Violin exams are a really useful way to track the progression of your learning! They provide a structured path for progress, clear goals to work towards, a solid way of assessing your skills. You’ll also get a real a sense of achievement when you finally complete the examination itself!
While exams can be nerve-wracking, proper preparation can go a long way in easing the stress and ensuring success. Let's take a look at the essential steps for preparing for a violin exam... 🎻 🎓
Seem obvious, doesn't it? But you'd be amazed at how many people enter themselves for an exam first, and then don't learn all the music until close to the date of the exam itself.
'Cramming' information might work for some topics, but not for playing the violin! You need time for the music and the technical skills to 'sink in' to your intuition, so that in the exam itself you can play fluently and confidently, without needing to stop and think about how you're doing it.
The amount of time you'll need to prepare depends on the level of the exam, the complexity of the syllabus, and your existing skills. The earlier you begin, the more time you'll have for practice, and for reviewing and refining your skills. This will all help to avoid last-minute stress and anxiety!
Before you start, take the time to properly understand the exam requirement. Each exam board will publish their information in a booklet called a 'syllabus', which is usually available in both print and digital format.
It's important to get this right, because if you make a mistake now, you could end up invalidating your exam result by preparing the wrong scales, aural tests ... or even the wrong piece (it can happen!).
Make sure to take time to research your exam board's website, and become familiar with the exam structure, grading criteria, and other relevant information ... before you start practising the exam materials!
There are several different music examination boards, and depending on your location, you may have several options to choose from.
If you're working with a teacher or personal tutor, they may have a preferred system they'd like you to use. If you're learning on your own, you'll have to make this decision yourself.
Here are a few of the main music examination boards that provide violin exams:
You need to get this right! When choosing pieces of music that you want to learn for your exam, it's obviously essential to select something that's right for your skill level and for the requirements of the exam. But it's also important that you actually like the music and enjoy playing it ... otherwise you won't be motivated to practise!
A good strategy is to select pieces of music that challenge your existing skills a little bit, but aren't so excessively difficult that you end up struggling to learn new skills in time for your exam.
This way, you can make sure that all technical challenges are dealt with early in the learning process, leaving you plenty of time to focus on performance practice before the exam itself.
This is an area where good advice from your teacher or school can be invaluable. If you're a member of ViolinSchool, you can consult with our Learning Advisors and get a second opinion.
Not yet a member of ViolinSchool? Whether you're working on your own or with a teacher, ViolinSchool's resources can help you achieve better results in less time. Find out more about our Membership and Enrolment options or join ViolinSchool today!
If you define the outcome you want, then you're much more likely to achieve it ... and that's as true for violin exams as it is for anything else! Setting a clear goal will help you to focus your efforts, monitor your progress, and stay motivated.
Think about what result you want to achieve. Do you care only about passing the exam, or are you wanting to maximise your potential, pass with Distinction, and achieve the highest mark you can? This decision will affect how you approach your violin practice in the lead up to the exam.
Traditional goal-setting techniques can be very useful. A good example would be the use of 'SMART' goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). When you have clarity about what you want to achieve and when, then it's much easier to adapt your practice plans accordingly.
Once your desired outcome is clear, then you can create a practice plan to help you achieve the results you want. This will include your practice schedule, your practice activities, and a clear benchmarks or milestones for measuring whether you are on track.
If you are enrolled at ViolinSchool, we'll do this with you in the form of a Learning Review, followed by a practice plan. If you're a member of ViolinSchool but you're working with a private tutor, then feel free to download and use the Practice Plan and Practice Journal tools to help you keep on track.
You might also like to consider keeping a journal of your violin practice. This is a great way of reflecting on what you have achieved - especially before sleeping, so that your subconscious mind can continue working on the music when you are asleep!
