Category: Graded Music Exams

RSL’s Top 10 Ukulele Tracks

January 22nd, 2020 by

Check out RSL’s top 10 performances that are here to argue the case for the often much-maligned (wrongly!) four-stringed instrument, the Ukulele.

The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument, which was introduced to the Hawaiians by Portuguese immigrants, primarily from Madeira and the Azores. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century and spread internationally from there. The tone and volume of the instrument vary with size and construction, with the Ukulele commonly coming in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.

Rockschool Ukulele: You can currently study Rockschool Ukulele up to grade 3

The ukulele has since become a largely mass-produced, plastic instrument, manufactured by the millions throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, which has since led to the ukulele receiving a fair share of scorn from musicians ever since. As far as we’re concerned, this criticism is wholly unfair. So, in defence of the ukulele, RSL HQ have put their collective minds together to present our 10 top performances that highlight the versatility and unique expression of the diminutive, but effective, Ukulele.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr — Ain’t She Sweet

Taken from the 1995 Anthology documentary series, the surviving Beatles get together on a summer day in George’s garden. Harrison, who was a big fan of the ukulele, leads this casual sing-along of “Ain’t She Sweet,” a call-back to a song the gang used to perform in their early years. We’re sure you’ll agree, it’s lovely to see them all gathered around a uke for a cup of tea and a sing-song. In Hawaii, where Harrison owned a retreat (and where he was known as ‘Keoki’), it’s said he bought ukuleles in batches and gave them away. The story may be legend, but it’s a nice image to remember him by all the same.

Queen – Good Company

While Brian May is best-known for his electric guitar acrobatics, he also played the ukulele on some of Queen’s material, one being “Good Company” from the band’s breakthrough LP, ‘A Night at the Opera’. May first began the song during his early school years when he first learned to play the uke. One of the main features of the song is that it contains a recreation of a jazz band in Dixieland style which was provided by May’s Red Special guitar played through a Deacy Amp. This is also one of the few Queen songs without Freddie Mercury participating at all!

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World (Medley)

It would be extremely remiss of us not to include this track in our list of top Uke-moments. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. Known to his fans as ‘Iz’, the Hawaiian musician passed away in 1997, but his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” has become ingrained in Hawaiian culture. It’s become so popular, it is now the most requested version of the song by far, according to EMI publishing. That’s quite remarkable for a rendition with one voice, accompanied only by ukulele!

Eddie Vedder — Sleeping by Myself

The Pearl Jam front-man, Eddie Vedder, has always had a huge soft spot for the uke. ‘Soon Forget’, which featured on the bands ‘Binaural’ album released in 2000, contained a solo track accompanied by a uke, which served as a preview to Vedder’s solo project, ‘Ukulele Songs’ (2011), which comprised of his unmistakable vocals over a Ukulele only. ‘Sleeping by Myself’ is one of the album’s most popular tracks; a beautiful, forlorn and folky composition that highlights Vedder as an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right.

Taimane Gardner — Beethoven, System of a Down, Led and ACDC Medley

Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner, has been playing since she was knee-high to Don Ho. She was quite literally discovered by the Hawaiian music icon before going on to study under another in Jake Shimabukuro (who also appears on this list) even before he himself rode his ukulele magic to world stardom. You can check her out here as she tears through compositions from Beethoven, System of a Down, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC is one of her many, super-impressive uke-medleys.

Jake Shimabukuro — While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Racking up almost 17 million views on YouTube, the YouTube uke classic is one of the site’s first viral videos! This clip introduced modern day ukulele virtuoso and Honolulu native, Jake Shimabukuro, to the world. Since then, Jake has become a living legend of the instrument, and this is the video that started it all. For those who’d like to dig a little deeper, an award-winning documentary was released in 2012 tracking his life, career, and music, titled ‘Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.’ Go check it out!

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – Psycho Killer (Talking Heads Cover)

The Orchestra was formed in 1985 as a bit of fun, but after the first gig was an instant sell-out, they have been performing ever since. By 1988 they had released an LP, appeared on BBC TV, played at WOMAD and recorded a BBC Radio 1 session. The current ensemble has been playing together for over 20 years, and has become something of a national institution. Below, you can revel in their endearing version of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, which was performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms in 2009. You can watch this, and all the other performances from the night on their DVD “Prom Night”.

Honoka & Azita — Bodysurfing

Honoka Katayama and Azita Ganjali were 15 and 13, respectively, when this jaw-dropping display of ukulele ingenuity appeared on YouTube of the pair performing a killer cover of Ohta-San’s “Bodysurfing” on a gorgeous beach in their native Hawaii. The duo were named MVPs of the 2013 International Ukulele Contest in Honolulu and — as you’ll be able to see from the video below — it’s easy to see why from their playing. After the contest, they opened for the popular music festival in Okinawa, Japan, and regularly performed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu.

James Hill — Billie Jean

James Hill, an award-winning ukulele player and songwriter hailing from Canada, has been called a “ukulele wunderkind,” and an artist who “gives the ukulele its dignity back without ever taking himself too seriously.” Performing live for a crowd in California, Hill and his “imaginary band” illustrate these comments perfectly during an enchanting version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” With just a uke, Hill plays the bass line, percussion, and piano parts. Put it all together, and you have a fascinating one-man ukulele performance.

