Tag Archives: preparing for a music diploma

Practising a diploma programme effectively

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of time-management, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regular to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the kind of gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stage craft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here

How to pass a music diploma

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?

 

Diploma #4 – a date and a concert

And so, on the day I received confirmation of my Diploma recital date (16th April, at Trinity College in Greenwich, where I took my ATCL), I gave a lunchtime recital at the NPL Musical Society (NPL MS), at Bushy House on the National Physical Laboratory campus in Teddington.

When I booked the concert, it was intended to be the “dress rehearsal” for the actual Diploma recital, for me and my page turner. I have played at the NPL MS before (with a violinist), and have attended a number of concerts there, all of which have been most enjoyable with high-quality programmes and performers. The audience, mostly NPL staff and former staff, is very supportive and friendly, and the society has a rather nice 100 year old medium-sized Steinway.

By the time I’d got dressed up, put my lipstick on, applied some “lucky perfume” (Jo Malone ‘Red Roses’), and warmed up on the piano, it stopped feeling like a dress rehearsal and began to feel like a real occasion, a ‘proper’ concert, the programme chosen entirely by me, without consultation with teacher or mentor, the notes written by me (a requirement for the Diploma): it was ‘my’ concert.

For all three levels of Diploma – ATCL, LTCL and FTCL (and the equivalent Diplomas with other exam boards such as DipABRSM and LRSM) – the candidate is required to give a recital lasting between 35 and 50 minutes, depending on the level of diploma. The material should be prepared to a very high standard (from LTCL on, the exam criteria state “to a professional standard”) and one should display musicality, technical assuredness, understanding of the composer’s intentions and an ability to convey these to the audience, communication skills, and stagecraft. Doing a “dry run” concert, either at home to friends, or in a more formal setting, is invaluable – not so much to flag up errors or inconsistencies (there were very few in my concert, I’m glad to say), but more to check the flow/energy of the programme and to hear how it all fits together. There is always a heightened sense of tension when one plays before an audience, whatever the venue, which can be extremely useful not just in learning how to cope with performance anxiety but also drawing on the release of adrenaline to help one raise one’s game and play better. I have to admit I was so excited about the concert (coming as it did the day after an extremely positive session with my teacher) that I couldn’t sleep the night before.

On the whole, I was extremely pleased with my performance. Rather than slog through the ‘Presto’ of the Bach Concerto (which is still in need of some housekeeping), I skipped the repeats, and no one was any the wiser. The Takemitsu was super on a bigger piano, and I deliberately allowed more “stasis” in the music, a sense of repose and waiting in the rests and silences. The turner missed the second turn, and even tried to take the music away (!) when he realised his mistake: he admitted to me afterwards that he had got rather caught up in the mood of the piece, which I suppose should be seen as a sign of my ability to “communicate”! A couple of things to fix in the Mozart, but nothing serious. And so to the Liszt, the big virtuosic piece of the programme……well, when someone came up to me afterwards and said “the Liszt was particularly haunting” I felt I’d really achieved something with that piece.

Other useful factors? The piano had some “squeaky” keys, but I simply ignored these. At one o’clock someone’s watch alarm went off, and was not immediately silenced (a capital offence at the Wigmore Hall!), but although I was aware of it, it didn’t throw me. Rustling programmes, someone coughing, the general ambient sounds of people and the park outside the window, all entered my peripheral consciousness but did not distract me from the task in hand. All good signs – I have worked very hard on my concentration (in particular using techniques in The Inner Game of Music and The Musician’s Way).

So, with exactly three weeks to go to the exam, I feel focused and excited. Of course, having been there and done it once before helps enormously because I know what to expect, but this Diploma is a big step up from the previous one (it’s the equivalent of 3-4 years in Conservatoire) and requires a greater level of commitment. I think I’m ready for the challenge.

An earlier article I wrote on the value of performing

Now in its 62nd season, the NPL Musical Society hosts regular concerts throughout the year with a wide variety of performers and programmes. Concerts take place in The Scientific Museum in Bushy House, an elegant 18th century house overlooking Bushy Park.For further information please contact Stephen Lea (stephen.lea@npl.co.uk)

Diploma #3 – the final lesson

This morning I had a lesson with my teacher, the last one before my Diploma exam, and I played the entire programme to her (I felt ever so slightly daunted to arrive at her house in north London and find her Blüthner grand with its lid up). This was a very useful exercise and one I would recommend to anyone who is preparing for an important exam, diploma, festival, competition or recital. It’s not the same as simply playing the programme through to family or friends: knowing one’s teacher’s critical ears are listening carefully makes one especially alert, and forces one to raise one’s game. Fortunately, I didn’t feel I was coming into the lesson completely cold, as ten days ago I played the programme through to a colleague, who is both a busy concert pianist and a skilled teacher. The intervening days between that play through and today’s gave me time to attend to various suggestions.

