Category Archives: Music performance

Seven things to stop doing if you want to carry on enjoying music

Carry on listening

Carry on listening

1/ Stop thinking that your musical tastes are set

If you don’t expand your listening repertoire you could be missing out. The music you enjoyed when you were a teenager is almost certainly not the music you favour in your thirties because, as each year goes by, your tastes continue to develop and expand. If you stop imagining that your musical tastes are fixed and unchanging you will be open to enjoying a virtually limitless world of styles and genres. For example, as we gain musical maturity, we begin to appreciate a wider range of harmonies so, although you may not have liked jazz a few years ago, you might love the more dissonant sounds now. 

2/ Stop being too busy to listen

Being too busy will prevent you from setting aside the time to listen. You’ll avoid buying concert tickets in case you can’t make it on the night and, if you do manage to attend a concert, working too hard may cause you to lose concentration or even fall asleep during the performance. Being too busy will stop you relaxing as you listen to a concert on television or radio. Listen to recorded music while you do something else if you really cannot find the time to stop what you are doing and focus attentively.

3/ Stop being over-critical

Be discerning but don’t be over-critical. If you approach every concert and recording with the intention – conscious or otherwise – of picking out what is wrong with it, you will spoil your enjoyment and that of your companions. If a concert is clearly substandard, just leave at the interval but, if it has redeeming features, stay and enjoy them. Be open to new interpretations of music you know well and avoid making a hasty judgement right from the start of the performance.

4/ Stop limiting which performers you hear

Well-established performers are, of course, amazing but young, up-and-coming artists have a freshness and enthusiasm that can be just as engaging and moving. Enjoy the deeper wisdom and insight of the more mature performer and also treat yourself to concerts by young musicians who are still immersed in wonder and awe at the music they are performing.

Don’t dismiss support musicians and just arrive at a gig in time for the main artist – you could be missing out on an astonishing new performer who will take your breath away.

5/ Stop damaging your hearing

Listening to loud noise damages hearing so, if you work in a noisy environment, wear ear defenders. Moderate the decibel level carefully if you use a headset or earphones for listening. For loud concerts, invest in a good pair of musicians’ earplugs that lower the decibel level without distorting the sound. Take a break from sound regularly each day and give your ears a rest throughout the night, by wearing your earplugs if necessary. You may think that, if your hearing becomes less acute, you can just turn up the volume, but hearing damage comes in many forms; you could develop tinnitus, a whole range of noises such as whistling and hissing that can actually sound louder than anything you want to listen to. Even worse, you could develop hyperacuity in which every sound, even normal speaking, seems to be intolerably loud. Protect your child’s hearing too – some toys make noises that reach an ear-damaging decibel level.

6/ Stop letting your personal situation get in the way

If your partner does not enjoy the music that you like, or if you do not have a partner, go to a concert with a friend or join a social group that does concert visits. You may need to take a break from concerts if you have a baby, but you can still listen at home and begin your baby’s music education at the same time. Once your children are old enough, take them with you. Children are very receptive to all sorts of music, particularly if you are personally enthusiastic and if they are prepared beforehand. Remember that musical tastes are, to a great extent, formed by the music we grew up with and bear in mind that parents are supplying the next generation of performers, teachers, composers, producers, technicians and concert-goers.

7/ Stop thinking you are too old to learn

The benefits of learning throughout life are well documented and, no matter what your state of health is, there will be some musical activity that you can enjoy, whether it is learning to follow a score, taking up playing or singing again or listening to a wider range of music. The internet offers an expanded horizon, allowing us to watch, listen and learn with such ease and convenience as would have been unimaginable in years gone by, so enjoy making the most of it, remember that maturity confers wisdom and never be limited by thinking you are too old. 


