On preparing for a performance diploma

As the summer approaches, the exam season looms and in addition to graded music exams, many people will be also taking performance diplomas, recognised professional qualifications which extend and challenges one’s musical abilities far beyond the graded exam framework (the Licentiate level diploma – LRSM, LTCL or LLCM – requires the equivalent level of ability to a student in their third or fourth year at conservatoire).

Based on my own experience taking three performance diplomas (and, I might add, in my late 40s having returned to the piano after a long absence), here I offer some advice to ensure you are full prepared for your performance diploma – in the lead up to the recital, on the day and afterwards.

As mentioned earlier, a performance diploma at whatever level is a professional qualification, and one should therefore treat all aspects of the preparation and actual performance in a professional manner. To prepare for my diplomas, I observed professional musicians at work in concerts and in other settings to understand and appreciate all the aspects which go into presenting a professional performance, including programme planning and programme notes, stage deportment, attire, and one’s demeanour and presence at the instrument.

Preparation is everything!

At least a month ahead of your diploma recital….

  • With the exam recital only a month away, your programme should be learnt, secure and finessed
  • Get into the habit of playing through the entire programme regularly (at least twice a week), without stopping to correct mistakes, and with appropriate pauses between works. This helps build stamina and allows you to experience the flow and energy of the individual pieces and how they work together in the programme as a whole.
  • If using a page turner, have several rehearsals with the page turner and ensure your turner is clear about repeats, DCs etc. If you are using the score without a turner, photocopy pages to avoid awkward page turns and include these in your score so you get used to seeing them/the sequencing of pages etc. Make sure your page turner turns discreetly and removes and replaces the scores as quietly and discreetly as possible.
  • If you intend to use an iPad or tablet instead of paper scores, check that that exam board will permit this. Make sure any additional technology such as a bluetooth page turning device is working properly
  • Record the programme to check for timings, of the entire programme and individual pieces. You will need to include this information in your programme notes (for each piece and the overall programme). Be as accurate as possible, as marks may be deducted if you timings are incorrect or your programme is outside of the allotted time limit.
  • Try and perform the entire programme at least three times ahead of your diploma recital. Get a bunch of friends round and perform to them, organise a concert in a local church or arts centre, or hire a rehearsal room and play there with a few friends/colleagues in attendance. This helps manage anxiety and also allows you to really project the music to others. Also good for practising presentation skills such as walking to the piano, body language, presence etc., and page turns (if playing from the score). Interesting things can occur in run-through performances and may reveal weak spots in your music which you can then make absolutely secure in your practising.
  • Choose your outfit for the diploma recital and practise playing in it to ensure it is comfortable. Clothing should be appropriate for a “lunchtime or early evening recital”, so formal but not evening dress. Remember you will be marked on your attire as part of the ‘presentation skills’ element of the diploma.
  • Try and play a variety of different pianos, particularly grand pianos. It is easy to hire a rehearsal space or use a piano in a church.
  • Write your programme notes and have them checked/proofread by someone else. Use a clear typeface with no fancy decorative elements, photographs or biography. Print the programme on good-quality paper or lightweight card.

A couple of weeks before the recital….

  • Make sure you know where you are going to take the diploma and plan a route which will allow you to arrive in good time to warm up and settle ahead of the performance.
  • Photocopy your music and put it in a folder with the printed programme to hand to the examiner at the diploma recital. If you are including own-choice repertoire, include a copy of the approval letter from the exam board (this is applicable to Trinity diplomas) with the copies of your music.
  • By this point your practising should really just be maintenance, but don’t get complacent. Practise intelligently and listen all the time. Record yourself, reflect, adjust.
  • If you have been working on the repertoire for a long time, try and recall why you chose it in the first place and what you like about it. Maybe even write some notes about it. This can help “refresh” the music if you feel it is becoming a little tired and enables you to create a vivid “story” of the music when you come to perform it.

The day before the recital….

