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Piano Exams - A Guide to Preparation

The day the piano exam arrives can be a very frightening moment. Whether you are seven or seventy, the prospect of going in to face an examiner can be daunting. The piano exam, however, need not be a terrifying experience and in this article I would like to outline a few hints that may help you if you are planning to take one.

Spend time selecting your exam pieces carefully, choosing pieces that you will enjoy playing and that are suited to your hands. After all, exam preparation should be a pleasurable experience which is simply a part of your general musical development. Look on it as the beginning to further study rather than something very narrow that begins and ends with the syllabus. If you are studying Mozart, for example, listen to his operas and the music of Haydn so that you become more familiar with the classical style. Also take every opportunity to listen to other interpretations of your exam pieces.

If you are working towards Grade 1 aim to practise for at least half an hour a day, by Grade 5 aim for an hour a day and if you are working towards a diploma then aim for at least 2 hours practice a day. There may be one or two days in the week when you are unable to practise, in which case make sure your practice in the rest of the week is adequate. If you plan long sessions give yourself adequate breaks and be realistic about the amount of study that can be put into one practice session otherwise the quality of your practice may suffer.

Work on the principle that it is better to practise the new before the old, for example, practise your newest pieces and scales before the more familiar ones. Keep a practice notebook listing scales, pieces and sight-reading to be practised and any points needing special attention. By writing down exactly what is going wrong in a scale or a piece, you can often put it right much more quickly. It is so important not to spend valuable practice time repeating the same mistakes over again so that they become more and more deeply ingrained.

Whenever you make mistakes in your practice be aware that feelings of anger or annoyance with yourself will not help to put them right. They will only encourage changes in your breathing and posture and cause unnecessary tension. Instead, focus on your playing in a non-judgmental way, looking at why you are not playing something the way you want. This will be the starting point for doing something about it. By adopting this constructive mental attitude, you can allow the difficulties in your playing to melt away.

Preparing Scales And Arpeggios

Make every scale and arpeggio a musical event. Avoid a trial and error approach and aim for accuracy in both notes and fingering every time. Practise reciting the following away from the keyboard:

  • the key signatures of your scales and the changed notes in minor scales
  • the names of the notes up and down (one octave will suffice)
  • the notes the thumb or fourth finger plays

Relate individual scales to the groups to which they belong. For example, the scales of C, G, D, A and E major and minor (both harmonic and melodic) all have the same finger pattern.

If you have a large number of scales to learn, organise your scale practice carefully. Write out your scales and arpeggios on cards, one scale per card, which may even be colour coded, such as blue for major and red for minor and so on. Important points such as key signatures or fingering can be written on the back. Divide your scales into groups and keep the cards in separate envelopes so that you can work on one group in a practice session. Work through a set of scales putting them into two separate piles, one containing those that were accurate the first time and the other in which there were mistakes. Play every scale that goes wrong three times in a row correctly before going on to another one. If it goes wrong the third time, play it three more times.

If you are working on scales and arpeggios in all keys, practise them sometimes in a cycle of fifths. Also mix up your scales and arpeggios by playing every kind you know that starts on a particular note, for example, a C major, C harmonic and melodic minor scale, a chromatic scale on C and an arpeggio, dominant and diminished seventh on C.

Whatever the requirements, practise scales separately as well as together, and experiment with different dynamics, articulation and rhythms. If a recommended minimum scale speed has been given, use the metronome to work your way up to this carefully over a period of time. Aim to keep all of your scales the same speed - generally scales will be one speed and arpeggios slower. Concentrate on quality rather than quantity since intelligent playing of a few scales slowly in one session will be far more beneficial than hurrying through your examination requirements without much care.

Preparing Pieces

When you first start to study your exam pieces it is important to explore them thoroughly. This will help you to become familiar with the characteristics of the composer's style and so lead to a deeper understanding of the piece and a more mature interpretation. Some examination boards also set a viva voce where you will be asked questions on your pieces and so it will provide invaluable help in preparing for this.

If you can find more than one edition of your pieces, compare them noting any differences in phrasing, expression, and ornamentation. Find out if possible which markings are those of the composer since you may wish to experiment and change, with the help of your teacher, any of those given by an editor provided the solution is in character with the piece.

If you cannot find out when your piece was composed make sure that at least you know when the composer was alive, his nationality and who any of his contemporaries were. The piece may have been originally written for an early keyboard instrument such as a harpsichord, in which case if you are not familiar with the sound, listen to recordings of harpsichord playing. You may even be able to find a recording of your piece played on this instrument. It may be part of a set of pieces or a larger work such as a sonata or suite. If it is part of a bigger work, listen to the whole piece or better still, if possible, learn the whole piece.

