Why take a performance diploma?

Grade 8 does not represent the pinnacle of learning, and for the talented student, it can, and should, act as a springboard to auditions for conservatoire and music college, or at least to a Diploma, affiliated to a music school, such as Trinity College or the Royal College of Music. Diplomas provide a useful framework for the honing and maturing of performing and teaching skills.

Anyone who thinks a diploma is a simple step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest level, is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world.

Trinity College of Music defines the Associate and Licentiate Diplomas as follows:

Associate (ATCL, AMusTCL)

The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component of the first year in a full-time undergraduate course at a conservatoire or other higher education establishment.

Licentiate (LTCL, LMusTCL)

The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component on completion of a full-time undergraduate course at a conservatoire or other higher education establishment. [Source: Trinity College London website]

The criteria and standards one is expected to meet are far higher than for Grade 8: a quick glance through the regulations for the Trinity College of Music Diplomas clearly demonstrates this:

At ATCL and at LTCL you should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the composers’ intentions, with contextual understanding of the musical material:

  • the ability to communicate all technical and artistic aspects of the music at an appropriate professional standard, employing professional etiquette in presenting the programme
  • awareness of your own musical voice in interpreting the performance objectives, drawing upon a variety of experiences in an individual performance

[Source: Diplomas in Music: Performance and Teaching from 2009, TCL]


There are many other requirements to be considered, and met, when taking a music Diploma, and the rigour of the exam is reflected in the expected learning outcomes and assessment objectives. For example, unlike in the grade exams, at Diploma level you select your own repertoire (either from the broad syllabus or by submitting an own-choice programme for approval). The choice of repertoire is wide, and from it you must put together a programme that demonstrates a wide variety of musical styles, moods, tempi and technical challenges. In the exam, you are assessed not only on your ability to meet the criteria listed above, but also on programme planning and balance, choice of repertoire, stagecraft, and written programme notes.

In the last five years I have taken three performance diplomas (ATCL, LTCL and FTCL) and the experience of studying for and taking these diplomas has given me some remarkable insights into aspects such as:

  • A deeper understanding of musical structure, “architecture”, harmony, narrative
  • The composer’s creative vision and individual soundworld, and how to interpret it
  • A personal and authoritative interpretative standpoint based on solid background research
  • Historical and social contexts
  • Vastly improved technical facility and general musicianship
  • An understanding of performance practice
  • Learning how to be a performer:  to project and communicate the composer’s intentions to a high level, and to perform with original creative flair
  • Drawing on one’s own personal experiences (not necessarily musical ones) in individual performances
  • Developing a mature musical and artistic personality

Music diplomas also offer the chance to study without restrictions on length of study or the requirement that one is taught in an institution. On another level, they offer the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal.

More information about Performance Diplomas:

Trinity College of Music

Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

London College of Music


  1. Going for it is good. Another reason for taking on such challenges is that learning informs one’s teaching. It’s easier. for example, to talk to someone about practice when you have to practice to a goal yourself.

    And it doesn’t just have to be musical: I took my amateur radio exams (and passed them). Learning Morse was an uphill but satisfying struggle – as was the maths. I hope it helped me to know what it feels like to try to learn something one finds difficult.

  2. Very good post! I was amazed when I moved to Ireland that my students’ parents would ask me about grade 8 exam and it took me a while to explain to them that although I have never taken graded exams , I am qualified for teaching piano because I have master’s degree from Music Conservatory in Poland in Piano Performance and teaching certificate as well.
    Now I relocated to Malta where I am teaching as well as performing and I am surprised at the low standard of the exams. I have been recently taking part in Trinity distinction concert as an accompanist and I was a bit disappointed of the quality of the performances and also the fact that most people play from the sheet music, even the diploma candidates. It seems for me that Trinity exams are more amateur than the ABRSM. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is good to take part in the exams as a way of performing and judging one’s level but I am not sure if they mean anything….Anyway, I enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work:) I am impressed that you have time and enough motivation to write that often. Good luck with your diploma!

    • Thank you for your interesting reply – and your good wishes for my diploma. Very kind of you.

      There’s a lot of snobbery surrounding the exam boards and whether ABRSM is “better”, “harder” or “more professional”. In fact, having taught both exam boards, I have found the Trinity piano syllabus to be more difficult right from the Initial (pre-grade 1) exam. As for the diplomas they are equivalent qualifications – a quick glance at the repertoire lists proves this as they are very similar. In the end it perhaps comes down to which exam suits the candidate best.

  3. Hey Fran, great points! Whether or not someone takes a higher diploma is completely up to them (not their parents, teachers, etc.), and as a teacher, I respect all decisions. (Although I might recommend that a student take a certain path, since I do have a responsibility to see that my students don’t live with regrets!)

    Also I find that it really is dependant on what else you’ve got going in your life. There’s a momentum that goes with playing piano (e.g. six months of no technique and you’ve got to start over again)…

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