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.

This week we’re going to take a thorough look at the Technical Exercises for Rockschool’s graded music exams.

Depending on your instrument, grade and skill level, the demands on each burgeoning musician in this part of the performance will vary a fair bit, so we’re not going to focus on each discipline individually here. What this section seeks to develop can however be seen in more universal terms that every learner can relate to.

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Whether you’re staying balanced across your drum voicings, managing airflow as a vocalist, or developing consistent string skipping on your guitar or bass; every technique requires the physical coordination that comes from – and only after – hour and hours of practise.

More specifically, we’re looking for the development of:

  • Good playing habits
  • Economy of movement
  • Effective playing mechanics
  • Consistency in delivery

Only when the brain can slow the whole process down can muscle memory take over, allowing your musical intuition to truly take hold. It may seem a tedious and somewhat banal activity at the time, but remember: every instance of your favourite musical moments contains within them a multitude of individual techniques that have been repeated, ad nauseum, until perfected. The time will eventually come when you can fluidly transfer from one technique to the next and you’ll realise that it was all worth it – we promise!

Example 1

Example 1 can be evidenced very clearly in the lower drum grades – so that’s what we’ll use for this exercise. This is where the technical exercises begin with simple and achievable drills, such as – in this instance – single strokes, double strokes and single paradiddles. These are specifically designed to provide a foundation that all music students can stack every new skill upon thereafter. Evidence of their practical worth are then deliberately included in the performance pieces included at that grade.

Practise. Perfect. Perform. Makes sense, right?

Now the platform is sturdy, we can start technique-loading grade-by-grade, with both fluency and range our primary concerns as these techniques progress.

1. Fluency

Whether it’s specifically targeting fretting, sticking patterns or intervallic vocal placement; we’re looking for the appropriate level of precision and fluidity assigned to the exercises included at your chosen grade.

2. Range

Whether it’s your vocal range, fretboard/keyboard geography or wider use of drum kit orchestration – being able to display the widest range of expression at each stage of your development puts you in the best position to make musical decisions later.

Example 2

Using the electric guitar this time, the Technical Exercises that progress throughout the grades will focus primarily on: fretboard navigation and harmonic difficulty. Debut includes very simple open string major scale shapes; and by Grade 6, the exercises are spanning multiple positions, furthering each players economy of movement and general fretboard knowledge.

More specifically, we’re looking for development in these core skills:

  • Increased sense of rhythm and time
  • Hand/finger placement
  • Stamina
  • Musical articulation
  • Performance speed

What we’re talking about here, is a gradual increase of expressive devices that collectively enable each player to attain a true sense of their musical agency. Whether that’s achieved in tone modification, ornamentation, or articulation; each technique can be applied to any specific style a player chooses to identify with.

Example 3

This example identifies the small articulations that unify the stylistic intentions within a performance. From grade 3 through to the higher grades, the technical devices learned are directly applied with creativity in mind, for example, Rockschool Guitar Bass and Drums contain an increasing number of bars left open for candidates to further develop a theme, ad lib, or solo as they see fit.

If all of the Technical Exercises introduced up to that point have been effectively explored, the practical application of rhythmic, harmonic and expressive devices/techniques should then be soundly presented by the learner. At this stage, you’ve begun developing your own sound by personalising each of your performances – whether building on existing themes or creating brand-new motifs – and becoming a confident, self-sufficient musician.

With each of our instrument specific exercises we’re looking to present:

  • A variety of musical contexts
  • A variety of tempos (graduating in complexity)
  • Backing tracks that target:
    • Time
    • Harmonics
    • Melody
    • Stylistic references

Example 4

Guitar, Bass and Drums begin by introducing simple riffs and fills to a backing track. By grades 6 to 8 (level 3), this has advanced to more genre-specific content. As you’ll see from the example, at Drums Grade 6 there are three Stylistic Studies to choose from. One of the three options is ‘Funk’, which at this grade focuses on snare drum ghost notes and quick open/closed hi-hats amongst other finer articulations.

Example 5

For our Piano and Keys grade (Debut – Grade 8) we explore this a little differently, by focusing on each learners’ ability to improvise and interpret material. This was developed as an alternative specialisation to the sight-reading test, for those who’d prefer to showcase that side of their musicianship instead.

How do we do this?

  • Stipulating a range of starting notes to suit individuals
  • Memory requirements for each instrument to enhance fluency and depth of insight
  • Measuring speed of response in the absence of given tempos
  • Recognising and crediting musicality shown within given opportunity

... And there we have it! We really hope this article provided some clarity for those of you looking to understand this section of the exam a little more. There's certainly room to explore other examples within each grade and instrument, so watch this space for a further developed version soon!