8 Essential Keys for Successful Exam Preparation Darlene Irwin February 08, 2015
Exams…the very thought can strike fear into the hearts of many a student! But they can also be an important part of the musical journey. Successful exam preparation is a HUGE part of what we do as teachers. I often say that passing an exam is like opening a musical door. As a student completes an exam, he passes through that door and enters a whole new level of music.
There are many wonderful Conservatory systems offering graded exams for students. I use the Royal Conservatory of Music Examination (RCM) for my students. It’s a great way for them to logically and systematically pass through the various levels. This past year, 9 of my students completed their piano exams, ranging from Grade 1 to 8. All marks were 84% or higher. Several were 90% or higher including two Grade 7's with 92%. My Grade 8 played his exam just 2 weeks ago. He received 91%!
I would like to share with you some ideas that have helped me prepare my students for exams.
(Note....I'm giving away FREE mock exam charts at the end of this blog post).
KEY #1 BE READY
- Moving too quickly through early grades can lead to discouragement later on.
- Students need to have the technical facility and sight reading skills before they start taking exams. This can take two to three years for a beginner.
- Each student is different. Sometimes it's good to do a junior exam so that students become familiar with the process. Other times, it's better to wait until they are older and more mature. Some students need a certain grade for a school credit.
- Exams are not for everyone. Some students enjoy doing recitals or master classes. Others prefer competitions. The most important thing is that they learn to love music. Find out what they like. Encourage them to do lots of different styles of music, including duets and trios.
KEY #2 GIVE IT TIME
Long-term Planning is Critical
- Once a student is ready, it can takes 6-8 months to prepare for a junior exam (Pre Gd 1 - Grd 3). Intermediate exams may take an entire year. Senior exams usually take longer.
- All of this depends on how hard they work, how quickly they learn and how busy they are with family, school and other activities.
- Last-minute preparation leads to frustration for both the student and the teacher.
- An effective learning technique that I use is....have students learn and memorize their exam pieces early in the year, put them away for a time and don't play them, then bring them back and perfect them.
- Have them play other pieces at the same time. That way, they don't get tired of their exam pieces.
- Technique, Sight Reading and Ear Training are worth over 30 marks on an RCM exam AND they can't be crammed. Work consistently on these areas throughout the year.
KEY #3 PICK PIECES CAREFULLY
Strategic Piece Selection
- Try picking pieces that are in the syllabus but not in the current books. Students love to feel that they are doing something unique. It’s also refreshing for an examiner to hear something totally different.
- In the RCM system, you can replace one study with a Popular selection OR a ‘Teacher’s Own Choice’ (Grade 3 and up).
- Pick pieces that will highlight the student's strengths.
- Here are some interesting and varied pieces that my students have chosen recently. All of these pieces work well for exams.
KEY #4 MEMORIZE IN SECTIONS
Don't Practice Until You Get it Right, Practice Until You Can't Get it Wrong.
Here's my Theory....there are 3 levels of memory for pieces
- You can play it at home, but it is still shaky at your lesson.
- You can play it at your lesson, but it is not yet ready for performance.
- You can play it for anyone because you know it inside out.
- Divide pieces into logical sections according to form and phrasing. Label them A, B, C etc.
- Learn and memorize pieces Hands Separately (HS) and Hands Together (HT) in sections.
- Be able to start at any section - RH, LH or HT (Safely nets throughout piece).
- Keep going in performance….jump to the next section if you must but NEVER go back.
- Practice 'jumping' while playing....student starts their piece, teacher calls out a section and the student must jump to that section and keep going!
- See our handy Sight Reading Memory and Performance Cards for lots of great ideas on Memorizing and Performance.
KEY #5 PERFORMANCE EXPERIENCE
The Importance of Performance Practice
- Perform each piece at least once in a master class or recital before the exam.
- Do a video of each piece before the exam. It's a great memory check because it simulates the exam experience.
- Have a special Exam Master Class about 3 weeks before exams.
- Have each student perform their pieces, one after the other, as a concert group. There usually isn't time for studies.
Have a 'Scale-a-Thon' at the end of the class....here's how it works:
- Each student receives a small plastic bag.
- You will need the 'Scale Charts' or technique books for each grade and a bowl of M&M’s.
- Call a student’s name and a scale or triad from their grade.
- Students take turns running to the piano and playing their technique for each other.
- If they do it well, they can put an M&M in their bag. The goal is to get as many M&M's as possible.
- Before the class, students work harder on their technique knowing they are going to be playing them for others.
- After the class, the younger students work harder to improve because they've heard what the older students can do.
KEY #6 MAINTENANCE PRACTICE
Maintaining a Piece is Like Mountain Climbing
- Students sometimes struggle to keep fast-paced pieces at performance level.
- Having a piece ready for performance is like making it to the top of the mountain. However, if you are not careful, it will start to slide down the other side! Jelly Fingers set in!
- Get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain. What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course....he should be your best friend.
- Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion.
- You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
- All fast pieces should have a maintenance speed. You can practice it up to speed as well...but only if you have paid the price with slow metronome practice.
- The fast speed should be a little under the suggested metronome speed. Adrenaline will take care of the rest! If a student has practiced slowly with the metronome, he should be able to control his piece in performance.
See my blog post on Maintenance Practice for more ideas.
KEY #7 ORDER MATTERS
Plan the Order of the Exam Carefully
In the RCM exam system, a student is allowed to chose the order of the exam (i.e. doing pieces or technique & studies first, order of studies, order of pieces).
Here is my preferred order for an exam:
- Start with technique. It should be well prepared...I have my students play their technique at the speeds of the next grade.
- Doing technique first gives them a chance to try the piano, settle into the exam, and warm up their fingers.
- Studies will be next. They do not NEED to be memorized, but they should be anyway. Having the music as a 'security blanket' will take away the pressure of 'having' to memorize studies.
- Choose the order of songs so that they start and end with their strongest pieces. Alternate fast and slow songs for interest and variety.
- Ear Training and Sight Reading are always done last.
KEY #8 MOCK EXAMS WORK
Mock Exams - An Essential Part of Exam Training
- Do mock exams on the last 3 lessons before an exam. Students feel much more comfortable with the whole exam process by the third mock.
- Pretend to be the examiner. Run through the entire exam exactly as it will be done on their exam day.....minimal cordial talking only, have them wait quietly while you write, no comments or feedback from examiner, only written comments. The first time that they experience this can be very unnerving.
- I use the graded Mock Exam Sheets (for sale on this website). They are fillable PDF files. I can write in them for the mock exam, save them and then e-mail the sheet to the student at the end of the exam. Each Mock Exam Sheet comes with a handy Percentage Calculation Chart.
- I do give them marks on their mock exam. I explain to them beforehand that I are not their examiner, that this is just one moment in time and that their mark can certainly change on the day of their exam. I usually mark harder than the examiner. I just want to make sure that they are in first-class territory (80%).
- You can ask your students to print their mock exam sheets and tape them into their Organizer for future reference.
A practical piano exam is made up of many different components….Technique, Studies, Pieces, Ear Training and Sight Reading. Preparing for a piano exam requires that all of these things peak at the same time. I like to compare an exam to a musical box….we add each of these prepared elements to the box one at a time until the box is full. Then and only then is the student is ready for their exam. Good luck preparing your students for their music exams.
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: Alice's Door Knob, 7-2012