The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the teaching notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does slightly depress me to see a piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972!), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, there is a complete refreshment of repertoire and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades. The supporting tests remain unchanged, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the very early grades (1-3) tend towards “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists, but adult learners will enjoy Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s A Memory of Paris (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ Anatolian 08 (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s Dream: No 10 from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a sufficiently broad range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM is very conscious of its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength by offering a syllabus which combines rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website.  The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information

An earlier version of this article appeared on my sister blog http://www.franspianostudio.me

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to completely miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these successes as “bragging rights” to be paraded before other parents and children in the school playground or used as bargaining tools when applying to a particular school.

Do these exam achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure….. Admittedly, at no point in the article does Ms Millard mention musicianship or musicality: her focus is simply on her children’s accumulation of grades. I do applaud her, however, for submitting herself to Grade 5 piano, “to see just how terrifying taking a grade really was”, but she does not mention if she derived any actual pleasure or satisfaction in learning the repertoire or any of the musical or personal developmental benefits of taking a music exam. But at least she has a degree of insight into what she is putting her children through in insisting they take all their grade exams.

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I really hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my ABRSM Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier (yes, it really was that awful, despite the fact that I played well and achieved a decent pass). A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad sweep of music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment and progress. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared with support from a teacher who can advise on aspects such as stagecraft, presentation and managing anxiety). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Box-ticking music-exams are utterly unhelpful, both to development of musicians and to those subjects that are lured into UCAS points-collecting.

Look at it this way: how many music teachers here would regard an A-level in biology as being indicative of a good future as a concert pianist?

A quote from a member of a music teachers’ online forum

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

Rosie Millard

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

My students have the option to take grade exams if they wish. No one is forced to take an exam and some students simply wish to play music which they enjoy and which enables them to develop as musicians without the pressure of exams. Sometimes they opt to have their playing assessed by a teaching colleague of mine, to gain experience of playing for other people and useful feedback from another listener. Other students enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, but this is always done within a broader focus (learning additional related repertoire, listening around the pieces, historical contexts etc).

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. In short, it is about enjoyment.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent

 

 

 

 

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has launched a new performance diploma, the ARSM, designed as “a bridge between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM”. The new Diploma, ARSM (Associate of the Royal Schools of Music), is different to both Grade 8 and the DipABRSM in that it includes no supporting tests (technical work, sight-reading/quick study, viva (for DipABRSM) or programme notes). The repertoire list is taken from the DipABRSM syllabus, though much reduced, and candidates may include 10 minutes of own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 or above standard to create a recital programme lasting 30 minute in total. To all intents and purposes this “diploma” looks very much like a reinvented version of the Advanced Certificate or Trinity’s Advanced Performance Certificate.

Concerns about the new ARSM have been expressed by piano teachers via Piano Network UK, a large and very active Facebook group comprising piano teachers, pianists (professional and amateur) and piano lovers, of which I am co-administrator. I would like to share some of these views here. My colleague and friend Andrew Eales, who writes the excellent Piano Dao blog, will be publishing a more considered response to the ARSM, together with an interview with Penny Millsom of the ABRSM in which he hopes to clarify some of the issues raised below. 

Please note that any views expressed here are independent and my publishing them does not necessarily mean Andrew and I support or endorse them. They are drawn from a diverse range of British piano teachers of differing ages and experience. My own comments and views about the ARSM diploma are in italics.

Level of attainment, marking and assessment criteria

  • I find the fact that Distinction is set at 45/50 interesting (in comparison to 70/100 for the dip/Licentiate levels) – though I have yet to decide what this actually means, if anything, about the marking, relative standards required, contributions of the viva and quick study…
  • In my view, it is simply Grade 9. Something on easy terms just to get letters after people’s names. 
  • Any old examiner, presumably no requirement for them to be a specialist in your instrument. So the exercise itself is kind of worthless, and the marking will be pretty irrelevant. But here, have a qualification…

Is it really a “Diploma”?

