Preparing for a piano exam relies as much on logistics as it does on a commitment to regular practice, and keeping a positive mental attitude throughout the process. How do we ensure that all the components of the exam peak together, and how do we plan our day-to-day practice routine in the days and weeks before the exam?
Showing up to our practice on a daily basis creates a habit that after a while will be hard to break. This is what we want! Some people prefer short task-specific practice sessions spread throughout the day (you can schedule these in your diary) rather than practising in one block. Whatever works for you.
One of the most important aspects of preparation is having deadlines in place to help us structure and reinforce our practice. Let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my exam date is December 15th I will need to aim to be fully prepared by the end of November. Just before that, I’ll need to arrange one or two mock exams in front of different people if possible (peers, teacher, family, etc.).
From mid-November I plan a series of regular daily run-throughs of my pieces for myself – recording some of them and reflecting on what went well, as well as highlighting areas I was not so happy with. Identify these weak areas and work on them in special practice sessions – I call this “spot practice”. We’ll also need to do some general maintenance practice, where we continue to work on accuracy and finesse to keep our playing polished. This often involves using the same practice tools we used when we initially learned the notes (for example slow tempos, separate hands, in small sections).
Teachers can assist in the preparation process by setting lesson dates for scale tests, mock exams, and lessons where pieces will be heard from start to finish with no interruptions.
It’s important to recognise the difference between practising and playing through. In the early stages, prepare diligently using the practice tools (especially The Three S’s). Avoid running through your pieces before they have been thoroughly learned, or you’ll embed all sorts of sloppy stuff. After you have mastered the notes and have a strong sense of the musical message you want to convey, you’ll need to practise playing through your three pieces one after the other with no stops at all – just like in the exam itself. You can go back over them afterwards to fix any spots that didn’t hold up, and you’ll also want to go over your Q-Spots slowly and carefully on a regular basis to keep your playing in tip-top shape.
Sight-reading should be a part of every lesson, but this could simply be a line of music here and there, perhaps from one of the pieces in the book that the student is not studying. I have found assigning regular quick studies ensures students are constantly developing reading and musical comprehension skills; going over these need only take a few minutes of valuable lesson time. Have a selection of repertoire books a few grades lower than your present standard, and enjoy reading through these pieces either at the beginning of your practice session or at the end of it. The more you read, the better your reading will get.
Scales and Arpeggios
Keep scales fun and creative by practising in a variety of different ways (different rhythms, different speeds, having a musical character in mind, etc.). Our random scale generator is a good way to test yourself, this will be available very soon. As with other areas of exam preparation, including the technical tests in daily practice as well as in every lesson gives infinitely better results than last-minute cramming.
The ABRSM has developed an aural trainer app that enables the student to practise the tests by themselves, thus freeing up lesson time. A quick google search reveals several other resources that will also be of help.
On the Day
No amount of last-minute practice is going to make much difference. On the day of the exam, make sure you’re nicely warmed up. You may feel more comfortable if you have gone through your pieces and some scales and arpeggios slowly and calmly, or just take the beginnings and endings of your pieces. But don’t sit and play your programme over and over or you’ll stress yourself needlessly and sound stale in the exam.
The way we speak to ourselves affects how we feel, and how we perform. If we have put in the work, we deserve to let go and enjoy our performance. If we are enjoying our playing and relishing the act of sharing it with the examiner, they will enjoy it too! It may be helpful to think, write or speak out loud affirmations such as: “Because I have put in the practice, I fully deserve to enjoy my performance”, or “When I enjoy my playing, my examiner will certainly enjoy it too”.
Focus not on playing perfectly, but on communicating the musical message to your examiner. Your examiner is human too, and will appreciate an expressive, musical performance that has the odd blemish here and there far more than a note-perfect one that sounds careful and guarded.
The Online academy contains an extensive and growing collection of resources for piano exams, including the new ABRSM 2021 – 2022 syllabus. Click here to view an index of available resources. Previews of videos for both Trinity and ABRSM syllabi are also available on our YouTube channel.
You can get further updates on additions to our examination resources by signing up for our mailing list here
New workshop series!
As a complement to our Online Academy resources on the new ABRSM syllabus, we are also running a series of online workshops. These workshops will cover repertoire in addition to topics such as scales, sight-reading and preparation. The format will be interactive with opportunities for questions and answers. Please click here further information.