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

What is your first memory of the piano?

An upright piano in the family home

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Abandoned the unrealistic idea of being a performer!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Henryk Mierowski, John Hunt (pupil of Schnabel) and Harold Rubens.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

Harold Rubens

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Their wide-eyed curiosity and eagerness to learn.

What do you expect from your students?

Hard work, self-discipline and RESPECT!

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

All useful in their ways but only as a means to and end and not as an end in itself (often the case)

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Respect for the composer above all – and the constant need to examine, intellectually and physically how things are achieved.  It is years since I have taught beginners so I’m not qualified to comment on this…

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

Best – raising the level of achievement of a moderately talented player (the best can fend for themselves). Worst – not being able to do that, also feckless, indolent students with no care for their progress or even a modest desire to please me…..

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

Mozart A minor Rondo or Chopin 4th Ballade 

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Old oldies – Richter above all, Gilels, Cortot. Schnabel. In the case of Richter, sound and integrity.

John Humphreys studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Harold Rubens, and in Vienna on an Austrian Government Scholarship. He made his Wigmore Hall debut in 1972 with Busoni’s rarely heard Fantasia Contrappuntistica and since then has led an active life as a teacher and performer. He has broadcast on BBC Radio3, and played throughout the UK, in Iceland, Hungary, Austria, Holland and the USA. He is a Diploma Examiner for the Associated Board and both Artistic Advisor and jury member of the Dudley International Piano Competition. His recording (with Allan Schiller) of the complete two piano music of Ferrucio Busoni was released by Naxos in December 2005 and in March 2007 they recorded major works of Schubert as part of Naxos’s ongoing complete Schubert duet series due for release in January 2008. In January 2006 he and Allan Schiller were invited by the Wigmore Hall to present a recital on the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. In 1998 he received the honorary award of ARAM from the Royal Academy of Music for his ‘distinguished contribution to music’.

Janina Fialkowska (picture credit: © Julien Faugère / ATMA)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?  

My mother was an ambitious ‘failed’ pianist. She got me started at age four and I enjoyed it from the beginning.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing? 

A few people to be honest; certainly Alfred Cortot to begin with as he was the teacher of not only my mother, but also my teacher in Montreal (Yvonne Hubert…who also taught Louis Lortie and Marc Andre Hamelin!!) and my teacher in Paris, Yvonne Lefebure. I was then associated first as a pupil then as an assistant to the great Russian pedagogue who taught at Juilliard in New York, Sasha Gorodnitzki. His style was light years away from the French school I had been brought up in and from him I was introduced to the rich sound of the old Russian school. The biggest influence, however, was Arthur Rubinstein…He was my idol since I first heard him when I was twelve, and I was fortunate enough to have become his last pupil and close friend during the last 7 years of his wonderful life.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Just keeping my career afloat for the past forty years or so…it doesn’t get any easier.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

Naturally if there is a conductor, it is always a help if he or she is a pleasant and flexible musician with good accompanying skills and a sensitivity to my own brand of music making. If the conductor is unpleasant but a brilliant musician, this can work, but not always. If he is pleasant and a lousy conductor, this also can work because then I just make alliances with the principals in the orchestra. If the orchestra is young or just not top quality, it can be very exciting especially if the players are enthusiastic…then we are all working very hard towards a common goal and the fun is to see how far we can get. With a great orchestra it is always a pleasure, particularly if I am playing Chopin and I can impress them enough that they also get some enjoyment out of the piece (Chopin concertos have rather sparse orchestral accompaniments and sometimes the orchestra members get bored). What I have always tried to do is to give my utmost, NOT just in the performances but also in rehearsal out of respect to my colleagues sitting around me.

Which recordings are you most proud of? 

Honestly…….I really don’t listen to my recordings once they are made public. I did, however, hear my latest Mozart CD ( K415 and 449 with the Chamber Players of Canada) as someone played it to me in the car driving somewhere. It sounded okay. I like my recording of the Paderewski Concerto and the Polish radio orchestra, but that’s mainly because I love the slow movement of that piece and no one seems to want to program it in concert anywhere so one never hears it which is a shame.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Manitoulan Island, in the province of Ontario, Canada – a magical place, a pleasant little auditorium and the best audience of all.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I assume you mean musicians that are still living?

There are too many to list but I will try and remember some; I have six Canadian pianist colleagues who I adore (Hamelin, Hewitt, Parker, Chang, Lortie, Laplante) .

