Practical Music Exams – Common mistakes

29 May 2014

Practical music exam experience can be quite stressful. Knowing what NOT TO DO during your exam can help ease some of the fear and be a contributing factor in whether you merely pass or pass with honours.


  • Instruments not tuned or still in cases – Always make sure your instrument is well tuned and out of its case before you enter the exam room. It is not the role of the examiner to tune your instrument. Make sure your instrument is well maintained and in good working order.

  • Presenting for exams without the correct materials  – Make sure you have: a)your exam slip with all the pieces written on the reverse side. b)your books with the proper sheet music (pencil marks erased) c) where applicable make sure you have your backing track CDs etc and know the order of tracks on the recording. d) modern guitarists - bring your plectrum.

  • Not preparing adequately – Ensure that you know ALL of your scales and technical work. Learn all list pieces equally – each piece should be learned concurrently throughout the year, NOT consecutively. It is common to see students perform their list A piece very well, their list B piece at a reasonable standard and their list C piece very poorly. Always practice all list pieces equally. Our technical work and list pieces make up 80 per cent of our score, it is essential to prepare all of these thoroughly. Keep an eye on our Youtube channel for exam pieces from all instruments from all grades – The videos are being uploaded presently and should be complete soon. Practicing along with these is of great benefit.

  • Playing too fast – It is very common for students to play too fast in exams, remember that with heightened nerves we all tend to speed up, this can and usually will lead to many mistakes we would not normally make.

  • Poor sight reading – Play very slowly here! Take your time to have a good look through before you play, wait until the examiner asks you to begin, it is fine to “ghost” the notes first (inaudible practice). It is clear that many students simply do not spend enough time sight reading. Five minutes a day can rectify the problem fairly easily. ANZCA has a number of excellent sight reading publications that you can purchase for practice in this area. Consistently trying new material in your method book is also of great benefit.

  • Poor general knowledge – It is a real shame when a student plays all their scales and pieces very well and then proceeds to lose up to eight easy marks on general knowledge. Make sure you know: a) what the title means b) who wrote it c) the notes, signs and terms from each piece. If there is something you can see in the music that you do not understand make sure you ask your teacher. This is all vital to your musical progress and should be learned whether preparing for exams or not. Remember the examiner is not trying to trick you, the answer may be very obvious, if in doubt make an educated guess, you might just get it right.

  • Poor aural skills – this will usually lead to poor playing as well. It is clear that many students simply have not put enough work into this area. Ear training like everything else requires regular practice – a minute or two a day is usually more than enough. Keep an eye on our Youtube channel for aural exercises for each grade (coming soon).

  • Debilitating nerves – Being a little nervous is fine (it means we want to do well, that is normal) being overly nervous can be catastrophic. Remember it is just a music exam, it is not a matter of life and death. Of course we all want to do well, but don't impose too much self pressure.  All we need to do is pass, once you are in the next grade your exam score is really quite irrelevant, no one asks a grade 8 musician what score they got on grade 3!

  • Aiming for perfection – A common mistake? YES, perfection is impossible, aim to play as well as you can, do not be afraid of mistakes, be prepared to make a few little mistakes here and there, they usually will not cost you many points at all. Perfectionists often play very poorly as they are not relaxed, there is a lot more to music than playing the right notes, style, feel, dynamics, expression all add so much to a performance that a few wrong notes here and there are of no consequence. One of the greatest music performances I have ever seen is George Benson performing Take Five in 1986 at the Montreaux Jazz festival - laden with mistakes and utterly brilliant. 


With ANZCA exams fast approaching I hope that this article has been helpful to you all, keep practising hard and good luck!

Brendan Hains
Principal Instructor at Caroline Springs School of Music


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