There are two exams – practical and theory (or written). There are also a total of 8 exams, or grades as they are called. Grade 1 is the first level you learn.
For the practical exam you have to learn your scales, 3 pieces/songs, practice sight reading, and finally – oral tests.
Scales – you will be given a set number of scales to learn depending on the grade. The first grade for example would only have around 12 scales to learn. These have to be memorised as the examiner will randomly ask you to play them back without the music. Scales may seem very boring, but they are the foundation of learning music. When you learn the scales, you are not only strengthening your fingers, but you are also learning all the keys and chords.
Pieces – you are required to play 3 pieces for the examiner. For the earlier grades you are usually given a choice of 6, and you would then pick 3 to play.
Sight reading – this basically means you have to play a piece of music that’s given to you by the examiner, and you’ve never seen it before. You get 1 minute to look through the music, and then you have to play it back. This of course tests your ability to read and play music ‘off the cuff’ so to speak.
Oral tests – these are done at the end and consist of the examiner playing at the piano and asking you questions. This will differ from grade to grade and of course gets a lot harder as you progress, but will generally consist of the examiner playing a piece of music and then asking you various questions. For example, where was the melody? In the right or left hand? Was it in a major or minor key? Was the piece generally loud or soft?
During the oral tests you also have to pitch notes and sing. You don’t have to be a great singer though, so don’t panic! You are merely being tested on your ability to recognise notes and understand pitch. As long as you sing the right note, it doesn’t matter how good your voice is.
In regards to what the exams are actually like, I guess this is down to the individual. For me, I can’t lie – I was very nervous every time! Although it does get easier once you’ve passed a few of the grades. I was a little less nervous after about grade 3-4 onwards as you start to get used to the format of what’s required.
Another difficult factor to consider is the piano you are playing on. You will have spent months or even years playing and practicing on your own piano, that when you come to play on another, it can seem very different. It’s like owning and driving a car. You would always find it tricky at first to drive someone else’s car, even though the steering wheel and pedals are in the same place. Basically, every piano has it’s own unique touch and feel. So my advice for every exam is to ensure you get used to the piano quickly if you can.
Not a lot of people know this, but the examiner will allow you to play a little on the piano before you start the exam. All you need to do is ask them at the start. All you might need is to play a few chords or scales – and you’re away! The examiner will also ask you if you want to play scales or pieces first. Always, always, always go with scales first! I can’t stress this enough. By playing the scales first, you will give yourself another chance at getting used to the piano. I’ve always found that by the time I’ve played back a few scales during the exam, that I’m warmed up and ready to play my pieces.
The exams don’t last very long for the early grades, and you might be in an out of there within 10-15 minutes. Grades 5-8 can last as long as 20-25 minutes.
The theory (or written) exam has to be taken at grade 5 before you can move onto grade 6. You can take theory exams for every grade, or you can decide just to take grade 5 if you wish. I personally only did the grade 5 theory exam, just so I could continue with grades 6, 7 & 8. Theory was never something I personally enjoyed, and I did it out of necessity at the time. It’s only now later on in life that I realise just how important it is, and I am glad that the exams force you to take these in order to do grade 6.
One final tip I can offer is to make sure your hands are warm. This might sound silly, but cold hands just won’t move the same, and if you are taking an exam in the winter, then you must keep them warm right up to the exam.
Wear gloves for example, and then make sure you nip to the toilet about 5 minutes before the exam and run them under the hot tap. Trust me, it works!