Be prepared! Getting ready for your piano exam

Here is some advice to help you prepare for your piano exam, at whatever level.

  • You should aim to be ready for your exam at least two weeks ahead of the exam date. By this time, your pieces will be thoroughly learnt and finessed, and your technical work (scales and arpeggios, technical exercises etc) should be very secure. Last-minute learning is never a good idea, as it can make us panicky and may lead to additional nerves on the day.
  • Your practising in the weeks leading up to the exam date should take now take two forms:
  1. Detailed practising to make sure everything is fully covered in your pieces. Be especially careful to note dynamics and articulation, ornaments, and any other features of the pieces which need to be highlighted in performance. Any uncertain passages should be gone over slowly and carefully to make sure they are fully learnt.
  2. Practice “playing through” without stopping to correct mistakes. Get into the habit of “performing” your pieces and think about how you want to transmit the music to the audience. Always think of an exam as a performance (rather than something to be tolerated and “got through”!). How do you want to “tell the story” of the music? What images, moods and emotions do you want to convey to the audience?
  • Your teacher will help you practice aural training and sight-reading in your lessons, but you can help yourself by listening to music at home. See if you can hear the beat/pulse of the music and practising clapping to it. If you have another musician in the family, ask them to play a short rhythm on the piano which you should clap back. Or get them to play a few notes for you to sing to. When listening to music, keep your ears alert for interesting features, such as changes in dynamics or articulation (staccato, legato etc).
  • Your teacher should do a few “mock” exams with you so you are familiar with the format of the exams. ABRSM exams usually begin with technical work, then the pieces, then sight-reading and aural. You will feel confident and prepared if you know what to expect in the exam.
  • If you have a tendency to suffer from performance nerves, discuss this with your teacher. We all have different ways of dealing with nerves, but one of the best ways is to know that you are well-prepared, so that even a slight slip or error in your playing will not throw you off course in the exam. I also use deep-breathing and positive thinking techniques to help with nerves. But remember – it’s ok to feel nervous! And a little bit of anxiety on the day can make you play better.
  • In the last few days before the exam, don’t over-practice! At this stage, it is possible for mistakes to creep into your pieces and it can then be very difficult to unlearn them. Enjoy playing your pieces, keep your technical work fluid and accurate, and look forward to performing your pieces to the examiner.
  • On the day: arrive at the exam centre in good time. The steward will tell you where to wait – and don’t be shy about asking to use the loo if you need to! Make sure you feel comfortable before you go into the exam room. Many exam centres have a practice piano: do use it, but only if you want to. However, I would not recommend playing your entire programme of pieces in warm up. Some light exercises, a few scales and maybe the beginnings and endings of your pieces.
  • In the exam room, be poised and calm. Adjust the piano stool height if you need to, and make sure you feel comfortable before you start. If you are feeling nervous, take a deep breath before you start and as you breathe out, allow your hands to float onto the keyboard into the position for the first piece. Or, if you are starting with scales, take a moment to think about the starting position. Don’t rush.
  • During the aural and sight-reading sections of the exam, if anything is unclear, don’t be afraid of asking the examiner to repeat an instruction or question. And in the sight-reading exercise, keep going not matter what!
  • Remember: the examiner wants you to do your absolute best and is not there to trick you or trip you up. Play with a sense of enjoyment, as a performer
  • And finally….. GOOD LUCK!!!!

Useful resources:

A helpful article by concert pianist and teacher Graham Fitch on exam preparation

My Turn Next – a booklet on exam preparation from the ABSM

ABRSM Mini Guide to Exams

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One thought on “Be prepared! Getting ready for your piano exam

  1. What a great article! I have been a music teacher for many years and know how hard it can be to prepare the exam, especially the aural test. I direct my students to use an app called AURALBOOK. It gives you live feedback so it’s like I’m with my students! It has helped all my students pass their exam. And it’s free!

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