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Practice Makes Perfect

Almost no one enjoys competing nor do they enjoy getting grades on how they play their instrument. It’s definitely a terrifying feeling to get on stage and play a piece, sometimes for several minutes, for memory in front of severe judges or a judgemental crowd. As the year 2022 goes on, music competitions and exams begin to emerge as students start practicing frantically for this season. There are several music competitions and examinations that are taking place this season in California including the US Open Competition and Certification of Merit examinations. Many students, including myself, have lots of experience when it comes to competing and testing and offer to share their advice when the competition season comes.

Piano teacher Kylan Yang is a senior at Head Royce School in Oakland and has been playing the piano ever since she was six years old. Although she doesn’t compete, Kylan does participate in piano examinations, most notably the ABRSM exams. ABRSM, the Association Board of the Royal Schools of Music, is a British examination organization that rigorously tests musicians on several aspects.

For piano, there are three sections of the piano exam, Kylan explains. First, the student must play a variety of scales of the examiner’s choice. Next, you must perform three pieces that were selected and approved by ABRSM and finally, the examiner will test you on your aural skills such as listening to pitch or identifying components of a piece. In total, there are eight levels where each level is successively more difficult than the other.

With the exam in mind, Kylan emphasizes the need to practice. The only way to achieve a high grade on these exams is to practice and practice again because Kylan notes that if you practice over and over again, the pieces and scales even become etched in your muscle memory. As someone who also has completed the ABRSM exams, I definitely recommend a minimum of an hour of practice to avoid potential mistakes.

Currently, ABRSM is still accepting online submissions where you’re able to record your pieces. When it comes to recording, expect to record at least ten times. Although you’re able to record as many times as you want to get that perfect video, you’re bound to get extremely frustrated. It’s almost impossible to get a perfect recording. As I prepared for the Grade 8 ABRSM exam, I could not get a perfect recording but although I made some minor but noticeable mistakes, the examiners didn’t pay as much attention to my mistakes but they focused more on how I played the piece as a whole. Final point: don’t worry too much about small slips, focus on presentation and interpretation.

QuaranTunes vocal instructor Adithi Nythruva also shares her thoughts on competitions. Adithi is a junior attending Perry High School who studies voice. She has completed the National Association for Teachers of Singing, the Classical Singer Competition, the Hal Leonard Vocal Competition, and is currently preparing for the Music International Grand Prix Semi-Finals. In her vocal examinations, Adithi explains that “you essentially get adjudicated by professors…and receive constructive criticism on how you can improve your vocal technique.”

When preparing for her competitions, Adithi relied heavily on her teacher since her teacher provided the experience of a competition before the actual one through masterclasses and repertoire recommendations. Adithi notes that although stress and anxiety levels are high, it’s important to congratulate yourself on the effort you put in.

“I would just remind myself that whatever the outcome was, I would have tried my best,” she states. Luckily for her, Adithi didn’t find competitions to be too stressful and was something she cherished and enjoyed. Even so, she still recommends doing deep breathing exercises to find your peace of mind before the competition. Furthermore, in order to prepare for vocal competitions, Adithi mentions that one must build their technique over time: it’s not something you can do at the last minute. To find the road towards success, strengthen your skills day by day with patience and confidence.

COVID-19 managed to destroy so many events and activities but for many musicians, it brought a blessing in disguise. Students are able to record their pieces for examinations and competitions without stage fright. Although it was stressful recording pieces with the impending deadline looming in the distance, online competitions and examinations significantly reduced the fear of slips and judgemental onlookers. However, Adithi laments this new way of communication. She admits that it is much easier to participate in competitions but she misses the loss of connection she usually creates with other participants. She actually enjoys the thrill of performing in front of a live audience and can’t wait to go back into in-person competitions.

Completing music competitions or examinations is no easy feat. It requires a massive amount of patience, self-confidence, and determination which most people don’t have the capacity for. At the end of the day, don’t worry about your score or the audience’s reaction but keep reminding yourself of the hard work you put in as well as the courage you had to even perform. Just remember: breathe deeply, be content, and learn from your mistakes to move forward in order to find greater success in the future.

Photo credits go to ABRSM and Adithi Nythruva

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Catherine Wang
Catherine Wang
Mar 10, 2022

Great article Angelina! Good luck to everyone who will be taking a music exam soon.

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