The day the piano exam arrives can be a very frightening moment. Whether you are seven or seventy, the prospect of going in to face an examiner can be daunting. The piano exam, however, need not be a terrifying experience and in this article I would like to outline a few hints that may help you if you are planning to take one.
Spend time selecting your exam pieces carefully, choosing pieces that you will enjoy playing and that are suited to your hands. After all, exam preparation should be a pleasurable experience which is simply a part of your general musical development. Look on it as the beginning to further study rather than something very narrow that begins and ends with the syllabus. If you are studying Mozart, for example, listen to his operas and the music of Haydn so that you become more familiar with the classical style. Also take every opportunity to listen to other interpretations of your exam pieces.
If you are working towards Grade 1 aim to practise for at least half an hour a day, by Grade 5 aim for an hour a day and if you are working towards a diploma then aim for at least 2 hours practice a day. There may be one or two days in the week when you are unable to practise, in which case make sure your practice in the rest of the week is adequate. If you plan long sessions give yourself adequate breaks and be realistic about the amount of study that can be put into one practice session otherwise the quality of your practice may suffer.
Work on the principle that it is better to practise the new before the old, for example, practise your newest pieces and scales before the more familiar ones. Keep a practice notebook listing scales, pieces and sight-reading to be practised and any points needing special attention. By writing down exactly what is going wrong in a scale or a piece, you can often put it right much more quickly. It is so important not to spend valuable practice time repeating the same mistakes over again so that they become more and more deeply ingrained.
Whenever you make mistakes in your practice be aware that feelings of anger or annoyance with yourself will not help to put them right. They will only encourage changes in your breathing and posture and cause unnecessary tension. Instead, focus on your playing in a non-judgmental way, looking at why you are not playing something the way you want. This will be the starting point for doing something about it. By adopting this constructive mental attitude, you can allow the difficulties in your playing to melt away.
Graham Howard – Author and Piano Advisor.
Email for piano advice: firstname.lastname@example.org
or Call 01327 300 016
PREPARING SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS
Make every scale and arpeggio a musical event. Avoid a trial and error approach and aim for accuracy in both notes and fingering every time. Practise reciting the following away from the keyboard:
– the key signatures of your scales and the changed notes in minor scales
– the names of the notes up and down (one octave will suffice)
– the notes the thumb or fourth finger plays
Relate individual scales to the groups to which they belong. For example, the scales of C, G, D, A and E major and minor (both harmonic and melodic) all have the same finger pattern.
If you have a large number of scales to learn, organise your scale practice carefully. Write out your scales and arpeggios on cards, one scale per card, which may even be colour coded, such as blue for major and red for minor and so on. Important points such as key signatures or fingering can be written on the back. Divide your scales into groups and keep the cards in separate envelopes so that you can work on one group in a practice session. Work through a set of scales putting them into two separate piles, one containing those that were accurate the first time and the other in which there were mistakes. Play every scale that goes wrong three times in a row correctly before going on to another one. If it goes wrong the third time, play it three more times.
If you are working on scales and arpeggios in all keys, practise them sometimes in a cycle of fifths. Also mix up your scales and arpeggios by playing every kind you know that starts on a particular note, for example, a C major, C harmonic and melodic minor scale, a chromatic scale on C and an arpeggio, dominant and diminished seventh on C.
Whatever the requirements, practise scales separately as well as together, and experiment with different dynamics, articulation and rhythms. If a recommended minimum scale speed has been given, use the metronome to work your way up to this carefully over a period of time. Aim to keep all of your scales the same speed – generally scales will be one speed and arpeggios slower. Concentrate on quality rather than quantity since intelligent playing of a few scales slowly in one session will be far more beneficial than hurrying through your examination requirements without much care.
When you first start to study your exam pieces it is important to explore them thoroughly. This will help you to become familiar with the characteristics of the composer’s style and so lead to a deeper understanding of the piece and a more mature interpretation. Some examination boards also set a viva voce where you will be asked questions on your pieces and so it will provide invaluable help in preparing for this.
If you can find more than one edition of your pieces, compare them noting any differences in phrasing, expression, and ornamentation. Find out if possible which markings are those of the composer since you may wish to experiment and change, with the help of your teacher, any of those given by an editor provided the solution is in character with the piece.
If you cannot find out when your piece was composed make sure that at least you know when the composer was alive, his nationality and who any of his contemporaries were. The piece may have been originally written for an early keyboard instrument such as a harpsichord, in which case if you are not familiar with the sound, listen to recordings of harpsichord playing. You may even be able to find a recording of your piece played on this instrument. It may be part of a set of pieces or a larger work such as a sonata or suite. If it is part of a bigger work, listen to the whole piece or better still, if possible, learn the whole piece.
Examine the piece comprehensively, checking the title, time signature, rhythm, tempo, key signature, phrase structure, expression, ornamentation, pedal markings etc. By looking at these aspects this will help give you a clear idea of the kind of piece to be practised, for example, whether it is dance-like or descriptive or the mood is happy or sad and make you more aware of the challenges to be solved in learning it.
Once you have explored your piece, you are in a position to assess the most suitable way of practising it. Firstly go through the piece working out the fingering to be used. Whether it has been marked or not, choose fingering that is suitable for your hands and so be prepared to change any given in the copy. Experiment until you find the most appropriate, always taking into account the phrasing and most efficient fingering.
Next the piece can be built up carefully hands separately and then together, phrase by phrase and section by section. If there are any particularly challenging areas mark them for special attention and work on them first. Whenever you make a mistake, always assess exactly what has happened and correct it immediately at least once. Correct the mistake from a few beats before as it is the movement to the note or chord that is the fault. Always have a pencil on hand for circling important finger numbers, incorrect notes or for marking in how you will count difficult rhythms.
It is not the greatest number of repetitions of a piece that is important but the greatest number of correct repetitions. To help your accuracy always make steady, careful practice a top priority, practising your pieces very slowly at first, gradually increasing the speed over a period of time. Use the metronome if this helps. If you have worked up to a new speed on a piece in one session, go back to a slower speed the next day and work up to this again.
When practising the piece as a whole, make sure you bring out its character. For example, if the piece is a dance, imagine how the people would be dressed and how they would be dancing; if the piece is descriptive concentrate on bringing pictures to mind. If the piece is like a song without words, make up your own words, reflecting the mood of the music and sing them sometimes when you play it. Imagine the piano as an orchestra and consider orchestral colours at each point of the texture. The piece may suggest, for example, a large symphony orchestra or a chamber ensemble.