Rock & Pop Exam Day: ‘The Gig’ (Performance)

When I’m performing, I like to arrive for the gig early. For the Rock & Pop performance, I think you should arrive at least 30 minutes early. This gives you time to relax, focus and warm-up before you walk on to the stage (exam room).  Before you leave for the gig, make sure you have your music and the gear that you need; back up stuff like strings, sticks, picks, cables etc., just in case something breaks. Make sure you also have your original Rock & Pop book and CD with you (you will use your CD to warm up with). If you have transposed vocal pieces or have an own choice song (song 2) for any instrument, I suggest you bring that on a USB stick or flash drive. That’s what we will use in the exam room.

Now that you have arrived:

  • You should check in with the stage manager; we call them the Rock & Pop steward.
  • Give them your appointment slip (set list), already filled in. They will talk to you about warm-up time and when you will play based upon the other acts or candidates performing that day.
  • You will be taken to the warm-up room about 10-15 minutes before your exam to focus and get in the zone. This not time for a lesson, but as I said, a warm-up. When I go play, I use the time before I hit the stage to get my voice, fingers and mind ready for the show.
  • When it’s time for your performance, the steward will take you to the Rock & Pop room and introduce you.
  • Enter the exam room like you own it. You’re on stage; this is your performance.
  • To start, once you’re on stage you should make sure your gear is set, tuned and do a sound check for your first piece. Put your original music on the stand open to your first piece. Make sure you are happy with the sound and the balance. If you want adjustments to your sound check just ask the engineer (the examiner, who is a player just like you).
  • You will then be asked to perform each piece of your set as listed on the appointment slip, including the Session Skill that you have ticked.
  • Once you exit, the steward will confirm the dates when marks and certificates will be released.

So that’s it! The next thing I do after a gig is go out and eat some food, hang out and talk to my friends about the performance, have some fun. That’s what musicians do – we work hard, play music and have fun!

Now that you know what is happening the day of your performance (exam), I would go check out some of our Rock & Pop demos for your instrument:


Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

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Improvising in a Rock style

Rock music is a genre which originated as rock’n’roll in 1950s USA. Stemming  from 1940s and 1950s rhythm and blues and country music, rock music is influenced by a number of other genres, such as blues, folk, jazz and classical music. The creation of rock’n’roll during the 50s also encouraged a wave of fandom with teenagers and inspired a new style of dancing, which lead to disapproving parents worldwide thinking it was a bad influence on their children.

Debate surrounds which should be considered the first rock’n’roll record and it has been argued that Elvis Presley’s first single with Sun Records, ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ was the first. However, in 1955, Bill Haley’sRock Around the Clock’ became the first rock’n’roll song to top Billboard magazine’s main sales and airplay charts. 

The ‘British Invasion’ was also a key aspect in the development of rock music. During the mid-1960s rock and pop music acts from the UK, such as The Beatles, started to become popular in the USA, by drawing on elements from other styles of distinctive music, including soul, rhythm and blues and surf. In the late 1960s during the classic rock period, a number of sub-genres emerged, including hybrids like blues rock, folk rock, country rock, jazz-rock fusion, progressive rock and glam rock. Subsequently, this was the introduction of the types of rock groups we know today; who produce their own material and consist of guitarists, drummers and vocalists.

In the mid-late 1970s, punk rock became stronger and started to introduce a rawer, livelier style of music which focused on social and political problems within society. Punk rock was also a huge influence in the 1980s and resulted in the development of other sub-genres, such as new wave, post-punk and the alternative rock movement. However, from the 1990s a new style of alternative rock started to prevail within rock music and also break through into the mainstream; this included a number of sub-genres such as punk rock, grunge, Britpop, and indie rock.


Musically, rock is focused around the electric guitar, which usually forms part of a rock group with electric bass and drums. Typically, a rock song has a 4/4 time signature using a verse-chorus form, but the genre has become extremely diverse over the years. Lyrics are often about love, but they also address a wide variety of other themes that are frequently social or political. Rock places a high degree of emphasis on live performance and an ideology of authenticity.