Noah & The Whale – 5 Years’ Time (Sun, Sun, Sun)

No, this isn’t a trailer for the latest Wes Anderson film – it’s the ultra-catchy, top 10 hit from 2007 by Noah & the Whale! Since it was uploaded to YouTube on 13 June 2008, and as of January, 2020, it has been viewed almost 12 million times. The singer-songwriter sensation, Laura Marling, provides backing vocals on this track. Only a teenager at the time, Laura used to often perform with Noah and the Whale before striking out on her own. She also went out with frontman Charlie Fink for a time with the bands second album, ‘First Days of Spring’ being a concept record based on Fink’s emotional meltdown after their eventual split.

As some of you may already be aware, Rockschool’s second instalment of their Method Book series will focus on the Ukulele in 2020, with plans to extend the grade exams all the way up to grade 8 already in the development phase. Keep your eyes peeled for updates on our social channels very soon!

Quick Tips: Choosing a Free Choice Piece | Guest Blog

January 15th, 2020 by

A really fun and engaging part of Rockschool’s grade exams is the option to perform a track you love that does not appear on the current syllabus material.

A ‘Free Choice Piece’, or ‘FCP’, is an additional performance piece that can be chosen to showcase your skill level at the particular grade instead of one of the tracks already assigned by Rockschool. But, how do you decide if what you’ve chosen is the right track?

This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of MGR Music by Leigh Fuge

You’ve worked really hard towards your final performance, so it would be a massive shame if your FCP was the thing that brought your marks down. So, with this in mind, I thought it would be really beneficial for many teachers and their candidates if I took the time to concentrate on how to look at Rockschool’s criteria for choosing your FCP’s, and how to ensure that you pick the right track before your grade performance.

How Many Free Choice Pieces Can I Play?

All candidates of Graded Music Exams can perform a maximum of two free choice pieces in addition to one performance piece from the Rockschool grade book for each level. If you are taking a Performance Certification Exam however, you are allowed to perform a maximum of three free choice pieces alongside two Rockschool grade book pieces. The criteria for choosing a piece is that is must be a popular genre such as pop, rock, blues, country, metal (and, of course, any other that you can think of!) and should contain enough content that displays the technical and musical competence for the specific grade you are working on. Original compositions are also acceptable, again, providing they meet the criteria for that grade, as stated in the official Rockschool guidelines.

Quick Tip: if a student approaches you with a piece they’d like to consider, but it doesn’t tick all the boxes, as a teacher you could work with the student to find a similar piece by the same artist that they may feel comfortable using in its place.

Positive Prep: a student and teacher at The Rhythm Studio break down a Rockschool Drums piece

Rockschool Criteria

If you are looking for a starting place, check out this great resource on Free Choice Pieces which provides a downloadable list for each instrument type. This instrument based guide will break down the criteria that a piece of each level should contain. It goes into a lot of detail that you can then use to aptly cross-reference with your chosen track(s) to determine if it’s suitable for the grade in question.

Each entry will list the skills and techniques that must be included, as well as any other techniques that has been specifically included within the compositions produced by Rockschool in each book. Finally, it will also give an indication of the theoretical understanding required. For example, the grade 8 electric guitar criteria states that the candidate should have “complete mastery of the fretboard”. Although this could seem quite a broad statement, it is something you must consider when asking yourself “does my track do a good job in demonstrating this?”.


Backing Tracks

All free choice pieces must be played with a backing track with the part you are performing removed so that the examiner can hear your playing clearly. The feasible availability of a good backing track must also be a part of the consideration process, and can often be overlooked when choosing.

Do not start practising a FCP for your upcoming exam until you have secured the backing track first. It may all be a waste of time, and cause you unnecessary stress, in a time when you should be enjoying your playing and looking forward to the challenge presented by the exam. As a seasoned Rockschool teacher, you should be able to check the piece against the assessment criteria to make sure that it ticks all the relevant boxes; but if you have any concerns at all, contact RSL straight away and the Academic Team will be more than happy to help you assess your progress.

About the Author:

This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of MGR Music by Leigh Fuge, a professional guitarist, tutor and journalist from Wales in the UK. He has been working in the music industry for over 10 years as a touring and studio musician with various artists, guitar tutor and writer for many high profile guitar publications. Read more of Leigh’s pieces relating to Rockschool here…

Quick Tips: Improve Your Improvisation | Guest Blog

December 20th, 2019 by

One aspect the graded guitar exam will assess is your ability to improvise over a pre-selected chord progression by your examiner.

While this article is written from a guitar playing point of view, you can apply the theoretic and general thought process here to any instrument in any situation.

This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of MGR Music by Leigh Fuge.

Firstly, what is improvisation?

Improvisation is defined as a piece of music, drama or other art that is created spontaneously without prior preparation. In the music world, improvisation is often heavily associated with lead guitar playing, however all instruments have the capacity to improvise.

While the art of improvisation is based around spontaneity and playing something that you have not prepared prior to that moment, it still has to be contextual to the piece you are improvising with. We still have to be playing in key, selecting the correct notes to improvise with and also approaching it from a stylistic perspective.

Before I improvise over a piece, I like to make a short checklist in my head that helps me get around the improvisation. I will ask myself some questions to mentally prepare myself without actually knowing what I will play:

What key is the track in?

