Teaching Observations: Favourite Licentiate Piano Diploma Repertoire

Due to the vociferous and appreciative response from readers regarding my article featuring Associate Diploma Repertoire (which you can read here), let’s now turn our attention to the next diploma, the Licentiate exam. This is the second diploma in the group of three which most music examination boards in the UK offer; they are the Associate, Licentiate, and Fellowship diploma exams. 

Not to be confused with graded exams, these substantial tests allow their recipients to put letters after their name and they signify a high level of achievement. But, equally, they are not to be mistaken for a performance qualification from a music conservatoire, such as a PGDip, Artist Diploma, or the older LRAM and ARCM exams.

The two performance diploma exams that I will be focusing on in this article are the LRSM (the ABRSM’s Licentiate diploma exam) and the LTCL (Trinity College London’s Licentiate diploma exam), as my students take these exams. In this article, I’m only writing about the performance diploma; there are equivalent teaching diplomas, too, which I very rarely have the opportunity to teach, sadly, as this is something I would enjoy, but most of my students aren’t interested in this option. 

Over the past 18 months, I have been preparing six students for their Licentiate performance diplomas; four for the LRSM and two for the LTCL. Both exams require around a 40-minute recital programme, and, at present, the ABRSM’s exam also demands a quick study (or sight-reading) test and a viva voce (a Q&A session).

Several readers have asked if there are any prerequisites for these diplomas, that is, do candidates need to have passed any exams before entering for the LRSM or LTCL? It’s possible to enter for Trinity College London’s diplomas (the ATCL or LTCL) without having taken any prior exams, whereas one must have taken Grade 8 to enter for the ARSM or DipABRSM, the DipABRSM, to take the LRSM, and so on. However, you don’t need to have taken ABRSM exams as there are many other options that pass for suitable prerequisties and they are all listed in their syllabus. 

I feel that the Licentiate examination requires a much higher performance level than that of the Associate level; the jump between the two levels is a little steep for some, and for this reason, it’s a challenge finding repertoire which suits those with the smaller hand or that which offers a, perhaps, more ‘approachable’ option, all of which can be found with ease on the Associate diploma syllabi.

Whilst both syllabi don’t stipulate memorisation for these programmes, I would find it difficult to play such complex repertoire without secure memorisation. Virtually all my students prepare their diploma programmes from memory (or without the score), except for one or two adult amateurs for whom memory work is not something that they feel is relevant for them. For my younger students though, memorisation is an important part of the learning process and they have all remarked on how they enjoyed the freedom of playing without the score and felt more confident with their chosen programme because of it. 

So, what repertoire is a suitable choice and how should one build a balanced programme? Below I have listed the programmes of three students who have recently been preparing or are preparing for their exams. Some pieces work well for those with smaller hands, and others offer a ‘less risky’ option for those for whom nerves are an issue.

Both exams allow for 10 minutes of ‘own choice’ repertoire of the same level as that found on either syllabus, so if you find a piece you want to play on another Licentiate syllabus, you will probably be permitted to include it in your programme.

The following selections are personal choices, and they may or may not suit your taste or your programme, but I urge you to explore each syllabus fully so that you don’t miss out on interesting discoveries, which do lurk amongst the usual popular choices. Like many teachers, I have my favourite ‘teaching’ pieces and therefore, there are inevitably some repertoire duplications. Where works are complex, I have suggested some, perhaps, more approachable ‘alternatives’ which can also be found on either the ABRSM or Trinity College London syllabus lists. 

LRSM Programme 1

Sonata in E flat major Hob 52 by Franz Joseph Haydn

This three-movement sonata in the warm, inviting key of E flat major, offers wonderful contrasts within each movement. Haydn’s largest and final piano sonata, written in 1794, is a favourite, and I have played and taught this piece on many occasions. Whilst demanding, it’s not too difficult to commit to memory and is very comfortable to play. Duration is around 18 minutes, with repeats, which, in my opinion, should be included. 

A good option for the smaller hand, it will teach rhythmic precision, which is paramount in this genre, and firm up fingers, as there are lots of rapid demisemiquaver passages in the first movement which need a highly controlled approach.

Etudes Op 10 No. 5 and Op 10 No. 5 by Frédéric Chopin 

These won’t be everyone’s cup of tea as they require precision, especially under pressure. But they work well with this repertoire mix and I like the combination of two Chopin études (or concert studies) together, which both exam boards stipulate. The student who played this programme had been preparing them for a while, having already performed them at various competitions. 

I wouldn’t suggest the inclusion of studies for those who have yet to develop the appropriate finger control. In this case, if Chopin is a composer of interest, explore either the delectable Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 1 or the Nocturne in F major Op 15 No. 1, which are listed on the LTCL repertoire list but can probably be offered for the LRSM exam, too. Chopin’s unmistakably melodic, florid style is on display in both works, yet they are arguably easier to handle largely due to the slower tempo.

Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Another demanding option, this piece contains large chords which must be played extremely rhythmically and at speed combined with very quick movement around the keyboard:

But take a listen to some of the Preludes Op. 32 for more approachable Rachmaninoff, if you can’t live without his late-Romantic style. Trinity College London and the ABRSM has included a selection of Op. 32 preludes on their syllabi. Here’s No. 11 in B major and No 13 in D flat major:

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca S. 161 No. 5 by Franz Liszt

Paganini Etude S. 141 No. 6 by Franz Liszt

My student, who took this exam in December and got a distinction, loves the virtuoso romantic style, so concluded his programme with these two gems. 