Improvising in the style

When improvising in a rock genre it’s good to remember that rock is characterised by a driving rhythm and uses straight quavers, so you should use these within your improvisation and keep it in time with the beat. It’s more important to be accurate and confident rather than complex, so don’t worry too much about showing off with fast runs of notes, just keep them simple, in order to capture the driving energy of rock.

In the Rock & Pop parameters, the genre is described as ‘simple rock’, but this just means that the backing track will have a standard rock feel and won’t be anything too exotic or unusual. You might come across rock at Initial onwards.

Key Players

Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the greatest rock guitarists, and it is said he pioneered the use of the electric guitar within the genre. Hendrix also liked to use overdriven amplifiers with high volume and gain, and was instrumental in the development of the technique of guitar amplifier feedback. He additionally helped popularise the use of a wah-wah pedal in rock and was the first musician to implement stereophonic phasing effects in his recordings.

A number of British bands from the late 60s were hugely influential within the rock genre, such as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones were at the forefront of the British Invasion in 1964 and 1965 and were a big influence within the rebellious counterculture of the 1960s. They also helped to introduce blues as a major part of rock’n’roll music. Pink Floyd were additionally very significant during this period and were famous for their new dynamic music and their use of philosophical lyrics. They were also said to be one of the UK’s first psychedelic rock bands, and they used aspects of other genres such as hard rock, blues, country, folk, and electronic music within their songs. Led Zeppelin were also extremely significant within the creation of rock music and were also said to be one of the originators of the heavy metal genre. Their music focused around a guitar driven sound and their music was influenced by a number of other genres, including blues and folk music.

The alternative rock band Muse are often associated with space and progressive rock, with their music including styles from a number of genres such as electronic music, hard rock, experimental rock, classical music and rock opera. Many Muse songs are recognisable by lead vocalist Matthew Bellamy’s use of vibrato, falsetto, and melismatic phrasing. Muse songs often use the broken chords technique on the piano, as well as a variety of electronic effects to the bass tone. The bass line is also frequently featured as the central theme of the song, in order to add embellishments in the lower register. They additionally use an arpeggiator and pitch-shift effects on the guitar, to help add to their signature electronic sound.

Examples of rock songs in the syllabus are ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie (bass, drums, guitar, vocals and keyboard), ‘YYZ‘ by Rush (bass and drums), ‘My Generation‘ by The Who (bass and drums), ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash‘ by The Rolling Stones (drums), ‘Time Is Running Out‘ by Muse (bass and drums) and ‘All Day And All Of The Night‘ by The Kinks (bass, drums, guitar, vocals and keyboard).

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams.

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation.

Freaking out… two weeks to my performance!

Easy for me to say, I’m Trinity’s Rock & Pop Czar, but ’relax‘.

Now let’s review some lesson planning for your performance in the exam: common sense tips for playing and stage presence.

Two weeks before your exam performance you should be polishing your technique, performance and stagecraft.  This is what pros do before the tour begins, checking that all parts of the performance are ready for the first tour date. Do I know the music, is my set list ready (the three pieces you will perform and the order), and is my gear ready: strings, sticks, picks, voice? Am I ‘in the zone’ – the mindset that this is a stage performance and not just another lesson? Do I look and feel like I’m ready for the stage, the exam?

During these last weeks of practice, focus on sound check and knowing your levels. Understand that you are playing within the band (on the backing track) and make sure you get the levels right for your playing. You (and your teacher if you have one) should go through this process during lesson time to make sure your music gets heard and you begin to understand the importance of balance in the monitors. Take charge – it’s your stage. As musicians, if we don’t hear the music, the backing tracks, with the balance we have practised, we don’t play as well – it’s that simple. You have to understand the sound check and know the balance you want to hear in your ears and mind.

