If you’ve just signed up for a violin grade exam in the UK, or you intend to, then you might be wondering how best to prepare for it. Whether you decided to skip a grade or not, we can help you with some preparation tips.
To give yourself the best chance of success in any one of the 9 grades, you need to focus not only on the technical skills and theory behind playing the violin, but you also need to stay mentally sharp.
There are some things you can do before any exam to calm the nerves, and ensure peak performance, which can be just as important as your ability to play the instrument.
We’re going to break this guide down into tips for before the exam, and tips for the day of the exam. However rapidly it may be approaching, you should find a useful takeaway here to give you an extra boost of confidence when the time comes.
Before The Exam
Before the day of the exam, there is plenty you can do to prepare, both in terms of your skills and mental state.
Performance in just about anything from chess to track running, playing instruments to giving a public speech, depend in large part on how well prepared you are, and the mindset you go into the challenge with.
In order to get yourself in the best shape to give a Distinction-worthy violin grade performance, you’ll want to consider the following tips.
Get Plenty of Rest
While it may seem obvious, getting enough sleep before the day of the exam is critical. In fact, it’s beneficial to think even further in advance than that. Up to a week out you might want to settle into a good sleeping routine that allows you to engage in plenty of deep sleep each night.
There’s countless evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation can hinder our ability to perform at our best, so why not give yourself the extra edge and make sure you are fully rested for the big day.
Rest doesn’t just apply to sleep though.
If you take your practise too seriously, and don’t take frequent breaks in between sessions, then your body and mind could take a toll.
Some experts claim that rest is imperative for absorbing new information and picking up new skills. If you want to optimise your piece rehearsals or your scales, then you need to balance them out with rest.
This rest can take the form of the light sleep you can get from taking a nap, or a gentle breathing practise to calm the mind, or the deep sleep you get from resting your head on the pillow for several hours.
Whatever you do, you want to make sure you aren’t overexerting yourself. Allow yourself to rest without feeling guilty about it.
For more information on the affect rest can have on the learning process, you can check out this article from Medical News Today.
Manage Your Nerves
One of the best ways to stay on top of nerves, and ensuring they don’t get the best of you in the exam, is to develop strong muscle memory so you can play without too much thought.
If you’ve practised thoroughly enough, you should be able to play the pieces effortlessly, which should stop nerves from creeping in on the day of the exam.
However, if there is still some doubt and insecurity around passing the exam, there are some other things you can do to manage your nerves.
One thing you can do which you might not have thought of yet is to go and observe other violin exams taking place. If your school allows this, you can go a day or so before you’re scheduled to take the exam, and that way you can get a clear idea of how it will be.
This should take a lot of the pressure of a the occasion out of the equation since the uncertainty factor will be significantly reduced.
This is of course the most important part of your preparation, as it is what will determine if you pass or not.
Practising well for the violin grades means nailing the 4 different sections. While it isn’t necessary to pass each section to pass overall, the more marks you pick up across each part the more likely you are to get the mark you’re hoping for.
It can also give you confidence for the next part of the exam if you sail through the previous section.
Rehearse The Pieces
You will have 3 pieces to play in the exam, and you will need to choose them from 3 different lists.
Each piece will rely upon different technical skills, so they will test your overall ability and versatility with the violin.
Choose pieces that are best suited to your style, and more importantly, that you enjoy playing. You should get very familiar with each piece, playing them at different speeds, listening to them many times, and perhaps even working backwards to really get to grips with it.
The best thing you can do while rehearsing is to ignore mistakes. Just like speaking a new language, you have to keep going even if you are aware of a missed note or word.
Practise Your Scales and Arpeggios
To get your scales and arpeggios down, you need to work on them regularly.
Take your time to get extremely familiar with them, since you will be required to play them by heart in the exam.
Even without your instrument you can try to recreate the correct hand and finger positioning until it becomes fully internalised and second nature to you.
To prepare for the sight-reading component of your violin grade exam, you will need to practise in test conditions before the day arrives.
That means playing music you haven’t heard before, checking it over in 30 seconds or less, and identifying everything you need to know such as tempo, rhythms, and notes.
Tune Your Ear
To go back to the language comparison, you need to tune your ear as best you can in order to produce your best.
In a foreign language you need to be able to recognise the individual phonemes and syllables to reproduce them accurately, likewise in music you need to recognise individual notes and their tones to produce them.
Listen to as much classical radio or recordings as possible.
This doesn’t have to be a chore. If you prefer the more modern style of violin, then you may appreciate the work of YouTubers such as Lindsey Sterling who make an art out of playing the violin to popular songs.
The Day of The Exam
When the day of the exam arrives, it’s important not to panic.
It’s worth noting that you can decide in advance what order you do the different sections of the exam in, so try to pick the section you’re most comfortable in first to give you an initial confidence boost.
Make sure to arrive at least 10 minutes before the exam, but earlier is better, since you want to minimise time-related nerves creeping in and disturbing your calm state.
If you find yourself with time to spare before the exam, and you’ve practised as much as you want to, then you could try a visualisation exercise.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can close your eyes and try to picture yourself hitting all the right notes and impressing the examiner with your technical skills.
Focus as much on the feelings and sounds as you do on the performance itself.
What do you feel to give a distinction-worthy performance?
How does the confidence manifest in your body language?
How would you play if there was nobody else around?
A visualisation exercise like this can help you melt away nerves and even enter the exam room with confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Even if you’re struggling to reach that feeling, just remember the examiner is on your side. They want you to pass, and if you have any doubts or concerns don’t be afraid to talk to them.
Last Minute Warm Up
Since you might not have had much time to warm up if your exam is in the morning, you should do so in the moments before you’re called up.
You are allowed to take a few minutes before the exam to warm up with your instrument. Use this opportunity to play those arpeggios and scales, or just limber up and get your hands and fingers ready.
It might be worth practising something you know very well, since this can put you in a relaxed frame of mind going into the exam. This might not be the best chance to practise anything that you’ve been struggling with a lot.
Then once you are in the exam you can quietly practise, or go through the motions silently.