Selecting a piano diploma programme: 10 Top Tips

One of the most frequent questions I receive from those who read this blog, whether piano teachers or students, is how to prepare for diploma exams and how to select an interesting, innovative programme. My blog post today seeks to answer the latter question. There is no ‘correct’ answer of course, as programming is a very personal choice; it can be a lengthy process, and one which is totally dependent on a candidate’s ability. Elements such as a pupil’s current technical control, musicianship and their commitment, must all be considered, too.

I have several students preparing to take their diploma exams over the coming months. Diplomas are for those who have taken Grade 8 (the final amateur piano exam of the majority of exam boards here in the UK, and many worldwide), and are moving on to more advanced repertoire; professional qualifications are attained for those who are successful. In my opinion, the performing diplomas such as the DipABRSM serve as ideal preparation for those wishing to attend music college or study music at university.

My pupils have decided to take the ATCL (exam board: Trinity College) followed by the DipABRSM (exam board: ABRSM) a term later. These particular tests represent the first level of diplomas (the higher exams being the LTCL and LRSM, followed by the FTCL and FRSM).

A diploma programme can take anything from a few weeks to a couple of years to prepare. Therefore an important criteria is to choose works which you not only love, but ones which you are happy to live with for a long time. Occasionally, pupils will learn pieces, leave them and return to them at a later date, but generally once learnt, they are keen to take the test as swiftly as possible.

Diplomas demand a completely different approach to that of Grade 8; where selecting three pieces is fairly straight forward, and programme choices are limited and already ‘well-balanced’ in the sense that works have been carefully categorised. Pupils taking diplomas are confronted with a huge list of repertoire, (you don’t always have to stick to the suggested repertoire list, it is possible to make personal additions which must be agreed in writing by the exam board before the exam). Prior knowledge of styles, genres and composers is essential, and this is where a helpful teacher will be able to direct students and assist in making decisions. Important decisions; choosing the wrong pieces or programme could be the difference between success and failure.

The ATCL and DipABRSM require recitals lasting just over 30 minutes, and this is really the only guideline regarding programming, everything else is left to the candidate. So how do you start to make sense of vast lists of piano pieces?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Listen widely. Not just to the selected piano works, but to a large range of music, in order to assimilate styles and genres; the more you know about styles and periods, the easier it is to decide which you would prefer to tackle. YouTube is your friend (although aim to select ‘professional’ performances wherever possible), however, it’s helpful to just ‘log on’ and listen.
  2. Programmes must be ‘well-balanced’, which means works should not ideally hail from the same period, although it’s possible to select several pieces from similar historical eras, as long as stylistically they are quite different. It’s not essential to represent every genre or style.
  3. Decide whether you prefer to select a group of shorter pieces, or one longer work with a few smaller additions.
  4. Once you have elected a few appealing composers, listen to all the offered options on the list written by those composers; for well-known composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, there will be many pieces from which to choose.
  5. When selecting, imagine playing the piece and ask yourself the following questions: Can I really manage those intricate passages under pressure? Will I be able to play it up to speed? Is it a style I am familiar with, or will I need to become acquainted with it? Does it move or affect me emotionally? The last question is undoubtedly the most important. It can be a good plan to immediately delete works which are too challenging, gradually reducing the size of the list.
  6. If four works are chosen, how will they be programmed? You don’t have to play them in chronological order. You should endeavour to present them in an order with which you feel comfortable. It can be interesting starting with a Contemporary work, for example.
  7. Before learning begins, do your research and find out as much as you can about your chosen composers; you will probably need this information for the Viva Voce (question and answer session which takes place after your recital) anyway. Dates of birth, style, genre, amount and type of piano repertoire, and for which instrument(s) the works were originally written (if applicable), should all be very familiar to you.
  8. Know why you have selected your pieces. This will help clarify the selection process.
  9. Speak to your teacher (if you have one) at length and maybe seek other opinions and ideas from music professionals. It can be enlightening to hear what others say, in order to devise a well-rounded recital.
  10. The last tip is, for me, the most important.  Never select works which  reveal your shortcomings. A diploma is not the place to learn technique; this must be done in private on suitable studies or other repertoire.

In the next post about diplomas, I will suggest a few composers and general repertoire proposals which might be beneficial for those who feel less than confident about preparing for these exams.

To download a PDF of my 10 Top Tips listed above, click here: Selecting a piano diploma programme


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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