  • It’s essentially a composite of other products/services that ABRSM already offer – an examiner who is already there to examine Grade 1 players, a repertoire list that already exists… from a business point of view it seems like a great idea because ABRSM don’t seem to have needed to do much at all to add this to their overall offer, but the market could be quite large.
  • I don’t understand why it is marketed at associate level
  • Doesn’t this just devalue the DipABRSM in performance? By all means have the equivalent of the Trinity Advanced Certificate but don’t call it a diploma when it so clearly isn’t!
  • Same repertoire as the DipABRSM. So like a diploma, minus the bits people complain about. So, not particularly educational. 
  • I just don’t think it is sufficiently rigorous to be called a Diploma
  • It claims “associate” status, but simply isn’t on that level. So it devalues genuine associate diplomas as a whole, and is misleading to potential students/parents.
  • By calling it a “diploma” ABRSM have blurred the boundaries between the graded amateur exams and the higher professional diplomas. And very few people, if any, outside the profession (parents of students for example) will appreciate the difference. My concern is that it may devalue the higher diplomas and lead to further dumbing down across all exams. I’m afraid I feel it is primarily driven by commercial interests on the part of ABRSM. 
  • One of the main purposes of a professional qualification – and especially having letters after one’s name – is so that prospective clients are reassured that we are properly qualified. 
  • Hard to believe that this will confer diploma status, and entitle the holders to put letters after their name. To the general public, there will be little difference between an ARSM and a FRSM, or anything in between
  • This is really just a money-spinner. I cannot understand the logic in it being marked out of 50, or am I missing something?! It doesn’t appear to be accredited at a particular level, and I agree with others that it shouldn’t really confer diploma status. 

Who it is for?

I can see this new Diploma suiting some of my more talented teenage students who would like to improve their performing skills and/or want a different challenge post-Grade 8. A number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have also commented that they would like to take this diploma because the format encourages one to “enjoy playing”. 

A couple of teachers who are keen to improve their performance skills have expressed an interest in taking the ARSM as a form of continuing professional development:

  • …to me it is simply about skill refreshing. I do appreciate others’ concerns but perhaps for piano teachers who haven’t done any serious practice in a while it could be a good thing?

If you have views on the new ARSM diploma please feel free to leave comments below or use the contact page to get in touch.

The ABRSM has announced the launch of a new performance-only Diploma, the ARSM (“Associate of the Royal Schools of Music”). This will be an “entry level” Diploma, somewhat lower than the DipABRSM, and intended to “bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM”. Details are sketchy at present, but the ARSM will consist of a 30-minute performance consisting of music selected from the current DipABRSM repertoire list and own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 standard. At present, it is not clear whether candidates will be required to produce programme notes, but there is no sight-reading/quick study element to the ARSM, nor a viva voce.

Currently, the gap between Grade 8 and the Associate level Diploma (DipABRSM, ATCL, DipLCM etc) is very wide. At Grade 8 candidates play three pieces lasting approx 10-12 minutes in total. They may play a single movement of a sonata by, say, Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart as part of their Grade 8 programme, but at Associate Diploma level, candidates are expected to play a full sonata (for example, Beethoven ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, Mozart Sonata in F K332, Schubert Sonata in A, D664). The candidate’s standard of playing, musical insight, musicianship and general level of attainment is expected to be considerably higher than at Grade 8, and the time taken to study for and complete a diploma can be around 2-3 years. The first, Associate, diploma is an equivalent standard to the first year’s study in conservatoire, while the highest, Fellowship, diploma is equivalent to a Masters module.

There is quite a lot of snobbery surrounding Diplomas, with the ABRSM diplomas being considered “better”, in no small part due to the ABRSM’s longstanding reputation and its royal affiliation. In fact, the repertoire lists for Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship diplomas across the main exam boards are almost identical, and all carry the same QCF and EQF points, providing candidates with a recognised professional qualification which can be used as a pathway to further study, for example at conservatoire or university. Ultimately, the choice of diploma and exam board should be based not on snobbery but on the candidate’s personal preference, which Diploma syllabus is most appropriate/ beneficial for the candidate and so forth.

So what will the new ARSM offer to candidates? Already some of my piano teaching colleagues have commented that it will be “Grade 9 without the scales, aural and sightreading” or that is it simply a “money spinner” for the ABRSM. Some anxieties have also been expressed about whether this new diploma will lead to further dumbing down or devaluing of the higher diplomas. However, a number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have expressed interest in the ARSM and regard it as a useful opportunity for those seeking a challenge post-Grade 8 but who do not feel ready to attempt the Associate diploma.

