Category: Graded Music Exams

Examination Update: COVID-19

March 27th, 2020 by


At RSL Awards, we pride ourselves in the trust and confidence that our dedicated community has in us to deliver outstanding examination experiences. We’re taking this a step further, and we are delighted to announce the launch of our Video Exams.

Environmentally friendly, no waiting times, reduced stress and available worldwide, this digital solution shows our commitment to providing the most accessible exam experience possible.


Video Exams now rollin


Following the UK Government’s announcement yesterday, and with a view to looking after the health of our entire RSL community of learners, teachers and examiners, we have decided to defer our remaining UK Graded Music Exams and PAA exams for Period A (1st February – 31st March). We will be in touch to re-arrange exams in due course. This will come into effect from Monday 23 March, and exams scheduled for this weekend will go ahead as planned, with the exception of days that have already been postponed (please scroll below).

At RSL Awards, we recognise the dedication and passion our candidates have to achieving results and progressing with their respective disciplines. To support this, we will shortly be sharing details how learners can enter their music exam performances via video submission. We believe that COVID-19 should not, and will not deprive any candidates of their learning achievements . We would like to reassure our candidates that exams can be done anytime and anywhere, within the comfort of your home.

Detailed instructional videos and guidance to recording your exam from home will follow shortly. In the meantime, you can still enter for your Period B exam HERE…

Correct as of 20th March 2020


As the UK’s leading and most trusted contemporary arts awarding body, the wellbeing and safety of our candidates and staff is our highest priority. In the event that your exam is cancelled due to a COVID-19 virus related incident or a UK government directive, our friendly customer service team will contact you in due course with alternative dates.

For the most up to date information regarding COVID-19, visit: UK government and Public Health England.

The following exam sessions in the UK & Republic of Ireland will be rescheduled. Our team will contact you directly in due course with alternative dates. For any further information, please contact us on

Graded Music / PAA Exams

  • 14th March 2020: Blanchardstown School of Music
  • 15th March 2020: Blanchardstown School of Music
  • 18th March 2020: The Rhythm Studio, Ladbroke Grove
  • 19th March 2020: April Media, Plymouth
  • 19th March 2020: Stonyhurst College, Clitheroe
  • 20th March 2020: Stonyhurst College, Clitheroe
  • 20th March 2020: The Forum, Darlington
  • 21st March 2020: Access Creative College, Norwich
  • 21st March 2020: Music Heroes, Shrewsbury
  • 21st March 2020: Hook Centre
  • 21st March 2020: Access Creative College, Lincoln
  • 21st March 2020: Bleeding Ear Studios, Southend
  • 21st March 2020: Cheadle Hulme School
  • 21st March 2020: Yamaha Music School, Milton Keynes
  • 21st March 2020: Stagecoach Grimsby
  • 21st March 2020: Alton College
  • 21st March 2020: Portsmouth Music Academy
  • 21st March 2020: Music Base, Edinburgh
  • 22nd March 2020: Music Base, Edinburgh
  • 22nd March 2020: Academy of Music & Sound Exeter
  • 22nd March 2020: Saint Benedict Catholic School, Derby
  • 22nd March 2020: Bury St Edmunds County Upper School
  • 22nd March 2020: JASPA, Corsham
  • 23RD MARCH 2020 ONWARDS : ALL POSTPONED. Please refer to message at top of page

Music Theory Exams

  • 21st March 2020: The Rhythm Studio, Ladbroke Grove
  • 21st March 2020: Cranleigh School
  • 21st March 2020: Saint Benedict Catholic School, Derby

Music Production Exams

  • 21st March 2020: Academy of Music & Sound Exeter
  • 21st March 2020: Future Skills Manchester
  • 21st March 2020: Access Creative College, Norwich
  • 21st March 2020: Access Creative College, Birmingham
  • 21st March 2020: Access Creative College, Bristol
  • 28th March 2020: Edinburgh College

For any scheduled exams outside the UK, please check with our International Team ( should you have any concerns.

A message from our CEO, John Simpson (16/3/20)

“To all in the RSL community, thank you all for continued loyalty and trust in RSL Awards in these unprecedented times. The health and safety of all our candidates, teachers, parents, examiners and staff remains our highest priority. The situation is fast moving and we are closely monitoring developments from the UK Government and Public Health England and following advice as appropriate.

The entry process for the UK exam period B (for exams taking place between the 1st May – End July) is currently open. We will be scheduling all these UK & Ireland exams as planned for that period. However, if circumstances force us to make changes, we will defer them to a later date and ensure minimum inconvenience. Please book with the confidence that we will be able to deliver these exams. If changes are required, our customer service team will contact those affected as soon as possible in order to provide clarity and minimise disruption.”

