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Exams UK Examination Options

davidk

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Introduction

Grade exams are a good way of measuring progress. They prescribe pieces, scales and studies, and once you're competent at one grade you can move onto the next. However, this structure can be restrictive. There will be a set of pieces prescribed at each grade, and these pieces might not be those that you want to play. It is possible to progress just as quickly without the exam structure, either through self-tutoring, individual tuition or workshop tuition. This will allow you to play what you want, but without a teacher it can be difficult to tell at what standard you are playing and how quickly you are progressing.

A useful measure of your current standard and your progress is to download a grade syllabus from one of the exam boards, and check yourself against their criteria. If you can be honest with yourself, you don't need to take the actual exams.

Exam boards

Ofqual is the UK exams watchdog, which ensures that at a given level of the National Qualification Framework, one board's exams match the standards of any other. There are currently four music exam boards accredited by Ofqual:
  • The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)
  • Trinity Guildhall (TCL)
  • Rockschool (RSL)
  • London College of Music (LCM)

Rockschool don't cover the saxophone, so I needn't talk about them any further in this article. ABRSM covers up to grade 5 in jazz. Beyond that, you're limited to classical.

Trinity Guildhall and London College of Music cover saxophone music outside the classical genre up to diploma standard, making them good choices for measuring your progress on the saxophone.

I've found that Trinity Guildhall are a good choice for grade exams, and London College of Music for diploma exams. The reasons for this are explained in the rest of this article.

Grade Exams

Both TCL and LCM allow backing tracks to be used for grade exams, saving you the expense of booking an accompanist or band. It also means that you'll be performing to the same backing as you've practised to.

In addition, TCL allows a technical study to be played instead of scales and arpeggios. This gives the advantage of knowing what you'll be asked to play, meaning that you can practise playing it well. James Rae's book "Jazz Scale Studies" provides the material for this.

The final factor in TCL's favour is the lack of a requirement for grade 5 theory for all grades. LCM has a grade 5 theory pass as a prerequisite for grade 8.

Theory
The ABRSM grade 5 theory exam is commonly taken, and the ABRSM has good supporting literature. If you absorb their recommended books and test yourself with their past papers, you should be all right.

Diplomas

Beyond grade 8 come the diplomas. These are graded according to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF):
  • Level 4: Equivalent of the standard expected after one year of undergraduate study
  • Level 5: Equivalent of the standard expected after two years of undergraduate study
  • Level 6: Equivalent of the standard expected after the final year of undergraduate study
  • Level 7: Postgraduate level

The diploma exams are given the following names (in ascending order of difficulty):
  • Diploma
  • Associate
  • Licentiate
  • Fellow

The matching of these qualifications to NQF levels differs from board to board:
  • Level 4: DipLCM, DipABRSM, DipRSL, ATCL
  • Level 5: ALCM
  • Level 6: LLCM, LRSM, LRSL, LTCL
  • Level 7: FLCM, FRSM, FTCL

I got these NQF levels from their respective exam boards' syllabuses. They show that an Associate qualification from Trinity is equivalent to a Diploma in the other boards.

If you want a saxophone diploma outside the classical genre, you once again have the choice between London College of Music and Trinity Guildhall. (I'm not including teaching diplomas in this article.)

The TCL classical diploma is called a Recital Diploma, while their other genres are covered by their Pro Music Performance Diploma. LCM's diplomas are called Performance Diplomas, and are available for classical or jazz saxophone.

TCL again has the advantage that there is no grade 5 theory prerequisite. However, live accompaniment is required for their diploma performances. LCM allows backing tracks. The structure of the two boards' exams is as follows:

LCM:
  • Performance of pieces
  • Scales (not needed for DipLCM)
  • Sight reading
  • Viva Voce

TCL:

Submitted Work
  • Submitted video of live group / duo performance
  • Written report on preparation for performance, including copies of original promotional literature
  • Written report of observation of other performers
  • Essay describing the contribution of the saxophone to the performance of three different styles of music
Practical exam:
  • Rehearsal skills
  • Performance
  • Viva Voce

Diplomas Conclusion
The TCL diplomas focus on live performance. This is good, but needs time from other high-standard musicians to rehearse for and perform at your exam. The LCM diplomas allow backing tracks, which cuts the organisation involved in preparing for and performing the diploma.