Further details about the ARSM will be available next month and I will share them here. Meanwhile, I would be very interested in people’s views on this new diploma – please feel free to leave comments below, or contact me direct with your views.

 

 

 

A new book charts the development of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) from its somewhat undistinguished origins in the latter part of the nineteeth-century to become what it is today – a highly influential, preeminent and internationally-renowned music examinations board.

The text, by David Wright (retired Reader in Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music, London), is the first extended history of the ABRSM, and follows a largely chronological course. The author examines the cultural and historical context of the development of the ABRSM, how it has shaped musical taste, habits and attitudes of students and teachers, and influenced the lives of millions of people since it conducted its first exams in 1890, and how it has adapted and responded to the changing landscape of music tuition and study, and the preferences of its customers.

Today the ABRSM has a ubiquitous presence in music education, yet few people know much about the institution and the criteria on which it determines syllabuses, and maintains standards, trains its examiners and manages its exams. The Board is an important legacy of Victorian Britain, an institution which grew out of that society’s concern to expand the technological and professional workface to run the Empire. The development of the Board’s exams represents a peculiarly Victorian ethos: that of combining education with entrepreneurship by providing an objective assessment of learning a musical instrument or voice on an industrial scale. During the 120 years of the ABRSM, its music exams have come to represent a significant rite of passage in musical study, from early beginnings at Grade 1 to the final pre-professional stage of Grade 8.

Music exams are an emotive subject, and I am sure many of us recall the dreaded, toe-curling moment when the examiner announces that it is time for the aural test section of the exam. Very few people relish the idea of singing a melody back to a stranger, or identifying an interval! Sight-reading is another element of the exam that can put the fear of God into candidates. Many teachers question the value of setting students on an “exam treadmill”, and in the course of my own teaching, I have met a number of music teachers who simply refuse to enter students for exams, because they believe the rigid discipline of the syllabus does not lend itself to developing musicianship and performance skills, and that the idea of being “examined” in music is unnatural, robbing the student of spontaneity and musical creativity. This issue is very much open to debate: whatever we may feel about music exams, they are now unquestionably part of everyday musical study, used not just as benchmarks for teachers and students, but also contributing “points” to GCSE, A-level and university entrance requirements. Many people who took and passed music exams as children carry their successes as a badge of honour into adulthood, the sign that one has had the staying power and commitment to study for something with tangible evidence (a certain level of attainment and the certificate to prove it). For teachers, the graded music exam system (not just ABRSM, but other boards such as Trinity Guildhall and the London College of Music) has had an important impact on the way they teach, and has enabled teachers to introduce their students to a wide variety of repertoire, from classic “standards” by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart to contemporary repertoire, some commissioned especially for the exam syllabuses.

***

For much of the earlier Victorian era, music teaching was not considered a respectable living, and certainly not a “professional” or middle-class occupation. Music teaching was largely unregulated, with no independent quality assurance in place (diplomas were later intended to provide this). The exam system was important in changing some of this, providing a common currency of professional and educational attainment, and was a crucial factor in transforming the standing of music teachers and music teaching. A new landscape for the professional training of teachers emerged out of this, and continues today, though with a rather bewildering array of diploma post-nominals (LRSM, LTCL, ALCM, LGSMD and so forth).

The development of a system of music exams also came about at a time when amateur music making at home was becoming increasingly popular. The number of pianos manufactured in the UK at this time confirms this, together with a huge increase in the availability of affordable sheet music,and the growth and popularity of music shops. Ancillary activities such as music festivals and competitions helped to fuel the enthusiasm for domestic music making.

Ultimately, however, the ABRSM came into existence to settle a damaging rivalry between the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM) When the RCM was granted its Royal Charter in 1883 it was tasked with “the advancement of the Art of Music” through teaching and examining, and awarding degrees and certificates to candidates, whether or not they were students at the College. Under the charter, the RCM was also charged with promoting and encouraging musical tuition in schools and elsewhere. The charter effectively made the RCM the “chartered institute” for music, which caused considerable resentment amongst other establishments, including the RAM and Trinity College, London (TCL).

