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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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).