What you don't learn from exams

The great thing about jazz is that you can turn up to a gig with a set of musicians you've never met before, get given a piece of music and put on a performance that the audience enjoy. You can take solos, add backings and do a big finish, all without a rehearsal. This is achieved by listening to each other and by communicating within the band. Exams don't teach you how to do this. You get this vital skill from group playing. Workshops, evening or weekend classes and summer schools will cover this. You will learn the most by getting out and performing at every opportunity, more so if you perform with musicians of a more advanced standard than your own. Big bands will improve your reading, jazz combos your improvisational skills. Practice the stuff you can't do, but in a performance take a step back and show the audience what you can do. Don't forget to set practice time aside for enjoying the music. It's what it's all about.
 
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andre23

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In my experience there are teachers who tutor students to pass the exams but I feel more time should be spent on playing the the sax .
The jazz exams seem to be more about reading and very little improvisation which seems we are still coming from a classical point of view.
In 2014 I think most musicians should read and be able to improvise.
Also I have quite a number of students who's parents want their child to pass an exam so they can get a burserie but are not really interest in them playing the instrument.
The music for jazz exams should involve much more improvisation and more about being creative.
 

fibracell

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Just to add my 2 cents..

On the plus side

makes you learn scales at the top end and bottom end of the horn
makes you practice sight reading.
makes you learn a piece (etude) in it's entirety, and adds somewhat to your technique.
makes you do a performance in a more stressful situation.
Trinity lets you do as much or little improv as you want, as well as your own compositions.
sets a real goal to aspire to and achieve. Some workshops/sax weekends ask for grade exams.

on the minus side

The scales are never used in any jazz context, or related to the real world.
Doing etudes doesn't really teach you anything about improv, or add to your knowledge of jazz theory.
The examiners may not be sax players or have much sax knowledge, and therefore everything is judged more generically. They also are probably not jazz players either, and so may not be familiar with the language aurally.
Doing exams takes a fair about of you practice time, which could be better spent learning your basic jazz language - 2 5 1's, triad pairs, enclosures, digital patterns, tunes, transcribing, having fun, etc.:cool:


- Rob
 

kernewegor

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Nice list of pros and cons, fibracell.

My ex wife has a lot of experience putting her students in for Brass exams with both Trinity and Guildhall, and I remember her making the comment that examiners are not always players of the instrument examined, but may only play one instrument in the family. They vary in 'strictness' too.

I have also heard that students doing jazz exams often learn 'improvisations' by rote (one for blues, one for Rhythm Changes etc.) and then trot them out in the exam... which doesn't say much for the examination system.

I know from personal experience that this can happen in the 'Special Conversation' part of GCSE language examination, some examiners allowing what were essentially rehearsed monologues with occasional input from the examiner instead of genuine conversations. Not on my watch, though...

It is an interesting question as to how one could examine and award marks for improvisation... stylistic variation and musical scope being as wide as it is...

Similarly with painting... "Sorry, Pablo, eyes don't go all bunched up like that under the chin..."

Exams are good - and useful - for what is measurable... but in areas which defy quantication the principle is dubious, as it relies on an examiner's subjective judgement, opinion and experience - which varies widely from one individual to another.

But in matters of technique - the measurable stuff - there is a point, and also it encourages a student to gain a rounded technical competence.
 

Shorty

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Anyone with an interest in sax and jazz should look at the ABRSM series. The exam is heavy on the improv, both with the set pieces and 'call and response' using a given scale. There is also a strictly timed sight reading section - very relevant to 'real playing'.
Each grade has a set of scales (M, m, pentatonic, modal and blues) that are examined - and these scales appear in the chord changes of the set pieces, and the call and response section of the exam. So they all tie up nicely.
I'm past having to apply for university or bursary places - but the exam system has given me a backbone to my learning; set goals; and confidence in improv.
The only downside with ABRSM jazz is that there are 5 Grades.
 

