Why take a music exam?

When I was learning the piano as a child, I remember feeling that I was chained to an exam treadmill: every year I took another exam, and as soon as the exam was over and the results were in, I moved on to the next grade’s syllabus. I did all this willingly, because it pleased my parents and my teacher, and I suppose I was pretty pleased too, to receive a smart Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music certificate as proof of my achievement.

My teaching philosophy is to make piano lessons fun and to share with my students – children and adults – my passion for and love of the piano and its literature. No one is obligated to take an exam in my studio, but in these days of ‘anti-competitive’ sports days at our primary schools, I find that most of the children I teach are keen to take graded exams, as a measure of where they are in their piano studies, and proof that they can do it.

For students who have been immersed in study for an exam for more than a term or two, it can sometimes be difficult to remain focussed on the task in hand and to remember why one is taking a music exam.

Motivation: taking a music exam encourages commitment, stimulates the student to practice and gives the student an extra nudge to their learning. Success in an exam offers a real sense of achievement, and the student will receive a report with positive, helpful comments and constructive criticism, plus a smart certificate which can be framed.

Benchmarking: Achieving a graded music exam gives the student a sense of where he or she is in their studies, and a visible, recognised measure of personal progress and attainment. Meeting other students who are further advanced in their exams is a useful and inspiring pointer to what can be achieved next or in the future. Graded music exams are also recognised by other teachers, schools, colleges and universities, and show that you have reached a certain level of competency as a musician and instrumentalist.

Building skills: Graded music exams are designed so that skills such as technique, memorisation and musical awareness can be developed gradually and thoroughly.

Exploring repertoire: At every level, from Initial/Prep Test to Grade 8, there is a good range of repertoire to choose from, from Baroque to present-day and jazz. This allows students to offer varied and interesting programmes, and to enjoy studying a range of musical styles.

Boosting confidence: The experience of playing for someone else, whether it is teacher, examiner, adjudicator or before an invited audience is incredibly valuable. Learning to deal with performance anxiety and playing a programme of whatever length to others builds confidence and presentation skills which can be transferred to other areas of your life.

Exams are not for everyone, of course, and some students, especially adults, are happy to study a variety of repertoire of varying degrees of difficulty for their own interest. For me, the most important aspect is to introduce students to as wide a range of music as possible, and to encourage listening, sharing and enjoyment of music. Between exams, I like to teach ‘step up’ repertoire, which allows the student to transition comfortably from one grade to another.

The spring exam season will soon be upon us. To all students, junior and advanced, young and old, I wish you the very best of luck.

Guest post: Discovering New Repertoire

As a piano teacher based in Lichfield, one of the first things I ask a pupil when they start lessons is what would they like to play. Most look slightly embarrassed and the horribly predictable ‘Moonlight Sonata’, ‘Für Elise’ and ‘The Entertainer’ are volunteered as possible ideas. For most people learning an instrument, I reckon about 80-90% of the repertoire they learn is suggested by the teacher. There is of course nothing wrong with this at all; the teacher is well-placed to make judgements about what pieces might be suitable and which might be useful, for example in helping to develop a particular technique. However, as pupils progress, I want to see them become more self-sufficient, being able to make their own choices and decisions where possible. So let’s say you’ve exhausted your teacher’s entire repertoire, where can you look next? Here are some ideas for exploring new repertoire.

  1. Go to concerts I’d say that a good amount of the music I enjoy both playing and listening to has been heard at concerts. More often than not, I book the tickets because there’s one thing on the programme I particularly want to hear, and come away having discovered several others. How about starting by going to concerts and recitals where there’s something you want to hear, but be prepared to be surprised and to come away liking others? (and if you don’t, you haven’t lost anything!)
  2. Take note of recommendations Most of us will, at one time or another, have shopped online. Many of these online shopping sites are programmed to remember what you buy and to recommend other products based on this. Whilst some of these recommendations are to be taken with a pinch (or even a good few ounces) of salt (I really don’t wish to purchase a song called ‘Gather in the mushrooms’…I keep telling it!) some are surprisingly astute. Every time I order a CD or a piece of music, the site probably recommends at least 10 others – they’re worth exploring.
  3. YouTube This is, in some ways related to the second suggestion above, as YouTube also makes recommendations based on the videos you watch. Think about the pieces you’ve learnt that you’ve enjoyed; search for them on YouTube and see which videos come up along the right-hand side. The recommendations are often quite good and I’ve found many a new piece this way.
  4. One composer leads to another… When you play a piece you’ve enjoyed, look up the composer. Find out when, where and what they were writing. Which other composers fall into a similar category? For example, if you like Vaughan Williams (as I do), you’ll probably like Butterworth, Ireland and Finzi. One leads to another…
  5. Go to a shop Yes, you remember those things on the high street – big windows, door, till, cash etc. They do exist, albeit smaller in number. If you can, find a good sheet music store – if you’re like me, you have to travel miles to find one, so only an occasional trip is possible. To me, browsing in a shop is infinitely better than browsing online. By all means go to buy, but don’t forget to browse too! Don’t forget charity shops too who often have a small quantity of abandoned sheet music somewhere on a bottom shelf. Trust your instincts too; if you like the look of something, try it (many a time I have been guilty of buy pieces because I like the covers!) I promise you that the more pieces you try, the more you’ll find. My sheet music collection which used to occupy one pile now occupies a whole room…be warned. 
  6. Don’t forget the obvious too – ask friends and family, and even your teacher for recommendations. Always remain open to new ideas, never feel pushed into having to like certain things, and whatever you do, always enjoy playing!

