Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

This a question I believe we as teachers should all be asking our pupils. It came up in conversation between myself and my friend and teaching colleague Rebecca, and we agreed that in future all students should be asked to consider this question.


Because it is all too easy for teachers to become complacent about exams and for students to submit studying for grade exams without considering exactly why they want to take them.

I want to get to Grade 8 before I leave school

This was from one of my teenage students. He didn’t elaborate on this statement, and at the time (about 2 years ago)  I didn’t challenge him. As I recall, I think I was quite impressed by his determination. He sees exams as things to be attained and ticked off the list so that one can move onto the next one……

Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, I really like the music – and because my mum wants me to do it

This is more encouraging, but the last comment worries me. Studying music should come from a passion and a willingness to engage with the subject in a mindful way. It should not be about notching up achievements which parents can parade as a kind of trophy or used for bragging rights

I don’t know

This student hadn’t really thought about the question at all…..! In this instance, one might wish to question why the student is taking piano lessons at all. Are they having lessons because they genuinely enjoy learning the piano, or because they are simply complying with parental wishes?

Here is my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight on this subject

I’ll only enter students for exams if it something that they really want to do. When the subject arises (“when am I going to do an exam?” or “when are we going to start working on Grade X pieces?“) I’ll ask them if they want to do an exam and, if so, why. I’ll make it very clear to them that they don’t have to do it – it’s not like school, where they have to sit exams whether they like it or not! Clearly I’ll also involve the parents in these discussions, especially with my younger students – but ultimately I have to be convinced that the student themself wants to do it.

Answers such as “all my friends do them” or “my parents expect me to” or “dunno” really don’t cut it for me. They won’t be motivated to work hard, and there is a real possibility that the process of preparing for the exam will put them off the piano altogether. However if the students come up with some or all of the following answers then it’s all systems go!:

– they want something to aim for and know that they work best when a specific goal is in mind

– the opportunity to learn 3 contrasting pieces to a very high standard

– the sense of achievement that comes with working hard towards a goal and then succeeding,

– the discipline it provides in preparing not just the pieces but for the scales and supporting tests

– they are taking (or thinking about taking) music at GCSE or A Level and believe that a graded exam will help towards this

Clearly they also need to be prepared to put in the work, and I make it clear that regular, probably daily, practice is essential. We then enter a few months of ‘exam boot camp’ – after all, if we’re going to do it we are going to do it properly!

Once an exam is done, I won’t allow the student to go onto the next grade until some specific non-exam objectives are met. Typically this involves spending one or two terms on a “X-piece challenge” in which we both agree a target number of pieces to learn to a reasonable (but not necessarily exam) standard. This provides a real contrast from the process of working on only 3 pieces – and really broadens their repertoire. Some students may also want to include their own compositions in the target. Only once the target is met will we discuss whether or not to start preparing for the next exam – and of they want to then the question is asked again!

In the affluent leafy suburbs of London where Rebecca and I both teach one quite often comes up against parents who demand that students are pushed into exams simply to notch up those results. Sadly, many parents, and some students, do not appreciate that with a complex art form such as music it takes time and effort (practising, engagement with that art form) to acquire the necessary skills to be able to take music exams. As the longstanding and highly experienced cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly notes in her article in the latest edition of ‘Music Teacher‘ magazine, today music lessons are viewed by some parents as a commercial transaction: “Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product” [exam success]. Teachers are expected by such parents to produce students capable of passing exams, yet the parents (and students) are not prepared to put in the effort to ensure practising is done. They focus on the exam as the end result, without appreciating that application and engagement are crucial in achieving that result, and instead, as Alison says, “instrumental music has become talismanic for middle-class achievement and accomplishment“.

