Melanie Spanswick

Photo credit: Erica Worth

10 Tips for Piano Exam Success

Diploma examinations provide a useful benchmark for students as well as a qualification.  And performing diplomas such as the DipABRSM serve as ideal preparation for those wishing to attend music college or study music at university.

A diploma programme can take anything from a few weeks to a couple of years to prepare, and therefore one important criterion is to choose works which you not only love, but ones which you are happy to live with for a long time.  

Diplomas demand a completely different approach to that of Grade 8. For the final graded exam, selecting three pieces is fairly straight-forward, and programme choices are limited and already ‘well-balanced’ in the sense that works have been carefully categorised. Whereas pupils taking diplomas are confronted with a large repertoire list. You don’t always have to stick to the suggested repertoire list; it’s possible to make personal additions which are usually agreed in writing by the exam board before the exam. However, prior knowledge of styles, genres and composers is essential, and this is where a helpful teacher will be able to direct students and assist in making such decisions. Important decisions: choosing the wrong pieces or programme could be the difference between success and failure.

Most associate diplomas (such as the DipABRSM) require recitals lasting just over 30 minutes, and this is really the only guideline regarding programming, everything else is left to the candidate. So how do you start to make sense of vast lists of piano pieces?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Listen widely. Not just to the selected piano works, but to a whole range of music, in order to assimilate styles and genres; the more you know about styles and historical periods, the easier it is to decide which you would prefer to tackle. YouTube is your friend, and it’s useful to be able to just ‘log on’ and listen, although aim to select professional performances wherever possible.
  2. Programmes must be ‘well-balanced’, which means works should not ideally hail from the same period, although you might consider selecting several pieces from similar historical eras, as long as stylistically they are quite different. It’s not essential to represent every genre or style.
  3. Would you rather select a group of shorter pieces, or one longer work with a few smaller additions? Either works well, and it all depends on whether you enjoy the concentration demanded in some longer pieces, or you would prefer the constant character change required when playing shorter ones.
  4. Once you have elected a few composers who really appeal, listen to all the offered options on the list written by those composers; for well-known composers such as Mozart or Beethoven, there will be many pieces from which to choose.
  5. When selecting, imagine playing the piece and ask yourself the following questions: Can I really manage those intricate passages under pressure? Will I be able to play it up to speed? Is it a style I am familiar with, or will I need to become acquainted with it? Does it move or affect me emotionally? The last question is undoubtedly the most important. It can be a good plan to immediately delete works which are too challenging, gradually reducing the size of the list.
  6. How will your works be programmed? You don’t have to play them in chronological order. You should endeavour to present them in an order with which you feel comfortable. It can be interesting to start with a Contemporary work, for example. Students often do well by opening their programme with a slow, atmospheric piece, and one which proffers the chance to become accustomed to the piano and acoustics.
  7. Before learning begins, do your research and find out as much as you can about your chosen composers; you will probably need this information for the Viva Voce or question and answer session which takes place after your recital for some exams. Dates of birth, style, genre, amount and type of piano repertoire, and for which instrument(s) the works were originally written (if applicable), should all be very familiar to you.
  8. Know why you have selected your pieces. This will help clarify the selection process.
  9. Speak to your teacher (if you have one) at length and maybe seek other opinions and ideas from music professionals. It can be enlightening to hear what others say, in order to devise a well-rounded recital.
  10. And the last tip is the most important.  Never select works which reveal your shortcomings. A diploma is not the place to learn technique; this must be done in private on suitable studies or other repertoire.

Enjoy the learning process, make sure you are really prepared, and create opportunities to practice playing through your programme on a few occasions before the exam. Good luck!