Despite the rather glib title, there is a serious intent behind this post. As someone who has taken two performance diplomas in fairly quick succession (less than 18 months apart), I want to offer some advice and support to those who are preparing for diplomas.
First and foremost, don’t be under any illusions about these music diplomas. The first, Associate level diploma is not a simple step up from Grade 8 – and the Licentiate is not a simple step up from Associate (a glance at the repertoire list will confirm this). My teacher was quick to point this out to me from the outset and continued to do so right up until the day I played my LTCL programme to her 10 days before the exam (she regularly examines and adjudicates at this level, and higher, and I fully trust her judgement on this issue). Diplomas are professional qualifications and require a professional approach and preparation.
Repertoire: you can select repertoire from the syllabus, or choose a mixture of own-choice and repertoire from the syllabus, or a programme entirely comprised of own-choice repertoire. Be sure to have your programme approved well in advance if you are including any/all own-choice repertoire. Select repertoire which you like – after all, you are going to spend a long time with these pieces (up to 2 years, or more, depending on your learning rate) – and steer clear of pieces which you think will impress/please an examiner (Chopin Ballades, the well known Études etc. – examiners hear a lot of these!). Select pieces which interest and excite you, but be sure to choose a programme which reflects a variety of styles, moods and tempi, and showcases your strengths. You should also consider how the pieces work together as a programme (I put all my pieces into a Spotify playlist to hear how the pieces worked as a programme). The programme does not have to be chronological, and indeed some contrasts can add an interesting angle to a programme.
Practising: taking a diploma teaches you how to practise deeply and thoughtfully, and you need to get into good, consistent practising habits from the get-go. I practised every day for at least 2 or 3 hours, starting at 8am for c1.5 hours and then doing another session after lunch. If I knew I wasn’t going to have time for a full practise session, I made sure I covered the things which needed the work (cadenzas, memory work). Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention and ruthlessly stick to a plan. I kept a detailed practise diary in which I noted 1) what I planned to achieve each day and 2) what I actually achieved.
Musicianship: I was praised for this aspect in my LTCL recital (and a colleague who heard my programme a month before the exam also highlighted it). This is perhaps the most difficult aspect to learn, or be taught, and in my own case, I felt it came from a deep knowledge and appreciation of every single note of every single piece in the programme. I did a lot of background reading and further listening, and really steeped myself in the repertoire, as well as understanding the historical, literary and social contexts surrounding the works and their composers. For anyone studying Rachmaninoff, for example, the recordings of him playing his own piano music are invaluable and fascinating (available on YouTube and Spotify).
Performance practice: get as much performance experience in as possible in advance of the exam. This can include performing at home for friends and family, taking part in local music festivals, courses, and other performance platforms, or organising a concert in a local venue or for a music society. Having a dress rehearsal (in the outfit I intended to wear for the exam) was really helpful: it highlighted areas which needed tweaking or adjusting, it was a dry run for the page-turner, and it helped to allay performance anxiety. It is also important to practise being a performer: how you behave before an audience is often very different to how you work at home alone. You are judged on your stagecraft as well as your playing in a Diploma recital.
Playing through the entire programme: at least a month before the exam, get into the habit of playing the complete programme through every day without stopping to correct mistakes. At Associate level, the programme lasts for c40 minutes, double the length of the pieces for Grade 8, and this can take some stamina if you have no previous experience of playing for that length of time. Playing through also allows you to judge how long the pauses should be between the pieces. For example, I wanted to segue straight from the fading final low D of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II into Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511, but there needed to be a longer pause between the end of the Liszt (Sonetto 104 del Petraca) and the Rachmaninoff E-flat Étude-Tableau. Demonstrating that you have thought about this is another important aspect of programme planning and musicianship.
Programme notes and timings: Don’t leave writing the programme notes until the last minute. Take time to write the notes in a considered way and avoid overly high-blown musicologist-speak language and exhaustive musical analysis. The style of programme note you might read at a concert at the Wigmore is what you should be aiming form. Be sure to include accurate timings for each individual piece as well as for the complete programme. Remember, you can be marked down for inaccurate timings.
Different pianos, different places: don’t confine your practising to your own piano. Get in as much practise as possible on a variety of grand pianos (there are practise rooms in and around London which offer baby grands right up to full-size concert Steinways – go and play all of them!). If you have been used to practising on an upright, a grand can feel very different at first. Also, you need to know how to respond to a variety of acoustics and room sizes.
Be over-prepared: this is the single most important experience I drew from the first diploma and applied to my preparation for the Licentiate. On the day of the exam, I felt on top of every single piece and I knew that any slips would not throw me off course or upset me. However, being over-prepared should not equate to over-practised and in the final weeks before the exam, be careful not to over-practise as this can kill a piece and allow strange new errors to creep in which are then difficult to erase. You need to go into the exam feeling you have something extra to give on the day.
Keep body and brain rested: in the last 24 hours before the exam, allow yourself time to rest body and brain. We often forget how much mental effort is involved in playing the piano. If the head is fresh, the body will respond accordingly. Get a good night’s sleep, and avoid alcohol and rich food. On the day of the exam, do some light practising, and allow yourself plenty of time to get to the exam centre.
And after the exam? Don’t post-mortem your performance. What’s done is done, and the best thing you can do is move onto new repertoire or return to favourite pieces. Above all, enjoy playing the piano!
(I offer consultation lessons for people preparing for advanced grade exams and diplomas, including advice on repertoire and coping with performance anxiety. Further details on my website).
More on diplomas here:
Why take a music diploma?