Apart from the RCM, the RAM was the only other institution bestowed a royal charter, and the ABRSM partnership gave the RAM the appearance of a chartered institution. Exams promoted by these institutions became a way of testing teachers by examining their pupils, and thus the ABRSM, in a form recognisable to us today, was created. The exam system, with the support of the RAM and RCM, also enabled graduates from the RAM and RCM to set up teaching practices of their own by suggesting that the conservatoire system made for better-quality teaching. Finally, the fees gained from exams gave the two colleges more financial leverage and additional income.

In the years following the formation of the ABRSM, its method of examining candidates, with the requirement not just to play a selection of pieces but also technical exercises, sight-reading and aural training, was exported across the Empire, and the ABRSM developed into the prestigious body it is today. Over the course of its existence, the ABRSM has had to adapt to the changing musical and educational environment in which it operates: in recent years, the introduction of popular and jazz-inspired repertoire into syllabuses demonstrates the board’s determination to continue to attract candidates, together with the broader range of instruments covered, and the innovative Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 taster exam for early students. The computerisation of the exam entry system represented a significant modernisation, making the process more streamlined and simpler for teachers and candidates. Other offshoots from the Board’s main activities including publishing – not just exam books but teaching guides and its popular ‘Signature’ series of authoritative performing editions of standard keyboard works, prepared from original sources by leading scholars, the most recent of which is Professor Barry Cooper’s critical edition of The 35 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, which includes the three Elective sonatas. The value of these editions is open to discussion (see my earlier post on The Urtext Score), but they are attractively produced and are used by many students and teachers around the world.

The book is rich in detail – anecdotes, statistics, source references, quotations and a detailed bibliography and index – and offers a comprehensive history of the Board together with an examination of its continued significant place in British culture and musical life.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Boydell Press
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184383734X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843837343
  • RRP: £50

Friends and regular followers of this blog will know that I took my piano performance diploma in December. I am pleased to announced that I passed – with Distinction! Without wishing to blow my own trumpet too much, this is a significant achievement for me: to have studied for and taken a high-level music exam in my mid-forties, some thirty years after I took my Grade 8 is no slouch, and I’m very glad I did it. I owe a debt of gratitude to my teacher, who gave me the confidence and self-belief to do it. Also to those friends and colleagues who have been so supportive – hearing me play, offering advice, putting up with me cancelling dinner dates etc. And not forgetting my loyal page-turner, Andy, a good friend of mine, and one of my students, who accompanied me to practice rooms in Edgware Road ahead of the exam, and who carried my briefcase containing my scores to the exam centre in Greenwich on the day.

Anyone who thinks a diploma is a 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, Associate 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. (One of my students, Eli (10), described my Diploma as “Grade 14”!)

Diploma candidates are expected to create a recital programme that demonstrates a range of musical styles, moods and tempi, as well as artistic coherence, and to provide programme notes for each piece. Marks are awarded, or deducted for the artistic balance, planning and timing of the programme as a whole. One of the nicest things a friend said to me about my programme was “When I read it, I really wanted to hear it”.

Candidates are also assessed on ‘stagecraft’, which is more than just ‘presentation skills’ in the manner of, say, a job interview. The exam should be treated as a professional public recital, and one’s clothing, attitude and communication should reflect this. For me this was one of the harder aspects of the exam, as I have, until recently, always been a reluctant performer.

Here’s my advice on preparing for a diploma, based on my recent experience:

Repertoire: Select pieces you know you want to spend time with: you may be working on them for a year or more, and you need to love every piece to hold your interest and excitement. Don’t be tempted to select repertoire because you think it will “impress the examiner”, such as a Chopin Ballade or a big Beethoven Sonata, but choose pieces which you feel will highlight your skills and demonstrate your ability to tackle a range of music. If you have time, consider learning one or two extra pieces than you need to for your recital to give yourself some flexibility when organising your programme. You can plan a programme entirely from the published repertoire list, or a mixture of own-choice and set list pieces, or entirely own-choice (if including own-choice repertoire, you must seek approval in advance – allow plenty of time for this as it can take up to 20 weeks). As your exam date grows near, try to recall what excited you about the pieces in the first place – you want to convey that excitement and passion in your performance.