Hit the stage, the exam room, with conviction and real stage presence. Know the exam and what’s going to happen. Plan your set list (the order you will play), and end your exam with your best music. Practice and perform your play list, in the order of performance you have set out, for the last 2+ weeks before your exam. Song 1, Song 2, Song 3, Session Skill (Playback or Improvising). This is the layout of your performance. Know it!!! Take charge – it’s your stage.

Have your teacher video your performance and watch it together. Look at how you stand, play, and communicate your cover songs, and find your stage persona. Take charge – it’s your stage. This is your performance, so remember you are not in lesson mode, you’re in performance mode, on stage, rockin’ mode. Show it, perform it. The whole performance must keep this level of energy and should stimulate the audience/examiner.

Double-check your Session Skills parameters for Playback or Improvising. Know what styles will be asked in Improvising or the notation level you will be expected to perform in Playback. Check this link: Each grade has guidelines for what you must know for Playback and Improvising.

So stop freaking out!! Keep practicing, don’t miss your lessons, get your performance slick and cool, and know your Session Skill guidelines. If you do all of this, you will have a great gig!


Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

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Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part Two: Improvisation

Improvisation is a big word, but if you listen, experiment, explore, analyse and have a solid foundation of teaching or learning, it can be FUN.

When you are on stage; that solo, the improv, that’s you. That’s when you as the drummer, bassist, guitarist, vocalist or keyboardist get to show that you know how to play not just the notes, but to perform with personality and creativity. I like to think of improv with Rock & Pop as building my data bank of styles and musicianship, with an understanding of the many genres of rock and pop music, from the 50s to now!

When I’m out travelling as the Rock & Pop Czar there seems to be a lot of fog, smoke and mirrors when it comes to improvisation, so let’s clear some of that as we look at foundation level improvisation (Initial to Grade 3).

Let’s take a closer look at the Rock & Pop Session Skill – Improvisation! This is where you develop your listening skills and style bank of music knowledge (rock, pop, ballad, heavy rock, metal, blues, shuffle, reggae, country, funk, disco, Latin, jazz and R&B). I know you are saying yeah, yeah, yeah… but what do I do?

First, remember you are soloing or improvising within a band and a style. So listening to the music and understanding the structure and style is number one.

If you look at the exam criteria (which is what the examiner uses to assess your performance), you can see the three things the examiner is looking for to be able to award a distinction:
1. Fully convincing in style with extensive variation and development.
2. Assured fluency with precision in pulse and synchronisation throughout.
3. Effortless command of the instrumental or vocal resources.’

Note that style is mentioned first, so show you know how to perform the style of the improvisation, fluently, in the groove and in time with the music.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… but what do I do? Well, I think of improv and soloing as building blocks or ingredients.

The exam states you will play the loop three times and fade out. I look for at least three ingredients that would demonstrate structure; a musical story. These are style, fluency and command. By thinking about these ingredients, you will develop a multi-dimensional shape that is not flat, boring or unimaginative, but filled with interest for you and the audience.

How to approach each loop:
1. First loop – show you can play in the pocket of the style, lay the groove down, as if you are playing in the band.
2. Second loop – demonstrate you can build upon that groove and style rhythmically and/or melodically, staying in the pocket.
3. Third loop – add licks, hits or melodic soloing, remembering to play within the band and the track.
4. As the loop fades out, after adding these three ingredients, go back and lay the original groove to show you know where you are in the music and you understand the style.

Remember, why are you doing improvisation? You want to build listening skills and a data bank of styles so you can be a musician who can cut heads and take command on stage with any style of music and let your musical personality shine through. Knowing what to do when you get to your solos on stage makes you a better musician.

Most of us are looking for our star time on stage, so now you know where to start. Your style data bank and ingredients list must be developed not ignored.

When you achieve that Grade 8 Rock & Pop you will have listened to, analysed, experimented with and performed over 15 styles of rock and pop music. I know my teachers back in the day didn’t know all these styles or have the support and materials to teach them, but you do.

In the exam, you choose one Session Skill to be assessed: Playback or Improvisation. In your life, you need both skills to become a great musician.

