Top tips from a top youth orchestra
Looking for inspirational advice for your students? Three members of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, all with distinctions at Grade 8, share their tips for exam success.
Making the most of the pieces
John Tothil (16-year-old clarinettist): Try to choose pieces that will showcase your strengths and talents. I’m not so good at fast, scalic passages and I always keep this in mind. Choose pieces you’re comfortable with. Jody Smith (15-year-old violinist): The pieces offer a great chance to demonstrate technique and musicality. You can show off all the technical things you’ve learned in the context of a piece.
Top tips on preparing exam pieces
Alexei Watkins (17-year-old horn player): I listen to various recordings of the pieces and then like to choose different elements of people’s interpretations, such as phrasing or dynamics, to influence my own performance. John: I don’t listen to recordings when I’m preparing. An interpretation needs to be your own. I don’t like to let other interpretations influence my performance.
Rehearsing with your accompanist
Alexei: Rehearse lots before the exam! You should be very comfortable and relaxed with your accompanist so you’re not thrown by anything in the exam. John: It’s helpful to have your teacher there too so they can advise in the rehearsals.
Making your performance stand out
Jody: Musicality is very important; play all the dynamics and make your performance interesting. Put your heart and soul into it! Alexei: Particularly for the higher grades, it’s important to research the pieces and get to know the character of the music. This means you will be able to communicate more to the examiner.
Scales and arpeggios
Making scale practice interesting
Jody: I write all the different scales on bits of paper, put them in a bowl and take out a few to practise each day. Once I’ve taken them all out, I put them back and start again. This makes practising scales more interesting and random - and you cover all of them. John: Practice is key! I also do Jody’s ‘lucky dip’ approach; that way you can’t avoid the more difficult ones. Make sure you’re strict with yourself and practise the tricky scales that you pick out at least three times. Alexei: I like to change the rhythm as I practise scales. It’s great to use funky rhythms! Once I know all the scales, I also like to go up one scale and down another to mix things up a bit.
The value of scales
John: Scales are really important because all repertoire is based on them. If you’ve worked on your scales you’ll find it easier to play passages quickly and fluently, be better at sight-reading and be able to play well in lots of different keys. Scales can be your best friend!
Jody: I used the ABRSM sight-reading books (Specimen Sight-Reading Tests) and did an exercise or two a day. A little bit of practice often is a great way to get better. I also picked out random pieces from other grades and tried sight-reading them. John: Join chamber groups and play through lots of repertoire. It’s fun if you can sight-read with other people. I also find lots of old pieces and play through those; sight-reading can be real music! Nearer the exam I would start to use the ABRSM books to focus and prepare.
Sight-reading in the exam
Alexei: Check the key signature first. After that, rhythm is the most important thing. Lock into the rhythm and the notes will follow. Keep calm and don’t be afraid to play slightly under tempo. Jody: I always look at the key and time signatures first. Then I scan it for the trickiest parts and try them out. It’s good to pick out any accidentals in advance and be aware of them. John: I do the same. Also, don’t stop and go back over bars if you make mistakes. Just confidently carry on!
The value of sight-reading
Jody: Having to practise sight-reading has helped me to be good at sight-reading orchestral music. It’s helped me not to stop when I’m playing and to always look ahead.
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) unites 165 of Britain’s most talented and dedicated teenage musicians from diverse backgrounds.
ABRSM is currently supporting NYO’s Inspire Days, which provide opportunities for NYO members to share their musical knowledge and skills with other young musicians around the country. The next Inspire Day takes place on 30 June at London’s Southbank Centre.
This article was originally featured in the May 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.