David Barton is an internationally-published composer and arranger based in Lichfield, Staffordshire, where he also runs a successful practice teaching flute, piano and singing.

David’s website

Further resources:

Chappell of Bond Street – retail store and online shop for vast selection of sheet music and much more

Pianostreet – downloadable copyright-free piano music. Small monthly subscription

Sheet Music Direct – online resource with over 40,000 titles. Pop songs, jazz, classical and more.

Making the most of your piano lessons

Make sure you get the most out of each and every lesson by following these simple points:

  • Arrive on time for your lessons: get the most out of the time you have each week.
  • Come prepared for your lessons: make sure you bring all your music, tutor book and practice notebook. Your teacher may have copies of the music you use, but it is always better to bring your own in case you and your teacher need to make notes on it.
  • Do your homework! That means practising. Complete the work assigned to you by your teacher each week and you will see your skills at the piano improve. This should give you the incentive to keep practising!
  • Take responsibility for your learning. That means setting yourself achievable goals and high standards, learn music that is at your skill level, and ask your teacher for help whenever you need it.
  • Be intelligent about your practising. Don’t practice without thinking. Study your music and know what you need to do with it.
  • Be patient, positive and persistent in the face of new musical challenges.
  • Listen to your teacher and always ask if you don’t understand something.
  • Be active in your lessons. Talk to your teacher, discuss ideas about how to approach your music and your study.
  • Make notes during your lessons (for older/adult students) so that you have a record of what you’ve discussed.
  • Go to concerts, masterclasses, and talks, and listen to as wide a variety of music as possible. Many orchestras run outreach schemes for children and young people.
  • Take part in festivals, competitions and other playing opportunities outside of your regular lessons. Accept feedback from your peers, teachers, adjudicators and other musicians.
  • Be professional: you may not be a professional musician (yet!) but you can still behave in a professional way. Be punctual, prepared, courteous and honest.

Be a super sight-reader

Many junior students fear sight-reading, and for most it’s the part of the practical music exam they dread: being asked to play a short piece of music, unseen. Sight-reading is an important skill for any musician, professional or amateur, and being able to sight-read – and sight-play – well allows one to learn new music more quickly. It also makes it easier to accompany other musicians, play in ensembles or duets, and to play requests. Those of us who are good sight-readers have forgotten how we were taught how to do it: with practice, it becomes an ingrained musical skill which informs the way we study new music all the time.

So, how do you become a super sight-reader? Here are a few key tips:


  • Look at the WHOLE piece from beginning to end.
  • Look at the key signature. Are there any sharps or flats?
  • Look at the time signature
  • Take note of any musical signs (e.g. Allegro, Cantabile, Dolce) which indicate how the piece should be played.
  • Look for dynamic markings, articulation (legato, staccato, accents, tenuto), repeat signs
  • Look for patterns in the music – e.g. broken chords, scales, repeated notes


  • Set a pulse (beat) in your head and start counting before you play. Try to keep to a strict pulse throughout, even if you make mistakes. (When practising sight-reading, you might find it helpful to use a metronome.)
  • Go slowly: don’t play at performance speed (except in an exam situation) but always keep the pulse regular. You are aiming for accuracy rather than speed.


  • Look ahead like crazy. Don’t be caught by surprise or something unexpected in the music. Your eyes and brain should be onto the next note – or better still, the next bar – as you are playing the current note.


  • In an exam situation it is important to just keep going. Even if you make a mistake, keep playing: don’t stop and correct the mistake. Keep a strict pulse going all the time. In exams, you are marked on pulse, rhythm, awareness of musical signs and markings and phrasing, as well as accuracy.


