Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Unauthorized Guide to Achieving Your Best Royal Conservatory Exam Result Yet

Image by Fire Bird Flame
As we move into late spring, exams are just around the corner for those enrolled in Carnegie Hall Royal Conservatory achievement exams in the United States and Royal Conservatory exams in Canada. This is traditionally the time when many students do their last few weeks of frantic practicing in order to make up for lost time earlier in the year. Students who traditionally get the best marks aren't necessarily the best technicians or performers, but the ones who do well at all the sections on the exam including repertoire, studies, technical requirements, clapbacks, intervals, chords, playbacks, sight reading, and sight clapping. Especially in the later grades, the amount of preparation required in order to excel at an exam is can be somewhat daunting. Here are 20 ways to make the most of your last few weeks of practice

1. Play through all the technical requirements every day. Playing technique well isn't about being smart or talented. It's about playing the scales, chords, and arpeggios day after day until you know them in your sleep. Your fingers and mind will both benefit from the workout.

2. Target problem spots in the technical requirements and work on them in detail. Minor scales and seventh chords in particular can often be neglected. Spend the time to really work on these and all the requirements that aren't up to snuff.

3. Play through all your repertoire and studies every day. It's vitally important to get beyond the learning stage of pieces and into performance mode. Running pieces without stopping will both help you make that switch and help you to identify pesky spots that still need work.

4. Do detail work on studies and repertoire. On the other hand, having performance-ready pieces doesn't necessarily mean that you need to neglect the detail work, which can often reap major dividends once your pieces are finally performable.

5. Do memory work on repertoire. Extremely few of us are blessed with a flawless memory. The rest of us have to work at the art of memory, relying on visual, auditory, kinesthetic, intellectual, and emotional cues to learn how to play pieces from heart. Also remember that for Grades 1-7 piano exams, two memory marks are awarded per piece, regardless of what mark you are actually awarded for the performance. Needless to say, these are marks that you're really going to want.

6. Perform your repertoire. Playing your pieces in festivals, master classes, or studio recitals will add some high-stakes situations to your musical development. And once you're in the exam room, you'll notice the benefits - it's just another performance.

7. Work on intervals. Play them, sing them, write them, learn songs that use them. You can even play online games that feature intervals. See this previous post for more details and resources.

8. Work on chords. Learn their constituent parts. Listen to how they sound, and in what contexts they can be found. Play through the chords in your technical requirements every day (see #1).

9. Practice drilling clapback and playback exercises. The Frederick Harris Comprehensive Ear Training series is an excellent way to work on these important skills.

10. Practice playing cadences. Sight-read Bach chorales and identify the cadences (see #12). Play cadences in all 24 keys. Write them.

11. Work on identifying cadences. See #10.

12. Sight-read every day. This is another core skill that has very little to do with being gifted or intelligent. It requires steady practice, day in, day out. The greatest benefit: a lifetime of being able to sit down at the piano and discover a world of musical compositions in any style.

13. Go to a church or temple service and sing along to the musical parts of the service. When you sing in a congregation, you're sight-reading! Following along in the hymn book can help you familiarize yourself with the basic musical literacy of intervals, scales, and rhythms, and you can take away all of these skills to help you improve musicianship at your instrument.

14. Listen to music while following along with the score. Listen to string quartets, chamber music, operas, and symphonies with the score. Here's one for starters.

15. Watch performances of your repertoire on YouTube. Do a search for any repertoire you're doing and watch a broad cross-section of performances, be they brilliant or pedestrian.

16. Practice for longer amounts of time. Here's how to do it.

17. Practice at more optimal times of the day. Read my previous articles on how to build a regular practice schedule here and here.

18. Practice more times per day for shorter periods. Having trouble concentrating? Are personal or academic demands only letting you practice for short bursts? Take a look at my previous article on 15 ways to add 10-minute practice blocks to your routine.

19. Write a practice journal. Taking a bit of time to write down your start and end times, processes, insights, and questions while practicing will help you develop even more mindful intention to your time at the instrument.

20. Get your teacher to give you a practice exam. Doing a practice exam will help you get into the rhythm that will ensure you play to the best of your ability come examination day. After all, the best marks don't come from candidates who perform one or two things brilliantly, but ones whose broad preparation allows them to score well in as many parts of the exam as possible.

Best of luck to everyone playing RCM/CHRC exams this June! I'll be examining in New Jersey and southern New York State in a few weeks, followed by a week-long stint in Vancouver.

For teachers who are unfamiliar with Royal Conservatory exams, now might be an excellent time to familiarize yourself with the specific requirements for your instrument, so be sure to check out the syllabi for piano, theory, guitar, voice, violin, violacello, double bassflute, woodwinds, brass, and percussion,


  1. lovely Chris - thank you!!

  2. Karen M7:42 PM

    Hi Chris,

    I've been an invisible reader of your blog for a while now and I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the resource. I finished my DMA in collaborative piano in May 2010 and have been working as a vocal coach this past year. Question: how does one become a RCM examiner? I grew up with the RCM and have always harboured a desire to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak! Also, as a Canadian, it would be great to have potential options, should I need to go back to my home and native land. :) Thanks for your input!

  3. Karen, go to this link: