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What I Learned from Studying for my Grade 8 Exam

posted 26 May 2016, 04:01 by Chris Morris   [ updated 22 Sept 2016, 04:47 ]
Update: I passed with Distinction. Hooray!
This Saturday I'm sitting my first ever graded exam, and I'm diving straight into the deep end with Grade 8. I suppose you could say this is unusual for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that I'm skipping grades 1-7. But when you consider that I've already been teaching pupils to play at Grade 8 (and beyond) for the last few years, it starts to look like I probably should have sat the exam a long time ago.

And that's another unusual thing – the grades are sort of designed for younger people (school-age) who want to go on to study music at university or elsewhere. I've already studied, but then there is one more qualification I'd like to add, and for me that's what this Grade 8 exam is all about; next year I'll be taking the LTCL exam with Trinity Guildhall (an instrumental teaching diploma) which requires you to have already achieved a Grade 8 in your instrument. 

It's as good an excuse as any to finally sit the Grade 8 exam – people often ask me if I'm at Grade 8 standard, and I usually reply that I'm hopefully at least Grade 8, so taking on the challenge of preparing for the exam was a good way to find out. I approached it not really knowing how easy or difficult I'd find it, and over the last few weeks it's certainly been an experience! So I thought this blog would be a good way of documenting my experience and hopefully helping others who are preparing for graded exams of any level.

The exam I'm taking is with RSL Awards, and I have to be assessed on the following:
  • Three pieces of music of different genres, with a backing track, lasting around 3 minutes 30 seconds.
  • A range of technical exercises including rudiments and a stylistic study.
  • A “Quick Study” piece: a short piece of music with a backing track that I've never seen before.
  • Ear tests.
  • General musicianship questions.

I'm going to break down all parts of my exam and tell you what I've found challenging, and what I've learned.

The Pieces

Piece #1 – Mind the Gaps (Funk)

This piece almost immediately introduces two concepts that are featured throughout this syllabus; sextuplets and rim-shots. The sextuplets are easy enough when played all using your hands, but in this piece we have a couple of sextuplets which also use the foot. Lots of my pupils have trouble with using the bass drum in a fill but it's all about staying relaxed and not bringing it in too early – something I've had to repeatedly tell myself while practising!

Something I've understood about notated music from higher grades for a while now is that if a groove looks easy, you're probably not looking hard enough. The main groove of this piece appears simple enough, but must be played with accuracy and flow. I often say that feel is something that can't be written in notation, and this piece is a good example of that.

The chorus-of-sorts in this piece is very fun to play bit requires complex four-way coordination, and if you're not careful, you could easily miss something. After that comes the part I had to work on the most – the drum solo. There are solos in every piece in Grade 8 but I think I found Mind The Gaps one of the most challenging. It's a blank canvas apart from the “hits” by the rest of the band which are notated, and must be played within your solo. I drew ideas from several different sources and have chopped and changed what I'm going to be doing quite a bit but I think I'm finally settled in my solo!

The “develop” sections of this piece proved to be areas where I tended to over think. It's easy to assume that the examiner is looking for something spectacular in these areas, but after watching several others play these pieces on YouTube, I found the ones who kept a consistent groove with maybe one or two little fancy fills thrown in to be a lot more effective than the ones who did second and third drum solos in these sections – that's not what drumming as about!

Piece #2 – Lead Sheet (Rock)

Ah, here's a piece that's only 98bpm, must be easy. The kind of attitude that will beat you from the start! I've always found the slower paced songs to have more complex notation within, and this one is no exception. The snare and tom-tom patterns at sections B and D proved to be pretty tricky, and even in the simpler sections there were some difficult bass drum patterns to get used to. 

The big challenge in this piece is once again the solo, which stretches over a massive twelve bar section and crescendos from piano to fortissimo. My thoughts on this section was to keep it simple at first and develop into more complex rhythms as the volume increased – you have to keep a few cards up your sleeve and don't give away all your tricks at once!

Piece #3 – Nosso Samba (Samba)

This is an interesting one because I found this the most difficult of the three pieces and yet I feel like it's the one I'm going to get the most marks in on Saturday. This is all about control as it constantly shifts dynamics, beginning with the drum solo then immediately going into a mezzo-piano groove which features a quick 2-4 bass drum that must be kept under control. 

Intense four-way coordination is a strong feature in this one as well as a pardito-alto groove which shifts the snare drum to a constant off-beat rhythm which thankfully locks right in with the bass guitar but is nonetheless difficult to get used to. 

The coda is one of the most difficult yet satisfying to play parts once you've cracked it. It relies on your ability to play very accurately and convincingly, and ends with a couple more of those pesky sextuplets with bass drums!

