Few people ever outright declare they will strive for a life of mediocrity – not that we posit everyone aspires to be any combination of rich-powerful-famous.

In general, humans are quite happy to find their success in life, be it in offices, shops or elsewhere. Still, in the supposed mundane-ness of such an existence lies in the aspiration of being as good as one can be, as opposed to being merely ‘good enough’.

The idea of being as 'good' as possible is fundamental to the human condition, a philosophy that drives every single enterprise from parenting to commanding vast armies.

Why would aspiring singers be any different?

If you have been taking singing lessons for a while, ‘good enough’ marks on a singing exam is likely within your reach.

However, understanding that humans don’t easily settle for the bare minimum when better could be had, we like to think that you're aiming much higher than simply passing.

Let us show you how to earn distinction in your singing exam.

Why You Should Strive for Distinction

Some teachers, in an effort to reduce students’ stress about exams, often minimise the ordeal.

“You only need to pass”, they say. Their kindness overlooks the human drive to excel, often leaving their charges tortured by the duelling ideals of pragmatism and supremacy.

Even testing at Grade 1, you should be able to sight-read
The difference between 'merit' and 'distinction' could be as simple as a bit of music theory like understanding notation Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well – Phillip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Nowhere is this conflict better laid bare than in a letter written by Sir Stanhope to his son. For centuries, his truism has been invoked when confronting challenging tasks or situations; it has become the mantra of every high achiever.

Noteworthy is the fact that the Earl was not urging his child to adopt a doctrine of excellence; he was encouraging the boy to be distinctive among his peers – not above them.

Knowing the full story behind this oft-quoted phrase should provide an incentive for you too to seek distinction by standing out among your fellow singers… but there are more important reasons to aim for this mark on your singing exams.

You should already know that ABRSM grading is optional; in other words, if you are taking singing lessons to develop your voice for a career in public speaking or just as a hobby – perhaps to sing better in your church choir, you probably don’t need to establish a grade in singing.

However, if you hope for higher education and a career in music – even in musical theatre, earning top marks in the highest ABRSM (LCM or Trinity) grade is not only helpful, it is essential.

Attaining distinction is the key that unlocks the door to a world of opportunity.

What Is Distinction, Exactly?

No matter which grade you test in, the lion's share of your marks derive from five aspects of singing: pitch, tone, time, performance and shape.

Did you know that you could skip singing exam grades?

Every musician can earn a maximum of 30 points for each of those elements but this point system is only relevant to examiners. For students testing through ABRSM, things are much simpler:

  • anything below 100 points is considered ‘below pass
  • 100 points and above is 'Pass’
  • 120 points signals ‘Merit’
  • 130 points and above proclaims ‘Distinction’

Now that we know exactly where the lines between ‘good enough’ and ‘most deserving' lie for the ABRSM exam, let’s take a closer look at the aspects will drive your scores.

Singing Exam Marking Criteria

Distinction (27-30 points)fluent, with appropriate flexibility;
good demonstration of rhythm
discriminating tonal quality;
accurate intonation and notesexpressive and detailedexcellent communication of style and character,
Merit (24-26 points)Good sense of rhythm,
effective tempo
controlled and consistentlargely accurateclear, with well-realised detailpositive,
character and style evident
Pass (20-23 points)suitable,
overall accurate and stable
generally reliable
sufficiently reliable;
generally correct
demonstrated some awareness of shape and detailpromptly recovers from slips and omissions,
Below Pass (17-19 points)inaccurate rhythm, unsuitable tempouneven and unreliable; little tonal awarenessfrequent note errorsnot conveyed sufficientlypoor recovery, insecure, poor commitment demonstrated

NOTE: scoring is slightly different for LCM and Trinity exams but follow along the same lines.

Your First Steps To Attaining Distinction

Among all of the tips teachers give their students about to take an exam, this one may be the most valuable: know what the examiners want.

Thanks to the table above, you now know exactly what examiners expect out of any singing candidate aiming for distinction in their grade.

How can you prepare yourself to meet those expectations?

The most overlooked facet of ABRSM, Trinity and London College of Music singing exams is that your performance is measured against a set of standards rather than other candidates.