Stagecraft: Get as much performing practice in as possible ahead of the exam – play for friends, do competitions and festivals, masterclasses, courses. Have a proper dress rehearsal in your exam clothes in advance and practice walking to the piano, bowing, pauses between pieces etc. I also regularly recorded myself playing – but don’t listen to your recordings immediately afterwards. Leave it a day or so, and then listen. It is an incredible useful exercise and can highlight areas which need refining.

Check the regulations: Go through the exam regulations and syllabus very carefully. Some Diplomas have pre-requisites (such as proof of a pass at Grade 8) for entry. Make sure you qualify and ensure you fulfill all the exam entry criteria. An oversight here could lead to disqualification. Check the closing dates for entries and the exam seasons.

Practice on a variety of instruments: Play as many different pianos as you can, especially if, like me, you do not have a grand piano yourself. Rehearsal rooms can be hired from as little as £10/hour: Jaques Samuels in central London has a Steinway D and a dinky little Kawai baby grand, both very good instruments (I actually preferred the Kawai to the Steinway, which spooked me). Don’t expect the set up on the day to be perfect: I was fortunate to warm up and perform on Steinways but the piano stool in the exam room was wobbly!

Ahead of the exam: Make sure you know where to go. Do a practice run, if necessary, to check out transport links, parking, practice facilities etc. Sometimes exam centres will even allow you to try the piano in advance – it’s worth asking. Write your programme notes and have them proof-read/checked by someone else. Print your notes on good-quality paper or lightweight card. Make sure you include timings for each piece as well as the duration of the whole programme.

Don’t over-practice: In the final days before my exam, I cut back on my practice time, and what practice I did was mostly spent on openings and endings. Some pieces needed to segue into one another (Bach ‘Toccata’ to Debussy ‘Sarabande’, for example), while I wanted a longer pause after the Schubert (Impromptu in E Flat, Op 90/2) and the Liszt Sonetto. All these details count: don’t stint on them.

The day before the exam: Don’t over do it! I did a light run through of the entire programme and spent the rest of the day doing very little. It is important to keep body and mind rested ahead of a performance. Play your pieces quietly and slowly, or play music which you enjoy, just for relaxation. Avoid alcohol and make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

On the day of the exam: Do very light practice. Try and rest as much as possible. On the day of my exam, I got up late, did light practice, got changed and packed my briefcase. I did everything slowly and quietly.

I think the most important factor I drew from the whole diploma experience is that if you are well-prepared you should have nothing to fear. I had been working on my repertoire for over a year, in the case of some pieces, and I knew everything really well. (You are not required to play from memory and no extra marks are awarded for pianists who play from memory.) I loved every single piece in my programme and was excited about presenting the programme to the examiner on the day. I wore a dress that was comfortable – I was very careful to choose something that had no tickly labels or other distractions. All these things are very important.

All in all, I found the whole experience of studying for, and taking a music Diploma extremely positive. To immerse oneself in a set of pieces for such a long time, to know them intimately, and to grow to love them, was deeply satisfying. I also learnt how to practice deeply, thoughtfully and productively, useful skills which I can pass on to my students. And the end result, not just a pass, but a pass with Distinction, endorses everything I do at the piano, day in day out.

There are many different music diplomas to choose from, and plenty of support for those studying for a diploma. Summer schools and courses are also a great way of sharing repertoire and gaining useful insights from the professionals, as well as offering an opportunity to have your playing critiqued by peers. The current issue of Pianist magazine contains comprehensive details of summer schools.

So, what next? No sooner had I read the exam report and chatted to a friend who took her Diploma on the same day as me (and who also gained a Distinction) than I started looking at the LTCL repertoire….

Further resources:

Trinity College of Music Diplomas Overview of different types of diplomas, repertoire lists, regulations, entry forms and entry information

ABRSM Diplomas Overview of different types of diplomas, regulations, repertoire lists, supporting material for viva voce requirement, and writing programme notes.

London College of Music (Thames Valley University) Diplomas

Writing programme notes

Rehearsal rooms for hire in central London