A lot has happened since my last post almost 9 months ago. Unfortunately maintaining this blog had to take a backseat. The good news is I haven’t stopped playing, and the really great news is I’ve chalked up my grade 4 jazz saxophone exam from Trinity College. You may think jazz exam is a bit of an oxymoron but I figured this was the only way I was going to learn all the things I’d normally avoid – scales, theory, site reading and stress.
I’d been playing saxophone for a year when I took my exam in June, but my teacher convinced me that grade 3 or 4 would be within my reach. So with 3 moths to go, I opted for grade 4. Unlike nearly all other types of exams, doing the previous grades are not a prerequisite for music exams. And I’m not getting any younger.
In this post I wanted to cover some of the considerations when doing a saxophone exam in the UK. Depending on my stamina I may split this out into several posts.
Which exam board?
In the UK there are three options
* Trinity Guildhall (Grade 1-8 Jazz exams)
* The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music ABRSM (Grade 1-5 Jazz exams)
* London College of Music (Grade 1-8 and diplomas)
I opted for Trinity because I’d done some exams before as a teenager and thought it sounded more official. Well if you are going to do exams… There were of course other more practical plus points
* Option to do scales study where you learn three pieces of music instead of remembering the dozen or more scales. Result! Well I’ve just not been playing long enough to remember all that.
* Option to chose/avoid music theory – wish I’d done this instead of sight reading
* Option to avoid sight-reading. Wish I had
Choosing the pieces?
Unfortunately, unlike ABRSM, Trinity does’t provide all the pieces you need in one book. You have to choose 3 pieces from about 50 spread across a couple of dozen books. As most of the pieces are designed to test rather than entertain, you are not going to be able to listen to them on Youtube or Spottily before buying them and buying them all is not viable.
For my 3 pieces I went for
In A Sentimental Mood
One of the few classics I recognised in the syllabus. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake playing this first and possibly choosing it in the first place. With the exam day performance anxiety, the breadth control needed for this was beyond me.
Skidaddle by James Rae
This being a jazz exam, one piece has to be improvised, and this was a good choose. I hand’t learnt to improvise in the time I’d been playing, so this certainly forced the pace and on the day really saved my neck
Exercise 14 from 24 Melodic Studies for Saxophone
A random lucky dip I ended up with by going cheap on Amazon. This was one of the better ones out of a bunch of books I’d bought cheap from the list
You can see the latest Trinity woodwind and jazz syllabus here [http://www.trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=1052]
Scales and arpeggios or Exercises
Ok, so I set out hoping the exam would force me to learn my scales and arpeggios but seeing the words ‘…or Exercises’ on that syllabus was enough to cause an acute dose of selective amnesia. Personally I wish I’d had the time to learn the scales and Arpeggios. I really don’t think the Exercises are a good test but it did the trick
For this section I chose Aural and Site Reading over Improvisation and Musical Knowledge. The Aural was a great choice and a good skill to have as a saxophone player. The site reading was a poor choice and a critical skill to have for a Jazz Musician. While I understand there are techniques for improving your site reading, this is not something you can cram. My standard after one year of playing was just not good enough.
Exam Day and Result!!
One thing I’d underestimated was the huge level of anxiety leading up to and during the exam. So if you want to do well, I’d recommend doing a few of the earlier grades to just get into the habit of playing under exam conditions. This also means having a few more months and years playing under your belt.
But I knew I was taking a gamble and while I had secretly hoped for a better grade, I got a comfortable pass, which was more than I deserved.
I am definitely glad I did this exam but be warned, it will take a lot of patience, especially from your neighbours who’ll have to listen to the same short repertoire day in day out.