Preparing for exams

We asked experienced singing teachers from all over the UK about their top tips for helping candidates prepare for a graded singing exam.


Practice is absolutely the key to success when it comes to preparing for graded exams as it cements learning and ensures students feel increasingly confident with the material they’re singing. Relying on the work done in lessons isn’t enough – it is essential that students practise at home. Many of our respondents highlighted this, and had some great tips for how students should approach their practice sessions:

‘Plan the practice session – always start with warming up. Go through the more difficult bits first, then through the whole piece. Keep returning to using a ‘hum’ or ‘ooo’ to check legato, flowing singing. Learn the words separately. Use a mirror. Don't sing for hours… sing in your head!’ recommends Rhiannon Gayle from Harrogate Grammar School.

Donna-Marie Povey, who teaches at Warrington School, suggests students keep a journal to reflect on their songs:

'This helps them to think in broader terms about their performances, the characters, content and context of their pieces. I also encourage peer-modelling and peer-assessment and I run group exam workshops prior to exams so that my pupils can showcase their hard work and learn from one another. I tend to order in a pizza, too, at the end of the session… they love that!' 
Donna-Marie Povey, Warrington School

Practising in front of an audience is great preparation for graded exams, to help get used to performing and overcome any nerves. Helen Haviland from Torquay Girls’ Grammar school agrees: ‘Practise lots. In front of a mirror. Preferably in front of a practice audience. Perform.’

‘Most marks are in the pieces, so know them well and learn them from memory early. This way you can concentrate on presenting a song rather than the text being at arm's length because you are trying to remember the words,’ James Oldfield from Dulwich College, Tiffin School and Emanuel School recommends to his students.

Although practice is key to success in graded exams, note that quality is equally important:

'Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Whatever you repeat, you keep, whether it was good or bad. So do less practice, unless it is picky, precise practice.'
James Oldfield, Dulwich College, Tiffin School and Emanuel School


Many teachers emphasised that expression is essential to giving a convincing performance, and that telling the story, ‘with an active face’ is key: ‘Every song has a unique story with its own set of emotions. We’re lucky that we get words to help us interpret this; unlike instrumentalists,’ explains Sarah McAllister, a private teacher.

‘Communication is paramount – spend time researching emotion in language songs,’ recommends Melanie Cotton from Warwickshire Music.

Private teacher, Lesley Owens, highlighted the importance of dynamics to help tell the story and add emotion to a performance:

‘Learn words early so you can really perform the song in the exam. Vary dynamics to show expression and be engaging.’
Lesley Owens

‘I spend time with my students helping them connect with the song with some basic acting-through-song techniques and understanding how dynamics and word-painting can help with telling the story,’ says Lydia Jane Pugh from the School of Popular Music, Guernsey.


Graded exams should be an enjoyable experience. Of course, it’s natural to feel nervous – as with any performance. But that is just what the exam is – an opportunity to perform: ‘Really, I wouldn't expect students to prepare for an exam any differently than for any other performance – practising and putting the time in,’ explains Mandy Griffin, a private teacher.

‘Candidates should regard it as a performance, rather than an exam, and make the examiner enjoy the songs as much as they do,’ suggests Alison Place from Kingston Grammar School.

Toby Hunt of Stortford College suggests performing in front of, ‘many different audiences and in different rooms. Different acoustics give different feedback of sound, so singing in different environments encourages singing by sensation, rather than listening.’

Catherine Bowen from Hereford Cathedral School says learners should, ‘make sure the examiner enjoys a lovely mini concert.’ Zoe Todd of Ipswich High School agrees: ‘Try to think of the examiner as a human who needs entertaining, not a monster.’

‘Examiners are not looking for errors or imperfections, but a solid all-round performance where there is an understanding of the text and context and a joy of performing,’
James Hall, Italia Conti Arts Centre


Many respondents highlighted that learners should make it a priority to get as familiar as possible with their songs: ‘[Learning pieces well] not the finishing touch, it’s just the start of being able to work on their performance and communication,’ says Frances Israel from Bishop’s Stortford College.

‘I like to ensure that every student knows their songs... to ensure that the performance isn’t hindered by staring at the sheet music,’ explains Aimée Harris from Broughton Hall Catholic High School.

Linda Hardwick from Hereford Music Hub suggests students record themselves to help with confidently learning their pieces:

'Make sure you know all the words and the expression marks; you can record yourself to help with this. Sing with a bit of yourself in each song.'
Linda Hardwick, Hereford Music Hub

Memorising songs by heart can be challenging for some students, so try to encourage them to do the best they can in smaller, manageable sections, building up the songs until they are complete.

'Take it one bit at a time. A graded exam can seem daunting to many, since there are multiple components.'
Brian Smith Walters


A few nerves are inevitable for most students when it comes to singing, but especially when it comes to exams because there is more at stake. Hannah Rogers of The Buckingham School suggests encouraging students to use their nerves to their advantage:

'Nerves are natural, but they don't have to be negative. Use the adrenaline in a positive way, in order to get excited rather than nervous!'
Hannah Rogers, The Buckingham School

‘Singing is all about relaxation so don't get annoyed and stressed with yourself,’ is what Kim Sadler from Solihull Music Service tells her students. Anna Gonzalez, private teacher, tells her learners, ‘There is no need to be nervous, you are doing the exact same thing that you have been doing all year only in a different room.’

Many teachers also pointed out the impact that nerves can have on breathing, and stressed the importance of practising breathing exercises to help students keep calm and control their breathing.

Woman singing


At Trinity, we aim to make our exams as fun and enjoyable for candidates as possible, so it was pleasing to hear so many teachers in our survey highlighting the importance of enjoying the experience.

‘There are very few opportunities in the year where we get to perform a repertoire of pieces, with full accompaniment, so relish every minute of the experience!’ Anna Gonzalez tells her students.

‘Just treat it as a learning experience where you get to perform and communicate your love of music,’ advises Velma Guyer from St Mary’s High School, Colchester.

‘Remember that singing is a gift and a joy, and always take a moment to breathe and smile (in that order!) before you do anything in the exam.' Laura McHugh, a private teacher, reminds her students.

Abigail Mann, who is a self-employed private singing teacher warns her students that, ‘if you are not enjoying singing the song, it will impact the performance as a whole.’

Jenny Ewington, a private singing teacher, encourages her students to remember that the examiner wants to enjoy it, too:

’Practise the way you want to perform and give the examiner a lovely time – you don't know what they've had to listen to before you!’
Jenny Ewington



Learn more about Trinity’s range of singing qualifications

The advice in this resource will be useful regardless of which exam board you’re using, or whether you’re even entering candidates into exams at all.

If, however, you want to learn more about Trinity’s range of singing qualifications, then you can download our specifications and guides on this page.

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