Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Three: Working on the Technical Elements

Today’s post is the third in ten part series on preparing for an exam on the classical guitar. If you missed parts one and two, 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

Now the technical elements of your exam should most definitely not be overlooked nor underestimated. The technical exercises, including the various scales and arpeggios, relevant to your particular grade, should not be underestimated both in terms of the weighting placed on them in the exam and also, importantly, how vital this kind of work is to your development as a guitarist overall.

So one cannot really get by just giving these elements a rudimentary look over. Firstly, talking purely from a “passing the exam” point of view, the security and confidence required to execute your technical work to the satisfaction of the examiner will most definitely require more than a quick look over or a secondary consideration to your repertoire pieces. If you flunk the technical work part of the exam, let me tell things won’t look too good for your overall score!

By looking into the technical elements a few weeks before your exam, or just by looking at them once or twice a week, it’s unlikely you’ll develop the required level of execution to satisfy the examiner. Technical exercises require time and consistent, highly regular practice. This also requires patience and perseverance on behalf of yourself as the student, as you’ll need to maintain your consistent practice over a long period of time – perhaps the space of 12 months or even 24 months from one grade to the next.

Gosh, that makes it sound so tedious doesn’t it?! Don’t forget you’re a musician and you’re doing this to help your development as a musician – so play your technical exercises in a musical way! Do you find them boring? Well, you’re the one playing them, so there’s only one way to make them less boring – play them less boringly!! Have fun with them!! The examiner will thank you too, I’m sure, for making them sound like you enjoy them in the exam room too. Remember, they’ve heard countless examples of what you’re about to play them – give them something beautiful!

Get to work ASAP

Once you know you want to sit for a particular grade exam (or even before if you have half an inkling that you might), I highly recommend you get stuck into the technical work as one of the first things you do. And work on your technical elements daily – you don’t have to drive yourself loopy with it; a little and often is what will see you progress. Depending on what grade you’re aiming to take will dictate how much time you need to spend just in terms of volume of material to get through, but 10-15mins every day is so much better time spent than 30 mins twice a week. You don’t have to do everything on the list every day either, you could write yourself a little schedule of technical work practice to ensure that you’re covering everything off in the space of a week. It’s possible then to see more clearly what may need more work more frequently, and what could be scheduled in less frequently as you progress through the weeks.

It may also be the case, depending on whether the exam you intend on taking is following on from the previous grade exam, or you’ve not taken an exam for a while, or this is your first grade exam (whatever level you’re entering in at), that you need to build up to the technical requirements of the grade you’d like to sit for by preparing with some exercises from lower grades or some supplementary material.

Secondly, and now talking from a general technical development point of view (which applies equally to those not sitting for exams), I can’t stress enough the importance of technical work. Yes, you may find yourself getting by and playing pieces of reasonable difficulty. There will come a time, however, when you will hit a brick wall in your playing and your progress will become limited.

One of the beauties of sitting for a grade exam on the classical guitar is that it forces you somewhat to address the technical work head on – there ain’t no getting around it!

The consistent and concerted study of technique on the guitar, I promise you, will make your guitar-playing life a whole lot easier. The study of scales, arpeggios, and left and right hand exercises of varying types will facilitate ease of playing on the guitar so the execution becomes less of a consideration than the music itself. Technical work is not an end in itself, it’s all there to help you make the most beautiful sound and create the most expressive music possible with the least effort (particularly when the pressure may be on in a situation such as an exam).



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!