That’s good for two reasons: you’re only in competition with yourself so you don’t need to worry if the singer before you did better than you think you might.

Also, wherever your performance falls along the spectrum of pre-set criteria, that is what you earn. Seen in that light, Distinction is not out of your reach!

That begs the question: what tactics should you employ to reach the highest marks?

This singer knows how to read music and so should you
He may be just a bit of street theatre but hr obviously got a 'pass' on sight-reading! Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

Practising your musical skills is important. You should develop your sight-reading and aural skills; they are two other components of your upcoming ordeal.

And then, depending on which exam board and what grade you’re testing in, you might spend a bit of time working on your improvisational skills.

All of that is part and parcel of the musical testing syllabus but the pieces (songs) you choose for your exam ‘weigh’ the most, meaning that they attract the most marks in relation to the exam’s other components, like the aural portion.

The choice of what to sing is entirely up to you but you should talk with your music teacher, voice coach or singing tutor about which pieces best showcase your singing ability.

Remember: examiners are looking for fluency and accuracy so any song you incorporate into your repertoire should reflect a high degree of technical control as well fidelity – over the tone and with the lyrics.

Your selections should reflect your diverse talent. You should not present only relatively easy songs such as ballads; choose pieces that vary in dynamics and tempo, nuance and articulation.

Always keep in mind that musical character, phrasing and technical control are essential to garnering top marks. You should select your pieces accordingly.

What You Need to Consider Next

If only a singing exam were only about singing!

Earlier, we mentioned that your songs ‘weigh’ the most; that implies that a portion of your exam involves something other than singing.

Depending on which board you test with, these supplementary exams can have a dramatic impact on your overall grade. To break it down:

Trinity’s exam weighs your performance as 66% of your overall score with supplementals accounting for 34%. while ABRSM and London College of Music make it an even 60/40 split, with your performance accounting for the higher value.

If that were all the insider knowledge you needed, choosing your exam board would be easy… but you should also know which board offers which exams.

London College of Music supplementary tests are made up of ‘viva voce’, sight-reading, aural and technical work or study. You must also offer Vaccai exercises and an unaccompanied folk or traditional song.

ABRSM tests you on scales and arpeggios (and/or broken chords), sight-reading and aural. You will also perform one song unaccompanied.

Trinity’s requirements break along grades. If you are testing at Grades 1-5, you will test in two of these four categories: musical knowledge, improvisation, sight-reading and aural. If you’re at Grades 6-8, you must sight-read but get to choose between aural or improvisation.

They also require you to sing an unaccompanied folk song and offer Vaccai exercises or vocal exercises.

Singing is not just about singing, you have to know a bit of theory
Results matter! You need to know a bit about music theory to earn a higher mark on your exams Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

How to Achieve Distinction

In the UK, singing exams are rigorous – not out of any particular meanness on the part of the exam boards, nor are they meant to discourage anyone from becoming the best vocalist and musician they can be.

The point of these exams is refining the musical outcome without putting undue emphasis on the technical means of achieving it.

Exam boards apply universal criteria in their assessments rather than instrument-specific mandates. No matter what your instrument is, piano, flute, guitar or your voice, you will be awarded marks based on what you bring to the concert hall, not whether your music-making implement is popular or in high demand.

That rather begs the question: where does talent fit in?

If you happen to be blessed with perfect pitch and a musical ear, consider yourself fortunate; you might not have to work as hard as some to achieve your aim of making music for a living.

But again: the purpose of these exam boards is to level the playing field. A musical savant should have no greater advantage of acceptance into a conservatory than other candidates.

Besides, even the most exuberant of talents must be harnessed, restrained, focused and trained.

Being a natural-born singer, you might be tempted to overlook some aspects of music-making such as sight-reading and, while you may intuit different musical characteristics, you wouldn’t know what name to put to them or how to classify them.

These exams strive to ensure that everyone training in music has the same foundation. How you move forward is up to you.

The only way to gain distinction in singing is to persevere in your vocal training. Seek guidance from your voice coaches and music teachers and heed their advice even if you don’t think it applies to you right now.

And outside of your lessons, practise, practise, and practise some more.

Through your hard work and with the road map laid out for you, distinction in singing is within your reach!

Up next: how many singing grades are there in the UK?

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