For further information, please download the letter in full below…

A message from RSL Awards CEO John Simpson: COVID–19

Teaching Rockschool Drums – Grade 1 | Guest Blog

March 5th, 2020 by

Welcome to the second instalment from drum tutor and guest blogger, Michael Hutchinson, on how to teach Rockschool Grade 1 Drums.

Your student has moved forward from Rockschool Drums Debut to Rockschool Drums Grade 1… let us celebrate! Grade 1 is a significant achievement for them and you. They can successfully read music and play their instrument, and as their teacher you now need to focus attention onto the more delicate movements and technicality of playing the drums.

What to teach in Grade 1?

Grade 1 is about building speed and acquiring the skills to move around the drum kit.

It would be best if you were focusing teaching technique on:

  • Hi-hat openings – open the hi-hat on all the quarter notes, and then on all the eighth notes and then freely when improvising
  • Bass drum independence – placing the bass drum on all the quarter notes, all eighth
    notes, and then doubles in eighth notes, once comfortable then freely while improvising
  • Cymbal crashes – with the lead hand and non-lead hand
  • Ride cymbal – including ride line embellishments and playing on the bell of the ride in quarter notes
  • Drum fills – eighth note fills, and sixteenth note fills in single strokes, double strokes and paradiddles, using the full drum kit and make use of exploring drum sounds. The student will be able to identify musical notation from debut grade, so allow them to navigate through the chosen piece by themselves, with guidance from you, if needed, however, there is some new notation within grade 1 you need to explain.
  • Repeat signs within the piece
  • Ride cymbal
  • Bell of the ride notation
  • Hi-hat opening and closing
  • Crash cymbal
  • Ties – e.g. allowing a cymbal to ring on

Music theory to reiterate

  • Time signature – what does the top number mean (Numerator – Beats per bar) and what does the bottom number mean (Denominator – Note value)?
  • BPM – beats per minute

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Practice plan

It’s now an excellent time to start getting that practice plan in place, starting with time management. How long should a student practise? Intrinsic practice is what you aim for, and the student needs to want to practise rather than forced to practise.

Fifteen minutes is a good start, starting with a warmup and ending with a cool down, preferably playing a song that they want to play, with the middle section focusing on lesson content, a section of the piece, or a technique the student struggles on which was identified in the lesson. Practice should be aimed at feeling comfortable with the rehearsal set out and not aimed at speed, unless this is what is lacking.

A good practice plan should involve some or all of the below:

  • Listening to the piece that the student is learning – familiarising the student with listening to the piece they are learning allows them to prepare mental strategies and performance cues when they play the song live
  • Repetition practice – going over the bar or exercises including rudiments over and over to place into long term memory will allow them to access this information in performance using implicit (unconscious) memory
  • Counting out loud – note value, the rhythm of the piece, allows the student to hear what they are trying to play, which allows the processing of this information to sit within auditory memory and can be used as a performance cue
  • Reading music – This allows the student to become aware of reading notes and identifying patterns but also allows visual memory of the piece they are playing which, again, can be used in mental strategies to prepare for performance
  • Implicit practice – I would say that this is the most important variant of any practice. The student needs to want to practise, without feeling that it is “homework” or a chore.

  • About the Author:

    Michael Hutchinson is a drummer, educator, and music psychologist from the North East of England. He runs Triple-T Drumming school of drums and has been teaching privately for 12 years. He is currently researching drumming from a psychological point of view studying with Sheffield University, music psychology in education performance and wellbeing and his main interest is drumming and its effects on working memory.

Rockschool Stories | Phil Harris

February 12th, 2020 by

With decades of experience in guitar teaching and working within the wider creative industries, Phil Harris is an impressive musical entrepreneur. Phil has also qualified with a distinction as Licentiate Teacher of Music, LRSL in 2009, before gaining a First Class BA (Hons) in Creative Music Performance in 2019.

Dip-in: Rockschool’s brand-new Diplomas for Teaching were released in 2019

During his time managing a music department, Phil became an assessor for the government’s ‘New Deal for Musicians’. At this time, Phil successfully obtained funding from Youth Music London, which offered music opportunities to young people in deprived communities across South Wales (where he is based).

Made-the-grade: Some of Phil’s students celebrate passing their latest Rockschool exams

Can you give us a brief explanation of your teaching business?

