Testing your mettle. Proving your worth. Going from strength to strength. Making the grade.
These idioms about demonstrating one’s abilities pepper our lexicon and they all mean the same thing: strength is not strength unless tested. Ability is nothing unless proven and talent is insignificant unless one can show to which degree they possess it.
From that perspective, singing exams make perfect sense. After all, almost anyone can sing, however well, and some singers are quite proficient within a narrow band of musical performance but have no compulsion to reach beyond their range or repertoire.
The last point drives the purpose of these formal singing certifications.
For those intending to make a career out of singing, testing out new material and knowing where they stand in their development as a vocal artist are crucial… but is it necessary to test at every level?
Gather ‘round, prospective singers, that’s the topic for today!
The Purpose of Singing Grades
Singing is a multi-faceted skill that requires equal parts of physical ability, technical knowledge and progressive development.
Absolute pitch is the rare ability to reproduce any note and recognise any note’s pitch.
You may have perfect pitch but, unless you train your ear, develop breath control and know the difference between head voice and chest voice - and how to use them, you’re leaving the largest part of your gift unopened.
The exams offered by the London College of Music, Trinity Music College and ABRSM do not assert your ability to sing; rather, they provide a proving ground for your singing skills at progressively more complex levels.
Unlike scholastic exams that typically focus on how well you’ve retained academic knowledge, these tests demand that you incorporate all of the music training you’ve had to that point into practical work.
They also compel you to reach beyond your comfort zone by mandating that you sing pieces from a variety of genres, not just those that you are comfortable with or intend to focus on professionally.
You should remember that these exams are not a competition. You will not be pitted against other singers and your marks will not depend on how well you perform in contrast to them or with them, as an ensemble.
Your musical skill and performance will be measured against the standards set by the exam board you test with. How well you meet those standards or by how much you exceed them dictates your attainment at that particular level.
Successful testing at one level does not necessarily absolve you from testing at the next higher level; nor does an extraordinary performance at one level give you a point advantage on the next exam.
In other words, no matter how highly you score, any points above passing won’t carry over to your next test.
Still, attainment is a worthy goal. Wouldn’t you like to find out how to get a distinction on your next singing exam?
An Overview of Grades in Singing
If you are in any way serious about singing, you probably already know how many singing grades to strive for – all eight of them; with each more complex than the last.
Nevertheless, several elements remain the same throughout all the levels.
You are expected to sing at least three pieces – one each, chosen from a three-part list with titles of varying difficulty. You will also sing a traditional song, unaccompanied and from memory. Your sight-reading capabilities will be tested as well as your aural abilities.
These elements are consistent both across all levels and across the three examining bodies.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each grade’s set-up.
Grades 1 Through 4
- Three songs with piano accompaniment
- One unaccompanied traditional piece, sung from memory.
- Sight-singing an unfamiliar short piece of music
- A level-appropriate aural test
You will not be required to sing entire songs, either for your accompanied pieces or your traditional song. Depending on which exam you take, your syllabus should tell you which portions you are expected to sing from any song on the list.
The higher the grade, the more challenging the musical selections become and the longer you are required to sing.
For a Grade 1 exam, candidates are limited to only four minutes of accompanied singing but, at Grade 4, singing time is six minutes.
There is no list for you to choose a traditional piece from but you have to heed a couple of rules: your selection cannot be a hymn, anthem, carol or nursery rhyme, and if you choose to sing in a language besides English, you should provide a lyrics translation.
This is where the tide turns.
This exam contains the same elements as the previous ones – three songs from approved lists, one unaccompanied traditional song, an aural test and sight-reading.
However, if you intend to advance to higher grades, you must also complete a music theory test or a practical musician test.
Grades 6 – 8
The standard elements continue – albeit with longer singing times and more intensity, and the list selections you choose your songs from becomes ever more complex and challenging to sing.
Your performance at every level is only a part of your grade; you will have further opportunity to demonstrate your musical ability and singing skills through:
- broken chords
- Vaccai exercises
- viva voce
Which exercises you get to choose from depends on what grade you are testing in and which exam board you test through. For instance, while ABRSM may test you on arpeggios and scales, Trinity does not offer either of those selections.
Be sure to check your exam board and syllabus to find out what all is expected of your come exam time!
That’s is but one of the many tips to help you prepare for your singing exams.
When Skipping Grades is Acceptable
The progressive nature of these singing exams makes aspiring singers wonder if they could skip any of them.
The answer is: yes, you can skip grades.
Unless you are mad for tests and can’t resist the challenge, you could afford to bypass at least a few of the lower grade exams, especially if you have a legitimate reason to (besides an aversion to tests).
You may fail to register on time or miss the deadline for your pieces, for instance.
If you happen to be ‘between levels’ – you’ve progressed beyond the requirements of the lower level exam but are not quite ready for the next higher grade, your teacher might recommend that you skip the lower grade and focus on gaining the skills needed to score well on the higher one.
Skipping any of the lower grade exams is not as big an issue as bypassing exams for grades 6-8, exams you should not miss if you hope to register for a degree plan at any of our country’s fine musical universities or a conservatoire.
The one exam you should not skip is Grade 5 because it serves as a prerequisite for the higher-level grades. Don't forget that you will test on music theory at this grade; a vital component of your music education.
You might say that Grade 5 separates the wheat from the chaff; those who progress beyond that point may start to think of themselves as serious musicians.
If you are in doubt over whether to skip a grade or not, talk with your caregivers, your music teacher, vocal coach and/or singing tutor. It might be a good idea to talk with fellow singers who have skipped a grade so that you can make the best possible decision for your situation.
Another good idea: read more about the UK’s unique singing exams.
Singing Students Who Don’t Need Graded Exams
Not everybody who takes singing lessons dreams of performing on stage, either in musical theatre or in concert.
Some people take singing lessons because they want to improve their speaking voice. Perhaps they’ve just landed a big promotion and public speaking is suddenly a big part of their job.
Teachers of every subject including music could also benefit from singing lessons. It’s not easy projecting your voice into every corner of a classroom, a task made more difficult when students are rowdy.
Imagine teaching for six to eight hours per day! All of that talking: wouldn’t your voice get tired? Wouldn’t it be a great idea to take voice lessons so that you don’t strain your vocal cords and learn head voice techniques?
Students taking singing lessons for these reasons do not need to take graded exams.
Other students learning to sing do so because they plan to make a career of singing… but not in the traditional way.
Wedding singers are wonderful and they don’t need a high to prove they are Grade 8 singers to land contracts. Backup singers, session singers and voice-over artists; cruise ship entertainers, street fair artists and rap artists…
All of these voice artists may take singing lessons to learn the technical skills associated with singing – breath control and ear tuning. They might also want to expand their repertoire, but their particular fields rely more on talent than formal training and the certifications proving their skills.
So, if you enjoy singing in your church’s choir or a night of karaoke – especially if you are always voted best vocalist by everyone at the club, you don’t need to worry about testing your mettle through a series of rigorous exams.
For everyone who aspires to a career as a singer, we hope this guide answers the question of whether to take every graded exam.
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