  • Even if you do sight-reading practice with your teacher in your weekly lessons, it is important to practice your sight-reading between lessons. Get into the habit of practising your sight-reading regularly (some of my students are surprised that I still practice sight-reading. I incorporate it into my practice routine every week, and I always follow the guidelines given above when learning new music).

If you follow these tips whenever you start work on a new piece, you will find you learn it far more thoroughly, which will enable you to play it better, with greater accuracy, musical awareness, and flow.


Piano Time Sight-Reading Book 1 (Pauline Hall & Fiona McCardle). From the author of the Oxford Piano Method, a tutor book which makes learning sight-reading fun. Short, structured exercises and games and quizzes.

Sound at Sight series (Trinity Guildhall). Exercises to encourage and develop sight-reading. Book 1 contains sample tests for Trinity Guildhall initial grade to grade 2.

Joining the Dots (Alan Bullard/ABRSM).  Short, characterful pieces to sight-read, in a range of approachable musical styles; warm-up and technical exercises, to establish basic hand shapes and finger patterns within each key. Use alongside ABRSM specimen sight-reading tests.

There are many ‘apps’ for iPod, iPhone and iPad to practice note-recognition, musical terms, chords and general sight-reading. I like these:



Music Theory Pro

PianoNotes Pro

Key Wiz

Music for Little Mozarts (for young children)

Note Squish


Guest post: Avoiding sightreading derailments at the piano.

by Erica Sipes

Erica is a primarily a pianist but also a cellist who has a passion for bringing joy, personality, and fun into making, listening to, and performing classical music. She studied at the Eastman School of Music, and lives in Blacksburg, Virginia. She writes a blog for pianists and musicians called Beyond the Notes.

Avoiding sightreading derailments at the piano

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

For the next few weeks, as I prepare for a second semester [term] of teaching folks how to improve their sightreading at the piano, I will be sharing on my blog some of the tips I’ve already shared with them.

First off, my list of things to think about when sightreading:

SCAN through the music first. Always scan through the music visually before your fingers even touch the keys paying attention to things like:

  • title of the piece and tempo indications, if any – these are helpful to know and can also get you focused more on musicality rather than your fear of sightreading.  For instance, if a title says “Funeral March,” you’ll know that a) it’s not going to be fast (unless it’s a happy funeral) and b) it’s going to full of emotion, or it should be.
  • key – look at the beginning and ending notes and/or chords to help determine the key and whether or not it’s major or minor.
  • time signature – it’s crucial to know this.  And if you see that it’s in 3/4, beware!!  3/4 is famous for messing people up because these days, it’s not a meter you hear in everyday life.  (There’s more info about troubles with 3/4 in my post, “A note of apology and sympathy to a time signature“).
  • difficult rhythms – after a while of purposefully looking for tricky rhythms that tend to mess you up these will instantly jump out at you.
  • anything else that leaps off the page like fast-note passages, key changes, tempo changes, meter changes, etc…

FIGURE out those tricky rhythms you just spotted.  If you’re not great at rhythm, now is a good time to start proving to yourself that you can, in fact, figure rhythm out.  It’s simple math and is well worth the extra moments of computing how the notes are supposed to line up.  If you don’t figure it out now, you’re bound to crash and burn when you reach them in the music.  If you do figure them out, you may still crash and burn but at least you gave it an honest go!

PICK a wise tempo.  Be thoughtful about the tempo you choose.  Pick one based on the tempo indication but also on the difficulty of the piece.  Keep the fastest notes you’re going to have to play in mind.  You can be somewhat flexible with the tempo once you start but you want the tempo to be such that you never actually have to break the pulse of the piece.

TAKE a deep breath, let it out, and play.   

STAY in tune with your mind and body. Be conscious and respectful of your mind and nerves when you can afford to.  If you’re by yourself or in a low-pressure situation use that time to allow yourself to work on being calm and loose.  Be sensitive to where your brain, muscles, and nerves are throughout the process.  If at any time you start to sense tightening or stress, slow down the tempo until you are comfortable again.

LOOK straight ahead at the music, not down at the keyboard.  Don’t look down! When you look down, you’re almost assured of missing even more notes and then getting lost when you look back up at the music.  Start to develop really good muscle memory instead so that you can keep your eyes on track in the music.  Remember, you’ve probably never seen this music before so you don’t know what’s coming.  Keep your eyes on the track or you will derail.  If there is a big jump in one or both of the hands and you need to look, make sure you don’t tuck in your chin and move your whole head to do so. Just move your eyes, keeping your head steady.  This will help you maintain your place in the music and your orientation to the keyboard.