Outside of Canada there is Imogen Cooper, Krystian Zimerman and Radu Lupu whom I admire more than you can imagine, and of course Perahia, Barenboim, Zacharias, Ax, Argerich, Sokolov, Jeffrey Swann, and MANY others. Of the younger generation I have been most impressed by the young Germans, Alexander Schimpf and Hinrich Alpers, the Georgian, Tamar Beraia, the Frenchmen Lorenzo Soules and Francois Dumont, the Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz and the Scottish/Dutch pianist Christopher Devine.

What is your most memorable concert experience?  

My comeback recital in Irsee, Germany in 2004. It had been exactly two years to the day in exactly the same venue that I had last performed before succumbing to a cancerous tumour which paralysed my left arm. After a muscle transfer surgery I came back to play in Irsee  and it was quite emotional for me. The hall was filled with friends not only from all over Germany but also from America and the UK.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

Mozart and Chopin are my favourites to play. Probably I’d enjoy a Lieder recital the most to listen to…….I love Mozart operas and I have a passion for Wagner.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students? 

That the composer comes first always. That one does not become a concert pianist for the money or to become famous but simply because one loves music deeply and one has a special talent to communicate a composers wishes and dreams to the audience. That playing the piano is not a sport but a deeply spiritual, artistic endeavor. That the more knowledge one accumulates and absorbs  about not just piano music but all great music and Art, the better an artist one will become …but only after many years of experience. One cannot hurry these things. The trick is to somehow pay the bills during those long years of study and experience gathering.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

At home working in my garden.

interview date: April 2014

Beloved the world over for her exquisite pianism, Janina Fialkowska has enchanted audiences for over thirty years with her glorious lyrical sound, her sterling musicianship and her profound sense of musical integrity. Blending her vast experience with her refreshingly natural approach “Fialkowska has become an artist of rare distinction as well as retaining all the virtuosity of her youth” (La Presse, Montreal, February 13, 2009)

Celebrated for her interpretations of the classical and romantic repertoire, she is particularly distinguished as one of the great interpreters of the piano works of Chopin and Mozart. She has also won acclaim as a champion of the music of twentieth-century Polish composers, both in concert and on disc.

Read Janina’s full biography here

For the past year and a bit, my pianistic life has largely been focussed on study for the LTCL Diploma. In order to achieve this, I have had to be very self-motivated, single-minded and utterly selfish about practice time, eschewing a social life of coffees with friends, and twin passions shopping and cooking, in order to get the work done. I have tried very hard not to let the piano impinge too much on family life by doing the bulk of my practising while husband is at work and son is at school/asleep (he’s a teenager – he sleeps late when not at school!). The work I did for the ATCL taught me how to practice productively and deeply, and I now find I can learn new music quickly, which leaves plenty of time for working on the nitty gritty of it.

The pieces which form my LTCL programme have become like old friends and in a way I can’t imagine living without them now. I remember a friend saying in the final weeks before we took our earlier Diplomas in December 2011 “I hate all my pieces now!”, but somehow, I have managed to remain in love with each one of them, for different reasons (see my earlier post on keeping repertoire fresh). I think it’s important to be deeply in love with the music you play: I recall an interview with a concert pianist during which I asked, amongst other things, why he chose certain repertoire. The answer was simple enough: “Because I love it.” (By the same token, I never force students to learn pieces they dislike, it’s entirely unproductive.)

While some of my Diploma pieces will be set aside after the exam (the Bach Concerto BWV974, the (very difficult) Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau in E flat Op 33 No. 7), others will be kept going to put into future recital programmes, or simply because I enjoy playing them: I have a very deep attachmment to Mozart’s Rondo K511, having lived with the work for five years now; I love the Takemitsu and have recently purchased the score of his first Rain Tree Sketch; the Liszt Sonetto del Petrarca 104 is just gorgeous, a place to go and wallow in, losing oneself in its extremes of emotion.

Lately, I’ve started to look past the Diploma date, and have begun to tackle new repertoire. In part, this was a deliberate act to prevent the Diploma pieces from going stale. I also need at least three pieces to take on my teacher’s weekend course for advanced pianists at the end of April. I’m also toying with a few other works, and thinking ahead to another concert I may give at the NPL Musical Society later in the year.

