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

Back by popular demand……

“A hugely valuable day”

The London Piano Meetup Group is holding its fourth Diploma Day on Sunday 9th June 2019 at Morley College, London SE1. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are considering, or planning to take, a post-Grade 8 performance qualification, or piano teachers and pianists who would like to observe several hours of inspirational teaching with acclaimed teacher, writer and pianist Graham Fitch.

Diploma Day now open for booking for observers, and applications for performers.

If you’re thinking of taking a diploma exam in the summer or winter of 2019, then this is an excellent opportunity to run part of your programme in front of an audience, and work on it with Graham Fitch. Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) will take additional workshops/talks on preparing for a diploma, managing performance anxiety and stagecraft. And most importantly there’s the chance to meet and share experiences/thoughts/plans with others who have taken, or are going to take, a diploma exam.

The day is also useful for teachers who wish to observe several hours of entertaining and enlightening diploma-level teaching by Graham.

This very popular event has been praised for its friendly and open atmosphere in previous years, as well as how useful the day is for those preparing for a diploma, and it promises to be stimulating, informative and fun.

The event takes place in the Holst Room at Morley College, near Waterloo Station, which has a beautiful Steinway D concert grand to perform on. The day will run from 9am to 5pm and is intended not only to provide resources and information for participants, but also to network with other like-minded (and diploma-aiming!) pianists.

Observer tickets can be booked here (£18 & booking fee):

https://billetto.co.uk/e/lpmg-diploma-day-2019-tickets-318858

HOW TO APPLY TO PLAY (£90):

There are 6 performance places available

Complete this form by Sunday 19th Aprilhttps://goo.gl/forms/gYCDG3hd7aDEJuMl1

 

screen-shot-2015-10-22-at-15-49-10-e1445945525634

Feedback from participants at previous Diploma Days:

“The introduction was helpful as I’m at the planning stage of my diploma”

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

“I enjoyed hearing lots of different repertoire, some well-known and some new”

“Graham was fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and was hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike”

For any questions in the meantime please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Claire Hansell at londonpianomeetup@gmail.com.

 


graham-fitch-750x750Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.

avatars-000208691703-0he3lq-t500x500Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, music reviewer, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013. She has hosted and participated in workshops, masterclasses, courses and meetups for adult pianists, and completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after a long break. Frances has acted as a syllabus consultant for Trinity College of Music and London College of Music’s graded piano exams and has written teaching notes for the new ABRSM piano syllabus (released in summer 2018).

Back by popular demand……

“A hugely valuable day”

The London Piano Meetup Group is holding its third Diploma Day on Sunday 10th June 2018 at Morley College, London SE1. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are considering, or planning to take, a post-Grade 8 performance qualification, or piano teachers and pianists who would like to observe several hours of inspirational teaching with acclaimed teacher, writer and pianist Graham Fitch.

The event takes place in the Holst Room at Morley College, near Waterloo Station, which has a beautiful Steinway D concert grand to perform on. The day will run from 9am to 5pm and is intended not only to provide resources and information for participants, but also to network with other like-minded (and diploma-aiming!) pianists.

screen-shot-2015-10-22-at-15-49-10-e1445945525634

The day will include:

  • Performances of diploma repertoire from participants preparing for their exams
  • Feedback in a masterclass-style format from acclaimed teacher and pianist Graham Fitch
  • Workshops, discussions and Q&A sessions with Frances Wilson (a.k.a. The Cross-Eyed Pianist), covering the planning, preparation, practice and execution of a performance diploma, plus supporting components including understanding and managing performance anxiety, presentation skills and stagecraft, and writing programme notes.
  • Q&A session with a senior representative from one of the UK’s leading exam boards.

Performer places cost £85 for the full day. Apply to perform here (deadline 15 April)

Observer places cost £17 – book tickets

There is much value in observing others being taught together with the opportunity to discuss repertoire, practising, preparation and more with other pianists

Feedback from participants at previous Diploma Days:

“The introduction was helpful as I’m at the planning stage of my diploma”

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

“I enjoyed hearing lots of different repertoire, some well-known and some new”

“Graham was fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and was hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike”

For any questions in the meantime please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Claire Hansell at londonpianomeetup@gmail.com.

 


graham-fitch-750x750Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.

avatars-000208691703-0he3lq-t500x500Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013. She has hosted and participated in workshops, masterclasses, courses and meetups for adult pianists, and completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after a long break. Frances has acted as a syllabus consultant for the London College of Music’s graded piano exams and has written teaching notes for the new ABRSM piano syllabus (to be released in summer 2018).

The London Piano Meetup Group is holding its second Diploma Day on Sunday 9th July 2017. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are considering, or planning to take, a post-grade-8 performance qualification, or piano teachers who want to observe several hours of inspirational teaching.

The event takes place in the Holst Room at Morley College, near Waterloo Station, which has a beautiful Steinway D concert grand to perform on. The day will run from 9am to 5pm and is intended not only to provide resources and information for participants, but also to network with other like-minded (and diploma-aiming!) pianists.

screen-shot-2015-10-22-at-15-49-10-e1445945525634

The day will include:

  • Performances of diploma repertoire from participants preparing for their exams
  • Feedback in a masterclass-style format from acclaimed teacher and pianist Graham Fitch
  • Workshops, discussions and Q&A sessions with Frances Wilson (a.k.a. The Cross-Eyed Pianist), covering the planning, preparation, practice and execution of a performance diploma, plus supporting components including understanding and managing performance anxiety and stagecraft

Feedback from participants at last year’s Diploma Day:

“The introduction was helpful as I’m at the planning stage of my diploma”

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

“A hugely valuable day”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

“I enjoyed hearing lots of different repertoire, some well-known and some new”

“Graham was fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and was hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike”

The organisers are looking forward to seeing familiar and new faces at this event, and hope that it will be a valuable and useful day for all attendees. For any questions in the meantime please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Claire Hansell at londonpianomeetup@gmail.com.

Tickets for participants (to observe) are £17 each

BOOK TICKETS

Please book by midday on Wednesday 5th July, as there is unfortunately no facility to pay on the door on the day.

Link to Facebook event

graham-fitch-750x750Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.

avatars-000208691703-0he3lq-t500x500Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013 and is co-administrator of Piano Network UK on Facebook. She has hosted and participated in workshops, masterclasses, courses and meetups for adult pianists, and completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after a long break. Frances writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for Pianist Magazine’s online content and is a guest blogger for classical music website InterludeHK.

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

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?