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AMEB exams – Prep, Dates, Practice and Tips

AMEB exams
Written by Isaac Bartels

AMEB Exams preparation

The first thing music students need to know when preparing for the AMEB exams is their skill level. If you’re a beginner instrumentalist who has only been playing for a year, you’re not going to enrol for a Grade 8 exam; the repertoire is simply too advanced. Likewise, if you’re new to the AMEB examination syllabus after several years on your instrument of choice, there’s not much point in starting with Preliminary, as you will not find the repertoire challenging at all.

In general there are three grade levels in the AMEB music syllabus:

– Level 1 (Preliminary, Grades 1 – 4)

– Level 2 (Grades 5 – 8)

– Level 3 (Associate – Licentiate diplomas)

Each instrument has its own specific syllabus, which can be found on the AMEB website: https://www.ameb.edu.au/exams/practical.html. The website contains further resources, including the purchase of repertoire, study resources and more. Personally, I studied under the AMEB exams syllabus from Preliminary to Grade 8 in piano. Whilst the majority of the enrolment process was managed by my music teacher, I made sure to acquaint myself with the website in order to better understand the process I was going through. Students will also find that their music teacher will handle enrolment and pass on important exam information to the student.

Now, when it comes to preparing repertoire for the exam, music teachers will set certain goals for students to meet over the year. It is up to the student to ensure that these goals are met so that they are well-prepared for the upcoming examination. In my experience, it is ideal for a student to have their repertoire fully prepared a month before the exam date. There is nothing worse than spending the week of the exam trying to cram several pieces and various aural exercises to memory. No matter how good of a musician you are, you will only end up putting in a sub-optimal performance in the exam. Over the years, I have found that entering an examination feeling unprepared is perhaps the most stressful experience in the world. I used to suffer from performance anxiety which affected me even at the best of times, let alone my less-prepared performances. I will go into more detail about learning repertoire when discussing practice habits, but the key phrase here is this: know your limits, know your stuff!

AMEB Exams dates

Along with setting goals for exam prep, it is vital that music teachers and students are fully aware of exam dates, as well as enrolment deadlines. These can vary widely, depending on your choice of instrument. While I would say from personal experience that all of my exams took place between September and November, there simply isn’t a rule of thumb for this. Each state has a different timetable for different instruments, which alters each year. For music teachers who want to stay informed, the AMEB exams dates link at https://www.ameb.edu.au/exams/enrol-exam-dates.html is your friend here. You can specify your state and instrument, which will bring up a well-organised timetable that shows exam dates and enrolment deadlines. Exam enrolment must be submitted by teacher, parent or legal guardian. The only exception is when a candidate is over the age of 18. Enrolment fees will vary, depending on the type of examination – written, practical, etc. – and exam grade. Up to the deadline, enrolments are refundable for 50% of the fee.

AMEB Exams Practice

It’s an inside joke between musicians that “practice makes perfect” is wrong. In reality, perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, focused and purposeful practice will improve both musicianship and the quality of your repertoire. It’s no good to simply pick up your instrument and play the pieces through a few times before finishing for the day. You need to pick out sections, perhaps 3-4 bars that you’ve been struggling with for a couple of weeks, and run them over in short loops, paying close attention to the notes, articulation and any other techniques. Take this excerpt from Debussy’s Clair de lune, for example, one that I had trouble with for weeks:

AMEB Exams

At first, I would simply “fudge” the notes, trying to get an approximation of the correct rhythm while moving straight along to a more comfortable passage. In pieces with 100+ bars of music, it may seem tempting to let 1 or 2 less-than-perfect ones slip by. However, you would be doing both yourself and the music a disservice, sacrificing the overall quality of the piece as well as missing out on a valuable opportunity for improving certain skills. Not to mention, examiners have a copy of the music in front of them as you play and will be able to detect any imperfections instantly.

When you reach a passage such as this, one that you are simply not playing correctly, it is important to stop here and not continue on. Then, you must start breaking down the passage into something you can play confidently. Firstly, the notes: are you playing them all correctly? With this passage, I was having trouble getting all of those semiquavers correct, until I reimagined them as a broken 7th chord exercise. I set a metronome and slowed down the tempo. I found the fastest possible tempo where I could still comfortably play the passage perfectly and started from there. Slowly, I would increase the tempo, all the while ensuring that I was still playing the passage perfectly, splitting it up even more simply if needed. Eventually, I reached a point where I could play the passage properly at the designated tempo. However, I didn’t stop there. I continued increasing the tempo, playing the passage faster than recommended. Once I reached an extreme tempo and simply couldn’t keep up anymore, I set it back to the concert tempo and made sure that I could play it through perfectly. Being able to just barely play a piece at concert tempo is only half the battle.You can ensure a much more confident final performance if you are able to play it at a faster tempo in practice.

In terms of practice habits, I find that 1-2 hours a day is optimal. The time goes faster than you think, especially when you’re focusing on nothing else but good practice. Switch up your practice routine frequently. Don’t practice the same scales every day, or the same pieces. Your brain is just another muscle and will soon come to expect the routine. It won’t improve if you don’t test it out in different ways frequently. Your technical work should take up the first 20 minutes of practice. Scales, arpeggios, broken chords and ear tests are essential prep for your exam. Teachers should be setting 2 scales/arpeggios a week for students. I never enjoyed learning scales all at once. It had to be gradual and methodical learning in order to learn them properly. Teachers: remember to consult the syllabus so that you know which scales/arpeggios your student needs to learn for their exam. There’s no point in teaching a Grade 1 student an E-flat melodic minor scale if they’re not going to be examined on it that year.