Liszt – Sonetto del Petrarca 47 “Blessed is the Day”. I’ve learnt the other two from the triptych, so it seems logical to add the first one. This is perhaps the most gentle and uplifting of the three – and the easiest. (More on Liszt’s ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ here)

Liszt – Legende S.175, No. 2. St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Water. I heard Marc-André Hamelin performed this at a late Prom during the 2011 season and was instantly hooked. I love the rolling “waves” in the left hand arpeggios and the hymn-like melody which rings out above them. This will be a long-term project.

Schubert – Klavierstück D946/3. I learnt this in a fairly organised way about 4 years ago (along with the other two) and then dropped it. Returning to it has been interesting: I was surprised at how much I remembered. It has one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking trios of all of Schubert’s piano music.

Rachmaninov – Serenade in B flat, Op 3: Rachmaninov was, like Liszt, a composer I thought I’d never play, because of the difficulty of his music, and the physical demands it places on the pianist. However, my experience with the Études-Tableaux proved that I can play his music. I found this moody little Serenade by accident while browsing a wonderful album on Spotify of Rachmaninov playing his own music.

Copland – ‘Muted & Sensuous’ from Four Piano Blues. I first came across this in a concert I reviewed by Peter Jablonski, and made a mental note to add it to my “to do” list. I like the colourful harmonies (for all the fellow grapheme synaesthetes out there, this pieces is mostly blue, deep red, dark green, pink and mauve, with occasional sea green).

Messiaen – Regard de l’etoile. I wanted to learn more of the ‘Vingt Regards’, but I didn’t want the challenge of one of the longer/more complex pieces. This is only 2 pages long with repeating sections: that is not to say it is “easy”!

Barber – Excursions. A friend of mine flagged up this suite of four pieces by Samuel Barber. I love the references to American folk music and jazz.

Adams – China Gates. This will be a labour of love and a long-term project, I think. My first serious foray into minimalist music.

Scarlatti – Sonata in B minor, K27. A Grade 8 candidate played this to me last winter, and then I heard Evgeny Sudbin perform it at the Wigmore earlier this year. It’s rather arresting. And I felt like learning some more Baroque keyboard music – but not by Bach!

Listen to the pieces on Spotify here

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I encountered many pianists of note during my childhood in the Vienna of the early 1920s. Alfred Cortot used to play at my mother’s salons (she was a beautician), and my first memory is of being dandled on the left knee of Wilhelm Backhaus while he played the Hammerklavier. His party piece was to play the whole sonata with an infant on each knee. My elder sister sat on his right knee and kept falling off due to the violence of his sustain pedal technique. She broke a finger near the beginning of the Scherzo and he had to stop. Given such an upbringing it was inevitable that I would become a pianist.

Heinrich Lachenmann, front, with his parents, sister and other Lachenmann relations, Vienna, 1920

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

I could cite any number of musicians, but in all humility I believe the greatest influences on my playing have been myself and God.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

In my 30s and 40s I spent much time attempting to spread the seeds of Western classical music among non-Western cultures. The greatest challenge I set myself was to introduce the piano to Mongolia. It didn’t take, but what can you do?

Which recordings are you most proud of?

To my recollection I haven’t recorded anything since my youth. I’m with Celibidache on that one. I did record some Chopin and Brahms in student days, and had believed them lost until they resurfaced on the Concert Artist label some years ago. I was pleasantly surprised, and thought them worthy of comparison with Rubinstein. Some people suggested they actually were Rubinstein, which I thought rather ungracious.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Wiener Musikverein, the Wigmore Hall and the much lamented Haçienda in Manchester all rank highly, but you will agree that the greatest performances occur in one’s own mind.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

