Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Four: Aural and General Knowledge Elements

Today’s post is the fourth in ten part series on preparing for an exam on the classical guitar. If you missed the first three parts, or want to recap, here are the links:

Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part One – Deciding When The Time Is Right

Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Two – Picking Your Repertoire

* Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Three – Working On The Technical Elements

Regardless of the syllabus you’re studying, be it AMEB, ABRSM, Trinity or something else, chances are that an important element of the examination will feature a bit of a test on your general musicianship. It’s all very well and good being able to demonstrate your playing, and your technical and musical abilities as a guitarist, through your three or four repertoire pieces, but you also need to demonstrate your broader progress as a musician. This is why we find a requirement to show the development in your general musical education through selected aural tests and general knowledge questions in the examination.

So what are the aural tests? Well, it depends on what grade you’re looking at taking as to what the exact type of tests will be and I’m not going to go into each and every one of them here (you should check in the syllabus guide for your grade as to what may or will be asked of you). You should, however, expect to have some kind of tests that check out your “ear”.

In your weekly lessons in the lead up to your exam, it would be ideal to fit in 10 minutes or so per lesson of the following kinds of activities with your teacher:

* Clapping in time with a piece of music

* Recognising the time signature of a piece of music played to you

* Singing back a musical phrase played to you, either in isolation or singing back a given line (for example, the lower part) from a two or three-part melody

* Listening to a piece of music and making a brief commentary on it – defining characteristics, style, dynamics, rhythm, tempo etc

* Recognising changes in pitch between two notes

* Clapping rhythms from score

* Sight-singing notes from score

* Recognising different chords – quality (i.e. major, minor, diminished etc) rather than key

* Recognising different intervals

* Signing different intervals from a given key note

* Recognising cadences

In terms of general knowledge, you should be able to talk confidently and in detail about the pieces you are playing – who is the composer? What is their background? How does this piece fit in with their body of work? What is its style? When was it written? How does it fit in with pieces from the same era? What markings and words are on the score and do you know what each of them means? Key or tonality? Modulations? Voicings?

How soon should you start preparing these activities and exercises?

Well, I think my advice here is relatively straightforward – the sooner the better. In fact, scratch that, these kinds of activities should be in your weekly lessons, in some form or other, as a matter of course, rather than coming to them just because you have to do it in an exam. Your teacher, during the course of a normal lesson, may scatter these activities around as needed or as particular technical requirements arise and so on. You may decide to focus specifically on aural and general knowledge tests for a dedicated portion of the lesson – and under exam conditions – in the two or three months in the lead up to the exam to get the feel for responding to these types of questions in an exam-type situation.

Once you get over the initial shock of having to sing (some are rather shy about opening up their wonderful voices) or clap or think about things away from the guitar you might even find you enjoy it! It’s for your musical development after all, and I promise you, it will only help with your playing too!

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Exam Preparation Part Two – Picking Your Repertoire

Today’s post is part two in a ten part series on 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.

In case you missed it this was part one: Preparing for a classical guitar exam: Part one – deciding when the time is right.

So today we’re looking at how you might go about picking your repertoire (a fancy way of saying your pieces or your tunes) to play in the exam.

Well, the first good place to start is the syllabus for the grade exam you’re aiming to take. Whatever syllabus you’re following – AMEB, ABRSM, Trinity (my personal favourite syllabi) or one of the others out there – there will be a set list of pieces to pick from across a range of different styles and time periods.

These pieces are usually grouped together into three or four different lists reflecting, for example, the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Classical and Romantic periods, and Second Half of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century music. You’ll be required to pick one from each of the lists and this to (a) get you used to playing music from different eras and styles, and appreciating those different types of music and (b) demonstrating to the examiner that you’re able to play those different styles.

My advice, is that when picking your pieces don’t just pick it because it’s on the list, pick something because you like the sound of it, or you feel inspired by it, or because it’s something you’ve always wanted to play, or perhaps even because it’s something you’ve never ever heard before and it interests you.

And don’t just pick three or four pieces (whatever number is required) straight off the bat and go with those. Explore the lists a little, try a few different pieces out – there may be some which are more “you”, that you may personally click with more than others and how do you know that unless you give them a go?

Extra Pieces

In some syllabi in certain grade levels you’ll also be asked to present one or two extra pieces of your own free choice. These could be pieces that are on the provided list, but often don’t have to be. What they do have to be though is of at least the same standard as that particular grade level would require. Your teacher can certainly help you with picking something appropriate if this is the case for an exam you might be taking or thinking of taking.

The “extra list” pieces are a great idea by the syllabus coordinators, I think, as they go some way to ensuring that you’re not just playing pieces on the list, or playing just for the exam.

It’s my personal opinion that just learning pieces off of a syllabus list because that’s what’s written there, and going from one exam to the next to the next can be very limiting in terms of your musical and technical development. Not to mention that it can become very boring for all the developing, up and coming guitarists to be playing all the same things, in the same way because that’s what gets you through an exam!

For me, the idea of the examination is to take a snapshot in time of where you’re at musically and technically on the guitar, and the pieces you present in the examination should be a reflection of that.

My Top Tips In A Nutshell

  1. Explore the repertoire lists a little before plumping on your final selections for the exam.
  2. Don’t just play pieces from the syllabus – learn, practice and play other stuff outside of the set lists – the learnings you take from this will transfer over to your exam pieces making them that extra bit special.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try something new, different, or that you’ve not heard before.
  4. Enjoy the pieces you eventually select. You’ll have fun playing them, and the examiner will definitely hear that come across.