I am fortunate that any students whose parents exhibit these attitudes have now left my studio (from the child whose mother asked me to “fast track him to Grade 5” – this was a pre-Grade 1 student – to enable him to apply for a music scholarship to a smart private school, to the parent who told me anything lower than a distinction in her daughter’s Grade 4 exam would be “unacceptable”), and I am blessed with a group of very engaged and committed students, who not only want to progress and achieve in their musical studies, but who also understand (in part, I hope, through my coaching and encouragement) that studying and playing music can bring huge pleasure and satisfaction.

My teaching philosophy is founded on a wish to encourage and support my students as individuals, but I will always question the student (or parent) who, on completion of one exam, wants to embark on the journey to the next one straight away.

Why do you want to take a piano exam?


Further reading

Exams don’t make musicians

Why take a music exam?


Grade exams don’t make musicians 

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these simply success as “bragging rights”. Do these achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure…..

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a  piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier. A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent





ABRSM 2017/18 Piano Syllabus

2017-20182bgrade2b1The release of the new ABRSM piano syllabus is a much-anticipated event amongst most piano teachers, many of whom may have by this time grown tired of teaching the same repertoire for the past couple of years. The 2017/18 piano syllabus includes 158 new pieces, alongside which the ABRSM is releasing  a new version of the Piano Practice Partner app to accompany the change in syllabus, plus Aural Trainer and Scales Trainer apps, and other supplementary material to support students and teachers.

The format of the syllabus is unchanged, with pieces divided into Lists A, B and C. As usual, List A pieces tend to be Baroque or early Classical in style, or pieces inspired by these eras (for example, Prelude and Fugue in A minor by Shchredin, Grade 8, List A).  List B pieces tend to be more romantic in style, while List C contains modern or contemporary pieces, or music which is more jazz-infused, atonal or inspired by popular songs or film scores. There are also simple transcriptions of well-known works such as the Prince of Denmark’s March (also known at the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’) by Jeremiah Clark, La donna è mobile from Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’, and Jupiter from Holst’s ‘The Planets’. Composers such as Gurlitt, Gedike, Telemann and Gillock, which for me are forever associated with exam music, make their usual appearance, but it is refreshing to find works by living composers too: in addition to Shchredin mentioned above, there are pieces by Tan Dun, Ben Crosland, Bryan Kelly, Christopher Norton (whose jazz and rock inspired pieces are always popular with students), Miguel Astor, and Nikki Iles. It is also refreshing to find music by composers from South America, Finland and Japan. The Grade 8 list is longer than the other grades, with 16 pieces to choose from across the main list and alternative pieces.

When choosing exam repertoire with my students, I encourage them to select, as far as possible within the confines of the syllabus, pieces which when played together create an enjoyable and contrasting “programme”, a mini concert if you will. This means that students get to play a variety of music and can demonstrate to an examiner or audience that they can handle music of different styles, moods and characters. The new syllabus offers plenty of scope in this respect, though the earlier grades contain fewer pieces that will appeal to adult students or teenagers. As my colleague Andrew Eales has already remarked in his very comprehensive review of the new syllabus, the omission of music by Philip Glass, Ludovico Einaudi and similar minimalist composers seems rather unfortunate given the popularity of these composers, particularly amongst teenagers. But overall the selection is varied and imaginative with broad appeal.

In addition to the new piano syllabus, the ABRSM has announced the introduction of a new performance-only Diploma, the ARSM (presumably, “Associate of the Royal Schools of Music”), to bridge the gap between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM, to offer a challenge after Grade 8, for those who want to get back into playing after a break or for those looking to enhance their performance skills before entering higher education or applying to study at university. Like the existing Diplomas, the ARSM will offer candidates the opportunity to create and perform their own programme from a published syllabus and own-choice repertoire. Further information about the ARSM will be available in August.

ABRSM Piano exams official page (with links to purchase music, download soundclips and other supporting information).


