Hints and tips for the exam day
At ABRSM we understand that the last few moments before an exam are an important time for any candidate, whatever their instrument, grade or experience.
We offer information and guidance on what candidates can expect on the day of their exam and how to handle those final pre-exam moments.
'The exam is a really big occasion for every candidate, and making it an enjoyable experience is a very important part of our job. We all try our best to put the candidates at their ease and to make the exam room itself as welcoming an environment as possible.' – Juliet Allen, ABRSM examiner
We have friendly stewards at every exam centre to welcome each candidate.
We ask candidates to arrive ten minutes before their exam in order to prepare themselves and to ensure that the day runs as smoothly as possible for everyone involved.
Every exam centre has a waiting area
Candidates can use their time in the waiting area to:
get their music ready
assemble and prepare their instrument
confirm their preferred running order for the exam
write down their pieces/songs and chosen order for the examiner
- sit quietly and think calmly through the music
Graded music exams
All candidates will be asked to complete an exam programme and running order slip before they go in to the exam room. Examiners and candidates have found this a quick and clear way of confirming the chosen pieces or songs and the order in which they will be performed.
These slips will be available at each exam venue and can be downloaded below to complete before the exam day.
Candidates need to make sure they have completed a programme form, which they should give to the examiner at the start of the exam.
This form should contain the following information, presented in programme order:
- the candidate’s name and (main) instrument
- the list number, for pieces chosen from the repertoire list; own-choice repertoire can be marked with a dash ( – )
- the composer name and, where applicable, the arranger’s/transcriber’s name
- full information on each piece being performed, including:
- the name of the piece/larger work
- catalogue number, where available – Opus number, BWV for Bach, K. for Mozart, etc.
- details of individual movements/sections
- for own-choice repertoire, the edition used
- for woodwind, brass and singing candidates, where the break (if planned) will be taken and its length
- an approximate timing for each piece (broken down for individual movements/sections of larger works)
- the overall programme length, which should include gaps between items and, where applicable, a longer break.
In cases where there isn’t enough room on the form, the programme information can be continued on a second form.
We recommend that candidates have a thorough warm-up session before leaving home or school to attend the exam.
Once at the exam centre, there is still much that a candidate can do to prepare in the few minutes before their exam, including:
loosening and exercising fingers
blowing silently through wind/brass instruments to bring them up to temperature
warming up embouchure and mouthpiece
quietly humming a few scales if a singer
mentally running through the music
Where there is a warm-up room, candidates will have a brief chance to warm up aloud. Sometimes the room will have a piano and the steward will indicate the length of time available to each candidate. This time is best used as a brief chance to warm up aloud – not for last minute practice!
We ask that candidates return to the waiting room in good time for the exam.
Shaking fingers, butterflies in the stomach and general agitation are all old friends to professional musicians! Newcomers to performing may find these perfectly natural symptoms distressing and need help in coping with them.
Parents, teachers and candidates should remember that these feelings are entirely normal. Accepting signs of heightened preparation for the activity to come is half the battle and using the extra adrenalin to good purpose is the next step.
It takes experience to deal with nerves. Most performers, especially if given plenty of calm support beforehand, learn to cope. Talking the situation through with the teacher can help and playing or singing to informal groups is also useful. Allowing plenty of time on the day, so there is no last-minute panic, and taking a few deep breaths are tried and tested ways to help the situation.
Before the exams begin each day, the examiner will have tried out the piano and so will be familiar with its tone quality and touch.
Many of our examiners have taken graded music exams themselves and therefore understand that candidates may feel nervous and take a few moments to settle.
At the start of each exam, the examiner will encourage each candidate to:
take a few moments to get comfortable. The examiner or steward will be happy to help with adjusting the height of the piano stool or music stand, and candidates should not be afraid to ask for assistance.
tune up (if an instrumentalist). Attending teachers, or accompanists, may assist candidates with tuning at Grades 1–5.
play or sing a few notes before the exam begins. Pianists can try the piano, and instrumentalists and singers can warm up aloud for a few moments.
do the exam in any order they choose. Candidates usually play their pieces first, but may prefer to begin with the other elements of the exam. Please let the steward know beforehand so that the accompanist can be shown in at the appropriate time.
Our examiners want each candidate to do well and look forward to hearing them perform.
- Arrive in the waiting room at least 10 minutes before your exam is due to start. Last-minute panics do not help the playing or singing
- Use the time before your exam to get your music and instrument ready – you can warm up silently by moving your fingers or blowing through your instrument
- Feeling nervous before an exam is natural. Try smiling as you go into the exam room – it will help you relax
- Make sure you are comfortable before you begin. If the stool or music stand is the wrong height, don’t be afraid to adjust it or ask for help
- It’s fine to ask the examiner if you can warm up by playing a scale or a few bars of a piece
- You can choose to do your exam in any order. Just let the examiner know
- Try to keep going in the exam even if you make a mistake – it probably won’t be as disastrous as you think
- Don't worry about pauses between your pieces – the examiner will be writing and will tell you when to start your next piece
- Your examiner may stop you during a piece if he or she has heard enough to make a judgement
- Remember – the examiner is on your side and is looking forward to hearing you perform!
- Arrive about 10 minutes before the exam is due to start so that you have a chance to get settled
- Make sure you have pens, pencils, a ruler, a rubber and a pencil sharpener
- Feel free to highlight any of the exam paper which you feel is important
- You will be given a blank piece of manuscript paper (for rough working). If you can draw a keyboard onto it, this may help with any interval questions
- Don’t feel that you have to work the paper question by question. Do the parts you know first and then go back to the more difficult bits – this may help with any exam nerves
- Keep an eye on the time so that you know how long you have left. If you have done some past papers you will have a good idea how long to allow yourself on each question
- Don’t worry if you make a mistake - you can rub or cross it out and write the correct answer next to it
- Try to be as neat as you can - if your work is untidy you might make a mistake that could lose you marks
- Don’t look around and worry about what everyone else is doing - concentrate on your own paper
- Check your work once you have completed the paper. You may leave the exam room any time after 40 minutes if you have finished, but make sure you have done everything as well as you can