As with any piece of music, your first priority should be to make sure that the musical and technical essentials are in place. A good principle is to ask yourself:
To get the best possible results in your exam, you need to be able to answer 'yes' to all three of these questions! If you can't, then analyse your technique to find out what's not working properly - seeking proper advice from an experienced teacher (or us!) if you need.
Once you know that you are achieving technical accuracy with your playing, then you can focus increasingly on musical factors, such as the dynamics, character, shape and expression of the music.
Scales and arpeggios are obligatory in most violin exams, because they are so helpful for developing finger dexterity and intonation. Ideally you should be aiming for a reasonable level of speed, but never compromising your accuracy - it's better to play a scale slightly too slow but beautifully in tune, than at a faster speed with imperfect intonation!
Your first priority should be to identify any new scales or arpeggios which you'll need to learn for your exam. Put aside time early in your exam preparation to learn any new scales, so that you can start familiarising yourself with the finger patterns and building up the muscle memories.
But you should also develop a routine for all of your scales, including the ones you already know! If you don't have time to practise every scale every day, make sure that you regularly rotate which scales you include in your practice.
This will avoid any unpleasant surprises a few days or weeks out from the exam, when you might suddenly 'discover' a scale or two that you've forgotten about...!
Also, remember that arpeggio patterns are just as important as scales! A common mistake is for people to focus so intently on scale practice, that they forget to practise the arpeggio patterns. Don't let that happen to you!
Treat scales and arpeggios equally, and you'll find that before long, your left hand will start becoming much more fluent in the keys that you are learning ... which will benefit the whole of your playing, for the examination and beyond!
Aural and musicianship skills are formally tested in most violin exams, but they're essential for good violin playing and music making anyway. The ideal situation would be that your aural and musicianship skills are so instinctive for your technical level, that you can respond immediately to any rhythm or pitch tests, almost without thinking about it.
Unless you've played another musical instrument to a high level, or you do a lot of singing, you'll almost certainly need to include aural and musicianship skills in your practice routine. This can be great fun!
Leave time to sing and read sheet music every day ... and this doesn't need to happen only at the violin! Whether it's singing during your morning shower, or practising rhythm patterns whilst you're going for a walk, it's good to get creative about how you integrate music into your daily routine!
Exactly the same is true for sight-reading as for aural and musicianship skills. Most exams will formally test your ability to sight-read, but being able to read music fluently and accurately is an essential skill for musicians anyway ... so build it into your daily practice!
It's important to use a wide variety of music when practising sight-reading. This way, you'll build up the ability to sight-read in lots of different keys, time signatures, and styles.
Some exam boards publish 'specimen' (sample) sight-reading books for you to practise with, and there are also good book sequences such as the Right@Sight series (by ViolinSchool's Caroline Lumsden!), and Improve Your Sight-Reading! by Paul Harris.
Start with simple pieces, then gradually increase the difficulty level. Use a metronome at first, if you need help staying in time.
Most importantly, don't stop! When sight-reading, you must not stop and correct mistakes like you would do when practising. The fundamental skill of sight-reading is the art of keeping going in time ... even if you play some wrong ones!
We learn better when we can model someone else doing the same task. So make a point of listening to recordings of the music you'll be playing in your exam! By listening to professional recordings of the pieces you are studying, you'll gain ideas for how to interpret and phrase the music.
This will help you to develop a more nuanced and expressive performance, which will be more enjoyable to listen to (including for your examiner!).
Don't limit your listening just to the pieces you are learning. Try listening to different pieces of music by the same composers of the music you're playing. Or the same styles of music, but by different composers.
This will help you to become more familiar with different styles and periods of music, as well as the historical and cultural context of the pieces you are studying. The more you understand about the music and how to interpret it, the easier it will be for you to give an engaging and well-informed performance!
Don't forget to practice performing! Performance is a learnable skill, just like everything else, and you need to understand how the change in your physiology in a performance situation will affect your technique ... particularly for a violin exam!
