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.

EAR TESTS

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.

SIGHT READING

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

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.

QUICK STUDY PIECE

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!