Thursday, 9 July 2015

How To Pass Your Rockschool Exam - Grades 6-8

 Summertime, and the livin' is easy..

..but at Grade 6 and higher, the exams surely aren't.

And so to our second look at how to pass your Rockschool grade exam, this time focusing on grades 6, 7 and 8. At this level, things have got serious. Grades 3-5 count as GCSE level passes, but grades 6-8 are QCA (Quality Certification Alliance) accredited and can count towards your UCAS points total (assuming you're looking at something music-based – don't bet on it counting towards getting a place on a Civil Engineering course), so the pieces are challenging. Expect awkward time signatures, extended chords, technically demanding riffs and soloing... but if you've come this far, odds are you'll be able to handle it.

First step – make sure you've read my previous article on Rockschool exams because ALL OF IT still applies here -

Preparation? - check. Take nothing for granted when planning your journey. If necessary ring the venue themselves to enquire about parking facilities, equipment and so on. Take nothing for granted regarding the venue either, especially if it's a new one – I have a vivid recollection of turning up to do a day's examining in an exam room where the venue had provided all the musical equipment imaginable but no desk or chair. With the best of intentions, these places are usually run by musicians, and musicians are not always brilliant at thinking organisational and logistical problems through.

Technicals? - check. In fact, as you progress further along the grade structure, the technical exercises become a very important primer for the abilities you need. As discussed in my earlier article, don't just learn these parrot fashion. You won't get the lasting benefits that way. Sequence them, play them in thirds, fourths, fifths – make sure you practice them using the two bar on/ two bar off method. At grade 8 you're also dealing with some fairly... adventurous... tonalities. Of particular interest is the “altered” scale, also known as the Superlocrian mode ( R b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7 – Locrian, but even more so!) - during a recent lesson, I livened things up for a slightly frustrated student by getting him to harmonise it and write a song based off a I-V-vi-IV chord progression in the Superlocrian. It's important to remember these things are not dry academic exercises for the fingers but genuine musical resources.

Pieces? - check. These are obviously more difficult than anything encountered so far in the grade structure, but the progression is logical and incremental. At this level, more and more emphasis is placed on “stylistic awareness”, that is the authentic feel that a player has for the style he or she is playing in. Obviously if you're playing a funk piece you wouldn't want to be laying down heavy handed power chords, and conversely a metal solo is no place for your sensitive and sophisticated jazz/blues lines. A good trick here is to look at the songs the pieces are based on – for example, the old Grade 8 2006-2012 syllabus contained a classic rock track called Bonzo, which owed a healthy debt to Led Zeppelin's “Rock & Roll”. So if you want to play Bonzo really well and authentically, learn Rock & Roll too. The new syllabus gives a list of recommended listening to get the feel of the exam pieces – it's definitely worth your while checking them out.

The major difference with the exam format at this level is that the sight reading and improvisation/ interpretation part of the exam has been replaced by the Quick Study Piece. This is in some ways actually easier, as you get 15 minutes to study and learn a piece that really is none too demanding. The same approach is applicable here as is with the sight-reading: prioritise rhythm, then pitch (you'll have the tablature there), and then dynamics. You may be left with the backing track to practice to – it's well worth sticking the backing on and tracing the tablature along with it to get the feel for how the whole thing hangs together. Often, any unusual rhythmic phrasing will be cued with the drums and bass. Oh, and one sneaky trick - f you're feeling nervous about reading and want to stack the deck further in your favour, when you're offered the choice of style for your QSP, avoid rhythmically complex ones like funk and go for something more straightforward like rock or punk.

It's important to realise that at Grade 8 the player is supposed to be a complete package, with all the bases covered. It shouldn't be a problem to get the right tone from your amp or guitar. You shouldn't be struggling to remember scales or arpeggios. You shouldn't be playing the pieces with our nose buried in the tab book. The examiners are looking for a polished and confident performance, befitting an experienced and confident player. No examiner wants to fail a student, but equally Grade 8 is the top end of the scale and is supposed to be difficult. No examiner is going to devalue the exam by diluting the standards. Completing it represents a huge accomplishment, but it does require a lot of preparation. Don't expect to dive in and busk it, because you will fail, and deservedly so.

If you're feeling nervous and unsure whether you're ready, the odds are you probably aren't so delay the application to the next exam period and get some extra experience in playing the syllabus and also around it using the recommended listening as a guide. When the pieces feel and sound mature and confident, when you're playing the music not just the notes - that's the time to go for it. Do the homework – I particularly recommend the Companion Guides as “past papers” to help you prepare – and you will end up with an achievement you can be genuinely proud of.