  • Check you have all your music, and photocopies of music, etc in a folder ready to hand to the examiner at the start of the recital.
  • Check your clothing
  • Do very light or little practise.
  • Try to keep body and brain rested (take a day or afternoon off work if necessary and do as little as possible)

On the day of the recital….

  • Arrive at the exam venue in good time to warm up and then focus on the task ahead. If you have a routine to alleviate anxiety, go through your routine.
  • Practise self-affirmation – “I am well-prepared”, “I can do it!”, etc. Turn “I’m nervous” into “I’m excited to share my music with others”
  • When you go into the exam room, greet the examiner/s politely/shake hands and give them your programme notes etc.
  • Treat the recital like a professional public performance and do not speak to the examiners between pieces.
  • Stow your music neatly or ask your page turner to look after it
  • At the end of the performance stand and bow.

After the recital….

  • Try not to post-mortem your performance too much or dwell on things you weren’t happy with. Instead focus on the positives and then go and have a large glass of wine, or three….
  • The day after the performance you may feel very tired and moody, with almost flu-like symptoms. This is a side effect of adrenaline and other stress hormones settling back to their normal levels. Allow yourself time to recover, but the best cure for the post-performance depression can actually be playing music – not your diploma repertoire but music you simply enjoy.

Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers support for people taking or thinking about taking a performance diploma including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, presentation skills and managing performance anxiety. For more information, contact Frances

The London Piano Meetup Group hosts an annual Diploma Day for people preparing for a performance diploma, led by Graham Fitch. Further information here

wm1_700x0__LL375_CovFor the musician looking to further their studies after Grade 8, Performance Diplomas offer a pathway to fully accredited professional qualifications, recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world. A diploma, even at the lowest Associate level, is considerably more involved than Grade 8, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation and practising, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. As such, a diploma offers a significant musical, intellectual and personal challenge, and provides a useful framework for the honing and maturing of performance and teaching skills.

London College of Music (LCM) has recently updated and refreshed its music performance diplomas, and the Piano Diplomas have a revised repertoire list, together with the release of a second In Concert volume of music, edited by Joanna Macgregor, Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and a concert pianist acclaimed for her highly original programming.

The new LCM piano diplomas syllabus now offers three types of performance diploma at DipLCM, ALCM, and LLCM levels as follows (mark weightings shown in brackets):

Performance: Performance (70%), Discussion [formerly called Viva Voce] (15%), Sight Reading (15%)

Recital: Performance (80%), Discussion or Sight Reading (20%)

Concert: Performance (100%)

For all diplomas, candidates must produce a written programme.

At Fellowship level (FLCM), there is a single Performance Diploma for which candidates must offer a 50-60 minute recital with programme notes of 3000-3500 words. Marks are not awarded; the performance is either Approved or Not Approved.

By offering three types of performance diploma, LCM gives candidates the opportunity to select the diploma format that is right for them. There is a lot of snobbery surrounding performance diplomas (just as there is a lot of snobbery concerning the different exam boards), but I believe candidates benefit from a choice of format and should select a diploma which will enable them to perform to the very best of their abilities. A quick glance at the diploma repertoire lists for each exam board reveals music of similar difficulty, with many pieces common to all boards.

For those who simply want to perform a recital programme, the Concert Diploma, introduced in 2017, is the route to take. While some may argue that the removal of sight-reading and other tests from the Concert diploma makes this an “easier” option, I would counter with the assertion that being judged wholly on one’s performance is a very good test of one’s musicianship and professional performance skills. This gives candidates the chance to focus entirely on the music and to be really imaginative in creating a proper concert programme (this was my reason for opting to take the Trinity College London diplomas rather than the ABRSM’s).