Celebrate every pass, merit and distinction

Now is the season of piano teachers up and down the country expectantly waiting for the sound of exam results dropping through the letterbox or into their email inbox. The summer season for graded music exams is the busiest and results are coming in thick and fast. It is cheering to see from colleagues’ posts on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs that students are achieving excellent results in their grades. Of course we want to celebrate our students’ successes in achieving a Merit or a Distinction in their piano exams, but we should also pause to consider the value of a pass. It’s not “just a pass”. As my colleague David Barton expresses eloquently in his own article on this subject:

We’re very focussed these days on results. I am conscious that when I send my own pupils for flute, piano or singing exams here in Lichfield, or in Sutton Coldfield, it is the result rather than the experience which is at the forefront of their minds. Children are driven to succeed at school, and adults the same at work; there are targets to be met every step of the way. Whilst when I was having lessons as a child, I and most of my friends would have been happy to pass an exam, more and more people are now hunting for that elusive merit or distinction mark. There is a lot of talk from parents, particularly online, about exam results; there’s an inevitable competitive edge. It can be disheartening for pupils who’ve worked very hard for their exam to be made to feel that they have somehow fallen short of the standard by not achieving either a merit or distinction. But let’s stand back and look at the wider perspective.

If we think about most HE level exams and assessments, the pass mark is often 40%. For graded music exams, the pass mark is normally around 65%. This means that any candidate achieving even just the pass mark has ensured that well over half the material presented was commendable.

Music exams are hard. Maybe they have dumbed down slightly from when I took mine in the 1970s and early 80s, but graded music exams are still challenging, not least because the student is required to take the exam alone, and to perform to an examiner whom they have never met before. For some students, children and adults in particular, this can be an incredibly daunting prospect, let alone processing all the notes and being able to play the assigned music in an expressive and meaningful way. Alongside the repertoire, there are scales, technical exercises, sight-reading, aural tests: taken all together, these elements create a very comprehensive test of one’s musical ability. Teachers can help their students perform confidently and with poise by assisting them in the preparation of their pieces and technical material, by offering advice on stagecraft and performance anxiety, and be reassuring them that it is about the whole experience, the chance to show off one’s playing to someone else, rather than the end result which is an important part of one’s musical development.

So every result is worth celebrating and teachers should congratulate their students, whatever the mark achieved. (I would like to congratulate my students Jessica, Vicky and Daniel who achieved Merits and a pass in their exams this summer.)

Further reading:

Why a grade 1 pass is a superb result (article by David Barton)

What is Grade 1? (article by Rebecca Singerman-Knight)

Trinity College of London new piano syllabus – an overview

In July 2014 the new Trinity College of London (TCL) piano grade exam syllabus was released. I have enjoyed teaching the TCL syllabus and my students have enjoyed learning the pieces: some highlights of the previous syllabus include Fanfare for the Common Cold (Grade 2), Allegro Non Troppo (Grade 2), Song of Twilight (Grade 3) and Tapping Heels (Grade 4). To assist in my preparation to teaching the new syllabus, I recently attended a presentation for piano teachers given by Peter Wild, Associate Chief Examiner, and Govind Kharbanda.

One of my main reasons for switching from ABRSM to TCL for graded exams is that TCL focusses on the individual, and the exam structure offers flexibility and choice to enable students to play to their strengths. Part of my teaching philosophy is to encourage students to play with expression and confidence, and I am keen to help them develop performance skills. Performance is at the heart of the TCL graded exams, and the pieces carry a maximum of 66% of the marks available in the exam.


Unlike ABRSM exams where students must select a piece from A, B and C sections (traditionally divided approximately into Baroque/Early Classical, Classical/Romantic and Modern/Jazz/Pop), TCL offers students up to Grade 3 free choice to select pieces which suit their individual strengths and allow students and teachers to create an interesting programme. This helps students understand how to build a contrasting concert programme and is particularly useful for students who wish to study for a Diploma at post-Grade 8 level. All the pieces offer contrasting moods, tempi, character and technical demands, and the syllabus combines well-known works and composers with music by lesser-known composers. There are always pieces with a Jazz-leaning and also some contemporary classical pieces. Arrangements of well-known jazz standards and songs, for example, are always good-quality arrangements. Right from the earliest grade, the pieces offer plenty of opportunities to explore aspects such as dynamics, tone quality, articulation and expression, and the pieces are chosen to encourage further listening and “listening around” the pieces to give students a broader frame of reference and set the music in context. In TCL the emphasis is very much on performance and students are encouraged to consider aspects such as stage craft and presentation. A duet option is also available in the early grades.