I have been teaching electric and acoustic guitar for over thirty years. Alongside this, I have worked within the creative industries in a variety of ways: I was an assessor/verifier for the governments ‘New Deal for Musicians’ programme. I’ve worked as a guitar teacher for Sony records. I have secured funding from Youth Music UK for under privileged areas in Wales. I have written guitar units for the CQFW and QCF; and I have qualified – with a distinction – as Licentiate Teacher of Music in 2009 and a First-Class BA (Hons) in Creative Music Performance, as recently as 2019.

RSL Teacher Registry: Advertise your own teaching business for FREE with RSL

[on the Song Records role] Was this for any artists/bands we may have heard of?

I was contracted to assist a Sony recording artist. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say due to a signed agreement!

How did the funding from Youth Music help and how do you feel about the future of music teaching in your region?

The funding was a fantastic opportunity for many underprivileged learners and their families to gain access to music education for the first time. It also facilitated many freelance teachers to increase their academic levels and professionalism in the region, whereby there was less means to do so previously.

James Banfield: We spoke to the psychotherapist and life coach in March ’19

As the years have passed, I see many more students, the young and the older generation, suffering from performance anxiety and its adverse effects. This maybe just down to the demands on society in general, but I think this area needs further research and attention. I think it will become increasingly more important that teachers should study this area in greater detail to assist their students; whether it be by studying mindfulness or relaxation techniques, or maybe just talking about anxiety more regularly.

How long have you been using Rockschool, and why has it worked for you?

Since the late 90s I do believe. It’s worked for me because of its large selection of arrangements and types of music, as well as its professional processes.

Rockschool Electric Guitar: The update to Debut – Grade 8 was released in 2018

What’s your favourite performance piece to teach, and how does it improve your learners?

From the early Debut grade book, ‘Another Dime’. This tune helps develop a students’ confidence in applying basic rhythms and rests in a great rock-styled genre. Also, I’m really fond of the grade 8 tune ‘Freightshaker’, which allows me to assist the students uderstanding of fretboards visualisation and the dominant chords in the EDCAG system, with the appropriate scales and stylistic riffs.

Freightshaker! Guitarist, Ian Devlin, plays an awesome version of the classic Rockschool track

What’s your favourite test to teach, and how does it benefit your learners?

Definitely the Improv and QSP tests. These help the student become creative, by allowing them to employ the scales they have practiced in order to develop chord harmony, rhythmical understanding, and the ability to create variations in different genres.

Improve Your Improv! Phil shows off his own improv skills here

What’s your favourite learner success story?

A parent had emailed me about their 9 year old son. He had been receiving lessons from a different teacher, who had told both the parent and student that he (the student) would never have the ability to play the guitar. I was so taken aback by this teachers comments, that I made it my aim then and there to help the student reach their goal. This student has just successfully passed his first grade, which has instilled pride and confidence in the student, as well as his parents.

What musician(s) inspired you to start playing?

I was first introduced to the guitar by a neighbour at a young age and instantly found inspiration from my older brothers’ record collections. Inspired by all the great iconic riffs from musicians such as, Jimmy Page, Rory Gallagher, Stevie Ray Vaughan and of course the great melodic phrasing of Joe Satriani, I started to play myself, and never looked back!

Communication Breakdown: Guitar-hero, Jimmy Page, plays the classic track with his band, Led Zeppelin

Do you have any favourite personal experiences as a musician?

I really enjoy attending masterclasses with well-known guitarists. I have been fortunate enough to do so with Alex Hutching, Tom Quayle, Martin Goulding and Prog Rock guitarist, Plini. And last but not least, interviewing Shaun Baxter!

Do you have any goals for the future of your teaching business?

To complete my Masters in June with AMS and UWL, and hopefully progressing on to a PhD. I believe by continually developing my learning process, it will help me deliver the best quality and most up-to-date information to my students, helping them to reach their potential, whilst making sure the journey as musical and enjoyable as possible.

What reasons would you give to encourage young musicians to teach others?

The answer to this question is an easy one. To have a key influence on someone who has a dream to become a confident, expressive musician is a unique and important experience that will only change your life for the better.

A big thank you to Phil for taking the time to speak to us. If you’d like to enquire into how you can learn Rockschool Guitar in South Wales, you can click on the image below to get started now!

If you’d like to nominate yourself, a music teacher you know, or even an entire school for a new chapter of Rockschool Stories, click on the button below and drop us a message!


RSL’s Top 10 Ukulele Songs

January 22nd, 2020 by

What are the Best Ukulele Songs? 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.

Before digging into our list of the best ukulele songs, we’d like to give you a few historical notes on this fascinating instrument. 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. And this is definitely one of the best ukulele songs!

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 the best ukulele songs. 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. Would you add it to your own list of the Best Ukulele Songs of all time?

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, and one of the best ukulele songs.

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.

Period C Rockschool Deadline