Piano exam success: 9 key points

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Several of my piano teacher friends and colleagues have recently asked me to suggest ways in which pupils can improve their chances of achieving good marks in their forthcoming piano exams. I examined for the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) for 5 years both in the UK and abroad, so I have compiled the following list of important points to remember when preparing for exams.

1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence can equal distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.

2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.

3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.

4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.

5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).

6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.

7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should harbor is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having practice ‘runs’ will help you do this.

8. Do bear in mind that an exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.

9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good Luck.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. What a very helpful post, wish I’d read it 15 or so years ago when I last had to prepare for a music exam… Particularly agree with your point about the importance of getting used to playing in front of others.

    1. Thank you. Delighted that you have found this post useful. It really is important to practice performing – it makes all the difference.

  2. Very helpful points. Thank you Melanie. I think I might have to print this out and give to some of my students!

    1. Hi Chrissa,
      Thank you so much for your comments, they are much appreciated. Delighted that your students will benefit from my comments too. Hope their exams all go well 🙂

  3. Dear Mel,

    It’s good that students get an option of choosing scales or pieces first. It was never an option as scales always came first during my time and we can’t “try out” for sight reading. It’s heartening as I believe these options are really intended to encourage the student to perform at his/her best on that day. The “dry run’ in front of friends or teachers definitely helps to build confidence. Very useful tips which every student would benefit from.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks so much for your comments – much appreciated. I think the fact that students can choose to start with pieces or scales can be a confidence boost in itself, and help the overall result considerably. Many aren’t aware of this fact, but it can really make a difference.

  4. cynthiaJew says:

    Hi Melanie. I am very pleased to have come across your blog. My daughter will be sitting for her piano initial exam in June and I have found your post to be particularly helpful as am not musical myself. I will print it out and use it to enhance her chances! Again, thank you!

    1. Hi Cynthia, Many thanks for your comments, and I’m delighted you have found my blog useful. Very good luck to your daughter for her first piano exam – I’m sure she will do well, Best wishes, Melanie

  5. I always encourage piano pupils to view the exam as an opportunity to prepare music to perform to just one discriminating audience member! Prepare to dazzle, astonish, charm and entertain the examiner who has been working hard all day and needs a break listening to your superb interpretation! Thus my pupil is turned away from nervous introspection and walks in confidently, expecting success as a matter of course.

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