LOOK for patterns.  Always be looking for patterns of all sorts so that your eyes and brain can process a whole bunch of notes as one entity rather than lots of individual notes. Think about how you read a book.  You don’t read l-e-t-t-e-r– b-y– l-e-t-t-e-r, you read chunks of letters as individual words.   (More about this in the post, “Reading words, reading music…observations from a musical mom.”)  Types of patterns are scales of all sorts, chords, material that repeats, etc…

KEEP your eyes moving.  You’re eyes should never stop moving.  If you’ve landed on a whole note or a rest, don’t let your eyes rest too.  That’s a perfect time to look ahead and keeps you on track.  If you stop, you’re going to have to jumpstart your eyes and that usually causes a break in the pulse.

USE your ears.  Turn your ears on even before you start to play and trust them!  Too many people rely solely on their sight but our previous experience with music can really help us out if we let our ears guide our hands along the way.  This takes some getting used to but is well worth the discomfort at first.

DON’T stop.  Don’t ever stop to correct something.  Just smile and keep going. Sightreading isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being able to experience music that you’ve never played before.  And when you’re reading with others, it’s also about experiencing music in a social, spontaneous way.  In other words, it can be fun and downright entertaining.

COUNT out loud while you play.  What?!?  Isn’t that asking a little much?  Well, perhaps but here’s the thing.  If you can get to the point that you can count out loud while you’re playing, you are going to sense a new level of rhythmic security and musicality.  Keeping a steady pulse is also essential for good sightreading because it can keep you on track, keeps the eyes and brain moving, and makes it easier to read with others.  So keep working on it and just think of the sense of pride you’ll feel when you can actually do it successfully!

BE KIND to yourself.  Be very forgiving of yourself and just enjoy reading music.  Playing music is a good thing after all!

KEEP doing it.  Sightreading, like so many other things, takes practice in order to see progress and to gain confidence.  Keep doing it, especially with others, if you can.  Read with a sense of adventure, curiosity and pride and you’ll soon be looking forward to reading music just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

© Erica Sipes

Telling stories, painting pictures

Music is all about story-telling and painting pictures. Pop music helpfully has titles and song lyrics to tell us what it is about, but Classical music can be more difficult to interpret unless the performer or performers give us “signposts” to help us understand the composer’s intentions.

The simplest “signposts” in the score are tempo, dynamic, phrasing and articulation markings. Often a piece will have some words, usually in Italian, at the beginning to suggest mood or tempo, such as Con fuoco (with fire), Cantabile (in a singing style) or Dolce (sweetly) [many more terms can be found here]. After that, it is up to the performer to transmit the composer’s intentions to the audience, literally, to “tell the story” of the music.

Many Classical pieces do have titles to help us. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Opus 27 No. 2 is more commonly known as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, though this was a nickname given to the piece after Beethoven’s death. The composer marks the score ‘Quasi una fantasia’ which means “like a fantasy”, and this can certainly help the performer shape the music.

Early and intermediate pieces for students usually have clear titles – Vampire Blues, Tarantella, Summer Swing, Military Minuet, Saturday Stomp – which tell us a good deal about the music before we have even heard a single note. But, as the performer, it is up to you to “tell the story” of the music to the listener and, through your performance, paint a picture of the music. When you are performing, always imagine the audience has never heard this piece before, knows nothing about it at all.

  • Look at the score carefully before you play: what “signposts” (dynamics, musical terms, articulation etc) has the composer given to tell you what this music is about?
  • Think about the mood of the music – is it happy, sad, slow, quick?
  • Have a very clear picture in your head of how you want the music to sound, what kind of story you want to tell in it, before you begin to play.
  • Take time to think of descriptive words for your music – write them on the score if it helps (see my earlier post on describing music)
  • Use your body to help tell the story – for example, snatching your hands off the keyboard at the end of a slow, gentle piece will look wrong. Lift your hands off the keys to draw sounds out of the piano (I encourage students who are studying ‘Fanfare for the Common Cold’ (Trinity GH Grade 2) to play the glissandi at the end with a true virtuoso flourish, which creates a brighter sound as well as looking great!)
  • Find out more about the composer and the context in which the music was composed. Listen to other pieces by the same composer, or other music written at the same time
  • What pictures do you imagine when you play your music? Find images on the internet, print them out and stick them in your score if it helps.
  • Remember – the audience knows nothing about the piece. What do you want to tell them about the music in your performance?

Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov plays Rameau’s ‘La Poule’ (The Hen). Look at the way Sokolov uses his hands to suggest the chicken pecking – the image is clear in the music, but the pianist’s gestures undoubtedly help “tell the story”:

See some “sound images” here