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.


 

10 Top Tips To Pass Your Piano Exam

So you want to play the piano photo 5As the new term gets underway, many will be preparing for music exams at the end of the year and the aim of this post is to provide a few extra pointers and ideas for last-minute preparations.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10.  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.

Good luck!


Image from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Alfred Music


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.


Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?

 

Image courtesy of www.semiahmooacademyofmusic.ca

In the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked about the Grade 5 theory exam, so much so that it has inspired me to write this post. I am talking about the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) theory exam. To those who haven’t yet taken any piano or instrumental tests,  this exam board is the most popular in the UK and the world (according to the ABRSM).

The Grade 5 theory exam is significant to pupils because according to the ABRSM’s rules once a grade 5 practical (i.e. piano exam) has been achieved it’s not possible to take a further exam (grades, 6,7 or 8) until you have passed the theory test. Many view this as a major drawback to taking ABRSM exams and I know plenty of teachers and students who have purposely switched boards to avoid this. Other boards don’t have a grade 5 theory requirement to take higher exams. Some pupils go to TrinityGuildhall, The London College of Music or Victoria College of Music exam boards instead.

Whilst I can understand the logic here, I can’t help but think this to be a major mistake. Yes, Grade 5 theory is tricky for many, but it has so many benefits for those wanting to go beyond Grade 5 level that it really shouldn’t be ignored. Music theory is bascially learning how to write music down or the ‘study of how music works’. It distils and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, texture, etc.

The exam contains some valuable exercises and for those considering skipping this test here are a few reasons to make you think again:

1. In Grade 5 theory you will need to recognise all 24 keys and learn how to write them down. This will prove extremely valuable when taking higher exams (scales are based on these keys!) and for those going on to study A level music.

2. You will need to recognise intervals (a very important part of the exam) which will prove useful in sight reading development (especially sight singing) and will improve note reading in general. It will also help you grasp melodic movement quickly too.

3. Transposition is another beneficial exercise. That is, transposing music from one key to another. Woodwind and Brass instruments sometimes play in a different key to the rest of the orchestra and it’s useful to be able to ‘move’ or change their parts. Learning Alto and Tenor clefs are important as well.

4. Chord recognition. I think this is possibly the most crucial Grade 5 test. Understanding basic chord structure or harmony and cadential points (musical endings) is vital in writing or analyzing music. Assimilation of this exercise will prepare pupils for higher exams like music A level or practical music exams (piano, violin etc).

5. Writing or composing short melodies is great practice for the would-be singer songwriter or those merely wanting to express themselves musically. It also makes students adhere to writing logically in musical patterns.

6. Grade 5 theory also demands analysis of a short piece. This is an excellent exercise. Analyzing music will help you to grasp many musical elements swiftly. You need to know time signatures, rhythmic patterns, ornaments, as well as  dynamic and articulation markings.

There are so many advantageous exercises in this important exam and it really isn’t too difficult when you apply yourself. Do get a good teacher – one who is able to patiently explain everything and do make sure you complete all available past papers – this is the key to passing in my opinion. Don’t skip it – what you learn whilst studying for Grade 5 theory is far more important than passing. Good luck!


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 music examiners account for nerves?

Do music examiners account for nerves? Several readers have asked me this question recently. Everybody feels some kind of anxiety before an exam. It doesn’t really matter what type of test is being taken, it’s just the fear of being scrutinized. Some students deal with nerves better than others and the most effective way to cope is to be very well prepared. I have already written about performance anxiety several times on my blog as it is a hugely important topic and you can read my suggestions here.

Examiners do bear in mind just how nerve wracking a music exam can be – they know that students are human and will make mistakes. However, they will only mark what they hear and are likely to comment if too many errors are made. It is worth remembering that even if you don’t play to your usual standard due to nerves, but have fulfilled the basic exam criteria and manage to play reasonably well, then you will pass.

Candidates exhibit nerves in different ways; some will forget scales, others will restart one of their pieces. If the errors are fairly minor (and they generally are amongst most candidates) then very few marks will be lost and the overall result won’t be affected too much. It’s easy for candidates (especially adults) to magnify their errors whilst in the exam room. They let the odd mistake create worry and doubt in their minds. This negative thinking can affect the rest of the exam so it’s best not to dwell on past imperfections.

If you have prepared extremely well for you piano exam and have had several practice runs (to friends and family or maybe other pupils at your teacher’s practice) then you should feel confident. This is the only way to deal with pre exam worry. The examiner DOES want you to get a good mark so try to enter the exam with a really positive mindset and don’t let the odd wobbly moment undermine your ability. Remember most students do pass and you should be no exception. Good luck.


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.


 

Piano exam success: 9 key points

Music Lessons Glasgow | Violin Tuition | Sound Production CoursesSeveral of my piano teacher friends and colleagues have recently asked me to suggest ways in which pupils can improve their chances of achieving good marks in their forthcoming piano exams. I examined for the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) for 5 years both in the UK and abroad, so I have compiled the following list of important points to remember when preparing for exams.

1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence can equal distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.

2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.

3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.

4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.

5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).

6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.

7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should harbor is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having practice ‘runs’ will help you do this.

8. Do bear in mind that an exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.

9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good Luck.


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.