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Filed under Children's musical success, Enjoying music, Music education, Music performance

The Grade Music Exam Syllabus: easy guide by E-MusicMaestro for parents and first-time candidates

© Copyright 2006 Corbis Corporation

The grade music exam syllabus is written principally for teachers who are preparing candidates for music exams. The terms therefore tend to be specialised and are not always clear to non-musician parents and first-time candidates. This guide is an attempt to explain, in non-technical terms in as far as possible, what is examined and how it is marked.


So first, some definitions …

Piecea piece of music or a song, of difficulty appropriate to the grade

Scales – technical exercises consisting of groups of notes, pitched step by step

Arpeggios – technical exercises made up of just the most ‘important’ notes of the scale

Sight reading – playing music not seen before, after a short time to prepare

Improvisation – making music up – a few notes are given and the candidate has to make up the next notes to produce a complete phrase of music

Technical exercise – a piece specially designed to require technical skills appropriate to a particular instrument or voice

Musical Knowledge questions – questions related to the pieces played, such as naming a note in the score or giving the meaning of a musical term

Aural tests – listening tests that show musical memory and perception


  • notice changes in loud or quiet, fast or slow in a tune played by the examiner
  • sing back a short tune just played by the examiner
  • spot the difference when a tune is played with an altered note

Intonation – whether or not the notes are played or sung in tune (this obviously cannot apply to the piano or organ)

Musical detail – aspects such as loud and quiet playing, pace changes and playing the notes smoothly or not, using the pedal for pianists, as required by the style and character of the music.

Style – relates to the era when the music was composed and to the conventional way of interpreting music from that period in history.

Character – the mood of the music, created by a combination of many aspects, including the notes used in the tune and also the way the music is played.



Next, some information on the exam and the syllabus …

Examining boards

The major examining boards for graded music exams, operating worldwide but particularly in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand are Trinity College London and ABRSM.

How long does a music exam take?Who takes music exams?

Grade music exams take between ten and thirty minutes, depending on the grade.

Who takes music exams? 

 There is no age limit – anyone is eligible to take a music exam.

© Copyright 2008 Corbis Corporation © Copyright 2005 Corbis Corporation

How is a music exam marked?

The examiner writes a report form during the actual exam. The report form summarises strengths and weaknesses in the way the music was performed. Examiners do not offer advice to the candidate about how to play or practise, nor do they advise teachers on the best way to teach. The report forms and certificates are then sent to the person who entered the candidate, usually the teacher.

What criteria are used?

The criteria for achieving a pass in a music exam are based on general musical elements and principles and therefore they are broadly similar for each examining board.

Because general criteria are used, examiners do not need to be experts in playing every instrument, but they do know how each instrument should sound when played well.

The criteria used by an examining board are freely available to the public, in the printed syllabus and on the website for each examining board.

Marks are awarded depending on to what extent the candidate’s performance matches up to the best standards of achievement possible in that exam.

Trinity exams have a maximum mark of 100: Pass 60, Merit 75, Distinction 87.

ABRSM exams carry a maximum mark of 150: Pass 100, Merit 120, Distinction 130.

Pieces carry more marks, relatively, than other skills in music exams. Each piece is marked separately, rather than a global mark being given for the overall standard of the three pieces.

Do all music exam boards examine the same things?

The major music exam boards ask for three pieces or songs but there are some differences between Trinity and ABRSM in the supporting tests.


Trinity grade music exams compared with ABRSM music exams

Trinity skills examined

Trinity Initial Grade – Grade 5

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios plus three technical exercises

Any two of these – Sight reading

Aural tests


Musical knowledge questions

Trinity Grades 6 – 8

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios plus three technical exercises

Sight reading

One of these – Improvisation

Aural tests

Trinity marking criteria

  • Notational Accuracy & Fluency (7 marks): getting the notes and rhythms right and playing without hesitations or stumbles
  • Technical Facility (7 marks): ability to create a good sound and to control the instrument or voice – aspects such as playing with varied articulation (eg legato and staccato) and pedalling for piano
  • Communication & Interpretation (8 marks): playing or singing in a manner that is and engaging for the listener and suitable for the style and character of the music