Liszt isn’t always a sensible option for those with smaller hands or for those who aren’t keen on virtuosic sentimentality, but other choices to satisfy Romantic style-lovers, might include the beautiful Four Sketches Op. 15 by Amy Beach. Two pieces must be presented for the exam. I recommend the third piece, Dreams:

Or Edvard Grieg’s Improvisations on Two Norwegian Folk Songs Op. 29:

Both pieces include larger chords – it’s almost impossible to avoid them at this level – but it may be possible to manage them appropriately with some redistribution. 

LRSM Programme No. 2

Sonata in C minor K 457 by W A Mozart

This student was very keen to include Mozart in her programme, despite my reservations; a Mozart sonata is a brave choice as these works are invariably taxing musically. However, this work is a towering sonata in the composer’s output and technically at least, is comfortable to play.

Other classical selections which might favour the smaller hand; Sonata in C major Hob 50 (also by Haydn) or Franz Schubert’s gorgeous Impromptu in B flat major D. 935:

The Lark by Mikhail Glinka Arr. Mily Balakirev

This captivating piece is a winner amongst my students. A splendid choice for demonstrating cantabile, Balakirev’s arrangement of Glinka’s popular Russian song isn’t easy, but most of the demands are musical, except for rapid scalic passagework which interweaves with the theme during the middle section. Don’t be put-off by the cadenzas, as they can be managed with practice. I think this piece does work well for the smaller hand and there’s the option to use plenty of rubato, too.

Rhapsody in C major Op. 11 No. 3 by Ernst von Dohnányi

Great fun to play, but there are some rather large chords to deal with. Tension may prove an issue too, as the quick-moving quaver accompaniment runs almost throughout requiring a flexible wrist motion and firm fingers to grasp the necessary staccato touch here: 

For a different option, explore the works on the diploma lists by British composer John Ireland. A late-Romantic yet slightly dissonant Twentieth-century style, there are wide-spread chords in some pieces, but, as the texture is relatively thick, these could be re-written and managed appropriately for the smaller hand:

A disparate Twentieth-century choice; 15 Improvisations by Francis Poulenc. They are relatively short and four must be prepared for Trinity College London’s syllabus. Exuding Poulenc’s bittersweet yet vivacious style, take a look at Nos. 2, 5, 7, 11, and 13.

For a more unusual sound world, why not check out the Six Pieces For Solo Piano P. 044 by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. No 5, Studio is on the LTCL list, and it’s not as tricky as it first appears. I’ve not long discovered these quasi-salon style pieces. They are charming and would suit some students perfectly:

Légende No. 2 S 172 No. 2 by Franz Liszt

A popular Liszt piece, which I enjoyed playing as a young pianist, it’s a left-hand tour de force in some respects, and there are large chords and plenty to tax the hand here, so a smaller hand may not want to risk such a piece. My student will take this exam in the Summer and has a very large hand and a lot of power, so this piece is an ideal programme finish for her.

Intermezzo in E flat minor Op. 118 No. 6 by Johannes Brahms provides another option. Its brooding dark character is intoxicating but it’s not easy musically. Those who take the plunge and dive into Brahms’ highly intimate style, will find it most rewarding to play. 

LTCL Programme

Three sets of preludes and fugues open this programme, which is currently being prepared by my youngest student ever to work towards the LTCL at aged 11, therefore we had to be most careful about selecting pieces that don’t extend the hand too much, although he can comfortably play octaves and chords already.

The following is a demanding programme and wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste or ability, but some may be interested to see another possible programme at this level. 

Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major from Book 2 of the ‘48’ by J S Bach

Prelude and Fugue in E minor from Book 2 of the ‘48’ by J S Bach 

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in D flat major Op. 87 by Dmitri Shostakovich

The Lark by Mikhail Glinka Arr. Mily Balakirev

(To hear this piece, click on the recording linked in the LRSM diploma above).

La Leggierezza S144 No. 2  by Franz Liszt 

Reflet Dans I’eau from Images Book 1 by Claude Debussy 

Etude in A flat major Op 72 No. 11 by Moritz Moszkowski

Etudes Op. 25 No. 2 in F minor and No. 11 in A minor by Frédéric Chopin

This LTCL diploma programme proves that you don’t need to feature one long piece, such as a sonata. This student wanted to play shorter works for inclusion in competitions; if an extended work is played, it can be limiting in this respect, whereas shorter works can be inserted into competition programmes which tend to be a maximum 15 minutes in length for the first rounds.

My current students preferred to include standard repertoire in their programmes, however, if you did want to explore more ‘Contemporary’ options, I would recommend listening to Tōru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II or Oliver Knussen’s Sonya’s Lullaby Op. 16:

My examples are just a smattering of the treasure trove of repertoire that’s offered on both syllabi. They reflect my tastes as much as those of my students, as I feel it’s my job to guide them to find suitable works for their abilities. 

If you think you’d enjoy preparing a piano recital and need a goal to work towards, the Licentiate diploma might just be the exam for you. Find out much more about the LTCL here, and LRSM, here


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.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. BR B says:

    This is a wonderful listening guide for those of us who will never take these exams!

    1. Thank you, Barbara. I do hope you enjoy listening to all the suggested pieces. There’s some wonderful repertoire on these exam lists.

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