This is obviously important. Without being in key, our improvised lines are not going to sit correctly in the track. In an exam you should be able to work out the key based on the chords given to you by the examiner. Once you’ve worked out what key you are playing in, you can then decide what scales you will be calling on for your playing.

What style is the track?

You can also use style to help choose scale types. In the lower graded exams, you will have a smaller pool of scales to choose from and as the grades increase, the scale pool will grow. If you are presented with a simple blues chord pattern in one of the minor keys then you will most likely gravitate towards a minor pentatonic, natural minor or blues scale. If the piece is more jazz orientated, perhaps some modal scales will be better suited. Use your scales to suit your stylistic playing.


What is the tempo?

Tempo doesn’t have a bearing on the scale and key choices, but it does have a bearing on the style of playing. If the piece is a slow acoustic style track, then sweep picking 16th notes on the guitar won’t be stylistically correct.

What sort of artists could this track be likened to?

Does the track sound like any artists you already know? If so, perhaps you can emulate some of their licks. How would they approach that style? What would they use to play in that way?


In my own improvisations, I often have a pool of licks in my mind that I call upon. If I’m playing a specific blues style track, I will look for licks in my head that sit with artists that may be similar. These licks are probably not going to work if I’m improvising over a power ballad or a hard rock track. I will adjust my style choices based on this.

I always think that a good approach to improvisation, especially at an early stage, is to think melodically. Think about singing a melody line and then replicating that on your instrument. Can you hum or sing along with what you’re trying to play? Vocalising lines can be a great way of working out the phrasing you want to use.

When introducing students to improvisation for the first time, I always tell them to think in a very limited range of notes. Put on a contextual backing track and choose 4 sequential notes from the scale of your choice. Use only those notes to improvise over the track for a set period of time. I encourage the use of techniques such as string bends and legato but sticking within the construct of only 4 notes.

Limiting yourself to a small number of notes make you really focus on the phrasing and how you can use a small number of notes in so many different phrasing combinations.

Try it, you’ll be surprised at less being more.

Improvisation at a more advanced level can be a great platform to trial combining scales. If there are a few scales you want to combine, the best place to start is to overlay similar scales. For instance, the minor pentatonic and natural minor scales on guitar are similar shapes. Try improvising with a hybrid of these two shapes at the same time.

About the Author:

This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of MGR Music by Leigh Fuge, a professional guitarist, tutor and journalist from Wales in the UK. He has been working in the music industry for over 10 years as a touring and studio musician with various artists, guitar tutor and writer for many high profile guitar publications. Read more of Leigh’s pieces relating to Rockschool here…

Practise with Purpose | Forming New Habits

December 18th, 2019 by

As 2019 draws to a close, we’ll be focusing on how to successfully make practising a habit so you can make some serious progress over the festive break.

How to Start a New Habit

Expecting drastic changes overnight is not a practical, long-term approach to improving as a musician. No matter how good your intentions are, it is highly unlikely that your new habits will stick if you set yourself unrealistic goals. You are much more likely to succeed if you introduce a new habit slowly and build it into your daily routine gradually over a longer period of time. This goes for any new skill, whether you’re learning a language, committing to regular exercise, or making time to read a book. Practising music is no exception!

10,000 Hours?

A popular theory is described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, where he claims that if you spend 10,000 hours working on a skill then you will master it and become an expert. There are certainly examples of many famous musicians practising for crazy amounts of time: Charlie Parker, a jazz colossus widely regarded as the best saxophonist ever, reportedly practised for 11-15 hours a day over a 3-4 year period. More recently, Beyoncé spent 11 hours a day rehearsing for her knockout 2018 headline set at Coachella.

practise with purpose and build a new habit
Practise With Purpose! Gradually build new habits into your daily routine.

Don’t worry – you won’t have to put in quite that much time to prepare for a Rockschool exam! Something closer to 20 or 30 minutes a day to get in the habit of practising well should do the trick to start off with. It is much more important to focus for shorter, regular sessions rather than the mammoth amounts of time mentioned above, particularly when you are starting out.

Even if you are a pro at the top of your game, between two and four hours of practice a day is about the maximum time worth doing – it will be very hard to play for any longer than that without losing concentration and slipping into unproductive work.


Baby Steps, Not Giant Steps

If you work out some small but achievable goals that prompt you to make progress by the end of your session and fulfil them, then you should be able to tell yourself (or anyone!) how you have become a better musician by the end of the session. These small, incremental improvements you make each day will quickly add up and your musical ability will start to rocket!

Rockschool’s Practise with Purpose Diary allows you to note down what you’ve been working on in specific boxes designated to Technical Exercises and Supporting Tests as well as a separate one for Performance Pieces. If you can clearly write down what your achievements were for each session then you will be on the right track.

If you’re struggling to think of what you actually achieved or, conversely, you find your notes overflowing from the box, then you might need to rethink and put a more efficient practice routine into place. When you’re immersed in something, it can be hard to take a step back and approach it objectively. Speak to your teacher about what you might need to work on in-between lessons, or find a musical friend or family member and ask them for pointers to see how you can improve next.

Anticipate Obstacles and Take Breaks!

Try not to be too hard on yourself! If you find yourself struggling with a particular part, leave it for the day and come back to it tomorrow. Strengthening weaker material is obviously key to improvement, but sometimes it’s best to be kind to yourself and come back to it another day.