My teacher commented before I started that my programme is “big” (it lasts just under 40 minutes), but the strange thing is that having played it through in its entirety several times now, it doesn’t feel big to me. I used to worry that I would feel tired by the time I got to the last two pieces (two of Rachmaninov’s Op 33 Études-Tableaux) but today I felt I had enough energy left to see the pieces successfully through to the very last note – and I wasn’t holding back today either.

I was pleased that I was able to hold everything together, without any serious lapses of concentration or focus. I clocked a number of errors or places where some adjustments were needed, but these didn’t throw me or interrupt the flow. Personally, I was very pleased with the Takemitsu (my favourite piece in the programme) and the Mozart (second favourite!). My teacher’s comments were largely details concerning quality of sound (some of my fortes were too strident) or rhythmic issues – the sort of things an examiner is likely to pick up. There were one or two stylistic issues (flow in the LH of the G minor Étude-Tableau, for example), but overall I received plenty of positive feedback, and my teacher finished the lesson by saying “I think you deserve to do really well”.

So, with three weeks to go until the exam (I think – I’m still waiting for a confirmed date), there’s still plenty to do finessing and housekeeping my pieces, attending to the little details which could make the difference between a pass and a good pass, or a good pass and a distinction. It would be very easy to rest on my laurels at this point, but I want to go into the exam with everything as secure as possible. This is also one of the best insurance policies against performance anxiety, and lends a positive frame of mind to every performance I will give before the actual diploma recital.

Tomorrow is the “dress rehearsal”, a concert for my local music society and a chance for me and my page turner to check that we are working together as a slick team. The audience tomorrow will be friendly and supportive (a number of my friends will be attending) so I hope the experience will be positive and enjoyable.

And now, I really should be practising……

What I’ve learnt from Masterchef The Professionals……

Masterchef judges Monica Galetti, Michel Roux Jr and Greg Wallace

People who know me well – and who have eaten at my dinner table – probably feel it was inevitable that I would eventually combine my twin passions of food and pianism in a blog post.

This time last year I was in the midst of final preparations for my ATCL Performance Diploma. I was also hooked on Masterchef the Professionals, a BBC TV competition for working chefs. This time this year I am once again immersed in Diploma preparations (for the higher LTCL), and nightly glued to Masterchef the Professionals.

So how can a cookery tv game show (which is how Masterchef began nearly 20 years ago) provide inspiration to the pianist, and musician in general?

The programme features some very talented individuals. Many of the dishes they submit to the highly discriminating judges are amazing: creative, imaginative and beautifully prepared. In order to progress through the contest, the participants must complete a variety of tests, including skills tests which examine things like the ability to joint a bird correctly, prepare a lobster or make Hollandaise sauce (three ways). They must also prepare a classic dish, set by Michael Roux Jr, as well as cooking and serving a two-course meal for food critics. As the competition progresses, the tasks become more challenging.

The more I watched Masterchef, and the further the competition proceeded towards its exciting denouement, the more it became apparent to me that the chefs who consistently came out top (and the one who eventually won the competition, Ash Mair), all had their “skills sets” perfected. At the foundation of everything they cooked was a solid understanding of technique, ingredients, flavour combinations, and time-management, combined with creative flair and imagination. And as I watched, it occurred to me that musicians, especially those preparing for concerts, competitions, festivals or exams, also need to have secure “skills sets” (i.e. technique).

Technique is at the foundation of everything we do as pianists (and this is true for anyone who works in a profession/craft requiring skill and dexterity – for example, sportspeople, surgeons, sculptors, plumbers). Piano technique is not just finger dexterity but – just as for a chef – an aggregate of many skills. It is an understanding of how movement can influence the way we play the piano, the sounds we make, our ability to move rapidly around the keyboard. It is “a way of using your body to play the piano” (Maria Joao Pires). I see technique as the solid architectural framework on which we hang our creativity, artistic and interpretative vision, our musicality, and our communication with the listener. And technique must never just be about acquiring “finger technique”; we should always practice in a musical way – because practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music.