Check out Guitar World’s top 10 guitar solos

And how about these all time great drums solos

Start listening, analysing and building your personal list of ingredients.

Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part One: Playback

All of us who are working daily with the Trinity Rock & Pop syllabus talk about instrumental performance – being and performing on stage. Because when we first start learning our instrument, usually the first validation of our learning is to actually perform for somebody – it’s a show, a performance that confirms to the world that we have been successfully taught. Yes, this is one of the steps in learning to play your instrument. You must know what it’s like to be in front of people – how  it feels, the nerves or the excitement, the buzz, the adrenalin, seeing the faces looking just at you, listening to your music, then hearing and feeling the applause – the roar of the crowd.

There is another side of playing music… all of the artists and bands you listen to actually had to record their music. Musicians that you may never see on stage laid down many of the tracks you hear.  These are musicians and players who are technically proficient in their instrument and articulation, who read music, who know and can perform many styles of music, and who understand the context of what the artist or producer wants. These are session musicians, proficient in session skills.

This is why we have a section of the Rock & Pop exam called Session Skills. Let’s take a look at one of these: Playback.

This Session Skill, Playback, helps you develop your reading and listening skills. Unless you are playing only your own music in a recording session, someone will normally give you a chart to read and will be playing a track in the headphones saying ‘we need you to play this music’. You need to be able to read and hear the music, follow the chart and produce the music and articulation that you see or hear. I can tell you that guys like Quincy Jones, Dr Dre, Brian Eno and George Martin give you the ingredients – the chart, the music, the style – and then you bake the cake: create the music. So the Playback Session Skill is all about  reading the chart, the tab, the dynamics, the key, listing to the track, sorting tempo, getting the groove in the pocket… to learn and develop playback skills for the studio gig.

The exam process: Rock & Pop Playback

You will perform some previously unseen or heard music. You will be given the chart to study or review for 30 seconds, then the practice track is played for the ‘first time take’, and you listen, read and play back what you have read and heard. Depending upon the level of the exam, the phrases are 2 bars, 4 bars or more.  Let me be clear here – this is a continuous backing track so listen, read and play back to the repeat sign, then listen, read and play back to the repeat sign etc. The track does not stop until the double bars ‘ending’ the Playback session, so the music should be practiced during the first take. Everything before the second take is rehearsal and practice. NOW you are ready for the second take, the assessment begins, and this take should be copied as accurately as possible, no variations or improvisation here, play as written and heard.

Remember, why are you doing the Playback Session Skill? This is to build listening and reading skills so you can play in the studio one day and know what’s going on, what’s happening musically, be it with a local artist/producer or even with the heavy hitters like Brian Eno or Quincy Jones. If you know what to do when you do get the studio, man, when the day comes YOU may be the producer. All because you developed and perfected your Session Skills. This music business is great.

Read about the top 10 music producers of all time

Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

Next blog: Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part Two: Improvising.

Question or comment for the Czar? Email me at:

Big Rock Stars

We all just want to be Big Rock Stars and live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars… you know the deal. It’s a dream that many aspire to. There is a road, a process to achieving the dream; it does not have to be just a dream – it can be, and is, a reality for many.

Look at Green Day from California – lead guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong took lessons and bought one of his first guitars from his teacher, the Fernandes Stratocaster he named ‘Blue’ which he still plays in some concerts. The band all came from the same place, the same town, learning and playing in school bands and building their style and stage presence doing local gigs.

Matthew Bellamy, Christopher Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard, of Muse, all began their music journey in school bands in South West England, learning and playing together and breaking the rules. Hey, another great reason for learning the musical process is that you have to know the rules before you can break them…  Muse for sure breaks the rules.

