ABRSM provides four levels of diploma: ARSM, DipABRSM, LRSM, and FRSM. Diplomas are available in performance, instrumental and vocal teaching, as well as direction. Below are some practical preparation tips to help you prepare for your diploma.
First things first ……
Diplomas provide a learning journey to consolidate, develop and enhance musical as well as pedagogical skills. ABRSM qualifications are recognised as the international gold standard, and many thousands of successful candidates have gained both personally and professionally from acquiring them in recent decades. Without doubt, a diploma will give you enhanced confidence, whether as a performer, teacher or director.
What can I do to prepare?
Before the exam
First of all, take time to read the specifications for the qualification you are considering doing.
* What is involved? Do you understand what each of these elements entail?
* What are the prerequisite requirements to enter for the diploma? For example, the DipABRSM Teaching Diploma requires Grade 8 practical and Grade 6 music theory.
* Have you set aside time to prepare what’s needed? Sketch out a rough timeline for each component; for example, how long will it take for you to research and write the Programme Notes or Written Submission? How much time will it take you to learn your three selected grade 8 pieces for the LRSM Teaching diploma?
* If possible, consider finding yourself a teacher / mentor to guide you through the entire process, and check they have gained the relevant experience and qualifications to help you through each stage of preparation. Talking to former pupils and getting recommendations from colleagues can be helpful here. You may also gain valuable insight from checking the success rate previous students have attained. Requesting a trial consultation lesson could be a valuable aid to gauging whether a teacher is right for you.
* When selecting repertoire, be sure to choose music which showcases your musical strengths and technical capabilities. This applies for all three diplomas. There are likely to be pieces that you will play, teach or direct with greater insight and confidence than others.
* List the possible questions you could be given during the Viva Voce, and prepare model answers away from the pressures of the exam day. Make sure you have met the specifications, such as word count, balance, formatting and overall shape/structure when preparing the written submission or programme notes. For performing diplomas, take especial note of timings and read the published guidelines for ensuring you have built a balanced, well-proportioned recital programme. Further details of preparing for these specific elements can be found here:
* Practice every element of the exam day in a variety of ways. For example, are you able to play through your entire programme in a more ‘public’ setting? Have you fully anticipated the lines of questioning your examiner(s) might ask?
* It is always a good idea to run through your entire exam wearing the clothes and shoes you will be wearing on the day to check you feel comfortable and fully at ease. Some candidates (perhaps especially singers) find they benefit from running through their programme at the exact time of day the exam has been scheduled. Bear in mind that stamina can play a significant role during a performance diploma stamina – it’s not like playing to yourself or your teacher. Finding a few new audiences, however small, before the exam day can be beneficial, both for confidence and to gain experience performing in different environments. You could even do a performance to raise money for a local charity.
* Page turns are an issue not just facing pianists – solutions to the most irksome page turns may well be best headed off well in advance, father than coped with in the moment.
* If you are planning to perform from memory, be sure that you are not skating over important details, and practice restarting from a variety of places to avoid the need to backtrack. While playing from memory can bring an additional dimension to some performers, for others the risk element is potentially too high. It is also worth considering the fact that ABRSM does not award extra marks for playing from memory – even at FRSM level – though performance traditions do need weighing up carefully. An unintended consequence of playing from memory is that you might discover you are playing progressively faster without realising; check your speeds periodically to ensure your performance is not suffering.
* Select a good edition of your music to work from (for ‘non’ own-choice repertoire, some editions are recommended in the syllabus). A safe option is to use ABRSM examination publications when preparing to take a teaching diploma.
* Ensure you thoroughly understand the scores you are playing from. For each piece, go through the entire score, marking in landmarks of harmony, structure, melodic devices, rhythmic features, Italian terms, texture, timbre (including instrumental devices). Know the context in which the piece was composed, its historical background and period instruments, the meaning behind the title (if relevant) or translation of any foreign text.
On the day …..
* Do you know where you are going? Have you decided where you will park, or if using public transport, have you factored in time for delays? Running late on your exam day can be stressful
* Where possible, clear your day of other commitments to help keep your head clear.
* Some candidates benefit from having a friend or partner with them for support or to do the driving. Others prefer to settle their mind on their own – do what works best for you.
* If you are playing a string or reed instrument, make sure you have spare strings, reeds or other indispensable items. Brass instruments may need valves oiling or slides greasing.
* Be prepared for the unexpected; this will give you peace of mind and help you to give of your best.
* Prepare a list of everything you need on the day and get things ready the day before. Nerves can do strange things to your memory.
* Wearing a new pair of shoes might be unadvisable for pianists when pedaling, and for string players, wearing a jacket that’s too tight might unduly restrict your bow arm.
* A note about nerves – preparation (as detailed above) can help enormously. Research ways to tackle exam nerves and devise a range of strategies to suit your needs, whether these happen to be visualisation, aromatherapy or mindfulness.
Waiting for the result …..
* Your diploma result will take up to 6 weeks to come through, and it’s tempting to do a post-mortem when the exam has finished. This is not always entirely helpful however, as we tend to focus on those things which went less well and overlook what was achieved more successfully; what’s done is done, so try to be kind to yourself and not ruminate on the day.
* What happens if you don’t do as well as you wanted to, or fail the examination? It is important to remember an examination is merely a snapshot in time, not a definitive indication of your abilities. Besides, examinations can be retaken, indeed candidates sometimes find they gain a great deal from the process of self-reflection; ‘nothing succeeds like failure’, as the saying goes. Though easier said than done, try to focus on your learning journey, rather than the event or outcome itself. It is not uncommon for candidates to fall short at the first attempt but go on to excel in the next. The Quick Study component (relevant to all ABRSM diplomas apart from the ARSM) is easily overlooked, so equip yourself with plenty of practice material at the relevant level and make the most of your five minutes preparation.
* Preparing for your diploma via mock examinations can be hugely helpful, and this is
perhaps especially the case in the run-up to re-taking one or more component. Be sure the person commenting on your performance is suitably qualified, and don’t dwell on aspects which went less smoothly. Bear in mind that a high percentage of candidates are successful in the end.