Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Five: Practice and things to focus on 8-12 weeks out from the exam

Today’s post is the next in the series I’ve been writing on preparing for an exam on the classical guitar. If you missed the first four 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

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

The intention of this post is not to give you an absolutely prescriptive outline of precisely what you should be doing in the 8-12 week period before your exam as we all have our different strengths and weaknesses (and so things that we need to focus on over other things) and the requirements for different syllabi and different grades within those syllabi. The intention of this post is to give you a bit of a guideline as to how to you may consider going about your practice in this phase.

OK, so about two or three months out from your exam date or proposed exam session if you don’t have a precise date yet, you probably want to have your pieces picked out by now. If not, you’d better get cracking! Hopefully you’ve got a nice selection of pieces (well, at least two) from each of the required lists, so if you’ve not decided yet about three months out is probably the latest you’d want to leave it to get choosing your favourites from each of the lists.

How often: if you’re practicing regularly and consistently at this stage you need to start doing this now. A good aim is for some good quality practice on at least 5 days out of 7, with 1 day of complete rest away from the guitar.

How long for: well, this really all depends on your grade level and the time you have available in your day too. The bare minimum that you may want to be looking at is around 30 minutes for the lower grades and 45-60 minutes for the higher grades. Of course, I’m talking about purely good quality, focussed practice – fluffing around not included! Hah hah! If you can spend longer then that’s absolutely fantastic, just make sure it’s (yes, I’m beginning to sound a lot like a parrot) focussed and useful practice and make sufficient time for brain breaks and to move around and get the blood moving.

Technical work:  you should definitely be doing some kind of technical work on each day you’re practicing. You don’t have to go through everything, every scale, every possible fingering, every exercise each and every time, but at this stage you should be starting to incorporate all the required exercises and so on across the whole week so everything is getting a look in on a regular basis. You’ll then start to understand which exercises perhaps require more attention than others.

Repertoire: again, you don’t have to play each and every single piece all the way through every single time you practice – that’s a sure fire way to get tired of all of your pieces very quickly and probably also not really address the knots that need unpicking in a piece! I’d recommend, at this stage, perhaps looking at two pieces in depth in a week, with perhaps just keeping in touch with your other pieces with quick play throughs (and noting where the challenging spots are still). When I say looking at pieces in depth I really mean really getting down to the heart of those tricky spots straight away, addressing those before slotting them back into context and playing a phrase, section or the whole piece in its entirety.

Sight-reading: this is something that you start doing on a regular basis at this stage too. If you can start looking at some sight reading, just for 5 or 10 minutes, 3 or 4 times per week that will stand you in good stead. Of course, if you can manage this more frequently then that’s fantastic!

Aural: this aspect doesn’t need to be as difficult to practice on your own as you may suspect. There are plenty of audio and audio and book packages on the market to help you build up, practice and test your aural skills – listening, singing back, chord and interval identification and so on. Again if you can start to fit this in for around 5 or 10 minutes, 2 or 3 times per week that will stand you in good stead.

General knowledge: last but not least, don’t forget this important aspect! Whilst you’re away from the guitar or on your rest days you can be genning up on the titles of pieces, their composers, any unknown words, directions or symbols in the music, the style, musical forms.

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.