How to get on target for a music exam distinction: Part 1 RSS

Learning / 27/02/2021
How to get  on target for a music exam distinction: Part 1

How are music exams marked?

Graded music exams such as ABRSM, Trinity and LCM are criterion-referenced, meaning that marks are awarded according to pre-determined criteria. Anyone can get a distinction as long as their performance is good enough when matched against the stated criteria, even if there are other candidates who perform even better.  The pieces or songs attract the most marks proportional to the other elements of the exam so we’ll start by considering these.

Target your songs or pieces

Fluency, accuracy and poise

Fluency is one of the most fundamental aspects of playing well. A distinction performance will have poised fluency. Poise is achieved by convincing accuracy, with a reassuring degree of technical control over the tone and the rhythmic flow.

Notes and rhythms should be accurate, although very small slips may be overlooked if the performance is otherwise fluent and musical. A tiny slip sounds very different from misreading the music. Singers need to achieve accuracy with the words too.

Singers and players of woodwind, brass and strings should stay in tune with the accompanist and also when playing unaccompanied.

Musical Character

Musical character is expressed by varying elements such as articulation (the way each note is produced in relation to the other notes, for example legato and staccato), tempo (speed), dynamics (loud and quiet) and tonal nuance. A suitable tempo is crucial – too fast might cause slips and a rushed feel, whereas too slow alters the character and difficulty of the piece and may make it difficult for singers and wind players to breathe properly and for strings players to control the bow.

Listen to how the musical character is  shown here in pace, buoyant rhythms and detailed articulation:

The dynamics should be appropriate to the style of the music as well as the character, for instance music from the Classical era will often be elegant, with graded, quite subtle dynamics, like this:

Tone control and phrasing

Tone production is a vitally important aspect of technical control and interpretation. A confidently produced sound should show subtle tonal nuances as well as a range of dynamics. Melody lines need to sing out above the accompaniment, whether for a piano or guitar solo or for an instrument accompanied by piano. 

Learn how the tone can be altered in guitar playing, to create variety and expressiveness:


The tone, as well as the words of a song, can express meaning; a singer may adopt a different vocal tone to represent each of two characters in a song,  ‘paint’ potentially colourful words such as ‘raced’ or ‘squeaks’ and change the mood by altering the vocal nuance and tempo. You can assess some of those elements in this performance of a popular singing exam choice, The Dormouse's Carol:



A pianist creates tonal beauty by using the sustaining pedal, always with sensitively to the musical phrasing, articulation and textures. Pedalling should sound appropriate in relation to the style and character of the music; for instance, Romantic era music generally has generous use of the pedal whereas earlier music needs a much more subtle and sparing approach.  It's important to pedal in relation to the harmonies; different chords should not blur into each other unless the composer requires a special effect. 

There is no particular requirement to use the sustaining pedal in the earlier grades and some young candidates may not even be able to reach it. Occasionally, pieces from around grade 3 level include pedalling indications specified by the composer; if the pedalling is essential to the character of that particular piece it should be observed or else it may be wise to choose an alternative piece. In later grades, from around grade 4, it becomes increasingly important for the pianist to use the pedal in pieces that demand it from a tonal or stylistic perspective. Pedal indications are not always written into the score - pianists are expected to use their own judgement. 


 A strings player employs vibrato to enhance the tone and create character and atmosphere, again in relation to the style of the music. Some pieces need little rubato but here the rubato here is rich, characterising the contemplative mood.


Dynamics and tempo are used together to shape the phrases so that they sound more musical. Rubato is when the rhythms and the tempo are slightly flexible, helping to emphasise the musical style and characterise the mood, or to show the meaning of the words of a song. An example of rubato is when the pace becomes increasingly intense towards the middle of a phrase then gradually relaxes towards the end, often with a gradual increase and decrease in dynamics through the phrase. Here’s an example of expressive use of rubato in this lovely Grade 4 ABRSM piano piece, Arietta by Grieg played by Peter Noke.


Musical style

Character and style are different – a piece in any style may have a happy or sad mood and a lively or sedate character. Performance style is largely to do with adhering to the accepted conventions that professionals apply in relation to the genre of the music and the era when it was composed.

In jazz style music, often included in exams, the pulse is usually firm.  The rhythms are sometimes interpreted precisely as notated, with 'straight' quavers as in this piece called Blues in the Attic by Nikki Iles:

However, some jazz styles need ’swing’ rhythms. If the composer writes 'swing' as a performance indication at the start of the piece, this means that the rhythms are not to be played exactly in the way they are notated, but should be played unevenly in a long-short, long-short pattern with a slight emphasis on the shorter notes.  It's important to have listened to swing music before learning the piece, to better understand the style.

Here's an example of a swing style piece by Ian King:

Performance grade exams

Most exam boards now offer the option of Performance Grade exams in which the candidate performs four items and there are no supporting tests.  Remember that you can only achieve a sense of performance if you are confident in your secure preparation. 

Most of us were not born performers but we can all put on an act in the exam - so show off a bit! Above all, get on target early by learning the pieces or songs thoroughly, then practise performing before the exam. If you are not able to perform in person for your friends, your family and anyone else who will listen, make videos to send to them. Ask your trial audience to give you 3 Stars and a Wish feedback - three things they especially liked and one thing you could improve on. 

The main criteria for a good music 'performance' are universal, making them similar for each board:

Communicating with your 'audience'

Perform as if you are giving the most wonderful gift and remember that the examiner truly wants you to do well. Project your musical involvement and commitment convincingly.  Be determined to play or sing as if you were at a concert where you want to communicate, above all, your love of the music. If you are a singer,  sing from memory so that you can project the meaning to your audience, the examiner. Present your pieces or songs in an order that you would choose if this were a concert, not an exam and move smoothly from one item to the next - practise doing this by having several run-throughs. If you play an instrument, make sure your music is organised into the right order.

Interpretation - you and your music

Be sure you understand the style and character of each piece or song, and show this in the way you perform each one by including the musical detail such as legato and staccato, loud and quiet, phrasing shape and appropriate tempo.  If you play an instrument, 'explain' the music to the listener in the way you interpret it. If you sing, show the meaning of the words in your facial expression, your posture and in the tone of your voice. Rehearse with your accompanist if you play a solo instrument or sing, and have someone listen to the balance and blend - the solo part always needs to be heard clearly (and sometimes the accompanist has phrases in which they have the tune instead).

Delivery - you and your instrument

This is about how reliably you manage the sound of your instrument or voice and how confidently you cope with the particular technical difficulties of each item you perform. For instance, if a piece needs legato articulation, you are able to achieve this smoothly or, if a song is lively, you can still make the diction clear. For the best mark, you need to demonstrate assured technical control in each of your performances and to be consistently poised throughout your programme.

Conventional graded exams

The pieces or songs make up the highest proportion of the marks needed for a distinction in all graded exams but, in the traditional-style, live (not recorded) exam they are not the whole story.  The remaining marks are gained from the supporting tests and candidates who are good at all aspects of the exam are the ones who get a distinction overall. We'll discuss getting on target with your supporting tests in Part 2. In the meantime, here's some help with the aural tests!

Sandy Holland

Photo credit: Annie Spratt 

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