Quick tips for ABRSM Singing Performance Grades

Sara-Lois Cunningham
Saturday, June 1, 2024

Sara-Lois Cunningham shares advice for singers entering ABRSM’s digital exams, assessed from video recordings submitted by candidates



Create a varied recital. Ensure there is a variety of genre, mood and keys in your programme, and look for contrast. If you have two lively songs, place them away from each other. The timings need to be checked as part of the selection process, and triple-check the own-choice piece, which has a set minimum duration.

Practise performing. The performance element naturally comes into ultra-sharp focus in performance exams, carrying a whopping 30 marks. Enter a candidate for this exam only when you are certain they really can perform. Don't wait until the actual recording before considering performance techniques. Preparation is key to achieving high marks, so record the student in lessons in order for them to check how they look and sound when singing. Encourage them to watch professional singers to see how they do it. Bryn Terfel is one example of a singer renowned for his performance skills.


Check positioning. Make sure the pianist can see the candidate, and the singer is looking towards but not at the camera. Contrary to the well-intentioned but poor advice of fixing eyes on a point at the back of the room, the singer should allow their gaze to move according to their thoughts of the words in the song. Eyes, the windows of communication, need to be up for the most part. Remind singers to check their physical alignment and to keep their weight over both ankles, while also allowing the body to feel released and energised.

Present positivity. The performance begins as soon as the camera starts recording. Even though the own spoken introduction won't be marked, view this as part of the recital – it gets the singer in the right ‘zone’. Begin with a smile, then speak in a clear, confident voice.


Imagine an audience. It can feel a little odd performing without an audience; performers respond to the energy audiences provide. Be sure, however, that the singer carries energy and intention through the entire programme. A smiling and encouraging teacher or helpful parent sitting out of sight of the camera can help by exuding a quiet, positive reassurance throughout.

Pace the recital. After allowing time for the pianist to shuffle their sheet music, the singer can create an unhurried moment of quiet reflection before each song. They should take a little time to reposition their feet, free up the body and change stance. They can look down while thinking through the first line of the next song, looking up when ready to perform. It works well to communicate with the pianist before each piece, with a look, a smile and a nod.

Use dynamics and be stylistic. Singing quietly and well is an advanced technique, and though young singers may not yet be sophisticated in vocal technique, dynamic range is one of the points that comes up time and again in ABRSM exams. Make the phrases sparkle, using a range of dynamics and voice colours. Understanding the style and genre of the songs should be covered in lessons from the start.

Be expressive. There is always an expectation that singers will pay attention to every single word of their songs, and being engaged with the text will help in securing high marks. Taking time during lessons to deconstruct the text, seek a deeper meaning, and perhaps add extra details to the narrative to enlighten the imagination of the singer will help them convey the song with feeling and sensitivity. They need to be prepared to exaggerate: the teacher can check if the balance between words and actions is working well. An occasional upward movement of a hand to highlight a part of the text can be a lovely gesture, especially if sincere. And don't forget the eyebrows! They have a huge part to play, being the most expressive part of the human face. The singer can incorporate this genuine response to words when singing, just as they do in speech.

Enunciate well. Clear diction delivered with just the right amount of energy not only ensures the examiner can hear all the words but also makes for a more polished performance.


Have you got ‘quick tips’ on an area of teaching you'd like to share? If so, email the editor at music.teacher@markallengroup.com