To get a distinction in a violin exam in the UK, you need a score of 130 or higher, out of a possible 150 marks.
While you can pass with 100 marks, if you strive for the very best, then you should aim higher, and try to make as few mistakes as possible.
A UK grade exam is assessed on an addition/subtraction basis. That means you start at 100 marks, and your job is to maintain or in this case exceed that with excellent performance in each section of the exam.
If you skip grades, it will make it more difficult to attain a distinction, but if you have accurately assessed your level it’s certainly possible.
Scoring a distinction in the last 3 grades (of 8 in total) will be very challenging, so if that’s your plan then you need to be on top of your game.
We’ll start with some tips on how to prepare for the exam, and then we’ll go deeper into specific ways to practise and the different elements you’ll need to master to earn a Distinction.
General Tips To Prepare For The Exam
If you’re going into a grade exam hoping to get a Distinction, then you need to cultivate the right mindset.
Make it Your Mission
To get the best out of yourself in the lead up to the exam, a mindset shift might be necessary.
You should make it your mission to nail the exam.
Without forgetting about your social relationships and health, you should dedicate most of your time to this goal.
That means saying no to things you would normally agree to, and committing to many weekends spent honing your craft.
If you don’t take it seriously, the chances of you scoring higher than 130 will be dramatically lower than if you do.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up everything though. High focus and bursts of intense concentration spread out through the day will prove more productive than a several hour-long session with light focus.
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Practise With a Tutor
It can prove to be a wise move to invest in and practise with a tutor to prepare for your exam.
Whether you have a session once a week or once a day, you will be more easily able to identify areas to improve with an experienced violinist at your side.
Through Superprof you can find a whole host of violin tutors who specialise in teaching different levels and grades.
If you feel like you would get any benefit at all from having someone talk you through the grades, or help you nail a piece you’ve been practising, then hiring a Superprof tutor could prove to be an excellent decision.
Not only will a tutor point out your blind spots so you can improve, but they can also provide encouragement and support in those moments when you most need it to push through.
If you have serious aspirations of getting a Distinction, it’s highly recommended that you work closely with someone experienced, and more importantly, someone who’s been in the exact same position as you before.
Know The Assessment Criteria
You can give the performance of your life in the exam, but if you don’t know exactly what the examiner is looking for, you might not walk away with a Distinction.
For detailed information on the assessment criteria, you can head over to the ABRSM website and check what they ask for each grade.
To give you a brief idea, you should spend an equal amount of time focussing on nailing pitch, timing, tone, shape, and overall performance.
Try to dedicate enough time to each quality so that you can impress the examiner when the time comes.
Just like muscle memory with scales, you want your rhythm and other technical elements to be part of your music almost without effort.
This of course takes hours of practise, but spending time on each individual element could pay dividends over just playing a piece over and over without considering them.
How to Beat the Exam
Moving away from mindset towards the practical side of things, what can you actually do to put yourself in the best position to beat the exam?
Master Your Pieces
You get to select the pieces you play on the day of the exam. You will have to pick 3 in total, and each has to be from a different list. Each piece will require different technical skills to execute perfectly.
If you pick the best piece for your playing style then the battle is half won before you even step foot in the exam room. Carefully consider the options until you settle upon a piece you feel comfortable playing over and over until you master it.
It’s important that you either enjoy how the piece sounds somewhat or at least like trying to recreate it. If not, your motivation will take a hit in those moments you struggle to get yourself to rehearse.
To get a Distinction you want to give yourself every advantage possible, however small it may seem. You want to stack the odds in your favour as much as possible.
A good way to create the extra pressure you will experience in the exam is to play the piece while recording yourself, or while someone else is in the room watching. This should help with performance anxiety, and ensure you can perform at your best when it really counts.
If you do decide to record your sessions, you can then show this footage to your accompanist or tutor so that they can give you constructive feedback to help you iron out any mistakes you may have made.
Remember always to play through mistakes, no matter how significant they may seem in the moment. If you get distracted by a mistake, it could derail your whole performance and potentially cost you the Distinction.
Maintain Muscle Memory
Muscle memory is key to passing the scales and arpeggios component of the exam.
One definition of muscle memory is the ability to reproduce a specific movement without conscious thought. This is the bread and butter of the best musicians in the world, so you should make it your goal to create strong muscle memory if you want that Distinction.
To build muscle memory you need to practise, practise, and practise some more.
The more time your fingers and hands spend in the correct positioning for a certain scale, the easier it will be to nail it, and the less thought it will require to play it well.
Focus on good form, since learning something in a way that isn’t perfect can lead to a lot of headaches later down the line. To do this, avoid going fast just for the sake of it, go slowly until you really have it down before you speed things up.
Practising with different speeds once you get the correct form down can be a good way to familiarise yourself with the movement. While it might not be as fun as just playing, this kind of practise is absolutely essential to do well in this part of the exam.
Don’t Forget the Basics
It’s easy to get carried away with what you deem to be the most important parts of playing the violin. But performing pieces and knowing the scales and arpeggios isn't enough to earn you a Distinction.
Don’t forget the basics, however advanced you are and whatever grade you are practising for.
You might have already listened to countless hours of violin performances on the radio and in recordings, but you could still listen to more.
Tuning your ear for tone and pitch is just as important as building muscle memory or adding your own style to a song.
Aural tests require you to keep your finger on the pulse of a piece of music, and develop a true ear for music.
To practise this to the point of mastery, you will need to know how to reproduce sounds with your mouth after the examiner plays a tune on the piano.
To do so, have your tutor or your accompanist test you in a similar manner. There are many videos available online of past violin aural tests, so you can see how you do in those.
For the sight-reading portion of the exam, you will need to brush up on your music-reading skills.
To prepare for this, familiarise yourself with a variety of rhythms, so you can deal with whatever comes up in the exam.
Key signatures are important too as you will need to know them well to assess how many sharps and flats there are in the piece.
Your knowledge of scales should extend to the theoretical as well as the practical, since this is another area you will be treated on in the sight-reading section.
Perhaps most importantly, try to practise sight-reading with different types of music. This will get you in great shape for whatever the exam throws at you. Whether it’s a more lively piece or a sombre one, your will be well-equipped for it.