It won't feel natural to perform the violin just to one person (your examiner) in a room - it's a very artificial environment. Add to that the pressure of knowing that your single audience member (the examiner!) is there for one single purpose - to judge and assess your violin playing! - and you can count on the fact that your performance in the exam itself will feel significantly different to playing alone in a practice room (or even to a violin teacher).
Therefore, it's essential to leave time in your practise for 'performing' your exam materials, to see what changes happen to your violin playing in a high-pressure situation.
You don't know what you don't know! And that alone is a good reason why feedback and guidance from a qualified violin teacher or coach is usually essential for a successful exam performance.
Even if you're an experienced learner or musician, you will benefit from advice that gives an alternative perspective on how you're doing what you're doing. And you'll definitely progress quicker with the help of a good teacher, than if you are learning only by yourself.
Good feedback will help you to identify and address areas of weakness effectively. Tailored guidance and support can be extremely helpful for everything from goal-setting to developing an effective practice routine.
If you've already taken the time to understand the criteria for the examination level you're working towards, then you can start to assess your progress and identify areas for improvement by comparing your playing against the benchmark criteria. But you need to be objective.
One of the best ways to do this is to record yourself playing your exam pieces, and watch/listen back. Identify areas of weakness, but also make a note of what IS working, in order not to waste time on unnecessary topics (and to keep your motivation high). Then, adapt your practice routine as necessary.
It's also a good idea to re-read the criteria that your exam board publishes. This is often available in the format of a document that clearly outlines the expectations an examiner will have for each band of results.
For example, the ABRSM offers a clear, bullet pointed breakdown of what an examinee will need to achieve in the areas of Pitch, Time, Tone, Shape and Performance for each different marking level. They publish additional bulleted breakdowns of what is expected across the different sections of repertoire, scales and arpeggios, sight-reading and aural tests - again, with a list of expectations for each marking level.
This is an extremely useful tool for being able to work out clearly whether you are on track with each different element of the exam!
Because a violin exam can feel like such an unusual and even artificial environment, it's going to feel very different to when you are playing the violin in other contexts.
To prepare for this, one of the most helpful things you can do is to simulate the situation by creating a 'mock exam'. Ideally this would be with a piano accompanist (so that you can get used to performing with another musician), and in a room that's similar to where you'll be taking the exam.
But even if you don't have access to these resources, just moving to a different space from where you usually do you piano practice, or having another person present to take the role of your examiner, can help you to get the adrenaline flowing and feel the sensation of performing 'under pressure'.
If you don't have anyone to assist you, then just set up a soft toy, a picture, or even a favourite potted plant to take the role of the examiner! Even a small change in your environment will help.
When you are simulating a mock exam, be sure to follow the same format that you will experience in the exam. Play everything in the right order, and without stopping - even if things go wrong, keep going!
This will give you a realistic sense of what it will be like on the day, and will help enormously with getting used to the feeling of performing in a pressured situation.
Make sure the simple, obvious things are taken care of! On the day of the exam, arrive early. Assume you will have transport problems and allow time for delays! Before you leave home, make sure that you have everything you need ... including your music and your violin (yes, we've seen it happen!).
Think about how the weather might affect you - especially if it is very hot or cold. Dress appropriately - and smartly. First impressions count, and an exam is no different.
Of course, how you play is far more important than how you present yourself! But even a single mark can make a big different between the category of result you achieve. Examiners are human, and they may be more inclined to be generous rather than strict towards a candidate who is well presented and polite.
Once you arrive at the exam venue, warm up your hands and fingers. Focus on your breathing, and use tone production exercises, scales and arpeggios to help yourself get 'into the zone' of focus and concentration.
During the exam, constantly think ahead and clearly imagine what you are going to do play next, and how you want it to sound - let your training kick in, and your body will do the rest. Stay aware of your posture and your breathing - so long as everything remains balanced and physically relaxed, you'll be able to maintain good tone quality.
