Guest Post: Piano exams success – 9 key points

With the spring exam season upon us, I asked a friend and colleague of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has experience as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), to offer some tips on how to do well. Here are her 9 key points for exam success:


  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 equals 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 develop 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. Remember the 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!!

Further resources:

Why take a music exam?

Magnus playing Vampire Blues by Kevin Wooding (ABRSM Grade 1 piano List C):

Melanie Spanswick is a concert pianist and writer. More on Melanie at her blog ClassicalMel.


How to play…. ‘When Paris Dreams’

Nuit de Paris by Brassai

This brief, yet very atmospheric piece is from the alternative repertoire list of Trinity Guildhall Grade 2 piano, and would suit a more mature student or one who can give it the requisite wistfulness.

In my edition of Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams), the date under the composer’s name is 1939, which immediately conjures up images of Paris just before the outbreak of the Second World War, a time of nostalgia and memories of good times. This is a useful starting point for shaping this music, and ‘telling the story’, and it’s certainly reminiscent of the kind of ‘piano bar’ music that might be played towards the end of the evening, a few couples dancing, low lighting, a weary barman polishing glasses…..

The piece is very simple, built on the opening 3-bar descending motif. Marked dolce (sweetly), aim for a warm, singing, and ultra legato sound. This can be achieved by keeping the hands and forearms soft. Singing the melody out loud will also help with the phrasing and dynamic shading. The pedalling is fairly straightfoward: in effect, it follows the phrasing, but it needs to be accurate to maintain legato throughout and to enhance the romantic mood of this piece. Keep the foot in contact with the pedal at all times and avoid releasing it noisily. Allow the foot to float up with the hand at the end.

I tried in vain to find any other music by Nevada, but for me some of the songs of Kurt Weill share the same wistfulness as this piece, and are useful ‘further listening’.

Karin Schmidt sings ‘Here I’ll Stay: Love Life’ by Kurt Weill

Reblogged: Scales – 6 reasons why you need to practice them

‘Now we will test your scales, C major hands together please’, the examiner smiles glancing at the student who is waiting with baited breath……

This is the usual scenario when pupils are faced with scales. Most pianists don’t like scales or scale practice. Some ask if they are really necessary. For me, they are the most important part of exam practice. Not only do they teach piano students everything they need to know about fast playing (or fast passagework) but they also build up finger technique, tone production and provide the opportunity to learn every key. They should be approached as something to enjoy rather than dread.

I love scales. I always have and particularly relish watching my hands running up and down the keyboard, but I realize that I am in the minority. Scales are very useful and if you can play them well you will be on the way to developing a secure technique. Technique is essential for good playing and it really means the ability to get around the notes accurately.

Scales and arpeggios are important for all of the following reasons:

1. Scales develop hand co-ordination. Absolute co-ordination is paramount between both hands as they run up and down the keyboard.

2. Scales help develop the ability to play accurate fingering as in order to play them rapidly, you need to be very precise with your fingers. The fingerings need to be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit which will be repeated every octave as you move up and down the keyboard.

3. Scales help develop finger strength; every finger is utilized when playing scales, forcing the pianist to make every finger work properly.

4. Scales help to improve a pupil’s keyboard geography; to play them up to speed, large amounts of keyboard need to be covered quickly so the pupil will build up a sense of keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing.

5. Scales help the student learn all 24 keys – which is no mean feat. This is an extremely useful and important feature in itself.

6. Scales help students develop a strong sense of rhythm, articulation and speed, which are all important for playing the piano. They also encourage good tone production.

Here are just a few reasons why scales are probably the most important test in any piano exam. So when you next sit down to do some practice, why not start with scales? This way you will not only get them over and done with, but you will also practice them when you are fresh and receptive. You never know, you may end up enjoying them!

This post first appeared on ClassicalMel‘s piano and music education blog

Why do a music festival?

Two of my students, Bella and Lucy, recently participated in Richmond Performing Arts Festival. This is an annual festival of music, drama and dance, and is very well supported in the local community. To make my students feel they weren’t doing it entirely alone, I also entered two senior piano classes.

I last took part in a music festival when I was about 12. I played Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor K.457, and I still cringe at the memory of the event: the hot, stuffy hall at the Girls Royal Masonic School in Rickmansworth, the nasty upright piano with very plasticky keys, and the adjudicator’s comments on my performance, “spirited”, which was code for “try again next year”. Needless to say, I didn’t win anything.

My friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine, who runs a busy and popular piano school in south-east London, regularly takes part in festivals in and around London with her students, with some impressive results. This encouraged me to think about trying some festivals this year, as an opportunity for my students to experience playing to a different audience in a new venue.

Performing is a crucial skill for any musician: it builds confidence, which can be transferred to other aspects of one’s life, as well as reminding us that music is for sharing. What is the point of all those lonely hours spent practising the piano if you don’t allow others to hear what you’ve been working on?

Although I organise regular student concerts, at which my students willingly perform (some with the flair of the born performer) festivals are a great way of gaining performance practice. They also offer students the chance to hear other repertoire and, hopefully, be inspired by other young performers.

Bella is about to take her Grade 3 exam. She’s been working on the syllabus for nearly a year, and is well-prepared and ready for the exam. She played a lovely piano reduction of Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Both Sides Now’; it sounded very pretty on the grand piano in the hall, with some very nice highlighting of the ‘song line’ of the piece, and the adjudicator had some very positive feedback for her. This is perhaps the most useful aspect of taking part in a festival – the comments after the performance, particularly for students who are about to take exams. Here is Bella in a recording we made at a recent lesson:

The rather less pleasant aspect of the festival was the high-proportion of ‘Tiger Parents’, competitive parents whose eyes are set only on first prize: nothing else will be good enough. The standard of some of the playing of the offspring of these parents was very high, and probably quite daunting for my students, but I’m afraid I did not feel that many of these children actually enjoyed playing the piano, which is a shame.

Having said that, the festival was, overall, a positive and enjoyable experience: later in the afternoon, I took part in the Bach/Beethoven/Brahms class, with the Adagio from Bach’s Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV974, which forms part of my LTCL repertoire. I did not play to win, rather to have the piece heard by someone other than my teacher and, like Bella, I received some very positive feedback which will provide useful food for thought as I continue my study of this piece.

Lucy, meanwhile, gave an enthusiastic performance of ‘Bah-ba-doo-Bah’ by John Kember, one of the pieces she played in her Grade 2 exam last winter (and, as the adjudicator said, one of the most popular pieces in the current ABRSM syllabus!). If she takes part in another festival, I will enter her in one of the graded classes (she was in the class for her age group, 11-12 year olds), where she will be playing with students of a similar standard.

More on music festivals here

UK Federation of Festivals website here, with A-Z list of performing arts festivals around the country, details of adjudicators and other useful information.

Richmond Performing Arts Festival website