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.


 

Do Piano Exams Matter?

On returning from my holiday, I enjoyed reading Rosie Millard’s recent interesting and thought-provoking article in The Telegraph deliberating over the benefits of music exams (you can read it here). She labels herself a ‘pushy’ parent, although I don’t find her approach particularly ‘pushy’. I think her concerns are fairly natural amongst parents who want their children to succeed; indeed this approach could be applied to ballet, chess, maths and a whole host of other activities so often undertaken by children.

Many feel music exams are irrelevant, outdated and have little to do with being able to play an instrument. This view is surprisingly prevalent in some unsuspecting circles; there are piano teachers who don’t enter students for exams, believing them to be totally unnecessary. Certainly, exams are not for everyone and, as Rosie points out, they definitely aren’t for the faint hearted! Hours of work, dedication, motivation, and perseverance are necessary – and that’s just to obtain a pass! Some talent is also required beyond a certain level too.

On a personal note, I loved taking piano exams; they gave me a sense of achievement and a feeling of advancement in my playing. I took Grades 2, 5, & 8 (if my memory serves correctly!), but I found them fun. And those I teach also enjoy working towards them (I never push students to take exams).

One of the main issues amongst those who don’t favour an exam system, seems to be the limitations of the syllabus (usually irrespective of the board taken; whether ABRSM, Trinity College, London College of Music etc.); three pieces, a group of scales, sight-reading and aural must generally be negotiated and this can take time to assimilate (sometimes it can take years, depending on the student). Many students (and their teachers) would rather work at a larger group of pieces, learn a more varied repertoire, skip scales (or exercises) and never really have to be put through the trauma associated with sight-reading (or aural). I can certainly empathise with this view, especially for those who want to play for pleasure.

Playing the piano should be for enjoyment, shouldn’t it? Yes, it should. And for some this means a challenge. For those who want to improve their playing, with the intention of reaching new levels of technique and musicianship, and receive a measured view of their progress, an exam may be a great option.

Yes, the syllabus could be viewed as narrow, but then it isn’t meant to be the only course of study; the concept surrounding piano exams is to work at the exam syllabus in conjunction with a whole host of other piano material, forming a broader musical base. Moving from one piano exam to the next (without learning anything else in-between) is not a sound method of progress, as most already know.

The thing about dedicating much time and effort to just a few demanding pieces is that whilst this may seem dull, perfunctory and limited, after working at them correctly (this is vital, so please find a good teacher who can teach the necessary technique required to play everything demanded in the syllabus), students should have acquired new technical (and musical) skills. These skills can then be applied to a multitude of piano pieces, thus encouraging an increasingly higher standard of playing. For many, the whole point of an exam is to overcome or surmount new difficulties.

When there is a deadline, an impending performance and a marking system for that performance, most pupils are motivated to work. They want to go beyond that particular grade or level. That’s not to say this level can’t be achieved by not taking an exam, but they do seem to afford the fundamental carrot. And a good mark provides a very satisfying sense of achievement, as well as the motivation to continue playing.

I’ve been working with several piano professors and university faculty members over the past few months (worldwide), frequently enquiring about entrance audition standards and procedures for their respective university or conservatoire, as well as the selection process for their piano majors (a subject which fascinates me). On  asking which group of students consistently offers the highest level of playing at audition, the answer has (more often than not) been those pianists who have adhered to an examination system, particularly the British system (i.e. ABRSM, Trinity  College London, or London College of Music exams, which can all be undertaken worldwide).

The main reason for this appears to be that these students have frequently taken diplomas (which can serve as excellent preparation for a prospective conservatoire student), are used to presenting recital programmes, and have a more reliable technical grasp due to regular technical exercise practice (of which scales and arpeggios play an important part). These young piano majors intend to be professionals,  and should therefore not be compared to those who play for pleasure, however, the ideology is exactly the same; formal exams can foster a high standard of playing.

No exam system is (or will ever be) perfect, but in my opinion, if you or your child wishes to improve, and learn to develop the required focus, discipline and performing skills needed to do well, working at a piano exam or diploma, as part of a rounded musical education,  might be an excellent way to proceed.

For more information about the British Music Examination Boards, please visit the links below:

ABRSM

Trinity College London

London College of Music

Victoria College

National College of Music & Arts

RockSchool


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.