Many of us will have breathed a sigh of relief when we left formal education and waved goodbye to exams. But is there any benefit to putting yourself through exams on the saxophone?
We looked at the pros and cons, with the help of music educators Ollie Weston and Laurinda Davidson.
Exams as Route Map
Many adult learners find it difficult to stay motivated, and may feel unsure how, or what, they should be practising. One advantage of the exam system is that it provides a clear structure for learning the technical and performance skills that will help you to see real progress. And there is nothing like a looming exam date to focus the mind on that practice schedule! “In my experience students need goals to help motivate them to practice and achieve
milestones,” says Laurinda. “Exams reward students with certificates recognizing these milestones and results of hard work and discipline, which in turn will give them life skills for all sorts of future endeavors”.
The thought of playing in front of an examiner might bring you out in a cold sweat, but this can give you valuable experience of a performance situation. An exam can give you chance to learn how to deal with those nerves before you step onto a stage. “Things such as breathing, squeaking, playing in time with accompaniment, sweaty hands – these are all elements that we can deal with if we know they might happen to us in a performance situation,” says
While the nerves are real enough, the atmosphere in an exam is very different from that of a real live performance. “It’s an oddly sterile situation,” says Ollie. “You are playing to one person behind a desk who is busy filling in a form. Often the examiner may not appear to be engaging in the performance.” Playing for an exam can be a strange experience, which many people find unnerving. In many ways if you can cope with that, you will be ready to tackle
the toughest crowd in a live gig!
Doing it Yourself
Do you need a sax teacher to help you to prepare for a music exam? With so much technology at our fingertips, it’s simple to find all you need to tackle an exam syllabus. Many students nowadays are learning sax using online and Skype lessons. “Our Queensland Music Education Department have online school programs with the teacher touching base in person once or twice a term and the students coming together for inter-school music camps,” says Laurinda. There are recorded backing tracks, and even apps that provide sample tests for aural skills.
There are certainly a lot of benefits to having a sax teacher listen to your exam pieces and technical exercises to give you professional feedback on how you can improve. This is particularly useful for giving your performance that final polish, with things like dynamics and articulation which will score you extra marks from the examiner. And as a student player, the one thing you might really need a teacher for in person is if you hit a physical problem with your instrument. But if you have the confidence in your own ability, then it’s entirely possible to go it alone when preparing for a music exam.
Not Just for Classical
The exam boards have made great headway in developing a syllabus for jazz players. The Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) offer exams from grades one to five with backing tracks and great repertoire including blues and roots, standards, and contemporary jazz. “The syllabus has been developed by some great jazz educators and the pieces are fun to play, even if you are not planning to do the exams,” says Ollie.
Trinity College London offer jazz exams up to grade 8. However, depending on which options you choose from the syllabus, it is possible to progress all the way without being examined on improvisation, which is obviously a key skill for a jazz player.
The Australian Music Examinations Board has also developed their “Saxophone for Leisure” syllabus as an alternative to the classical route. This includes movie, jazz, and pop tunes. Students in Australia can also take exams with Trinity or ABRSM.
Music theory exams are a sticky area for a jazz musician. The syllabus includes many classical elements such as Italian terms which may feel irrelevant to non-classical players. On the other hand, improvisation requires a lot of technical knowledge of music such as key signatures, chord structures, and modulations. “It would be great if a jazz theory course could be developed which catered for the technical knowledge which jazz players need,” says Ollie.
If you are planning to apply to music college with your saxophone then exams are a key way to demonstrate your skills and your commitment to music. “Students who can show a clear path of completing exams show that they have discipline, and have also completed the technical, general knowledge and aural skills required for the level,” says Laurinda. This is especially true for classical courses where most applicants will have progressed through the grades system.
In Jazz courses the situation is different. The development of a syllabus for jazz players is relatively new and so prospective students may not be expected to have completed formal exams. Colleges will look instead at students’ ability and potential.
While there are lots of great reasons for taking music exams, it’s your playing that’s most important when it comes to a career in music. “I have never turned up for a gig and been asked to show exam certificates!” says Ollie. A bunch of great grades might look good on a CV, but once you’re through the door, it’s all about what you can offer as a player.
That’s not to say a formal musical education isn’t useful in a career in music. “For me, it provides a good basis for a well-rounded musician – allowing them to converse and interact on the same level as other musicians,” says Laurinda. “I think you will also find that even the best jazz musicians have a background in formal exam-based music!”
So, exams are a great way to keep you motivated. They can introduce you to lots of great repertoire as well as teaching you the technical skills that will really improve your playing.
And if you just can’t bear the prospect of facing that examiner, try using the syllabus to guide your learning. You never know, you might find yourself with a wall full of certificates!
Ollie Weston leads the Junior Jazz Course at the Guildhall in London. He also teaches privately and is a jobbing saxophonist.
Laurinda Davidson is Band Director and Woodwind Teacher at Brisbane Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia.
Exam Board Information
Associated Board of the Royal School of Music
- They are the world’s leading provider of music exams offering music exams in 93 countries.
- ABRSM have grades 1-8 in saxophone, and 1-5 in jazz saxophone.
- The jazz saxophone syllabus includes a blues, a jazz standard, and a contemporary tune with backing tracks, scales and arpeggios appropriate to jazz players, aural tests and improvisation.
Trinity College London
- Trinity offer music exams in 60 countries around the world including Australia and the United States.
- You have the option of Classical and Jazz Saxophone exams grades 1-8.
- Jazz saxophone includes 3 pieces, aural tests, scales and arpeggios or exercises, aural or improvisation.
Australian Music Examinations Board
- AMEB offer both Classical Saxophone and Saxophone for Leisure exams.
- The Leisure syllabus includes jazz standards, movie themes, and pop tunes with backing tracks. You will also need to learn scales, arpeggios and technical exercises.
About the author:
Clair Wright is a music lover and writer based in Yorkshire, England.