At the age of 12, John Petrucci from Dream Theater, said he would practice 6 hours a day. He and his classmate John Myung finished high school in New York together and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, playing and building their unique shredding stage performance and hooking up with Mike Portnoy. It is really important to be where the musicians are if you want to make it in this business. Be it at school, in the music shop, at the club, or just jamming and playing, you’ve got to find the players…

All of these musicians went through a learning process that prepared them for the big time. From learning with a private teacher or teaching yourself in the garage, to training at college, you can find your dream anywhere, especially when you are hooked up with other musicians and have a plan to follow, a process to learn your craft.

You are luckier than most of the musicians I have listed that have come before you. This learning process is designed into the Rock & Pop syllabus; it takes you through the styles, genres, the rigor of playing your instrument and the steps to follow to build performance skills.  Yes, you get a qualification and UCAS points for Grades 6 to 8. This is all great! BUT most importantly, you have a steady process to build your stage presence, to develop and hone your performance skills – not just learning about how to play the notes, but how to perform; learning about the bands, the players, the musicians and the styles they developed. All of the bands I’ve mentioned are included in our syllabus.

I went for years trying to find that onstage connection, looking for my style, my music persona, that communication link with the live audience, in real time. I would have achieved my dream much quicker if I would have had playing and performance training connected to my Big Rock Star dream when I was young – someone guiding my style and stage performance and moving me down the education road towards my dream.

So check out our Rock & Pop guitar demo video for ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day; one of 80 videos we have produced with real musicians and teachers, designed to help you achieve your dream.


Question or comment for the Czar? Email me at:

Question Mark? and the Mysterians

There have been a lot of questions coming in through the Rock & Pop blog, so here are some thoughts in response from me, Trinity’s Rock & Pop Czar.

These are valid questions that I will try to make less mysterious in this blog post.

I haven’t cried ‘96 Tears’ like Question Mark? and the Mysterians searching for answers. ‘96 Tears’ is a great keyboard piece played on a Farfisa organ – give it a listen. They were the first Latino band to hit number 1 on the US charts, in 1966.

Here are some questions that have come from the Blog.

I have a slight concern over my students’ ability and confidence in coming to terms with new amplifier settings to make the most of their performance. For example, if the first song is clean, followed by grunge, followed by metal. Amps can be bewildering, even for a pro, these days. How does an examiner address this?

Czar suggestion: Candidates can bring their own amp that they are using at home or the amp you teach with. They do not have to play the amp that is supplied at the exam centre. Next, make sure you have your foot switch set and adjusted for clean to dirty sounds. You are not just teaching students to play the guitar, but mentoring the development of a musician, so teach them and physically show them each week how to set up their amp.

Lastly, up to Grade 5, you can come into the exam room, set the amp and help with initial set up (cable, proximity of amp, back-up pick, etc). Remember, this is the candidate’s stage performance; your candidate should understand his/her instrument which includes the amp. The examiner manages the backing tracks only and a sound check is offered at the beginning of the performance for balance. Backline drums, amps, instruments etc. are the responsibility of the candidate.

If a guitar student chooses to do a non-syllabus song for Song 2 (self-chosen or own composition), what is the maximum length of song they can do, and if they need to edit the sheet music and backing (from 8 minutes to 4 minutes, for example) is this legally permissible?

Czar Suggestion: Yes, you may edit the piece for the exam room performance only.

You can check out the information on guidance for choosing your own song on the Rock & Pop website. The parameters for each guitar grade, as well as the other instruments (length of music in timing and measures, and examples of the techniques required) are available the website.

Plus, if you are performing a self-chosen song for Song 2, you must bring the original score and one copy for the examiner (which can be edited if needed) and the backing track in a digital format, if appropriate.

Can I create my own backing tracks to use in Rock & Pop exams?

Czar Suggestion: Candidates may create their own backing track for Song 2 (self-chosen or own composition) only. They must use the backing tracks in the Trinity books and downloads for Song 1 and Song 3. If candidates are using their own backing track for Song 2, they must bring this along on the day of the exam in a digital format (USB) along with the original score and one copy for the examiner (which can be edited if needed).

I hope things don’t seem so mysterious now. ‘96 Tears’ could be a self-chosen piece – any song can!

Later, Czar

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