10 Tips for Piano Exam Success

I am delighted to have been invited to be an Honorary Master Teacher at the Tom Lee Academy in Hong Kong, and I’m looking forward to visiting the academy every year to work specifically with piano teachers. My first blog post for the Tom Lee website focuses on piano exams. This perennially popular subject is suitably apt just now what with piano exams looming on the horizon at the end of term. I have re-blogged the article here, but if you would prefer to read the original, click here.

In my first guest post for the Tom Lee Academy website, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a more mature student taking Grade 8, here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. Implement a piano exam practice schedule. If you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will improve immeasurably. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every day; it might be 30 minutes per day, or 30 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is mindful concentration. Six days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include each exam element at every practice session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales and arpeggios, or technical exercises, sight-reading and aural tests (there are other options too, depending on the exam board). Aim to include at least three of these elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. Set a practice routine. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading. This requires a student’s full attention. Whilst it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal, but ensure you have plenty of material.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work. Take a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practice scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical work is practiced thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces. Pieces may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practice slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp, that is, you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved, and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Do this regularly. Set the metronome to a very steady speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the ‘tick’. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard (that is, how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece). As a teacher, for me this is a really crucial aspect of piano playing.
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano; test yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play and sing the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences or any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing them. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.
  10. And finally, The Notebook. Not for your teacher, but for you! My students all have their own notepads (some use their phones), and they find it helpful to write notes as the lesson progresses. Detailed notes students write themselves will always be more instructive than those written by the teacher. I ask students to reflect on their notes during their journey home. This way they can start planning their practice productively for the week ahead.

Piano exams can be daunting, but if carefully prepared and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve piano playing.

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.


Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm No. 4 from Mikrokosmos by Bartók

The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) graded exam syllabus for 2015/6 is now readily available, and no doubt pianists across the world are selecting and practising the new set works. I went along to the launch a few weeks ago, held at Yamaha Music (formerly Chappell of Bond Street) in London, where ABRSM examiner and trainer, Timothy Barratt,  spoke about many of the chosen works for each grade. The Grade 8 selection is as varied as ever, and over the next few months I will be writing about a selection of Grade 7 and 8 pieces, offering a few practice tips.

It’s great to see old favourites on the list; many works appear regularly over the years. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1981-1945) is a particularly popular choice, and this year is no exception; his works appear in four of the eight  piano grades.

Whilst not every student’s cup of tea,  Bartók’s style is one of the most highly original of the Twentieth century. A superlative pianist (there’s an abundance of recordings of his playing), and prolific composer. I researched his piano music (specifically the three concertos) in Budapest when I was a student, and had the opportunity to speak to the renowned  Bartók  specialist and musicologist László Somfai about the composer’s highly individual combined use of harmony and folk songs, which was both informative and enlightening. 

Bartók amassed a very large collection of folk songs, which he acquired by visiting various Hungarian villages (and beyond), recording local musicians on an Edison Phonograph. Here’s a wonderful example of a typical recording (this features a Romanian Folk Dance and is over 100 years old):

Bartók notated and catalogued all the folk songs in his collection. They became a crucial source of inspiration in his own compositions, and the ‘folk song’ element was eventually completely assimilated into his style. Indeed it was to be his ‘hallmark’.

Mikrokosmos Sz. 107, was written between 1926 and 1939, and consists of 153 pieces in six volumes,  progressing from very simple pieces for beginners to advanced level works. They demonstrate Bartók’s commitment to and interest in music education (he wrote several sets of piano pieces for educational purposes). According to Bartók, the piece “appears as a synthesis of all the musical and technical problems which were treated and in some cases only partially solved in the previous piano works.”

Mikrokosmos concludes with the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, which are traditionally performed as a group, feature in Volume No. 6, and were dedicated to Harriet Cohen. The 2015/16 ABRSM syllabus includes the fourth dance in the set, No. 151, and it appears on List C (C1).  Bartók’s music has been described as dissonant and violent, and whilst there are elements of these qualities in his works, the breadth of musical variety found in this particular Dance (and in the set as a whole), is breath-taking.

For those considering this piece as an option for the Grade 8 exam, or perhaps who have already started learning this work, I have compiled a few practice ideas for combatting certain difficulties within the work, which may be helpful.

Of utmost importance is the rhythm, and more specifically, the Time Signature: 3+2+3 over 8. Unusual Time Signatures are renowned in the Hungarian composer’s style,  and Bartók has used the rhythm of traditional Bulgarian Dances here, but the melodic material is all his own. Interestingly, he described this dance as in the style of Gershwin but with his (Bartók’s) own tonality. This becomes apparent just by clapping the pulse. The unusual  rhythmic patterns may be unfamiliar to some, so they need complete assimilation before practising commences. Clapping the pulse followed by the rhythmic pattern of the melody (which can really in grain the ‘feel’), is the best way to start. After which, focus on clapping the rhythmic pattern whilst counting each beat out loud at the same time. Although there are few accent markings in this work, but there is a definite ‘push’ (or groove?) on the fourth beat of each bar (akin to jazz).  Once the rhythm has been understood, it’s easy to make swift progress.