Sure, you come across people who play the piano well, but maybe you wonder, when you hear them play, why their fortes are too strident, or their tonal control lacks true cantabile sound. Both aspects require an ability to understand how we use the body to create particular sounds and effects on the keyboard. So, like the chefs on Masterchef the Professionals, we must bring together our skill set and our musicality to enable us to play better.

Another aspect which was very obvious from Masterchef was that all the finalists were highly organised time managers. They knew how long their dishes would take to prepare and they were expert at multi-tasking. They also had a well-developed understanding of how the different components of a dish should come together to create a whole meal. In the same way, the skilled musician understands how to construct a programme that will delight, excite and surprise the listener. The ingredients of a good programme should pique the listener’s appetite well before the soloist arrives on stage (when I select concerts to review, I largely base my choices on interesting repertoire and programming rather than performer). A concert pianist friend of mine once told me that his teacher (Phyllis Sellick) described a programme featuring music by the same composer as “a list!”, but “seasoning” your programme well can make a concert focusing on a single composer a fascinating and engaging experience – for listener and performer.

Let me backtrack a little in the process and explain how Masterchef influenced my Diploma preparations in the run up to the exam last December:

Be well-prepared: allowing oneself enough time to fully prepare each piece. Last-minute preparations are never a good idea, whatever level of exam you are taking. Being well-prepared can also counteract nerves on the day.

Time-management: make sure your programme runs to the correct timings as given in the exam regulations. At Diploma level, you will be marked down if your programme is too short, or over-runs. Time your pieces individually as well as your entire programme. And think about the silences between the pieces too: some pieces hang together naturally (I played a Bach Toccata and Debussy’s Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’ virtually back-to-back in my Diploma recital, to demonstrate the connections between the pieces, but a longer pause between the Schubert E flat Impromptu and Liszt Sonetto 123 was necessary, in part to allow me to catch my breath!)

Plan your menu. Your programme is your menu: plan it wisely. In my experience, as a regular concert-goer and occasional performer, the best programmes are those which offer different levels of energy, perhaps building to the climax of a big virtuosic piece, or piano sonata at the midway point. If the programme is very weighty, remember that the audience needs a break too.

Presentation: at Diploma level you are marked on your presentation skills and stagecraft, and your attire and manner must be professional. Dress appropriately for an afternoon or early evening recital, and practice playing in your concert clothes ahead of the actual date. (I had trouble with my shoes, for example, as I cannot pedal in high heels! And make sure your page turner is correctly attired too: mine wore plain black shirt and trousers).

Stay focussed: nerves can get the better of you but if you are well-prepared you should have no reason to feel nervous (beyond the “positive nerves” of looking forward to presenting your programme to an audience/examiner).

A couple of other tips for practising have come up as I’ve watched this year’s Masterchef The Professionals contest:

Last year, I played the Schubert E flat Impromptu to a pianist friend, twice, as part of my preparations. He told me I was using the pedal too much and ordered me to practice the piece without the pedal (except in the trio). At first, I found this a difficult and unpleasant experience, not least because the piece sounded dreadful without pedal on my piano. After a while, however, I began to notice new details about the music, which had hitherto been hidden by my rather over-enthusiastic foot. Likewise, on Masterchef last year, one of the finalists made a ‘Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom Pie’. He took all the components of a classic chicken pie, stripped them down and presented them in an elegant and witty way. When I made it myself, I realised why my friend had suggested practising the Schubert without pedal: when I went back to play the piece for my teacher, with one-eighth pedal, the result was more refined, musical and had far greater clarity.

So, it’s worth taking the trouble to strip the music back to its components: this does not necessarily mean doing an exhaustive analysis of the score, but being aware of all the little details that make up the whole. Practising sans pedal allows you to hear better what is going on in the music – maybe some interior voices or melodic lines were not obvious before? Understand what makes the whole and try to bring all the individual parts together to make a coherent and elegant finished version.

I’ve been working on my LTCL repertoire for nearly a year now, and soon it will be “decision time” as to when I take the exam (spring or summer 2013). The experience of the previous Diploma – and the inspiration from Masterchef! – means I feel far better prepared this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning aspects of technique including pedaling (specifically for Mozart A minor Rondo, K511, which requires very little, and very sensitive pedaling), and building stamina to enable me to play a brash and exuberant Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau (op 33, in E flat). I’ve done a lot of “tasting” – listening around my repertoire to gain inspiration from recordings, other works by the same composers, live performances etc. My ‘menu’ is nearly ready to be run by friends and colleagues who will sample it ahead of the exam:

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974

Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Rachmaninov – Two Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 – No. 7 in E flat & No. 8 in G minor

Taking a music Diploma

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