The secret to doing well in piano exams (and becoming a great pianist)

A lot of people think that to get a great exam mark, you have to practice for hours a day and sacrifice your life. But actually, it's not really about the quanity of practice you do, but rather the quality! There are also a few other things that give you the best chance to doing well in your exam. Read on to find out more.

Most of my students over the past 17 years of my teaching career have achieved a piano exam result of an A or A+. Why? Is it becuase I only teach the most brilliant students? Nope. Not at all. Some of these students have been far from "natural talents". Having said that, your teacher can't practice for you and there a no guarantees you will get an A or A+ just by being a student with us.

One of our pillars is "I take responsibility for my own learning, practice and progress". This means that when you do well, you can feel a huge sense of achievement for your hard work. But when you don't do well, you also need to own it, blame no one else, and use it as a way of learning and improving for next time.

Over the past 17 years' of guiding students through a number of piano exams, these are the key things that often get students the top marks:

  • They have support, encouragement and a parent that takes an active part in their piano studies. This is extremely important to a child's success. A child who practices on their own for 2 hours a day without parental support simply won't do as well as a child who practices 30minutes a day with a parent who is actively involved.

  • They practice regularly (most of the students who have achieved A's or A+'s practice 6 days EVERY week). Binge-practicing just doesn't work.

  • They make practice part of their routine and stick to it no matter what. It's so easy to find an excuse to not practice. Perhaps the excuse is "Too much schoolwork. I'm tired. I didn't know what to practice. I don't like my piano teacher" etc. There's always SOMETHING you can blame for not practicing. But excuses get you nowhere.

  • They aim to walk away from EVERY practice session being able to do something they couldn't do before. Playing through your music once from start to finish isn't practising. That's playing. It's different. Practice means working on improving something and being able to do something you couldn't do before you sat down to practice.

  • They focus on the small details during their practice and make sure they are practising everything correctly, and slowly. Sloppy practice is useless. Why train your fingers to play something wrong? Slow and correct, with attention to detail, is the best way to train your muscles where they need to go.

  • Examiners LOVE to hear students play with LOTS of dynamics and attention to the small things like staccatos, slurs, accents etc. Just playing all the right notes isn't enough. You need to be precise and include ALL of the small details. This is where the big marks are!

  • Examiners also don't respond well to robotic playing. They want to see that you love what you're playing, and are putting your own personality into your performance.

  • They focus well in their practice. It's easy to be thinking about a thousand other things whilst you're practising, but this lack of focus renders your practice pretty useless. Try using your practice time to switch off from everything else that's going on. Studies have shown that people who play the piano unknowingly meditate. Focusing intensely on something like music for 20 or 30 minutes is a great stress-reducer and a form of meditation. Don't see your practice as something stressful you have to do. See it as an opportunity to escape the other stressful things in your life for 20 or 30 minutes.

My students who have followed these principles have generally always done really well. There's no secret to piano success beyond these points. It has very little to do with "natural talent" and a lot more to do with your attitude and focus.

If I Follow These Guidelines, Am I Guaranteed an A or A+?

Nope. We can't guarantee you'll get a specific mark. Your mark is given to you by an accredited external examining body (AMEB or ABRSM) and we have absolutely no sway in how these marks are given.

Your mark also depends on a whole host of factors leading up to the exam, and on the exam day itself. We can't control this, and certainly can't be in the exam, coaching you as you play for the examiner. Sometimes things might go wrong in the exam. You might freeze, go blank or let your nerves get the better of you. If this happens, we will then spend time in your lessons moving forward, helping you to improve your performance anxiety.

Do matter what result you get in an exam, we are proud of you for doing it in the first place. Preparing for (and sitting) an exam is a big undertaking, and even if you don't get the mark you want, you have still actually achieved your goal - to learn how to play the piano! There is no pressure from your teacher to get a certain mark. If you do well, we'll help you celebrate your success. If you don't do as well as you hoped, we'll help you identify why, and work towards improving those things.

What Happens If I Fail My Exam or Get a Really Bad Mark?

Please read this article for more information.

Internal Exams

After doing an accredited piano exam, you might find that it's just not for you. That is totally fine. Just because you have done one exam, there is no pressure to continue onto the next one.

As an alternative, you can sit for an Internal Exam, right here at Virtual Piano Academy. This is a video submission exam that is marked by a panel of Virtual Piano Academy teachers. You will be required to play a number of set things in your exam, but this is tailored more closely to your goals and doesn't box you in to a set syllabus from an external examinations board.

Internal Exams dates can also be tailored around your schedule and set for whichever date you like (unlike accredited piano exams).

Find out more about Internal Exams by reading this article.

What's Actually Involved in Preparing for an Exam?

For more information about AMEB and ABRSM piano exams, please read this article.

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