While the LCM diploma repertoire lists are not as extensive as Trinity’s nor the ABRSM’s, what the lists lack in quantity they more than make up for in variety, with a good selection of music by women and contemporary composers, including works by Florence Price, Emily Doolittle, Judith Weir, Thomas Ades and Tan Dun, together with key works from the core canon of piano music. Candidates also have the option to include own-choice repertoire, provided it is of a technical standard consistent with that of the appropriate diploma level. There is no need for own-choice repertoire to be approved in advance. Thus candidates can create a recital programme which plays to their strengths and musical affinities, which is interesting, well-balanced and varied. These are very much diplomas for the modern musician.

With the introduction of the Concert Diploma in 2017, LCM released the In Concert handbook, an anthology of pieces from Baroque to present day selected by Joanna Macgregor. A second In Concert volume has just been released for the Associate and Licentiate level diplomas, alongside the updated diploma syllabus, from which candidates must select at least one piece for their diploma programme. As with the previous volume, the pieces are accompanied by useful introductory notes, also by Joanna Macgregor, which set the works in context and offer guidance on technical and artistic issues. The selection of music is varied and imaginative, and as in the main repertoire lists, women and contemporary composers are well-represented, with the opportunity to enrich one’s repertoire beyond the core canon. The book is attractively-produced with clear music engraving on good quality paper.

I’ve been consistently impressed with LCM’s approach to graded music exams and diplomas since I was involved in the selection process for the current piano syllabus. This exam board is very consciously offering candidates and teachers something distinctive from the old-fashioned graded music exam, with an imaginative choice of repertoire and exam formats.

Highly recommended

Note: candidates should consuld the current syllabus and read the regulations carefully to ensure they are conversant with and meet all the necessary criteria for entry

LCM Music Diplomas Syllabus from 2019

LCM Piano Diplomas repertoire list from 2019

Further reading

Why take a performance diploma?

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`I was delighted to be invited to participate in this live and online conference at the London College of Music, University of West London. The conference is part of a year-long research project exploring ways in which performers can create new and exciting sonic worlds in the production of live and recorded performances of the classical repertoire (further information about the project here http://cmhp-conference.com/index.php/about-cmhp).

The first session I attended, entitled ‘3D Audio Piano’, involved pianist Emilie Capulet working with Andrew Bourbon and Simon Zagorski-Thomas to record a layered performance of Debussy’s La Cathedral Egloutie (Preludes Book One). The score was divided into separate elements, such as “bells” or “monks’, which then informed the treatment of each element in the recording process to create a more intense and colourful sound when played back through a 3D Audio speaker array (like surround sound). I found this process most interesting, specifically from an interpretative and performance point of view and I could see the possibility of encouraging piano students (and myself) to think in terms of separate layers and multiple elements within a piece of music when attempting to highlight certain aspects or create a more intensely expressive performance. It strikes me that Debussy’s music lends itself particularly well to this approach, but it has an application in other music and composers too.

The second segment involved a live 3D Audio mix by Greg Smith of Emilie Capulet’s performance of Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau. Here, hyper production effects such as reverb were used to intensify the sense of the different fountains which Ravel illustrates in his score. The session finished with  a playback of a 3D Audio Remix by Simon Zagorski-Thomas of Emilie Capulet’s MIDI performance of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C (XVI: 50). Here, Simon sought to capitalise on the wit inherent in Haydn’s writing as well as the composer’s interest in the rapid developments in the piano at the time of the Sonata’s composition. Listen to the piece here:

Later, I participated in a panel discussion where we considered a number of points including

  • Do recordings using hyper production techniques have any commercial potential?
  • Why are classical musicians so concerned with perfection in the recording studio when they know there is the “safety net” of editing?
  • Are performers unduly influenced by high-quality recordings and do they seek to replicate them in live performance?
  • Do high-quality recordings raise audience expectations about perfection in live performance?
  • Would experimental recordings using surround sound and 3D audio techniques attract a younger/new audience to classical music?
  • Do wrong notes really matter in a recording which is rich in expression?

I would be interested in readers’ views on these issues – please feel free to respond using the comments box below or by contacting me via the Contact page of this blog.

(A video of the panel discussion should be available shortly).