Examine the piece comprehensively, checking the title, time signature, rhythm, tempo, key signature, phrase structure, expression, ornamentation, pedal markings etc. By looking at these aspects this will help give you a clear idea of the kind of piece to be practised, for example, whether it is dance-like or descriptive or the mood is happy or sad and make you more aware of the challenges to be solved in learning it.

Once you have explored your piece, you are in a position to assess the most suitable way of practising it. Firstly go through the piece working out the fingering to be used. Whether it has been marked or not, choose fingering that is suitable for your hands and so be prepared to change any given in the copy. Experiment until you find the most appropriate, always taking into account the phrasing and most efficient fingering.

Next the piece can be built up carefully hands separately and then together, phrase by phrase and section by section. If there are any particularly challenging areas mark them for special attention and work on them first. Whenever you make a mistake, always assess exactly what has happened and correct it immediately at least once. Correct the mistake from a few beats before as it is the movement to the note or chord that is the fault. Always have a pencil on hand for circling important finger numbers, incorrect notes or for marking in how you will count difficult rhythms.

It is not the greatest number of repetitions of a piece that is important but the greatest number of correct repetitions. To help your accuracy always make steady, careful practice a top priority, practising your pieces very slowly at first, gradually increasing the speed over a period of time. Use the metronome if this helps. If you have worked up to a new speed on a piece in one session, go back to a slower speed the next day and work up to this again.

When practising the piece as a whole, make sure you bring out its character. For example, if the piece is a dance, imagine how the people would be dressed and how they would be dancing; if the piece is descriptive concentrate on bringing pictures to mind. If the piece is like a song without words, make up your own words, reflecting the mood of the music and sing them sometimes when you play it. Imagine the piano as an orchestra and consider orchestral colours at each point of the texture. The piece may suggest, for example, a large symphony orchestra or a chamber ensemble.

Practise a piece sometimes without playing it at all! Sit down with the music and read it through, giving the perfect performance in your mind, then sit or lie down with your eyes closed and do the same without the copy. Set aside a part of your practice time at regular intervals to tape record performance of your pieces. While listening to the recording make detailed notes of your observations about your performance.

Preparing Sight-Reading

Make sight-reading a regular part of your practice. There are many series of graded sight-reading books available to help you in this. Remember too that there is a vast piano repertoire at your disposal which you can use to improve your sight-reading, so go out and explore it! Also consider offering yourself as an accompanist to a friend who sings or plays an orchestral instrument or team up with a friend of a similar standard to play duets.

When practising sight-reading, choose the tempo very carefully based on the piece as a whole. Keep your eyes on the music and look ahead, aiming to take in several bars at a glance, noticing patterns such as repeated rhythms and passages built on scales or chords. Imagine as well as you can how the music will sound before you play it and when playing it, give rhythm priority over correct notes.

Take an example and carry out the following procedure. Firstly allow yourself 30 seconds to explore the sight-reading, examining the key, rhythm, dynamics, any accidentals, tied notes etc. Although 30 seconds does not seem long if it is used well you can cover a great deal about your piece. You can usually expect to receive up to this amount of time in the exam. As a further aid to understanding the rhythm before playing, now clap or tap the rhythm of the piece through first, counting aloud.

Next play through the piece counting aloud. Make a mental note of any mistakes you have noticed without correcting them and then after pausing a while to consider them, play the piece again focusing on what could be improved the second time. What you focus on this time will depend on how you played it the first time, for example, you may need to read the key signature or rhythms more carefully. This time count in your head. Assess your second performance and tick the example as having been done. If there are still many slips the second time, then consider whether it would have been wise to play it more slowly or do an easier book of examples first.

Work through a book of sight-reading this way and when you get to the end of it go back and start the book again. This time look at each example for 30 seconds and then play it through once counting in your head. You may become aware of how much you have learnt in the meantime.

Aural Preparation

Aural tests feature in most piano examinations and you can do a great deal to develop your aural skills in your practice sessions. Consider buying commercial cassettes or CDs of your aural tests and work through them methodically. Most importantly, listen to real music and relate your tests to this.

Aural skills can only be improved if they are practised regularly over a period of time. Each of the examination boards has differing requirements for aural tests but they fall broadly into three categories: rhythm and time tests, pitch tests and recognising features.

Clapping back rhythms is frequently set as a test. When practising this, work on short examples first, gradually increasing the length. If you clap with two or three fingers on the palm of the hand, this will allow you to clap fast rhythms more easily.

In the test to identify time your specific requirement may be to clap the pulse of a passage, conduct time or simply state the time. Practise this by listening to music, noting carefully where the strong beat falls as this will usually indicate the first beat in a bar. Beat the pulse or conduct at the same time and then, if possible, check the score to see if you were correct.

The pitch tests fall into several categories. If you never sing, you may find it of value to consider joining a choir where you will have the opportunity to develop your aural skills over a period of time and have the pleasure of singing. If you have to sing a melody back, as with clapping back rhythms work on short examples first, gradually increasing the length. Remember that this is a piano exam and not a singing exam and the quality of your voice is not being tested! Most examination boards will allow you to sing to la or any vowel sound so practice the way with which you feel most comfortable.