The general syllabus for an exam includes 3 pieces from List A, B and C. These will comprise the bulk of the exam. However, it is equally important for students to be learning their technical work at the same time. As well as learning scales and arpeggios, students need to learn sight-reading skills. Sightreading is the one skill that is best left for the classroom. A teacher’s supervision is necessary for proper sight-reading development in the early stages. Simply having another person in the practice room will ensure that students will perform sight-reading tasks properly, removing the temptation to cut corners in solo sight-reading practice, as I tended to do. I find that giving students 3 separate sight-reading exercises in a lesson is ideal. Give students 30-60 seconds to peruse the piece, observing for key details: difficult passages that stand out, expression, dynamics and articulation. The best sight-reading performances include the little details, with a bit of leeway for the occasional missed note.

AMEB Exams tips

Go through a checklist in the lead-up to exam day. Having all of these things done beforehand will make a world of difference on the day.

– Ensure you have the right venue and examination time. Turning up early is crucial to minimise stress.

– If required, have a backup copy of the accompanist’s music. Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

– Rub out all pencil marks in your music. This is required for all exams and examiners will be on the lookout for this.

– Have your music in order and ready to go. When you’re in a stressful environment like an exam, there’s nothing more embarrassing than out-of-order or missing pages of music.

– Mental preparation. Performing in a high-stress situation isn’t exactly going to bring out the best in your musicianship. It’s very likely you won’t even perform your exam pieces to your best possible standard. Accepting this is a huge step towards a more comfortable exam environment. This is why ample practice is essential, to ensure that your performance standard remains as high as possible, even in the face of an imperfect performance.

– Mistakes are going to happen. There is no such thing as a perfect performance, despite what our biggest supporters may tell us. And that’s okay. The important thing is to shrug off a mistake and continue on. If you hit a wrong note in the middle of your piece, keep going! Examiners won’t mark you on mistakes; they mark you on how well you recover. I used to go into exams with the mentality that I was starting off with 100% and that every mistake would drag my mark down. In fact, the opposite is true. Examiners start you off with 0% and give you marks based on how much you get right.

Common AMEB Exams problems and reasons for failure

In the lead up to an exam, there are a host of mistakes and problems that you can avoid by simply being aware of them. I will list a few common ones, some of which I am guilty of myself:

  • Common AMEB Exams problems 1

Nerves can make us feel crippled and unprepared for an exam. In reality, nerves are great for you. It proves that you actually care about your performance, which is the most important thing. Going into an exam, you’re going to feel a build-up of adrenaline and nervous energy. It then becomes instinctual to channel that energy into your performance. Rethinking your stance on performance nerves can really turn around the situation in the exam room.

  • Common AMEB Exams problems 2

Cramming the week of an exam is a fruitless exercise. If you didn’t learn to play your instrument overnight, how can you expect to perfect exam repertoire overnight? Teachers should provide students with a practice book, for weekly progress updates and a long-term plan for exam prep. Stick to this plan! It will save you a lot of stress and a lot of tears.

  • Common AMEB Exams problems 3

Overpractising, believe it or not, is a thing. Just as you can be underprepared, it is possible for you to overprepare the week of the exam. It’s tempting to grab your instrument and practise for 5 hours a day in that final week. But if you’ve previously been doing 60-90 minutes a day, this overpractice is going to make you burn out come exam day. Even if you can play the pieces backwards by memory, keep your routine going. Zero in on small problem sections, work on improving them. Do you have to think twice before playing an F melodic minor scale? Then spend some time revising that particular scale. There is no reason to put your routine into hyperspeed simply because the exam is close.

– You’re there to be examined on your performance, so perform! The way you dress, present yourself, address the examiner, performance posture and musicianship, you need to express yourself with everything you do! An examiner doesn’t want a robotic performance. They want to see an expressive, polished performance. Just because it’s an exam, doesn’t mean you’re not able to get your personality across. I find that smiling and even the occasional mistake goes a long way to break the tension between you and the examiner. They want you to succeed, after all. They didn’t come to see a bad performance. They want you to enjoy yourself.

– Have you ever finished a performance, walked off the stage and think, “Could I have done that better?” I certainly have. As hard is might be, it’s vital to not dwell on mistakes. It’s in the past and thinking about it won’t change the mistake. The important thing is to be proud that you completed the exam. It’s an achievement that no result can take from you.

These are all extremely common problems that most students face when going into an exam. Being aware of them is very important for teachers. If your student is well-informed, they are wellequipped. Failing an exam often comes down to one thing: a lack of preparation. An examiner isn’t likely to fail a student who knows the repertoire but just falls to pieces on the day of. Preparation of repertoire is easy to identify and examiners are generally understanding of issues such as performance anxiety. Being underprepared is the most common factor for failure. Follow this advice, as well as your teacher’s, and your chances of success increase tenfold.

Good luck to all students!

— Isaac Bartels is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and music director. With a Performance Diploma in Percussion and over 15 years of experience on piano, violin and music theory, he has recently received his Bachelor of Music from the University of Melbourne, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Music from the University of Queensland.

Author: Isaac Bartels

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