Here are some useful tips for drum students undertaking Rockschool and Trinity Rock & Pop grade examinations:
– Arrive on time, with your book, CD, sticks and anything else specified in the exam email you receive. Goes without saying really!
– Be prepared! Pay attention in lessons, work hard on the songs and exercises at home and ask your teacher to repeat anything you don’t understand. A lot of the material you need to know is already in your book, you have been given the answers already! These are easy marks!
– Make sure you practice both the Click and Non-Click versions of the songs! Your CD has three versions of each song: Full Mix (with drums), Mix Minus Drums (with click) and Mix Minus Drums (without click). Practicing with the non-click version is more challenging because you have to listen to the rhythms of the individual instruments, rather than just the metronome. In the exam, you can choose to play the songs with or without the click. You will sync with the backing track better if you have practiced with both versions.
– Don’t practice too much in the last 24 hours before the exam! Try to limit yourself to 1 or 2 plays through each song in the 24 hours before the exam and a thorough warmup just before. You want to be fresh, and often your first ‘take’ of the song is the best. You’ve already practiced the material for 6 months, frantic playing at the last minute will only make you anxious!
– Don’t be afraid to ask! If something isn’t clear in the exam, don’t be afraid to ask your examiner. They do the same routine every day and most of it is probably now on auto-pilot, they will assume you know the routine as well as they do! If you’re not sure, calmly put your hand in the air and ask your question.
– Remember to breathe! High-pressure situations such as taking exams and playing in front of an audience, can be stressful, take deep breaths and try to remain relaxed before the exam. You will play better for it.
– If a piece of equipment you were expecting is not in the exam room, you can request it from the examiner. Also, bear in mind that the drum kit will be used by people of all shapes and sizes throughout the day, you may need to adjust it before playing. Things that may need to be changed are: the height of the stool, the height of the snare drum and hi hat, and the angles of the tom toms and cymbals. If you are unsure how to adjust any part of the kit, ask your examiner to help you at the very start of the exam.
In addition to playing accurately and in time, you will also be judged using the following criteria:
1. Your sense of pulse (this is where your down-up-down-up strokes on the hi-hat come in!)
2. Your synchronisation with the backing track (remember to practice with the non-click versions too!)
3. Dynamics (an awareness of volume and accents is a definite plus-point, especially in the higher grades. Remember toms need to be hit slightly harder to balance their volume with the louder snare drum. Don’t forget to make your bass drum heard either!)
4. Stick control and your use of rudiments (yes, we did all those exercises at the start of the lessons for a reason!) Remember, hitting the centre of the drums gives the best tone and relaxed hands can play faster and with more control.
5. Posture (sitting upright lets you easily reach all of the kit and ensures your lungs are open and able to take in enough oxygen to keep your brain functioning in tip-top condition!)
6. Independence of Hands and Feet (work hard before the exam to make patterns with opposing/tricky hand and foot patterns look effortless).
7. Use of the Kit (be tasteful in your fills and ad-libs. Use the parts of the kit in a musical fashion, rather than just hitting everything in sight!)
8. Confidence in your Performance (if you’re prepared, then relax, do it as you practiced and make it look good!)
9. Be Musically Engaged (if you make a mistake, keep going! People will only notice if you draw attention to it, forget it immediately and concentrate on the rest of your performance. Even professionals make mistakes, they just learn how to hide them! Don’t beat yourself up! Stay in the moment and play from your heart. Commitment to the mood and character of the music is more important than accuracy).
10. Stylistic Awareness. If you’re called upon to improvise or add fills or solos, make sure they are true to the style of music. No heavy rock fills in a jazz track, and similarly no frilly jazz fills in a rock track!
Good luck and play it like you mean it!