We’re all human, and sometimes we overestimate how much time we’ll have to complete something – we might become ill, or other commitments simply take longer than expected and get in the way of the time we diligently set aside to practise.

This is okay! You can always make up the time another day, and you should definitely schedule in the occasional day away from your instrument. Breaks can be hugely beneficial and allow you to return with a refreshed approach another day.

We’ll be back in the New Year with our ‘Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions’ to help you on the road to your next exam – if you think you’re ready then ENTER before the 17th Jan!


The Rockschool Method: Unseen Tests

October 25th, 2019 by

The Rockschool Method: Unseen Tests. With a firm focus on cohesion and consistency at the forefront of any release, the Rockschool Method is a musical pedagogy that we hope contributes to the production of confident, self-sufficient musicians; empowered with the knowledge and ability to see their musical decisions blossom into authentic musical expression.

For our final instalment of the Rockschool Method series, we’re going to explore the Unseen Test, which can vary depending on instrument, grade and personal preference. The four different types of tests that can be taken are Ear Tests, Sight Reading, Improvisation & Interpretation and Quick Study Pieces. Below we will outline what each test entails, and when you would be expected to perform them in your exam.


Rockschool’s Ear Tests can be found in each grade for every instrument on offer, and are broken down into two equal parts; assessing playback/recognition and/or recall of rhythms, melody and/or harmony depending on the instrument and level.

We can see in the example below how the ear tests take place within the exam. This will differ per instrument/grade, however the exam will always consist of new and unseen material.

In a Rockschool Grade 3 drum exam for example, the test comprises of:

  • One bar of fill recognition/play back (all rhythms played on the snare)
  • Four bars of groove (a co-ordinated pattern orchestrated for an ever-increasing range of drum kit parts)

For the tuned instruments (guitar, bass, piano etc), the test comprises of:

  • Melodic recall (quite literally playing a melody back to the examiner)
  • Rhythmic and harmonic recall (e.g. the recognition of concepts like specific chords or progressions from a piece of audio played by the examiner)
  • In vocal exams, the harmonic test (commencing from Grade 4) comprises singing a harmony line to a pre-existing melody on a backing track

Rockschool’s range of musical outcomes can usually be broken down into these specific component parts. Each of these parts seek to develop every type of technical, stylistic and sensory skillset required to develop into a well-rounded musician, adaptable to many creative scenarios. Recognising the significance of these skills, each Rockschool exam awards 10% of the final mark to the completion of associated ear test.

In more practical terms, as a musician who can confidently identify intervals,
chords/progressions, scales, modes, rhythm and instrumental parts, you are ultimately opening the door to be able to transcribe melodies and chords progressions (songs!), build a firm foundation for fluid improvisation, and further develop rhythmic skills, intonation and the ability to deconstruct a variety of instrument tunings.

Forcing yourself to learn each of these skills may seem boring, but what you’ll be able to do with them musically definitely isn’t.


The Rockschool Sight Reading test takes place in each of the grade exams, across all instruments currently available, at Levels 1 and 2 only (up to Grade 5). In this portion of the exam, the examiner provides a printed test and confirms the key assigned to the music given. Candidates then have 90 seconds to practice the test music before being asked to perform what has been put before them.

At Piano Debut (example above) the musician would have to perform simple rhythms and intervals across both treble and bass clefs.

Sight Reading presents a fantastic opportunity for candidates to underpin their technical knowledge and extend the potential of their future performances by integrating the reading of written music into their routine.

Ultimately, this is the best way for you to both express your own musical ideas, but to also understand and process somebody else’s. Now, not everyone can sight read, but if you find yourself in a situation where you’re collaborating with musicians who can, the potential for idea-exchange can go in absolutely any direction, straight away. There’s no need for those frustrating verbal exchanges when it’s right there on the page. Given there is no need to be in person for this exchange to happen, you’re also in a better position to adequately prepare for a session or recording, edit or amend beforehand and correct after. Some people feel that it’s not a necessary skill for what they want to achieve, but if you’d prefer not to put a limit on your potential, sight reading is a must.


Improvisation & Interpretation is another test that features in each of our grade exams, across all instruments at Level 1 and Level 2 (up to Grade 5). While each of these tests are included for exploration, they are also optional and it is up to the candidate as to which test they would prefer to perform: Improvisation & Interpretation or Sight Reading.

Please note: although it is up to the candidate to decide which test is addressed in their exam, we strongly advise that all candidates will profit from including every test in their music studies in order to become the most well-rounded musician they can be.

The word ‘Improv’ will almost always conjure up the image of those romantic, free-flowing, virtuosic performances that have come to define the musical genius since the birth of popular music. What mustn’t be forgotten is that each of those performances – despite seeming unhindered by the mundanity of rules and rigid structures – are all based on the application of the same set of musical values. Every musician must first possess the same musical knowledge, understanding and appreciation of foundational techniques, music theory, melody, harmony and rhythmic disciplines before they can explore the possibilities of their instrument in an authentic, personal way. Ultimately, music and the decisions that can be made in a composition or performance can inspire up a variety of questions. In order to answer those questions, whether they’re based in genre, style, or theory, you must first understand all the options available to you.

At Drums Grade 5 (as above) the musician would have to make a creative decision on how to build upon the initial notated idea, to be performed in the develop section in bars 4-7.