MandyH

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I have done Trinity grade 8 Jazz sax....and am preparing for a classical diploma.... and I can agree and disagree on some of the points raised.
Given time and practice, most players can "crack" 3 set pieces. I did one improvised piece, and by the time I came to take the exam, I knew what notes I could put in what bars, without needing to think about it. If I had had to "sight improvise" I doubt I would have been so "proficient".
Being able to play a piece alone, or with a piano accompanist is not really an indication of your ability to play in a group (especially the nuances of counting - particularly rests, and keeping up with the rest of a group)
My sax teacher encouraged all of her intermediate and above players to join a group, band, community orchestra etc. She has one pupil who was an excellent player on their own, but struggled in a group for a while, the pupil definitely improved with time in the group.
Learning scales has its uses. Often pieces contain scalic runs or just knowing that in the scale of the key, only certain notes can occur, it makes playing and sight reading quicker and more proficient. Of course it depends on how you learn your scales!
My teacher encouraged me to learn my scales "up 2 down 1" and other similar routes. I have just started practicing a piece with a large section based on "up 2 down 1" - easy!
The exam should be a "performance". Whilst it may be useful for the examiner to appreciate some of the mechanical challenges of the instrument that you are playing, you should still sound "musical" so in that regard it doesn't matter which instrument the examiner plays.
I'm a little confused by Fibracell's comment that: "The scales are never used in any jazz context, or related to the real world" Do Minor Pentatonic, Blues, Jazz melodic Minor etc scales have no place in Jazz, and do the 7-arpeggios not turn up in Jazz? I admit I don't improvise much, but I would have thought they have a place in Jazz.
Anyway, as with anything else, it's "horses for courses" - if you want to take exams, enjoy the experience. If it's not for you, fill your time with other practice. :)
 

fibracell

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Mandy, you are correct that the scales do have a place in jazz, and it is important that you do know them. My comment was that as far as the exam is concerned just playing the scale doesn't really help you to improvise in a real world jazz setting. A bit like young students who learn the blues scale, but then don't know how to use it to play a nice blues solo. Or, students who see Dm7 and just play the dorean scale without knowing how to move into the dominant 7th and resolve into the cadence.

Sorry for any confusion, and good luck with the classical diploma!:)
 

davidk

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In my experience there are teachers who tutor students to pass the exams but I feel more time should be spent on playing the the sax .
The jazz exams seem to be more about reading and very little improvisation which seems we are still coming from a classical point of view.
In 2014 I think most musicians should read and be able to improvise.
Also I have quite a number of students who's parents want their child to pass an exam so they can get a burserie but are not really interest in them playing the instrument.
The music for jazz exams should involve much more improvisation and more about being creative.
Trinity have a new syllabus out, available as a PDF file from http://www.trinitycollege.com/site/?id=1044

Amongst the changes:
  • All jazz grade candidates are now required to perform one or two pieces containing improvisation
Good - it had never occurred to me that improvisation could be avoided in a jazz exam. I'm glad Trinity have closed this loophole.
...
I have also heard that students doing jazz exams often learn 'improvisations' by rote (one for blues, one for Rhythm Changes etc.) and then trot them out in the exam... which doesn't say much for the examination system.

I know from personal experience that this can happen in the 'Special Conversation' part of GCSE language examination, some examiners allowing what were essentially rehearsed monologues with occasional input from the examiner instead of genuine conversations. Not on my watch, though...
...

The performance is supposed to represent a short gig set. I would hope that if an improvisation has no feeling, the examiner would mark the candidate down (or not mark them up in the positive marking system). Mind you, I've seen live performances where the artist just seems to be going through the motions with no feeling.

The feedback from a live audience can't be replicated in an exam, so the candidate would have to work hard at putting across the emotion that they feel in a piece of music to the examiner. As with live performances though, the candidate should rehearse the improvisation so that they can concentrate on the emotion, with the chords internalised.

Maybe the examiner could give applause and cheers during the improvisations and see how the candidate changes their playing in response.

I agree, the exam system doesn't replace live performances, but it is a good indicator of the player's current minimum standard. I'm grateful to my teachers for giving me live performance opportunities as part of my learning.
Mandy, you are correct that the scales do have a place in jazz, and it is important that you do know them. My comment was that as far as the exam is concerned just playing the scale doesn't really help you to improvise in a real world jazz setting. A bit like young students who learn the blues scale, but then don't know how to use it to play a nice blues solo. Or, students who see Dm7 and just play the dorean scale without knowing how to move into the dominant 7th and resolve into the cadence.

Sorry for any confusion, and good luck with the classical diploma!:)
As an alternative to scales, Trinity let you perform scale studies. At least these show the scales in the context of tunes. However, it meant that I just performed a diminished scale study at grade 8, with no checking of my competence in the more basic scales. It was a relief to have something that I could rehearse though. With scales, you don't know what you're going to get.

Thanks for your comments all. I'm glad this resource has been a helpful reference and discussion point for anyone considering the jazz grade options. This forum has provided me with a lot of useful information, and it feels good to have given something back.
 
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