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