In a real-life scenario a professional musician would naturally have to consider many options applicable to this opportunity. Primarily, they should consider what the other musicians/instruments are doing and how the improvised part with tonally interact within that sonic environment.

Continuing into the ‘develop’ section is the ‘solo’ in bars 8 and 9, the spotlight is turned on to the musician who is playing the solo. Consequently, the considerations change slightly. Solo sections are typically a moment for one musician to lead the performance and draw the focus to them in isolation, suitable supported by the other musicians, who would usually alter their approach in order to give the solo room to breathe.


Rockschool Quick Study Pieces (QSP’s) are compulsory for all Level 3 grade exams (grades 6-8), except for Rockschool Piano, which has the option to continue the Sight Reading or Improvisation & Interpretation option (highlighted previously) right the way through the syllabus.

Note: despite QSP’s being non-compulsory for pianists, they are a great device that directly encourages cross over to contemporary playing from more classical-based, non-improvisational piano training.

Each candidate is given a lead sheet, which they are then allowed to study in order to develop a theme upon within a three-minute period. The examiner will use prompt the type of performance expected by using terms such as “solo”, “develop” or “adlib”, which all carry with them their own specific connotations. Once this time is up, then are then expected to perform this theme, or improvisation, in a way that suitably expresses a personalisation through a short, musical motif; evidencing the candidates’ ability to recognise specific stylistic devices included in their grade material.

Note: this performance is always performed to backing track.

The style indicator at the top of a score (see example above) can be considered as an initial cue for what stylistic devices to employ. Within this particular example – taken from Rockschool Bass, Grade 6 – the QSP is in a Funk style, and therefore offers the opportunity to the performer to incorporate the stylistic choices and associated techniques that are regularly employed within this genre.

What this test serves to measure is the players ability to create on the fly (practically) and make musical decisions under pressure. If you want to be considered an eloquent, professional musician at some point in the future, this is a skill that will most definitely set you apart (it also gets you out of a fair bit of trouble, whether on stage or during a recording session!).

We hope that this series has gone some way in aiding the development of a greater understanding of each section of a Rockschool exam. There are a diverse selection of directions we could’ve gone, with an equally distinct array of examples to support each of them, so we may return to this series at some point in the future to further extend the musical possibilities your Rockschool education can offer.

If you’d like to leave any comments regarding any of the articles in this series, then please contact us – we’d love to hear from you!

Rockschool Stories | Ed Black

October 21st, 2019 by

After using Rockschool to learn the guitar, Ed decided to pass on his expertise as a teacher at the tender age of 15! Ed kindly took a moment to answer some questions about how he manages his time as an educator, session musician and solo artist.

Why did you decide to start teaching music?

I started teaching at the age of around 15 to the children of my mums friends. At first, I found it quite daunting but it was also a really enjoyable challenge to have. I stuck with it and I quickly warmed to it once I started seeing results. Music has been my passion from a young age, so to get the opportunity to share that passion with people of all ages, children and adults alike, and hopefully inspire them to learn is now a great privilege.

Period C Rockschool Deadline

Why did you decide to teach using Rockschool?

I used Rockschool when I was growing up and thoroughly enjoyed the syllabus, so teaching it to others just seemed like an obvious step. All the pupils I teach want to learn everything about contemporary music, which Rockschool perfectly caters to, so it’s an ideal resource for what my students want to achieve. Prospective pupils have been able to find me online through the Rockschool Teacher Registry and start lessons straight away as well. It really helps that they’re aware of the material and why it’s the right choice for them before we even start.

How have your lessons changed over time?

I have learnt that all pupils are unique and that some take longer to learn certain things than others. I have also learnt that it takes time to get certain aspects of the Guitar sounding perfect, and thus that a lot of early guitar playing doesn’t need to sound perfect, it’s about getting that student to really focus on the technique itself. For me, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all teaching method, I approach each pupil’s syllabus differently and endeavour to steer lesson content towards the individual. The fundamental elements will always remain the same, but how people navigate those topics can vary a lot.

We saw on Instagram that you supported the Stereophonics! How did that come about?

I work as a session guitarist alongside my teaching business. Last year I was playing guitar for singer/songwriter ‘Ten Tonnes’ and one of the tours was supporting the Stereophonics! It was an incredible experience.

Ed (far right) on tour with Ten Tonnes

You also write and release your own original material – can you give us an overview of your work as an artist up to present day?

I have two solo projects. One as a folk/acoustic singer-songwriter, for which I have released two EPs (one live) and three singles. I have performed at a number of festivals across the UK and support slots in London, and have been played regularly on BBC Introducing Merseyside (I am from Chester originally). My second project is as a producer under the name ‘edbl’, which is more R&B/Hip-Hop orientated and features a number of guest vocals. I have released three singles all of which have been played on BBC Introducing London and one BBC Radio 1xtra. Teaching is a really good option to fit around personal projects like this. I’d advise any musician to take a look into taking on their own students as it’s a really fulfilling way to pass on your knowledge and earn some money in the process.

Last year must’ve been super-exiting given that you toured with George Ezra and Ten
Tonnes – how was the whole experience?

