Problem to Solve - How To Study For A Grade Exam.

Dear Selina

My names Douglas, I,m studying Trinity Guildhall Guitar Grade 7 for the last two years. I have a full time job 6 am to 2 pm and and a young family which is take up lots of time and there for have restricted study time.

My question is how best to study the piece of music and technical suite with restricted time most efficiently.

The piece I'm studying are:-

Bach Allemande (from Lute Suite in E minor, BWV 996), Rodgers/Hart arr. Almeida Blue Moon, Moreno-Torroba Fandanguillo (No.1 from Suite Castellana), Pujol Preludio triston (no.2 of Cinco preludios) and just started to study de Narvaez Differenias sorbre ‘Guardame las vacas’ and looking to do my exam in November.

Hoping for advice.


Dear Douglas

An interesting question and given that we have never met I will have to take certain things for granted.

Firstly let us consider the requirements for grade 7.

At this level the examiner will be expecting a certain level of ability such as confidence in rhythm, notation and an understanding of the music and will desire a high level of musicianship, by this I refer to the ability to tell a story with the use of musical notation rather than words. I will assume you have confidence in rhythm and notation and an understanding of written music and focus on musicianship.

The guitar is a rather special instrument in that it is a mini orchestra or if you prefer a quartet of singers all being conducted by you the player. Composers are aware of this and compose music to make full use of the guitars abilities.

If you ever attend an orchestral concert you may notice other events occurring in addition to the beautiful music being performed. Look around the orchestra and see how not all of the instruments are performing at the same time, some perform a greater percentage of the music yet other instruments contribute only a small part of the overall note count. To put it very simply we could say that one area of the orchestra tells the story and the rest add colour and effect.

So what do I mean when I say story or colour and effect?

As a father of small children can you remember sitting and reading a bed time story? The first time you may have been hesitant, missed the punctuation in the story or were not able to put interest and feeling into your voice. If as the reader we were to just open the book and read the words, your young audience would enjoy the story but would they be ’spell bound’? If on the other hand we understood the story, paid attention to all the grammar added by the writer and added a sense of feeling, surprise, sadness, excitement to the story our young audience would be enthralled. Enthral your children during story time and the road to musical success is but a small step away.

Music is just has an alternative medium of delivery, in a story delivery is via the written word, with music it is notation.

Let us look at the piece Blue Moon, because Blue Moon is a song we can instantly see that some of the notes carry words and others are there to add effect and colour the story. By reading the notation can you see which notes carry the words to the song?

Firstly focus on these notes, play them, read them and sing them to the exclusion of all others.

When singing do not use the words to the song just sing the pitch of the note (we are not trying to be a singer so pitch accuracy is not as important as ease of delivery)

Read the name of the notes aloud and in time, yes I did say read the name of the notes aloud, this is for many reason beyond the space of this reply, you will just have to trust me.

Just have fun playing with the notes of the song rather than being weighted down attempting all of the notes on the page.

With any piece of music all of the above can be carried out within the first couple of days of learning something new. Not only will you feel a sense of achievement very early on in the learning process you will also feel a greater connection to the musical story whilst you attempt to conquer all the acrobatic fingering.

If we now look at the Allemande by Bach we will find that in amongst all the jumble of notes there is also a song, although unfortunately it does not have words and so can be more difficult to locate. However just like Blue Moon if you can bring our the song and present this to the audience in a way that they can enjoy, you are now travelling the road to success and the same can be said for your other chosen pieces.

All of the other notes within the music add colour and effect.

Let’s return to our vocal quartet.

We have available to us four singers, can you make a decision and assign notes to sing to each singer?

Remember you do not have to use all four singers nor does each singer have to be singing all the time, you are the conductor you introduce each singer into the music when asked for by the composer.

Reading through music can be quite fun as one has to wear ones detective hat and frustratingly ones interpretation may not be the same as another detectives interpretation.

In comparison to Blue Moon, Bach’s Allemande is far more intricate and therefore far more difficult to interpret, take for example bar 5 - Starting on the F# the line of notes travels down to the crotchet B quickly followed by a semiquaver D etc.

Are all of these notes sung by one person?

The correct answer is no because the low B is a crotchet in duration which means the crotchet B and semiquaver D would be singing alongside each other for part of the beat. The human voice can only sing one note at a time therefore the B is sung by one singer whilst a second singer introduces the D.

Now we can clearly see that there are two singers involved in this short example.

If we wish to be more advanced in our interpretation - when we come to sing the low B is this the last note in the run down of notes that precedes or is the B the start of the lower line of notes that follow (B – C – C# - D – D# - E) or is it all just one continual line?

This is musical detective work or interpretation and for my students, whatever decision they make is the CORRECT one until at a time in the future further knowledge may alter their perspective. Working in this way you learn to emotionally affect your music rather than worry that a decision you have made is incorrect.

Returning to your question regarding what and how to practice and given the short amount of time left before your exam I would suggest you seek out the tune in each piece, learn to count the rhythm of the tune, sing and play the notes of the tune.

Trust your own instincts, if it does not quite sound right then it probably isn’t, you my have added notes that are not a part of this tune. Having done this to a relaxed and confident standard I would then add the other notes and see how they complement the tune.

Now that you are more aware of the musical feel of the piece, deliver the musical story with a more emotional air. If you feel the music is happy then be happy when playing, if you feel the music becomes dark and angry at times then play, act angry as you would reading a child’s story.

You may feel all the above it stealing time from your practice of the guitar, it is not. Working this way will bring together your hard learned guitarist skills and set you on the road to becoming a musician.

Good luck!