ABRSM Grades 1 – 8

ABRSM skills examined:

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios in selected keys for each grade (singers instead perform a traditional, unaccompanied song)

Sight reading

Aural tests

ABRSM marking criteria:

  • Pitch: correct notes for all instruments and voice, with correct intonation – ie playing or singing in tune
  • Time: correct rhythms, suitable speed / pace changes and fluent playing
  • Tone: consistently well controlled sound – clear and pleasant to listen to
  • Shape: musical detail eg gradual increase or decrease in loudness that goes with the musical phrases, or variations in loud and quiet
  • Performance: playing or singing in a manner that is and engaging for the listener and suitable for the style and character of the music


General advice for supporting tests

Scales and arpeggios should be:

  • accurate in notes and correctly pitched in intonation
  • fluent and rhythmical
  • musically played with a confident sound

Sight reading should be:

  • fluent and accurate
  • musically played, with appropriate detail
  • confident sounding

Aural tests should show:

  • accurate answers
  • perceptive listening
  • confident replies to questions

Improvisations should show:

  • appropriate development of the fragment of music given as a stimulus
  • fluency
  • confidence


How to do well in a music exam

The best advice is to prepare thoroughly in every aspect to be examined.

Pieces are, of course, the most enjoyable part of the exam preparation but those candidates who neglect to practise scales and arpeggios, who are not competent sight readers or who have not practised developing their aural skills or improvisation skills will lose marks.


Help with preparing for a grade music exam

Develop music aural skills with E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training:


Video demonstration and advice – ABRSM grade exam piano pieces:


Video demonstration – piano syllabus pieces, Trinity and ABRSM 2015-16,as from August 2014

Practise ABRSM piano scales, grades 1 – 5 with Scalebox:

Pre-exam online video assessment – a new service from E-MusicMaestro, offering expert, specific advice as well as an assessment of your playing. All instruments and voice.

For details and booking:

Please use email title, Performance Assessment.


Filed under Music performance

An approach to performance anxiety

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” ~ Cicero

Playing Piano

So much has been written on the subject of performance anxiety that there seemed little to add to the wise words of Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey on awareness, trust and skill in The Inner Game of Music.

Certainly, I was greatly influenced by this bookwhen I read it a number of years ago. The approach I normally take with my own students, most of whom take Advanced Level performance examinations, is two-fold. Firstly I provide weekly performance opportunities at a lunchtime Piano Club, so that playing for an audience becomes routine and loses its power to frighten them. Secondly I ask them literally to talk themselves into being calm, focused and confident by repeating positive affirmations, aloud, to themselves when they are relaxed, for instance before bedtime and when they wake up.

The most effective statements seem to be:

When I play I think only of the music

When I perform I play fluently and musically

The examiner enjoys hearing my playing

When I perform I feel excited, calm,  focused and happy.

The affirmations must be placed in the present tense, not in the future, so it is not advisable to say, ‘When I give my recital I will play fluently’,  but better to say, ‘In recitals I play fluently’.

Recently, however, I read an interesting post by Daniel Miller on the Tiny Buddha website* about how gratitude can calm your nerves and make you more effective and I’m thinking that this could be added to my pre-recital support programme.  Gratitude has many benefits, including the capacityto promote happiness, health, self-esteem, as well as improving relationships and sleep patterns.

Thinking grateful thoughts could be helpful in taking the emphasis away from the importance of ‘Me’ in the recital and putting the focus where it belongs, on the music itself. Helpful statements could be along the lines of

I’m grateful that …

I am able to play this wonderful music

I am doing something I love to do as part of my education

I have this opportunity to play for a fellow musician who wants me to do well

I am privileged to play on a good, grand piano.

Gratitude can shift our focus from negative to positive thinking;  it can give us a more balanced perspective on the situation – if I make a slip I can keep going because I am well prepared;  it can allow us to stay in the ‘now’ moment rather than dwell on the outcome; it can take the place of fear.


*Tiny Buddha


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Filed under Music performance