Piano Examinations: Aural

To prepare pupils for the aural part of their piano examinations, you should invest in some ABRSM Specimen Aural Tests books for each grade. These can also be purchased with CDs included which is particularly helpful if you lack confidence in either your own aural ability or your piano sight-reading skill (for the final aural test the teacher/examiner has to play a short piece of music which must be played with correct tempo, dynamic markings etc. as the pupil answers questions about particular aspects of the piece).

I must confess that teaching aural – particularly at the higher grades – is a pet hate of mine. This is mainly because I have never considered myself particularly (or even remotely!) musical. The advantage of my inadequacy is that I am extremely sympathetic to those who struggle; the disadvantage (mainly from grade 4 upwards) is that I can’t always tell whether or not my pupils are getting it right!

At GRADE 1, however, I do feel I am able to be of some use to those who are new to music aural tests.

The first question requires the candidate to clap in time to a piece of music and then state whether it’s in 2 time or 3 time. Most learners find it relatively easy to clap in time – they are generally used to tapping a foot or nodding the head to a beat – often without even realising they’re doing it.

I did have one young pupil, however, whose clapping appeared to be entirely random. It’s very difficult to know how to teach kids to clap when they appear to have no instinctive sense of a beat. In the end, I took some advice from my own adulthood teacher, who recommended asking the boy to march in time to the music. He seemed to have no problem with this. The next step was getting him to tap his sides as he marched, then, finally, clapping his hands together. This worked well.

Problems in recognising the timing are more common. It’s vital that the listener is aware of the strong beat and knows that at this point he must count ‘one’: for this reason I always start by over-emphasising the first beat of the bar when I play.

Some learners have a tendency to guess whether it’s two or three beats. If the guess is incorrect, I make sure my pupil attempts to count the wrong number of beats out loud as I play, to show why it doesn’t work.

Make a Confident Guess

However, if for some reason, he has no option but to guess in the actual exam (for example, if he fails to detect the strong beat) I recommend giving a very confident guess. At grade 1 there is 50 percent chance of being right, so it’s worth giving the impression you know what you’re talking about even when you don’t! (I’m sure some piano teachers would be appalled at this idea but my expectations of my pupils are very realistic – I could spend weeks of my time and take horrendous amounts of their parents’ money …. and still not be sure they’d get it right).

The second – and generally most feared – test involves singing a short series of notes played by the examiner. The only students who feel really comfortable with this are those who take private singing lessons or sing in a choir. Most people, however, have some sense of self-consciousness or embarrassment when it comes to singing and this tends to increase with age. In an attempt to put the learner at ease, I usually demonstrate the test myself and when he hears the pathetic limitations of my singing voice, my pupil is generally far less inhibited.

Incredibly, I have encountered some singers who are actually worse than me and initially seem unable to vary the pitch of the voice at all. In this case, I start by playing a very low note and singing it, followed by a very high one, and then repeat, encouraging them to sing along. Then I play a C major scale, singing along with it and then inviting the learner to join in. Eventually, you discover that most people can sing … it’s just that they’ve never really bothered trying.

There is a particular reluctance to sing high notes, so I always draw attention to these and make the pupil aware that he may have to push himself but not to be afraid to do so. He should be encouraged to sing ‘lah’ when the examiner plays the starting note (never ‘ler’ or ‘ugh’ as boys, in particular, tend to do!) – and, preferably, sing as loud as he dares – it is far easier to correct your pitch if you can hear it loudly and clearly.

The third GRADE 1 test seems to pose the fewest problems. This has been simplified during recent years and now just requires the candidate to recognise whether a change made in the second playing of a very short passage of music occurs at the beginning or end. The majority of my pupils answer this correctly every time and the only advice I offer is, again, to remember that there is a 50 percent chance of success so: “who cares if you don’t really know – just say either ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ … but say it with confidence!”

Use Italian Terms

The final question requires the candidate to listen to a piece of music, then answer questions on dynamics, articulation and gradation of tone. He may be asked, for example, whether the loud sections are near the beginning, middle or end and whether the staccatos are in the quiet or the loud sections. I always encourage my pupil to use Italian terms such as “crescendo”, “pianissimo” and “legato” but if he forgets these on the day, the examiner will accept the English equivalents.

At GRADE 2 and GRADE 3, the tests are merely slightly harder versions of the same thing – with the exception of the third question. Here, the candidate needs to say not whether the examiner is making a change to the beginning or end of the music but whether he’s making a pitch difference or a rhythm difference. Younger pupils often have a problem with the word ‘pitch’ until I explain that it just means playing a different note.

At GRADE 4 and GRADE 5, sight-singing is introduced. There are a few things worth suggesting to the inexperienced singer here. Firstly, listen carefully to the arpeggio played by the examiner at the start, as this will give you your ‘third’ and your ‘fifth’ note of the scale. Secondly, remember that you will always be required to end on the tonic, so keep that pitch in your head. Thirdly, if the music goes down a third at any point, remember this replicates the call of a cuckoo. (You can practise this by playing any note of the scale, singing it to ‘cu …’, then singing the note a third lower to the sound: “… koo”).

Aural tests at the higher levels – GRADE 6, 7, 8 – are extensions of those set earlier on but considerably more challenging: for this reason, I recently purchased a copy of ABRSM’s Aural Training in Practice grades 6-8 which includes CDs with questions and answers. (These are also available for the lower grades). Now, at least the challenge is entirely for the candidate, and not also for myself as the ‘non-musical’ teacher, who until now has spent years desperately trying to play extracts correctly (for the ‘identifying musical features’ question) and struggling to decide whether or not responses to the singing tests are off-key!

Pupils may want to practise their aural skills at home and there are plenty of music aural books available to help (many with a CD included). The ABRSM also produces an app – Aural Trainer and there is more help online with sites such as Music Maestro Aural Tests.

(For full details of grade 8 aural see Examinations: Grade 8 Aural).


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