If there is a test to recognise intervals, you may find it helpful to learn to do this by thinking of the notes as the start of a tune you know, for example, Away in a Manger starts with a perfect fourth and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean with a major sixth. Make a list of tunes you know for other intervals and examine various intervals found in your pieces. Singing intervals can be practised in any spare time, including humming while waiting for a bus so use every moment well!

In recognising chord sequences and cadences always listen to the bass notes. Your work on intervals will help in this. Also bear in mind the following when recognising cadences:

A perfect cadence moves from chord V to I. It will therefore sound finished and there will be no shared notes between the two chords.

A plagal cadence moves from IV to I and so also sounds finished but the key note is present in each of the chords. This cadence is used when singing "Amen".

An imperfect cadence moves from any chord to chord V and sounds unfinished.

An interrupted cadence moves from V to VI and so starts like a perfect cadence but there is an element of surprise when it does not go to chord I. If it is in a major key then chord VI will be minor whereas in a minor key both V and VI will be major.

Look at your pieces and play through the cadences. You will already be familiar with the sound of these cadences and so make sure you can also name them.

If you have a modulation test, first of all practise singing up and down the notes of a major and minor triad so that you can hear the difference between the two. Bear in mind also that as a broad generalisation, major pieces sound more cheerful and happy whereas minor keys are often used for sadder pieces. When listening for a modulation, practise this by keeping the original tonic in mind throughout the example by humming it gently, and then check to hear if it is still in the final chord. You may have to recognise, for example, whether a piece in a major key has moved to the subdominant, dominant or relative minor. If the original tonic is still in the last chord and the last chord is major then the modulation will be to the subdominant whereas if the last chord is minor then it will be the relative minor. If the tonic is not still there and the key is major the modulation will be to the dominant.

If you have to recognise features in a piece as part of your aural tests, make a list of the features you are expected to recognise, such as dynamics, articulation and tempo changes. Listen carefully to music of all kinds - not just for piano - with these in mind. A detailed exploration of the pieces you are studying will also help in this test.

In the exam be clear which tests you have to do for your grade and examination board and if you are not sure about the answer to a test consider the possibilities and give an answer rather than say nothing. If you cannot remember the end of a rhythm that you have to clap back or a melody that you have to sing back, at least make an attempt to finish it and there is a good chance that at least some of it will be right! Whatever tests are incorporated in your examination, make intelligent listening a regular part of your preparation for your exam and you can combine the enjoyment of this with effective exam preparation.

The Examination

And so we come to the examination itself. If you have learnt your pieces in good time for the exam, play them through occasionally, and go on and learn some other pieces or concentrate on other aspects of the exam. It is essential to get the balance right so that there is no last minute panic but on the other hand that the pieces are not stale through over-practice.

A successful exam will, to a large extent, depend on the care you have taken in preparation, but you must also consider the element of nervousness since you may have had little experience at playing in front of others.

Ask your teacher to give you one or two mock exams 2 to 3 weeks before the exam. This will give you an impression of the exam itself and still give you some time to work on any aspects which come up. Take every opportunity to play your pieces to family or friends, listening to any helpful advice. Look for performance opportunities in playing as a soloist or part of an ensemble, accompanying or duet playing. One of the best ways of getting used to performing is to play with others. These all give you experience of playing to others while taking the spotlight off your own performance. Also take every opportunity to go to concerts and watch others perform.

When the day of the examination gets near, play your pieces through in the clothes you will be wearing on the day, including the shoes, making sure you are comfortable, but taking care over your appearance in the same way that you will have taken care over every other part of the exam.

Work out in advance how to get to the exam centre so that you arrive at least 10 minutes before and make sure you know how to pronounce the titles and composers of your pieces, if asked for by the examiner. Arrange to practise on the piano on which you will be playing if at all possible, or at least make sure you have had experience of playing on different pianos, otherwise when it comes to performing on a strange instrument you may find it difficult to adjust, particularly if the piano you will be playing on is a grand piano and you have only ever played on an upright one where the music desk is a different height.

In the waiting room, check to make sure that your hands are warm and if you feel nervous, focus on deep breathing. When you enter the exam room smile and greet the examiner and adjust the stool if necessary so that it is the right height.

If you have the choice, then consider starting with your scales first in order to get used to the touch of the piano. Throughout the exam, stay calm, playing even the wrong notes beautifully and if you enjoy the whole experience the chances are that the examiner will too. When the result arrives, read through the mark form carefully, and if you are disappointed, concentrate on how you can use the comments to help your playing. However the chances are that if you have really taken this whole exam business seriously you will succeed. Good Luck!

See Also:

Piano Keys
Piano History
Piano Tuning
Piano Strings

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