Practise a piece sometimes without playing it at all! Sit down with the music and read it through, giving the perfect performance in your mind, then sit or lie down with your eyes closed and do the same without the copy. Set aside a part of your practice time at regular intervals to tape record performance of your pieces. While listening to the recording make detailed notes of your observations about your performance.
Make sight-reading a regular part of your practice. There are many series of graded sight-reading books available to help you in this. Remember too that there is a vast piano repertoire at your disposal which you can use to improve your sight-reading, so go out and explore it! Also consider offering yourself as an accompanist to a friend who sings or plays an orchestral instrument or team up with a friend of a similar standard to play duets.
When practising sight-reading, choose the tempo very carefully based on the piece as a whole. Keep your eyes on the music and look ahead, aiming to take in several bars at a glance, noticing patterns such as repeated rhythms and passages built on scales or chords. Imagine as well as you can how the music will sound before you play it and when playing it, give rhythm priority over correct notes.
Take an example and carry out the following procedure. Firstly allow yourself 30 seconds to explore the sight-reading, examining the key, rhythm, dynamics, any accidentals, tied notes etc. Although 30 seconds does not seem long if it is used well you can cover a great deal about your piece. You can usually expect to receive up to this amount of time in the exam. As a further aid to understanding the rhythm before playing, now clap or tap the rhythm of the piece through first, counting aloud.
Next play through the piece counting aloud. Make a mental note of any mistakes you have noticed without correcting them and then after pausing a while to consider them, play the piece again focusing on what could be improved the second time. What you focus on this time will depend on how you played it the first time, for example, you may need to read the key signature or rhythms more carefully. This time count in your head. Assess your second performance and tick the example as having been done. If there are still many slips the second time, then consider whether it would have been wise to play it more slowly or do an easier book of examples first.
Work through a book of sight-reading this way and when you get to the end of it go back and start the book again. This time look at each example for 30 seconds and then play it through once counting in your head. You may become aware of how much you have learnt in the meantime.
Aural tests feature in most piano examinations and you can do a great deal to develop your aural skills in your practice sessions. Consider buying commercial cassettes or CDs of your aural tests and work through them methodically. Most importantly, listen to real music and relate your tests to this.
Aural skills can only be improved if they are practised regularly over a period of time. Each of the examination boards has differing requirements for aural tests but they fall broadly into three categories: rhythm and time tests, pitch tests and recognising features.
Clapping back rhythms is frequently set as a test. When practising this, work on short examples first, gradually increasing the length. If you clap with two or three fingers on the palm of the hand, this will allow you to clap fast rhythms more easily.
In the test to identify time your specific requirement may be to clap the pulse of a passage, conduct time or simply state the time. Practise this by listening to music, noting carefully where the strong beat falls as this will usually indicate the first beat in a bar. Beat the pulse or conduct at the same time and then, if possible, check the score to see if you were correct.
The pitch tests fall into several categories. If you never sing, you may find it of value to consider joining a choir where you will have the opportunity to develop your aural skills over a period of time and have the pleasure of singing. If you have to sing a melody back, as with clapping back rhythms work on short examples first, gradually increasing the length. Remember that this is a piano exam and not a singing exam and the quality of your voice is not being tested! Most examination boards will allow you to sing to la or any vowel sound so practice the way with which you feel most comfortable.
If there is a test to recognise intervals, you may find it helpful to learn to do this by thinking of the notes as the start of a tune you know, for example, Away in a Manger starts with a perfect fourth and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean with a major sixth. Make a list of tunes you know for other intervals and examine various intervals found in your pieces. Singing intervals can be practised in any spare time, including humming while waiting for a bus so use every moment well!
In recognising chord sequences and cadences always listen to the bass notes. Your work on intervals will help in this. Also bear in mind the following when recognising cadences:
A perfect cadence moves from chord V to I. It will therefore sound finished and there will be no shared notes between the two chords.
A plagal cadence moves from IV to I and so also sounds finished but the key note is present in each of the chords. This cadence is used when singing “Amen”.
An imperfect cadence moves from any chord to chord V and sounds unfinished.
An interrupted cadence moves from V to VI and so starts like a perfect cadence but there is an element of surprise when it does not go to chord I. If it is in a major key then chord VI will be minor whereas in a minor key both V and VI will be major.
Look at your pieces and play through the cadences. You will already be familiar with the sound of these cadences and so make sure you can also name them.
If you have a modulation test, first of all practise singing up and down the notes of a major and minor triad so that you can hear the difference between the two. Bear in mind also that as a broad generalisation, major pieces sound more cheerful and happy whereas minor keys are often used for sadder pieces. When listening for a modulation, practise this by keeping the original tonic in mind throughout the example by humming it gently, and then check to hear if it is still in the final chord. You may have to recognise, for example, whether a piece in a major key has moved to the subdominant, dominant or relative minor. If the original tonic is still in the last chord and the last chord is major then the modulation will be to the subdominant whereas if the last chord is minor then it will be the relative minor. If the tonic is not still there and the key is major the modulation will be to the dominant.
If you have to recognise features in a piece as part of your aural tests, make a list of the features you are expected to recognise, such as dynamics, articulation and tempo changes. Listen carefully to music of all kinds – not just for piano – with these in mind. A detailed exploration of the pieces you are studying will also help in this test.
In the exam be clear which tests you have to do for your grade and examination board and if you are not sure about the answer to a test consider the possibilities and give an answer rather than say nothing. If you cannot remember the end of a rhythm that you have to clap back or a melody that you have to sing back, at least make an attempt to finish it and there is a good chance that at least some of it will be right! Whatever tests are incorporated in your examination, make intelligent listening a regular part of your preparation for your exam and you can combine the enjoyment of this with effective exam preparation.
And so we come to the examination itself. If you have learnt your pieces in good time for the exam, play them through occasionally, and go on and learn some other pieces or concentrate on other aspects of the exam. It is essential to get the balance right so that there is no last minute panic but on the other hand that the pieces are not stale through over-practice.