If you notice any tension developing, physically or mentally, just focus on your breathing and on what's coming next, and it will soon pass. Always be thinking ahead about the music that's coming up.
If something goes wrong or you make a mistake, just move on. If it's a small mistake it might not matter at all, and if it's a big mistake you'll only lose a couple of marks at most, so just recover quickly and move on. What you don't want is for your focus and concentration to suffer - then more things are likely to go wrong.
Keep a positive energy throughout, and remember that ultimately, every examiner WANTS to enjoy your performance and give you the best result possible. So give them that opportunity - play the music the way you think best expresses the character and emotion of the music. If you do this authentically, they'll feel it too!
Although preparing for a violin exam is an excellent way to build skills, don't fall into the trap of orientating ALL your violin learning around the exam itself.
It's just as important, if not more so, to think about your overall growth as a violinist. So as you prepare for your exam, leave plenty of time for other activities that will contribute to your musical and violinistic development.
Explore different pieces of music, genres and composers, and try to build a well-rounded repertoire. This is also a helpful focus if you have worked intensively on your exam pieces for a few days, and need to set them aside for a short period of time before coming back to them. Playing different repertoire in the meantime can help you come back to your exam music with a fresh perspective.
Also, a good selection of music for a violin exam will usually be within your technical capability. But you do need to continue challenging yourself to go beyond your comfort zone, too. Rather than risk your exam results with a choice of repertoire that's to difficult, a much more sensible strategy is to explore more challenging repertoire alongside your easier exam repertoire.
There are plenty of other creative activities that you should try to integrate into your violin practice, which fall beyond the requirements of an exam, simply because they're good for your musical development.
Try to improvise and compose music regularly, and learn about the harmony of the music that you are playing. Improvisational skills can improve almost all aspects of your violin playing, but they often don't feature in examination requirements.
Once you're committed to an exam, the preparation process can sometimes feel like a chore - for example, if you don't feel like practising but you know you still have to do so (it happens to us all!).
So it's important to maintain your motivation and enjoyment by feeding your love for violin and music making beyond the process of exam preparation itself.
Taking the time to listen to lots of music and attend live performances is a really good way of doing this. Try to connect and network with other musicians, and people who share your interests - it can often open up all sorts of opportunities in your local community and beyond!
Experiment with different genres and don't limit yourself just to the more 'classical' repertoire that is used by the majority of music exam boards. The violin is extremely versatile, and can be played in all sorts of styles, from classical to folk and jazz and much, much more ... your creativity is the limit!
Finally, remember what it's all about. A lot of your focus in exam preparation will be on technical skills, and although they are extremely important, making music is, for most people, ultimately about the expression and communication of emotion.
Constantly expanding your sense of phrasing, dynamics, interpretation, and musical shape is a crucially important aspect to your identity as a musician and as a violinist - as are the nuances of your sound, and the tone quality you create using your violin. You'll achieve this not by completing functional challenges set by examination boards, but by getting out there, making music, and seeing what works and what doesn't!
Always be exploring, and stay musically curious. Then, when you bring your musicianship into the examination environment, it can only benefit your ability to communicate and perform (which in turn will contribute to a better exam result!)
Preparing for a violin exam can be an intense but ultimately very rewarding experience. Start preparing early, set clear goals, practice consistently, get quality feedback, approaching the exam holistically as you would for any other performance.
Not only can you develop the skills to pass an exam, but you can use the examination framework to push your musical development forwards, and become a more well-rounded and expressive violinist.
Enjoy the process, and keep pushing yourself to new heights ... Good Luck!
Have you discovered any top tips for violin exam success that we haven't mentioned here? We'd love to know! Tell us at [email protected] and we'll add good suggestions here, to help other violinists achieve success in their exams!
Need help preparing for an exam? ViolinSchool can help you get the best results, whether you have a personal tutor or not! Email [email protected] or get in touch with us using the form below. Or take a look at our Membership and Enrolment options, and join ViolinSchool today!