The pieces that give me most joy tend to be those that were written for or inspired by me. I can never hear John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes without feeling a pang of nostalgia for the short period I spent in California in the late 1930s as a piano tuner and repair man. Called out to Cage’s house, I was received by his wife, and immediately set to work tuning his baby grand. Suddenly I felt the man’s presence behind me (he had approached in absolute silence) and jumped up with a start, a shower of nuts and bolts flying out of my top pocket on to the strings of the piano, making a noise both percussive and melodic. He put his hand to his face, and his eyes seemed to say, ‘I wonder…’ It wasn’t until after my return to Europe that I learned of his ‘invention’ of the prepared piano. Initially I felt hurt not to be given the credit I deserved, but now I consider the corpus of work he left to be the greatest personal tribute imaginable.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Glenn Gould was a remarkable man. Like no other pianist his playing made me want to sing out with joy – quite literally! I had the privilege of sitting in on the sessions at the Columbia Records studios when he recorded the Goldberg Variations in 1955. Some people say they can hear me humming along in the background.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I once gave a recital to a cannibalistic tribe of Melanesia, near the Bismarck Sea. All was going well until the encore. I foolishly elected to play Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod, and the German music roused anti-colonial emotion in their breasts. I succeeded in escaping, but I believe they ate the piano. I certainly never saw it again.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be constantly aware of the world around you. It can teach you so much. As a boy I went to hear Messiaen play at the Sainte-Trinité. He was still a young man at this time. As he and I departed the church and were assailed by the bright Sunday morning I exclaimed, ‘Listen to that!’ ‘What?’ he asked. His ears, as yet, were untrained. ‘The birds! Listen to the birds, Ollie!’ (I always called him that.) His face assumed a distant expression and I regret that we lost contact after that. He was catching birds on a higher plane. Another piece of advice: never work with other musicians. It creates problems.

What are you working on at the moment?

Now that I am approaching my centenary I rarely play the piano. Perhaps a Bach prelude before breakfast, or one of the Ligeti etudes. But it gives me an inexpressible pleasure to listen to the great pianists of today – Perahia, Pollini, Sokolov, Clayderman – because it is fun for me to identify the ways in which their playing borrows from mine. A friend sent me Steven Osborne’s recording of Pictures at an Exhibition recently. I cannot imagine this Osborne has never heard me play.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Well, I do not expect to be here! But I entertain the thought that my pianism will be remembered when I am no longer alive. When he turned 100 Elliott Carter told me that it was the new 50. I look forward to reaching that milestone and receiving my telegram from the Queen, and as a naturalised British citizen I am of course eligible for honours from Her Majesty, which will all be gratefully accepted.

Heinrich Lachenmann appears by gracious permission of Gareth Burgess

PeteCHow long have you been playing the piano?

Started with lessons at school 60-odd years ago, but never did any exams or grades; Kept it up, informally and somewhat chaotically, until after retirement; (I’ve usually had a piano in the house); started lessons again 3 years ago.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to?

Mostly romantic standards: learned a few Chopin pieces recently, earlier did some Granados Spanish Dances. Also, Ravel, but I find most of it too hard, Debussy: a bit easier!

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising? 

I’m retired, so I practise an hour or so most days when at home. Yes, I enjoy it or I wouldn’t be doing it.

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses/festivals? What have you gained from this experience? 

Masterclasses at Broughton in Furness with Anthony Hewitt, Martin Roscoe and others. I feel I get more from the fact of performing in front of people than from what I learn at the class

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons? 

Making discernable progress: e.g. attempted a piece 2 years ago (Ravel: ‘Menuet’ from Tombeau de Couperin) and gave up as it seemed beyond my abilities. Took it up again a month or two ago and realised that it was now quite feasible. I feel I am hampered by having done little work on scales, arpeggios etc – there is no infrastructure to my playing!

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

Socially, we have a Piano Circle, hosted by my piano teacher. We meet once a month and play our pieces to each other. Most of the other members are more advanced than me, but we all encourage each other and I get some compliments about my playing, which is good for my confidence. I find that the challenge of playing to others means that I have to get a piece up to a presentable standard rather than giving up when the going gets tough. (For example I have played the first two pages of Debussy’s Clair de Lune for years but always gave up when the arpeggios begin). I’m planning to learn it properly when I’ve done my present piece.

In addition, we go to local concerts, for which I might not be motivated without social pressure.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?

I play at Piano Circle and at masterclasses. I’m a nervous performer, and tend to play much worse than I do at home in private. I wish I could stop making careless mistakes!

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons? 

Go for it!

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

I’ve been trying to learn the Chopin’s Prelude no 17 in A flat. It’s a wonderful piece with those amazing chromatic episodes: trouble is, it’s just a bit too hard for me at present! I gave it a trial outing at Piano Circle a few months ago and made a bit of a mess of it, but doubtless it will come! As we’re thinking about Alan Rusbridger and ‘Play It Again’, perhaps it is my G minor Ballade! 

Peter Cockshott lives in the Lake District. He studied physics at University and went on to a career in industry, working in physics and electronics, retiring from this some 10 years ago. From an early age he has spent his spare time climbing or running in the hills, but now has to fit in piano practice as well.


He has piano lessons with Rosemary Hamblett in Ulverston.