9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) 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. A set routine can be profitable. 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 usually requires your full attention, and although 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.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need 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 practise 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 practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise 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 i.e. 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 weekly (or daily), 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. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. 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 i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important 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, testing 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 and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. 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’.

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

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.