In marking the pieces, the marks awarded are subdivided into three areas:

  1. Accuracy & notational fluency – or “me and the music”
  2. Technique – “me and the instrument”
  3. Communication and interpretation – “me and the audience”

Supporting tests

There is also a choice of supporting tests and up to Grade 4 students may select two of the following:

  • Sight-reading
  • Aural
  • Improvisation
  • Musical Knowledge

I have found that many early and younger students find sight-reading at Grade1/2 level very daunting and I prefer to teach it within the context of learning new music, allowing students to develop their sight-reading skills at their own pace.

Musical Knowledge is a useful option and gives the student the opportunity to learn some music theory within the context of the pieces they are playing, thus making the theory relevant.

Many students, particularly boys, find singing in aural tests excruciating, and so in Trinity aural tests there is no singing (except at Grade 1). The test is designed to explore musical understanding, awareness and perception.

Technical work and exercises

Technical requirements in TCL exams are less onerous than in the ABRSM syllabus. Scales and arpeggios are relevant to the pieces, and TCL encourages students to take a musical approach to scales, demonstrating that they can play with fluency, accuracy and good tone. From Grade 4 students must play scales and arpeggios legato and staccato, forte or piano, and from Grade 5 students play scales in major thirds, and arpeggios of the dominant and diminished 7th. In my experience, most young people who want to learn the piano simply want to be able to play well and enjoy playing the piano. For the more serious pianist, the technical requirements in the ABRSM syllabus, where by Grade 5 the student will have learnt scales in all the major and minor keys, is more useful.

For each TCL exam, the student must prepare three short technical exercises. The exercises focus on aspects of technique such as balance, tone, voicing, coordination, and finger and wrist strength and flexibility. The exercises related to various pieces in the syllabus: for example, A Lucky Find (3a, Grade 6) is useful in enabling the student to shape a good cantabile line in Chopin’s Cantabile in B-flat and practises playing chords as an accompaniment. Music lies at the foundation of all the TCL technical requirements, and indeed the entire exam.

Exam report and results

All candidates receive useful feedback on each element of the exam, and results are released quickly, usually within a week of the exam date (certificates take somewhat longer).

I know some teachers hold strong views about the usefulness of exams, and the individual exam boards. At the end of the day, I feel it’s important to find pieces and technical exercises/supporting tests which allow the student to explore a varied range of repertoire and techniques and, above all, to enjoy playing the piano.


Trinity College London – syllabus support

Trinity College YouTube channel – includes an introduction to the grade exams and sample exams to show how the actual exam is conducted


More exam successes!

Sisters Vicky and Marianne Mitchell have just passed their Grade 1 and Grade 2 piano exams respectively. Vicky admitted to me afterwards that she was very nervous at the exam, so her pass is a significant achievement for her. She was particularly praised for her playing of ‘Raindrops’ by Walter Carroll:


Marianne achieved a very high score in her exam, just 3 marks off a Distinction, and was awarded full marks for her performance of ‘Allegro Non Troppo’ by Gurlitt, as well as high scores for the other two pieces (‘Fanfare for the Common Cold’ and ‘Summer Swing’).

Both girls are very sensitive players, with a strong affinity for the piano and an ability to produce a really fine tone (Marianne told me at her lesson last week that she didn’t like playing loudly in case she made an ugly sound!).

Congratulations to Vicky and Marianne, and to all my students who have taken exams so far this year.