Last year was the most live shows I’ve done in a year – over 100 in total. It was incredible! With Ten Tonnes we did three support tours back to back at the beginning of the year, then UK festival circuit throughout the summer, which led into a bus tour supporting George Ezra in the UK and Europe. The whole year was amazing and it was such a great experience to do so many shows, to so many different crowds of music fans in the UK and abroad. Hopefully my students see that as something they call also achieve themselves if they put the hours in.

You’ve had some of your music played on BBC1 extra and BBC radio London. Could you give our followers an idea of the journey from recording a track to having it played on the radio?

I record everything in my home – I have a basic setup: monitors, interface, mic etc, and
I use Logic for mixing/producing. Once the tracks are ready I use AWAL – a distribution service – to get my songs onto streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. I also upload each track to the BBC Introducing uploader, which actually led to playing at the BBC Introducing events in both London and Merseyside. The 1xtra play came about because I emailed my track directly to Jamz Supernova and she very kindly got back to me, said she liked my stuff and played it! A lot of the time with these things it’s about taking advantage of as much as you can, whether that’s networks supporting young artists or a radio producers email address someone has passed onto you.

How do you balance life as a musician and a music teacher?

I find that the two complement each other nicely. The teaching occupies my time on
weeknights for which I am usually free. If I am touring then I always have the flexibility to come back to teaching once the trip’s over. You’ve obviously got to be organised and respectful of your students’ time, but I’ve always found it works really well.

What advice would you give to any young musician now who might see this and think about teaching music themselves?

I would definitely say: get into teaching now! If you’re passionate about music and
proficient on your instrument (or instrument!) then there is no reason not to pass it on. It’s a great way to meet people who share your enthusiasm for creativity, and it also provides regular income which is really important when you’re starting out.

Would you like to give our readers an update of any upcoming projects?

I have one more single coming out under ‘edbl’, featuring a rapper called Kofi Stone. Other than that I would just say please feel free to check out either of my projects (Ed Black/edbl) and let me know what you think!

If you’d like to check out Ed’s music, or contact him about his teaching, you can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Spotify NOW.

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Rockschool Stories | Tony Stevenson – Tony’s Tuition

October 18th, 2019 by

With over 11 years teaching experience and over 20 years as a guitar player, 29 year old Tony Stevenson has been using Rockschool resources alongside his own teaching methods to inspire and educate music students throughout the East Midlands.

Tony sits down for a lesson with one of his students

What made you choose Rockschool’s resources for your music lessons?

I studied Rockschool as a child, teenager and still now as an adult. I’ve always had a keen interest in the tracks produced, the setup and structure of the syllabus and the exams process. I have experience using RGT and ABRSM as both a student and a teacher, but I find Rockschool’s syllabus and style much more appealing for what I’d like to achieve as a musician and an educator. I started teaching my first Rockschool grades to music students in 2016, and haven’t looked back!

Why did you start teaching music and what do you enjoy most about it?

My teaching journey began at a local primary school, shortly after graduating from university with my music degree. During this time, I joined up with a company that taught group guitar lessons as a way to earn some extra income and take on a new challenge. I really enjoyed it and quickly became quite a proficient tutor. Shortly after I started working at a music school in the Midlands area. This completely overtook my primary school career as I found it to be a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Unfortunately, the owner decided to move south and take the business with him, which forced me to take on some of the clients myself, who I taught at my home on a 1-1 basis. After doing this for a little while, I realised this was the direction I wanted to take my career in 2015/16, and thus began my self-employed guitar teaching journey! I now host multiple student showcases, and have recently taken on my 40th student!

What I enjoy most about my career as a music teacher is working with students that have an enthusiasm to learn from the outset because of how passionate they are about the subject. Back in primary school most kids would enjoy the lessons, but, naturally there would always be groups of kids that had very little interest in what was being taught. It didn’t resonate with them personally, which is probably the same reason that drove me to specialise my own teaching. As a 1-1 tutor, I know the students coming to me come because they have a keen interest in music and want to emulate those they look up to. This makes my job much more enjoyable and its really rewarding every time I get to see these students succeed – regardless of age or skill level.

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What has been your most memorable teaching experience?

The most memorable situation for me was my first student showcase. Whilst very nerve racking, the turnout was great and it was a smashing success. Seeing my students up on stage in-front of 100 odd people for the first time was really special. Not only were they performing their own song choices and grade pieces publicly, they openly conversed about their own experiences and we all had a lot of fun afterwards. It was an experience I’ll never forget. This is something I now replicate every six months, and I’ve even begun collaborating with another music teacher, giving us even a larger show, with more attendees. It’s great to see this event grow and how it serves to unify the local community of music students and their teachers.

How do you think students can benefit from gaining Rockschool grade exams?

Over the years I have also devised my own curriculum that I use alongside the Rockschool syllabus. When speaking with a student about transferring over to Rockschool, one of the biggest points I always mention is that a Rockschool grade is an internationally recognised qualification that can help confirm their progress. If my student were to speak with another musician and say “I’m a moderate level 8 student with Tony’s Tuition”, it doesn’t tell them as much as “I’ve passed Grade 8 Rockschool Guitar”. The skills are more instantly recognisable and benchmarked, making them instantly more transferable. The Rockschool grades also look great on a students’ CV, with the added extra of credits towards university. This is why I push students to move on to the curriculum, if it matches their ambition.

How has the RSL’s Teacher Registry benefited your business?

