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.


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.


Kay Tucker in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Music Talk Series continues today ‘Cellist Kay Tucker who is the founder and director of Stringbabies. Stringbabies is a method of teaching stringed instruments to young children. It has twice been shortlisted for the Inaugural Rhinegold Music Teachers Awards for Excellence in music education. I met up with Kay recently at Steinway Hall in London to chat about this increasingly popular method of learning.

Kay was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire and began studies on the cello at the age of 12, continuing studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

She combines teaching with performing in a piano trio & string quartet and is in much demand as an Adjudicator throughout the UK, having worked at well over 100 festivals including the National Festival of Music for Youth.

Her teaching experience has covered all age ranges and abilities and her particular passion for teaching beginners led her to develop an early years cello & general musicianship system, ‘Cellobabies’ which along, with a version for violin and viola, is rapidly attracting support & interest throughout the UK and abroad. ‘Stringbabies’ (the umbrella name for this approach) is now being delivered with great success in Surrey Arts, Music for Bedford Borough, Hackney Music Service and Music Cornwall. This work has led to Kay being invited to give seminars and training to teachers all over the UK and Kay is now working on adaptations for Double Bass, Piano, Recorder and Flute, the latter two with colleagues.

In 2013, Stringbabies was shortlisted for the Inaugural Rhinegold Music Teachers Awards for Excellence in music education and it has also been shortlisted for the same awards in 2014 in the category of excellence in primary and early years music.

Stringbabies is currently involved in four of the new music hubs – Hackney, Surrey West Sussex and Cornwall.

Over recent years, Kay has worked as a consultant to Trinity Guildhall, having selected and co-selected repertoire for graded exams and diplomas.

Kay became an Adjudicator Member of the British and International Federation of Festivals in 1997 and undertook the Post-graduate Certificate in Adjudication in 1999/2000.


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.


 

Some thoughts on chordal playing in the Scottish Legend Op. 54 No. 1 by Amy Beach

It’s great to highlight female composers and Trinity College Exam Board’s Grade 8 syllabus has revealed a gem of a piece, by the American pianist and composer Amy Beach.

Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Most of her compositions and performances appeared under the name of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. A member of the Boston Group of composers or the Second New England School, She used her status as the top American woman composer to further the careers of young musicians and was also head of several organizations, including the Society of American Women Composers, of whom she was the first president.

Beach’s writing is generally Romantic stylistically, but in later works she experimented, moving away from tonality, employing whole tone scales and more exotic harmonies. She wrote choral works, symphonies, a violin concerto, piano concerto, many solo piano works and chamber music, but is most synonymous with songs. Two delightful, but less known piano works are the Scottish Legend and Gavotte Fantastique Op.54.

The Scottish Legend is a beautiful character piece similar in style to that of the European Romantic tradition present in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. Beach loved this genre and has written an attractive, albeit small-scale, work which is characterised by full chords, an enchanting melodic line and opulent, lush harmonies. Particularly interesting is the definite Scottish rhythm, no doubt highlighting the composer’s partially Celtic background. The melody is very similar to a Scottish Folk tune and effectively accentuates the ‘Scottish snap’ (or short accented down beat), giving the appropriate patriotic flavour. The piano texture is thick and mostly in the mid-range of the keyboard, with plenty of widespread chords and parallel sixths.

The predominant technical feature here is chordal playing. From the outset, Beach has written in a rich homophonic style. A chord is a cluster of two or more notes played at the same time. Chords can sometimes feel rather awkward to play, particularly in both hands simultaneously, but therein lays the technical challenge; chordal playing is all about voicing or deciding just which notes or lines of music are the most important at any given time and consequently need highlighting. With this in mind, one of the most crucial elements here is fingering. Each chord must be allocated appropriate fingering allowing for smooth transition from one chord to the next. Not every chord has a thick texture, but it’s a good idea to be quite sure of your fingering before starting to learn the piece (writing it in the score if necessary). Correcting fingering is painful and takes time, so bypass this by studying it accurately from the start! How you move from one chord to the next will determine the success of your performance.

