In the UK, to prove your skills as a violinist and verify that you are qualified to a certain degree, you will need to pass a grade exam.
These violin grade exams in the UK are governed by the Royal Schools of Musics’s exam board, the ABRSM.
Each grade exam consists of 4 sections, which require you to master different elements of music and violin-based technical skills.
In total there are 9 grades, if you include the Initial Grade.
What is a Violin Grade?
A grade, simply put, is a formal music exam which is designed to assess your ability with a specific instrument.
How well you can play the violin is evaluated in much the same way as any other instrument. Though of course the contents of the exam will be specifically geared towards the violin.
Is It Important to Pass?
You may well wonder if it’s even worth being assessed for your ability to play the violin. If you know how well you can play, then what’s the point?
The main reason you should consider taking the violin grade exams, other than as a concrete measure of improvement over time, is to earn UCAS points which can help with university admission.
If you have aspirations of going to university in the future, then taking and passing the different violin grades can bolster your application to the university of your choice.
There are quite a few UCAS points up for grabs with grades, however it’s only grade 6-8 which count. As a result, you have extra incentive to master the violin to a high level, since only then will you be able to reap the rewards.
If you already play at a high level, but have only recently become aware or interested in taking the grade exams, you can even skip grades to assess yourself at the right level.
You are also encouraged to score highly in the grade exam since the higher your mark the more UCAS points you could end up with.
While a pass at grade 6 is worth 8 points for the practícal element, and 4 for the theoretical, a Distinction at the same grade level is worth 12 points for the practical and 6 for the theoretical.
When you get to grade 8, you can earn almost 3 times as many points as in grade 6. That makes it worthwhile to stick with the violin grades even if you feel like you don’t want to pursue playing in the long term.
What’s in the Exam?
To get a clear idea of what it takes to pass a violin grade exam, it’s worth knowing what exactly is in the exam.
Each grade exam follows the same format, and is divided up into 4 different sections, which can be completed in any order on the day.
You don’t need to pass every section to pass overall, but if you have any aspirations of earning a Merit or Distinction then follow our tips and try to master each of the 4 areas.
The 4 sections are as follows:
This section of the exam is arguably the most challenging.
You will be presented with 3 lists (A, B, and C), and you’ll have to select a piece from each list to perform in front of an examiner.
Each list requires different skills necessary to play the violin well, ranging from technical agility to musical expression.
During this section you will have an accompanist alongside you, who you can choose beforehand.
A good strategy to do well in this section is to pick out the pieces which most resonate with you. That is to say, choose the ones you enjoy listening to or feel like you’d have the easiest time reproducing under exam conditions.
Scales & Arpeggios
The scales & arpeggios section is all about how well you can master the basics.
This section is very straightforward, and simply requires that you accurately reproduce scales and arpeggios in exam conditions.
The catch is that you’ll need to know them off by heart, so it’s worth spending a good portion of your time committing them all to memory before you set foot in the exam room.
To do well in this section you should focus on cementing your muscle memory when playing the various scales and arpeggios.
The more you get your hands and fingers into the correct positions, the easier it will be to get them there in an instant. Practise playing them at different speeds too, so you know them inside and out.
The sight-reading portion of the exam is concerned with your ability to read music.
The examiner will assess how well you recognise keys, tones, and common rhythm patterns.
In this section you will need to play an unseen piece of music, with just 30 seconds to look through it prior to performing it.
The higher the grade, the more technical elements the examiner will be looking out for as you perform.
To practise for this section you could recreate exam conditions by recording yourself, finding a piece of music you aren’t familiar with, and trying to reproduce it accurately.
Remember to pay special attention to all of the technical elements such as hooked bowing, accents, and chromatic notes, since these are the main areas you will be tested on.
The last section of the exam is the aural tests.
This one is all about listening. You’ll need to tune your ear well to succeed in this section.
As you may have guessed already, the best way to practise for this part of the exam is to spend a lot of time listening to music. Be it through the radio or recordings, you should make a habit of active listening practise.
As you listen to the music, pay attention to different elements such as the rhythm and pulse.
You can even find videos on sites like YouTube of past violin exam aural tests, so you can practise with real-life examples if that helps build your confidence.
The Theoretical Side of Things
As well as the performance or practical grade exams, you will also have to take some theoretical grade exams too.
As your ability with the violin improves, so should your theoretical knowledge of music.
Are The Theory Exams Obligatory?
As we’ve already mentioned, in order to be officially recognised for the level you play the violin at you will need to pass a practical grade.
If you get as far as grades 6-8, you will be able to earn yourself some handy extra UCAS points which can go towards a university application.
You can skip these practical grades, up to a point.
That’s where the theory exams come in.
Since it’s important to know both the theoretical side of music as well as being able to actually play, you will need to keep up with both at more or less the same pace.
Music theory will help give you a greater understanding of the music you come across and play. It will help you develop your own skills and also give you the tools to read and play music from a sheet.
The importance of music theory cannot be understated, to the extent that the ABRSM have made it obligatory to pass a certain grade of music theory in order to progress with the performance grades.
If you thought you could just play the violin well and earn UCAS points from that alone, unfortunately you’re mistaken.
Grade 5 Theory
While you should now have a comprehensive knowledge of what a violin grade is, and why you need it, there are some other things that are worth knowing before you sign up for one.
While it’s true that you can skip violin grades, and enter at the level you feel is most appropriate for you, there is a catch.
If you have aspirations of going to university, then you will need to get a pass or higher in any of grades 6-8. However, there is one special prerequisite for these grades.
A pass in grade 5 of Music Theory is obligatory for grades 6-8.
That means that while you can skip certain grades, you cannot skip ahead to grade 6 or higher unless you have the grade 5 of Music Theory already under your belt.
What does Music Theory grade 5 entail?
This exam is focussed on the theoretical side of music. In order to pass, you will need to score at least 66 marks out of 100. A Merit requires 80, and a Distinction requires 60.
As we explored earlier, the theory of music grades can also give you valuable UCAS points just like the practical ones. Less points, but still, it all counts.
The type of things you will be tested on in the Music Theory paper include C clef, scales and key signatures of all keys, and most terms and signs commonly found in music.