Whilst being on multiple registries, the RSL registry is a direct route. This should hopefully mean they’ve also researched Rockschool in some detail, and thus know exactly what to expect. It’s such a simple, clean and easy platform to use. It’s very user friendly. I’d highly recommend it to other budding Rockschool teachers.

What advice would you give to someone using Rockschool material for the first time?

Research! Thoroughly research the grading material, use the Rockschool companion guides, and make sure you have some grades under your own belt so you know first-hand exactly what kind of advice to give your students as they prepare for an exam.

What advice would you give to new music teachers just starting out?

Scaffolding! Structure absolutely everything in bite-sized pieces. One of my mistakes when taking on my first student, was to glaze over everything I knew. I found that by rushing through each piece of material to ‘keep it fresh’, I actually had given myself less scope to teach after a few months. Realistically, the student could barely remember anything they’d been taught other than basics, because everything was too rushed. Take each piece slowly, and get them playing along to the backing tracks as soon as you can (even if it’s only a very small section like the introduction), this always helps build their confidence.

A big thanks to Tony for giving us his time. If you’d like to inquire into his music teaching services, you can find his RSL Teacher Registry profile here!

You can also visit Tony’s Tuition online by clicking on the logo below!

The Rockschool Method: General Musicianship Questions

October 16th, 2019 by

With a firm focus on cohesion and consistency at the forefront of any release, the Rockschool Method is a musical pedagogy that we hope contributes to the production of confident, self-sufficient musicians; empowered with the knowledge and ability to see their musical decisions blossom into authentic musical expression.

The General Musicianship Question’s section of the exam gives each candidate the opportunity to dig deeper into aspects of music theory and appreciation, and then consider how to articulate the knowledge gained from each grade into coherent, aural statements. For some, this may seem a little daunting as first, but we promise that each candidate will get a huge amount out of this particular section. Analysis & reflection is an important part of learning in general, so we felt it applied to our exams as much as it should anything else.

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Learning Outcomes

Being able to analyse and reflect effectively also involves linking a current experience to previous learning experiences (a process psychologist refer to as ‘scaffolding’). The later grades may include information that is developed from an idea introduced earlier in the syllabus, which is why we encourage that students work through each grade sequentially. We wouldn’t expect a student to work backwards as far as gaining a grade, but engaging with the syllabus in its entirety will certainly aid the progression to a proceeding exam by negating against gaps of knowledge later on.

Rockschool GMQ’s were included to get students into the habit of linking and constructing meaning from their musical experiences, enhancing the significance of each topic learnt. Reflecting on these experiences also encourages insight and the ability to grasp the more complex methods that are included in later grades. Making this an integral part of our learning rituals also means it is easier to foster our own growth – taking control of our own learning – and breathe confidence into our ability to enter into discussion with others.

GMQ’s equate to 5% of the overall mark, which, despite seeming quite a small amount, could quite easily be the difference between one grade boundary and another. It’s important to remember that one of these questions could be the reason you earn a merit or a distinction, so it’s worth preparing for this section as best you can.


The format presented in each grade book will come in the form of four questions on music theory, and another relating to the instrument itself. The detail expected in each answer will be based on particular topics consistent with the syllabus in question. Rockschool Piano, Keys and Ukulele for example, will include one question (per instrument, per grade) on harmony, melody, rhythm, technical application and genre.

Note: These questions have been specifically generated to align with Rockschool’s Performance Pieces, so be mindful when selecting a Free Choice Piece, which may be limited in scope.

Example 1: Rockschool Drums

In this exam, candidates could be asked to identify the notated drum voices that are present within any of the performance pieces chosen for their exam (these are all explained within each grade book). They would also be asked to identify the individual parts of their drum kit (snare, hi hat, ride cymbal etc.). Then, at the other end of the grades – Drums Grade 8, for example – candidates would be asked to identify and explain some of the more complex elements of the notation, which could be in the form of explaining the chosen stylistic approach towards a solo, or the development of a given section within the piece in question.

The knowledge base that Rockschool GMQ’s can engage could be technical, performance-based, aural or visual in nature. The list of topics in each grade book is deliberately broad to ensure that each students preparation includes a wider range of subjects that can feasibly be included in the exam itself. This may seem a bit cheeky once you get out of your exam, but it’s better for you in the long run (and that doesn’t mean that something you’ve learn may not come up later on!). Being in a position to evidence this knowledge when it’s applicable later on should provide a genuinely rewarding experience, hopefully going some way to further building your confidence as a musician.

Example 2: Rockschool Guitar

Having the musical knowledge to be undaunted by any of the potential GMQ’s will always relate to the student’s ability to fully understand each of their performance pieces on their own merits. Fortunately, the required level of detail of this musical knowledge will always be commensurate to what is included at each grade. For example, in ‘Carbon Footprint – Electric Guitar grade 4’ the solo backing only outlines a Gm7 chord with no additional harmony. Therefore, the scale options for soloing over it can remain relatively simple and reflective of the scales within the technical exercises. The backing for the guitar solo within Lead Sheet at Grade 8 outlines a F#m which could appear as a similar level of difficulty. However, to maximise marks at this grade candidates are expected to use more advanced modes and scales, such as the ones present in the grade 8 technical exercises – evidencing what has been digested, specifically at this grade.