Whilst polyphonic music such as that written by J.S. Bach may seem far removed from the Romantic style discussed here, playing plenty of contrapuntal works serves as an excellent ‘warm-up’ to dense chordal texture. Both styles require well-developed finger control in order to cope with various melodic lines of varying importance, because in nearly all chordal based works, there will be some musical lines that are far more interesting than others. So, strong fingers are vital for good voicing. The outer voices are normally the most crucial musically, and yet they routinely involve employing the weakest fingers; the fourths and fifths. In order to prepare to play this piece, it might be prudent to study a few Hanon or Czerny exercises (with the help of a good teacher) building up these fingers, as well as examining some polyphonic works. Fingers must be able to move independently, as I have mentioned on many occasions here on this blog.

To play chords effectively it’s a good idea to keep your hands close to the keys, preferably resting on the keys as opposed to hovering above. Then you will be able to move efficiently from one chord to the next, allowing your fingers to control the change between chords and the depth of sound required for each one. This is why firm, strong fingers are necessary. Also take care to make sure the hand is arched properly and not ‘collapsing’ – the knuckles must protrude, otherwise strong, equal playing amongst each finger will be almost impossible. Power to change the sound comes from arm-weight as opposed to just using your hands and fingers.

In the Scottish Legend, the melodic interest is usually in the top line, so the top three fingers of your right hand will be working continuously (third, fourth and fifth fingers). The first phrase of this work illustrates the chordal style;

Scottish Legend 1

 Here’s the right hand (or melodic material) with some suggested fingering;

Scottish Legend 2

You can break this down further by isolating the melody (in this case, the top part or line of music) and focusing on it completely, always employing the fingering you intend to use whilst playing all the parts of the chord together. Once you have practised this using a full, beautiful sound and total legato, try playing the remaining parts of each chord altogether, pianissimo and then fortissimo, changing the sound will help with fluency. You may find it helpful to play the left hand or bass line alone too.

Here’s the bass line with some suggested fingering – it may be useful to play the two parts separately, in a similar way to the right hand;

Scottish Legend 3

Crucially, play them very smoothly and without pedal. Then play the phrase as written, making sure the melody is always voiced above the other notes in the chord; with careful practice you will find this becomes easier over time. A flexible, pliable wrist really helps when negotiating homophonic music because it will ultimately help with balancing the tone correctly.

Using your ears properly is another deciding factor in the success of legato phrasing and well-spaced chords. It’s imperative to really listen to the sound you are producing and the effectiveness of any gradation (i.e. going from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again), when moving from one chord to the next. Resist the temptation to use pedal. Pedal should be added after you have learnt the notes sufficiently and then used to enhance the overall sound, as opposed to masking a lack of legato touch, incorrect fingering or hesitant, uneven playing.

The chordal progressions require careful work and many of them have ornaments; it might be worth practising these passages without the ornaments to begin with, making sure the rhythm is accurate and pulse, secure; then add them in (carefully adjusting the fingering where necessary) when your chordal grasp is firm (this is because ornamental playing tends to knock the pulse, as incorporating them in tempo can be challenging). Similarly, articulation of the spread or arpeggiated chords must not disturb the pulse. A quick rotational hand movement can be effective here, allowing a swift hand ‘roll’, aiding rhythmical playing.

There are copious tempo changes and rubato passages in this piece. It’s probably best to start by working rhythmically at each phrase, making sure the pulse remains stable. Once you have mastered the whole work, then it’s time to incorporate the tempo changes. You will find it much easier to do this once you have acquired an ‘overview’ of the piece.

Here are some quick tips or reminders when practising chords;

  1. Break the piece down into phrases, and then work at each one separately.
  2. Sort out the fingering before you begin, writing it in the score if necessary.
  3. Work at the outer parts of the chord or the top line (usually the melody) and the bottom, or bass line (the right hand first, then the left – separately to start with, then together), playing as legato or smoothly as possible – no ‘breaks’ in the sound.
  4. Then incorporate all the notes in the chords (again, right hand first, then the left, and finally together), slowly playing from one chord to the next, very smoothly, always making sure your wrist is free from tension (otherwise moving will be difficult).
  5. Practice voicing each chord in several ways (playing the middle parts from pianissimo to fortissimo), but always making sure the melody line is predominant.
  6. Use a metronome to check whether your chordal progression is rhythmical and then slowly increase the speed.
  7. Add the pedal only when you are able to play the passage fluently.

Master this chordal style, and you will be able to convey the meaning of this beautiful stately Scottish Ballad effectually.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach

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.