Once the pieces have been learnt, scales, arpeggios and technical work is all in place, and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests have finally been understood, how can students feel motivated and keep improving right up until the last moment?
Here are a few suggestions for the final four weeks before a piano exam.
- Start by knowing all about your piano pieces; really understand their background, the context in which they were written, and that of the composer. You might be surprised by how this knowledge affects the way you play a piece.
- Ensure you can play the left hand of each piece alone (preferably from memory). Left hand practice will have a substantial impact on continuity and will hopefully stem the dreaded curse of the ‘stumble’ or hesitation.
- When secure, play each piece through at least once a day, from the beginning to the end without stopping, eliminating errors. It can be helpful to play through under tempo at the start of the day (and with a metronome), and then later in the day, play through at the expected speed. When playing under tempo, I would play without the sustaining pedal too, as this tunes our ears to what fingers are actually doing.
- A week or so before your exam, arrange two or three play-throughs. These don’t need to be formal: perhaps one at your teacher’s studio, in front of other students, and another amongst family or friends. They need to make you feel ‘on edge’ and slightly out of your comfort zone, but they shouldn’t feel terrifying.
- Before you play any piece through, take a few seconds to think about how you are going to begin: set the tempo, think about how the piece makes you feel, and also about the sound you are aiming to produce. This will contribute to making a confident, secure impression as opposed to a shaky, unsure opening.
- Aural tests can take a while to sink in and become comfortable. Listen to every genre of Classical music, so that you are well aware of stylistic trends. This will be especially useful for the last test in ABRSM exams, and it will also help to distinguish the pulse, be aware of the beat (i.e. clapping) and enable you to sing the musical lines (you must be able to hear the lines before you can sing them, so perpetual listening will be crucial).
- Scales and arpeggios (or technical work) are much more fun and palatable if you can find a piano playing friend to work with (perhaps your piano teacher has students who are of a similar level to you). However, you don’t have to be the same level. Test each other on scales and arpeggios; if you have two keyboards or pianos, play the same (or different) keys one after another as a quick fire test, and you could even play them together slowly (I used to do this and really enjoyed it). It’s amazing how effective this kind of focus can be.
- Ensure ample sight-reading material (there are many books available for various grades, and piano anthologies can be useful too) and make sure you manage at least 10 minutes a day (depending on your level). After you’ve prepared the piece in your mind (looked at the key, fingering, hand position changes and rhythm etc.), set the metronome on a very slow beat and play along to it, resisting the urge to stop and correct yourself.
- Define the order of your exam. Most boards allow you to start with either scales or pieces, and it can help if you make a firm decision before you enter the exam room. I advise pupils to begin with scales – they are great for a warm-up, allowing you to become acquainted with the instrument.
- The day before, test yourself by doing a mock exam (you could do it on your own, or invite a crowd!). Play the pieces, all the scales, a piece of sight-reading (one which you haven’t seen before), and go through the Aural tests (using the many apps or audio versions available). This should help settle nerves and provide a feeling of security.
Image from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Alfred Music
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.