The melody is featured in some guise or other most of the time during this short piece, whether alone in the right hand (bars 1-8), the left hand (bars 9-16, where it’s inverted (or reversed)), played in unison (bars 20-24), played in repeated notes (44-50), in right hand octaves (bars 55-58) and in sixths too (bars 59-66).  So the trick is to find a way to vary the sound and touch throughout. Bartók is always very specific about tempo and dynamic markings, but beyond this it is the job of the interpreter to work some magic. Here’s the original tune, which is bright and jocular, and must be played very softly and serenely at the opening:

Bartok Dance No

Start by compartmentalising the melodic sections, so you know where the melody occurs and how it has been transformed as the work progresses (analysing a piece can prove extremely effective; using red pencil is a good way to identify sections!). Then write as much fingering in as possible; suitable fingering makes all the difference when honing a smooth performance.

Next, concentrate on the ‘accompanying’ material, which is just as important (often more so), again, write in all fingerings, and touch should be predominantly legato (pedal should be kept to a minimum). The copious chordal left and right hand passages ably demonstrate Bartók’s use of bitonality (two keys at once) and in many cases, polytonality (many keys at the same time). Although this Dance is in the key of C major, the increasingly dissonant harmonic progressions throughout, provide the exotic flavour and spice.

As always, working in small sections usually proffers the best results, and certain passages require special attention. Take note of the ‘off beat’ accompaniment sections; bars  25-32 and bars 33-39 are a couple of examples. The syncopated chords can be lighter and generally shorter than the melodic material, but placing them correctly is vital and challenging. Success will depend on the grasp of the pulse, and assimilation of the ‘groove’. If rhythm is causing some grief, try breaking down further, dividing each bar into three sections, literally playing the first three quaver beats (the first ‘3’ in the time signature), then take a short pause. Now continue with the two quaver portion (the ‘2’ in the time signature), now another  pause. Then finally the last three quavers in the bar (last ‘3’).  It I. s  easier to understand a complicated pattern when broken up completely. This will take time, but eventually the 3+2+3 will be easily grasped, and joining bars or groups of bars will be relatively straight forward.

Chordal progressions such as those in bar 51-54 need flexibility technically. The 3+2+3 pattern provides the perfect opportunity to split the bar. Play the first three quaver group, immediately followed by the duplet (quaver) group, then a slight pause (to ‘rest’ the hand), before playing the last group of quavers. Giving the wrist a ‘rest’ in between the chords, allows for release of any tension and encourages a slight ‘push’ on the sixth beat of the bar, adding to the rhythmic energy and momentum. All chordal sections can be broken down in this way.

The other issue which needs addressing is moving at speed from one ‘section’ to another. Dance No. 4 has a swift tempo, with many figurations moving from one place on the keyboard to another quickly, and this combined with the fact that the dynamics sometimes change just as rapidly, mean a free arm and body are needed for accuracy. Try taking two bars such as this (bars 8 and 9);

Dance Bartok Example 2

And start by working hands separately. Leaps or jumps can be surmounted by slow, deliberate work. Play the last beat of bar 8 going to the first beat of bar 9, over the jump,  carefully calculating the movement needed by each hand to land accurately in the middle of the note with correct fingering each time.  Play the last chord of the left hand, in bar 8 (A, C sharp and E), then take your take time when finding the low E in the next bar. Once found, don’t play it, just sit on it and survey the movement needed for the jump. Do this slowly, taking your time. Once you’ve done this a few times accurately, you can go ahead and play the notes. Do this with the right hand too and then slowly put hands together, gradually building confidence with each jump before increasing the speed.

Another useful tool is to practice going too far i.e. one octave higher or lower than necessary (in this case, jumping in the left hand of bar  to bottom E, just below low F). Leaping much faster than actually needed, can also work well. When the speed is slowed down to the actual or original tempo, the jump can seem easy. Also working with accents and different touches  (especially important for changing dynamics) can reinforce the accuracy of the jump. Preparing the body mentally and physically for any jump is important, and this is made much easier when the upper body is loose and relaxed. Build a feeling of relaxation (or physical freedom) into jumps, so that at the crucial moment your body resists the urge to ‘lock-up’ and your arm feels light and free during the leap. Leaps are easier to judge if they are memorised.

These tips are just to help you get started. There are so many ways to work at a piece such as this. Here’s a great recording of Bartók playing all six dances. The fourth can be heard at 4 minutes 30 seconds.

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.