In essence, Rockschool GMQ’s are another progressive platform that helps to develop a greater awareness of what is being played as students’ progress. As the music becomes more complicated, so do the concepts behind them, which in turn must be factored into the questions posed by Rockschool examiners.

At every stage of learning; in every part of a Rockschool syllabus; broadening a students’ musical vocabulary is paramount. We believe it’s beneficial to see each section of the exam – whether it’s in the performance, the technical exercises, sight reading, improvisation, ear tests or GMQ’s – not as isolated, unrelated events; but as a collection of chapters that belong to a whole story.

…and there we have it! We’ll be back next week with the final instalment in the series: Supporting Tests.

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Dealing with Performance Anxiety

October 10th, 2019 by

We want every musician to be in the most positive frame of mind when it comes to performing, especially during their Rockschool Graded Music Exam.

We recently caught up with life coach and psychotherapist, James Banfield, from The Liberated Mind to provide teachers and students the tools to understand, spot and overcome performance anxiety.

What is the difference between performance anxiety (stress), and an anxiety disorder?

The symptoms are very similar but performance anxiety will dissipate once the performance is over, anxiety disorder is an ongoing problem because it is constantly fed by a person’s fearful thoughts. Everyone gets nervous about performing and this is natural. But if someone is feeling constantly anxious, they should seek some professional help.

What are the physical symptoms of anxiety?

  • Shallow fast breathing or holding their breath.
  • Heart beating faster and harder.
  • The body may shake – especially hands.
  • Becoming tearful or overly emotional over little things.
  • Skin may turn pale – colour drains from their skin.
  • Increased sweating.
  • Dry mouth.

Coping mechanisms/reactions:

  • Becoming agitated or unable to be still.
  • Freezing or not being able to function.
  • Feeling the need to escape – Running out of the room.
  • Going quiet and shutting down.
  • Using cigarettes or other drugs.

If you suspect that one of your students is suffering from ongoing anxiety you can find out more by visiting the NHS website.

5 tips for managing performance anxiety:

By using these tips as part of the preparation for the exam your students should remain in control and perform at their best.

  • 7: 11 Breathing – When you feel nervous or anxious breath in through your nose for 7 and out through your mouth for 11. The counting engages the logical part of your brain, and deep breathing increases oxygen and signals the body to calm down.
  • Posture – Your physiology will influence your psychology. So, if you stand or sit in a strong confident posture that you will feel more confident.
  • Smile – it might seem forced but smiling releases oxytocin which makes you feel good.
  • Reframe – your feelings don’t know the difference between fear and excitement. So, tell yourself you are EXCITED rather than scared or nervous and it changes your experience.
  • Rehearsal – Mentally rehearse the performance going well (just like a runner imagining winning the race). Your mind doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality.

The good news is that anxiety disorders can be easily treated and completely cured with the right support. So, if you or a student are suffering you can get expert advice or treatment via The Liberated Mind.

What to do if you think that a student is suffering with depression

Depression can be difficult to spot especially in young people because the symptoms can be quite subtle and people are good at hiding how they really feel. There is also the possibility of mistaking grief or loss for depression as many of the symptoms are the same. There is also a big difference between someone feeling down or slightly depressed which is normal and a person that has clinical depression. So, it is important not to start diagnosing or making assumptions.

Here are some of the signs to look out for if you think that a student could be severely depressed:

  • Becoming quiet and withdrawn.
  • A loss of interest and enthusiasm in the things that they enjoy doing and talking about.
  • A lack of concentration and competence in what they are doing.
  • Looking tired, and moving or talking slower than usual.
  • Being tearful or emotional for little or no reason.
  • Neglecting their appearance or personal hygiene
  • Low confidence and self-esteem – constantly putting themselves down.
  • Having a hopeless attitude or being negative about the future.

For a more detailed description of the symptoms you can visit the NHS website.

If you are concerned about one of your students because their mood or behaviour is out of the ordinary you can do the following:

  • Keep an eye on them for a few weeks to see if they improve. It could just be a difficult week.
  • If things continue or get worse you could mention that they don’t seem like their usual self and ask if everything is ok? If they open up just listen and let them speak. They might tell you that a loved one has passed away or their parents are getting divorced, so they are responding how anyone would. This is why it is important to get the facts and not assume.
  • If you are still concerned that it might be depression you can either express your concerns to their parents if they are a minor, or if they are an adult recommend that they visit their GP.
  • They could also do an online self-assessment to see if they should seek professional support.
  • It is important that someone who is depressed gets support quickly. If you leave it the symptoms can get much worse and it can take longer to recover.

There are different levels of depression which will determine the kind of treatment needed:

  • Mild depression – has some impact on your daily life.
  • Moderate depression – has a significant impact on your daily life.
  • Severe depression – makes it almost impossible to get through daily life; a few people with severe depression may have psychotic symptoms.

Mild depression could be treated with some simple therapy (CBT, NLP, Hypnotherapy). Moderate depression can be treated with the same types of therapy but they may also need additional medication (anti-depressants). Severe depression will need a specialist mental health care team and treatment plan. Exercise is another great way to relieve the symptoms of depression as it produces natural chemicals that are in the anti-depressants (E.g. serotonin).

For further advice or treatment, head over to The Liberated Mind where you can contact hypnotherapist & psychotherapist James Banfield.

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