An important thing to point out before moving on to the next section is that in the exam you must choose three of six pieces. So the pieces I've not went with were from the following genres:
  • Metal
  • Blues
  • Jazz

I came to the conclusion that I should play to my strengths, and while I enjoy those three genres, when stacked up against funk, rock and samba, it was a pretty easy choice for me.

Technical Exercises

Out of the whole exam this was the part I was most worried about, because I feel like I need to prepare these to perfection before stepping into the exam room! All of these exercises must be played to a metronome and feature advanced rudiments in tricky places.

Group A: Single Strokes

This exercise involves playing from crotchets to double quintuplet 32nd notes and literally everything in between. I found the odd numbers, particularly the sevens and nines to be a bit tricky, but overall if you are relaxed and focussed enough, it's not one of the more difficult parts of this section.

Group B: Paradiddles

Paradiddle-diddles and alternative paradiddle-diddles in sextuplets around the kit with accents. This one was the thing that was stressing me out about the whole exam. I find I spend my whole week telling pupils to relax and the forgetting to do so myself. Once I relaxed and realised that the exercise wasn't impossible, it became a lot easier!

Group C: Triplets

Another tricky one involving going from Swiss Army Triplets into pataflaflas. Again, once I relaxed it was a lot easier. I found I wanted to ignore the sticking in this one and do it my own way, but then this wouldn't be a challenge would it?

Group D: Ratamacues

A nice easy one really, as long as you don't take it too lightly and concentrate while playing it's a satisfying one to play.

Group E: Rolls

For this one it's easy to want to go into a buzz roll rather than controlled, open stroke rolls, but I'm sure the examiners would notice that straight away. And anyway, getting the exact right amount of double strokes makes these exercises sound much better.

Group F: Stylistic Study

For this section you must choose one of these:

  • Rock/Metal: rhythmic displacement, 5/4 coordination
  • Funk: linear funk with 32nd notes, stepped hi-hat
  • Jazz/Latin/Blues: 3-2 and 2-3 clave

The choice you make here decides what style of music you'll get in the Quick Study Piece in the next section. I should have started looking at these a lot sooner, as I've chosen the one I feel is the easiest, in a genre that I'm more suited to. Which will of course mean a harder Quick Study Piece. I would have loved to pick the Jazz/Latin/Blues study as it's a complicated one I feel I could master given enough time. But my mistake was leaving it too late and now having to go with one I'm more confident with, so I've chosen the Rock/Metal study.

But I've looked at several examples of Quick Study Pieces from Rockschool's brilliant companion guide, and I came to the conclusion that the Quick Study Piece will be nowhere near as complicated as the stylistic study, as it's just that: a study which is meant to be looked at over a longer period of time than three minutes. Let's hope the decision pays off this Saturday.

Quick Study Piece

Basically a sight-reading exercise. Like I said in the last section I've looked at several examples of these and even the genres that I'm less suited to are okay. There is quite a bit of improvisation involved though so it's important to know several ways to play in different genres, and it's all about using those three minutes to study the piece wisely.

Ear Tests

Test 1: Fill Playback and Recognition

My wife helped me practice this one using the companion guide, and at first I was surprised by how tricky I found it. But after a few more goes I realised that these fills are all build on the same kind of  ideas and that you really just need to listen carefully and make sure to visualise what the notation would look like. I'm going to make a bold prediction that I'll get full marks here, unless I'm not concentrating hard enough!

Test 2: Groove Recall

For this one you're required to play back a complex drum groove after hearing it twice and then identify the style of the beat. There could be some tricky ones involving time signatures that you're perhaps not expecting. I've found it's important to stay relaxed throughout and of course, the listen very carefully. A more difficult test than Test 1, but certifiably do-able if you're paying attention.

General Musicianship Questions

Four theory questions and one question about your instrument. These cover pretty much anything to do with drumming and will relate to one of your performance pieces so it's important to study up on genres and any markings in the notation you may not have seen before. Thankfully for me I teach this stuff every day so I'm expecting full marks!

And that's the whole exam. So what have I learned? I've learned not to take anything too lightly, to focus on parts of the music that I may be skimming over and getting wrong, and to do the thing I'm constantly telling my pupils to do: relax!

Perhaps more importantly I do feel I've grown as a musician and I've enjoyed playing the pieces. I'm aiming to get as high a mark as I can on Saturday, would love a distinction but would be happy with a merit. I've taken the exam seriously and not just seeing it as a stepping stone on the way to the LTCL. It'll be nice to have a Grade 8 qualification so I can finally say with confidence to people who ask that I have indeed sat and passed my Grade 8.

But more excitingly, there are at least four young pupils who look set to pass graded exams this year, including Nikhil who sits his Grade 3 on the same day as me, and who may well get more marks than me. I'll be keeping a keen eye out for those results and they will be celebrated on this blog in due course.