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Gaining a distinction in a music exam is a great achievement. A distinction means that the candidate has achieved a high percentage when measured against pre-determined criteria:

ABRSM: A distinction mark is 86% or higher
Trinity College London: A distinction mark is 87% or higher
London College of Music: A distinction mark is 85% or higher

The supporting tests carry a considerable proportion of the overall mark. The relative weighting is as follows:

ABRSM: Performance 60% Supporting tests 40%
Trinity College London: Performance 66% Supporting tests 34%
London College of Music: Performance 60% Supporting tests 40%

What are supporting tests?

The ABRSM supporting tests are scales and arpeggios/broken chords, sight reading and aural tests. For Trinity, aural is one of two tests chosen from four at grades Initial–5: sight reading, aural, improvisation and musical knowledge. At grades 6–8 the candidate must do sight reading but may choose either aural or improvisation.
London College of Music supporting tests are: technical work or study (candidate’s choice), viva voce (similar to Trinity’s musical knowledge) sight reading and aural.

Scales, arpeggios, broken chords

These are played from memory. The first priority is accuracy of notes, including precise intonation where appropriate (wind instruments as well as string instruments). The higher the grade, the faster the technical work is played, but accuracy should never be sacrificed for the sake of speed.

Good fingering for pianists is essential. Although examiners do not mark fingering, sensible choices make it easier to play fluently. At practice time, using a video can promote accuracy and show a good hand shape.

For a technical work distinction, a confident response is needed – each item should be started promptly and played fluently, with a well-focused tone and even timing. The playing should be musically shaped, with a sensitive, ‘real music’ feel for phrasing.

Practising with a backing track can help with musical shape and fluency, as well as being great fun:

The study

A study is included in some exams because it requires a whole range of technical skills. A good technique appears effortless to the onlooker and produces musical results without physical injury to the musician. Technique has to be well-taught and practised and there are tutor books devoted to this, such as The Virtuoso Pianist by Hanon and the Dozen a Day series by Edna Mae Burnam.

Technique encompasses mental as well as physical preparation and poise, as demonstrated here by young Daniil Trifonov, playing the Opus 25 Etudes (Studies) by Chopin in a competition in 2011.

To gain a distinction mark in a study, the performance will show authoritative control of the technical difficulties, as well as communicating the musical meaning, detail and sense of phrase at an appropriate tempo.

Aural tests

Aural skills are examined to test and to promote musical understanding and perception. To gain a distinction in the aural tests, the candidate will give mainly correct, prompt responses to questions about elements of music such as tempo, dynamics and structure. At higher grades, the questions increasingly relate sound to theory and notation, for example the ABRSM singing from notation test and Trinity’s spotting differences between a score and the examiner’s performance of it.

Comparing Trinity College, ABRSM and London College aural tests:
All three boards test similar musical concepts.
ABSRM requires sung responses with appropriately increased difficulty at each grade.
Trinity College requires no sung responses.
London College requires minimal sung responses.
Trinity uses a single phrase or piece of music around which several questions are focused, whereas ABRSM uses different musical extracts for each of the individual tests.

Aural tests can be challenging for many music students and parents to understand but clear explanations are given, with examples, in the E-MusicMaestro free Guides to Aural.

Every healthy child is born with an innate predisposition to respond to sound but no-one acquires sophisticated musical perception without focused listening and, above all, practice. Teachers do their best to cover the principles of aural during lessons but, until recently, most students have been unable to practise at home. Aural Test Training is an online, interactive music resource that enables students to learn at home or at school, enabling them to test their musical perception and to hear explanations as to why a particular answer is the right one.

The remaining supporting tests, Sight Reading, Musical Perception/Viva Voce and Improvisation will be discussed in Part 3, the final article in this series.

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