as to how much more work you need to put in. It does always help though to have an outsider’s perspective and your teacher will certainly be able to guide you in this, especially if you have a tendency to be over or under-confident in your abilities.

If you’re aiming to take one of the lower or intermediate grade exams your teacher will definitely be able to guide you as to the amount of work you need to put in to be ready come exam time. This will then help you when checking out the exam session timetable and picking a session date that you will feel comfortable with, when you’re really hitting your straps with your playing.

(3) Do I have the time available or can I make the time available for the necessary practice on a more or less daily basis? What length of time each day or week will depend on your current developmental level, how quickly you learn and develop and so on. For those of you in the lower grades (First Grade – Fourth Grade), 30-45 minutes of quality, focussed practice should be sufficient. Moving up into Fifth and Sixth Grades I would recommend around 45-60 minutes of daily practice, and then into Seventh and Eighth Grades I’d recommend around 60-90 minutes of daily practice. For diploma and higher level qualifications – you should know what you need to be putting in by now (but probably at the very least 2 hours of daily, quality practice).

And it doesn’t have to be all in one block. In fact I generally wouldn’t recommend sitting down and practicing for more than one hour straight. Your focus and concentration starts to wane considerably after this period of time, physically you can become stiff and sore and so your practice won’t be as effective and efficient as it needs to be.

Again, I will reiterate the words quality practice here not fluffing around, not just playing through your pieces start to finish, not just playing over mistakes hoping they’ll magically fix themselves up next time round! And daily practice or at least 6 out of 7 days is really crucial. Consistency is key.

(4) Do you know your repertoire pieces and technical studies relatively well?

If you’re considering taking an exam in the next three or four months you should probably have all of your repertoire pieces under your fingers by now, and all technical work and studies coming nicely under control too. If you’re at the “12-16 weeks out from potential exam date” stage and there is still brand new material to learn then you may want to seriously consider looking at the next session dates to take your exam (unless of course you’re a fast learner, have the time to invest in getting something up to exam quality in a short period of time and get to know it upside down and inside out, and thrive on looming deadlines! Hah hah!). I would say this is particularly the case for those considering taking Seventh Grade and higher. At this level the examiners will really start expecting to see and hear some high-level playing with finer technical control, insightful expression and developing musicality beyond what may have been presented in the lower grades. This can only really be brought about through spending time with a piece.

In the next post in this series we’ll take a look at approaches to selecting repertoire for your exam recital.

In the meantime, happy practicing!

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