How to get on target for a music exam distinction: Part 3 RSS

News / 11/12/2018
How to get on target for a music exam distinction: Part 3

How to get a music exam distinction: Part 3

Why secure supporting tests are important

Everyone who takes a music exam hopes to do their best and achieving a distinction mark is especially rewarding. The supporting tests carry between 34% to 40% of the overall marks, depending on the examining board, so careful preparation of these sections is essential. We looked at pieces in Part 1 of this series and covered aural and technical work in Part 2, and here we’ll consider sight reading, improvisation and musical perception/viva voce.

Sight Reading

Sight reading is playing or singing a previously unseen piece of music. Sight reading is tested in practical music exams because it is an important musicianship skill. In ABRSM and Trinity exams, the candidate has thirty seconds to prepare the piece before playing it, whereas London College gives up to one minute. Candidates who are dyslexic may apply ahead of the exam date for extra preparation time on the day.

A distinction mark is awarded for fluent, accurate sight reading, with a confident sense of key. Feeling over-anxious about note pitch precision can sometimes result in a hesitant reading; rhythmic accuracy, a stable pulse and sense of metre are just as important. For a distinction mark, some musical detail will be included too where appropriate, ideally with a sense of character and style emerging, particularly in the higher grades where the pieces lend themselves more readily to interpretative awareness.

Sight Reading Tips

Here are some tips on how to practise sight reading that also apply to preparing the piece or song in the exam:

  • Check the key signature and confirm by looking at the final bar, which will contain the keynote.
  • Check the time signature. 
  • Find the right starting position and note(s).
  • Scan through the whole piece of music first, reading in little chunks, looking for note patterns, like scales.  
  • Look for repeated rhythm patterns - rhythms are just as important as notes! 
  • Notice performance markings, such as the suggested speed and loud/quiet dynamics.
  • Run through in your head how the piece or song might sound, keeping a steady pulse while imagining the feeling of playing or singing the correct notes and rhythms.
  • Try out the piece/song slowly if there is still time.
  • When the examiner asks you to begin, choose a speed you can manage, keeping a steady pulse, without stopping even if you make a mistake. 
  • Look ahead a little and aim for fluency - if you are uncertain of a note, miss it out … or make it up!

A special note for pianists

  • If any hand position changes are needed, move your hands at the right time to each new group of notes as part of your preparation time.
  • Use both hands, not right and left hand separately - this gives a more secure outline of the piece.

You really do need to practise sight reading because the more pieces you have played in as wide a range of styles as possible, the easier it is to sight read and to learn new pieces. Ideally, you'll use a graded sight reading programme that helps you to learn as well as tests you, such as the E-MusicMaestro online Learn to Sight Read: Piano resource for early grades. Learn to Sight Read: Piano books 1-3 are now available, with books 4 and 5 to follow shortly. E-MusicMaestro piano sight reading pieces are fun to do and cover all the notes, rhythms and keys to be found in piano exam sight reading tests (and much more besides), with easy-access QR code recordings to help you learn more easily.

Musical Perception / Viva Voce 

An advantage of choosing musical perception/viva voce is that the student can prepare carefully with a teacher who knows what sort of questions might be asked about the pieces played in the exam. It is a pleasant option because it allows the candidate and examiner time to talk about the music. However, the response needs to be sufficiently articulate to be clear in meaning so this may not be the best choice for a candidate who does not speak English well.

As the pieces become more complex at higher grades, so do the questions. A typical question at lower grades might be to name and explain elements such as key and time signatures and note pitches. At grade 5 the candidate may be asked about musical structure, style and period. Trinity gives the musical knowledge option only up to grade 5 whereas London College offers viva voce at later grades too, where the candidate may be asked about melodic, harmonic, structural and stylistic features of a piece.

To gain a distinction, candidates will show an accurate response using correct terminology. They will demonstrate an understanding of, and engagement with, the music they have performed.  For full details of musical perception/viva voce requirements, it's advisable to consult the current exam board regulations.


Improvisation is available only for Trinity College. The requirements become increasingly challenging through the grades in length, musical styles and harmonic complexity. Improvising is a rewarding skill to teach and learn, making it a worthwhile option. 

The candidate chooses from the following stimulus options:


The stimulus includes a notated piano part with chord symbols from which the candidate improvises as the examiner plays the piano. The performance here is fluent and shows the correct number of bars, it uses the chords indicated and it is played confidently. At the higher grades, a more vivid characterisation of the tango style would be desirable, as would some development of the motif.


The candidate improvises unaccompanied in response to a notated melodic fragment. For a distinction mark, the improvisation will last for the specified duration and should develop the stimulus appropriately without too much direct imitation of it.


The candidate improvises a solo on a notated chord sequence. Distinction performances will be accurate in length and in chord sequence. The improvisation need not be technically complicated but should be stylish and poised. The chord option is an opportunity for candidates who enjoy jazz to shine and this video gives some ideas on how to start.

The role of musical talent in gaining a distinction

Think of talent as potential - a seed to be nurtured. Outstanding achievement is the outcome of perseverance, practice, support and guidance. Don't give up if you experience difficulties but be inspired by the life of violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who overcame a disability to become a world-class musician.

Sandy Holland

Photograph credit Annie Spratt

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