Spring is in the air and many music students are busy preparing for practical exams.
As the exam approaches, quite a lot of time is spent preparing and memorizing all the required pieces. However, it is VERY important that students also take time to work on their scales, chords and arpeggios. Successful technique requires great perseverance, patience and preparation.
Here are seven teaching tips that have helped my students to do their very best on the technical portion of their exams.
Take Time to Learn Correct Fingering
Fingering matters. Learn the correct scale fingering from the start. Fingering is also essential for fluent triads. Watch the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the middle of the triads.
Say the finger numbers out loud as you play scales hands separately. This will help to reinforce fingering. Learn to play one key correctly before attempting to play the others.
Drill, drill drill. Muscle memory takes time. Playing scales correctly is like learning to ride a bicycle….with enough practice, they eventually become second nature.
Skeleton Scales are a fun way to help students learn fingering and visualize patterns. Play a C+ scale (RH) - 1 on C, 2 and 3 together on D and E, 1 on F, 2, 3 and 4 together on G, A and B, 1 on C and so on up and down the scale. Repeat with the left hand. Once you have mastered C+, try this exercise in different keys.
Take Time to Use The Metronome
The Metronome is your best friend. Play scales with the metronome from the very beginning.
The metronome is also 'The Great Controller'. You must learn to control the notes…..you can’t let the notes control you!
LISTEN carefully and make sure you are not going faster or slower. Try to ‘Catch the Beat’.
Slow practice gives you time to listen and think about arm weight and tone production. The scales need to be played consistently and correctly. Only then can you start to increase the speed.
Remember…..Slow practice is really Fast Practice in Slow Motion.
Take Time to Discover Patterns
Know your key signatures. Watch for and compare Relative Major and Minor scales. Did you know that the descending Melodic Minor scale is the same as it’s Relative Major?
Watch the 4th finger in hands-separate scales. It is almost always played on the same key. The 3rd and 4th fingers generally take turns.
In the hands-together scales with the pattern 123123412312345, the 3rd fingers generally play at the same time.
Identify all of your required scales that have the same patterns and practice them one after the other.
Memorize these three tricky scales separately (f#-, g#- and c#- melodic). Be careful because the pattern changes on the way down.
‘The Student Music Organizer’ has a very handy Comparative Fingering Chart on the back inside cover. This can be colour-coded to show which scales share the same fingering patterns.
For hands-together scales, watch the right hand on the way up and the left hand on the way down.
For scales containing lots of black keys, watch black and white keys for patterns. i.e. G flat+ - play the white keys closes to the 3-black keys. D flat+ - play the upper white key each time. B+ - play the lower white key each time.
I call d- and g- harmonic the ‘Grand Canyon’ scales. You have to jump from black key to black key across the canyon (2 white keys). The f#- harmonic scale has a white-white canyon!
Dominant and Diminished 7ths also have patterns with the white and black keys.
When arpeggios start on black keys, the thumb generally comes on the first white key (unless the notes are all black).
Take Time to Practice Technique All Year Long
Technique will not cram well…..practicing all year long builds confidence and finger strength.
All technique should be up to grade speed before applying for an exam.
Challenge yourself - strive to have your technique at the speed of the next grade.
Scale Charts save time. You can tell at a glance what’s hands-separate, what’s hands-together, what’s one octave or what’s 2 octaves. The major keys are in upper case and the minor keys are in lower case.
The Scale Charts are colour-coded and easy-to-read: green for hands-separately, white for hands together. Diminished 7th are also colour-coded. There are only 3 of them…the rest are inversions of the originals.
Scales are listed on the top of the chart, chords in the middle and arpeggios at the bottom.
The charts are also Weekly Practice Guides. (divided into six days)
You can write specific information in the boxes i.e. key signature, raised notes, fingering etc.
On-Line digital Scale Charts or regular charts will be available shortly for the new 2015 requirements.
Take Time to Plan Your Exam
Start your exam with technique. This helps to warm up your fingers. It also lets you get a feel for the piano and the arm weight required to produce the sound that you want AND it gives you time to relax and feel comfortable in the room before playing memorized pieces. When you start with your technique, you are telling the examiner that you are well prepared….go ahead, ask me f#- melodic….I CAN DO IT!!
In your exam, mentally prepare to play each scale, chord or arpeggio. Pre-think the patterns and where you are going before you start.
Listen carefully to what the examiner has asked for…then repeat it over in your mind. Is it right hand or left hand, Harmonic or Melodic, legato or staccato? Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the request.
Successful exams require strong technique and strong technique takes time. Work on your technique all year long, not just before an exam. Practicing technique every day is like going to the gym for your fingers.
Take time to prepare and you will be rewarded with a greater technical facility and you will have the confidence you need to do your very best on your exam.
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
Are You Prepared for the Next Level?
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.
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.
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.
Maintaining a piece for performance is a lot like mountain climbing.....I tell my students this all the time.
It's also very much like trying to tame a wild horse!!
This is the time of year when students are busy preparing for exams or recitals. They work very hard to learn and memorize a piece and get it up to tempo. However, sometimes students struggle with keeping that piece at performance level. The faster the speed of the piece, the harder this is. And so we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses.....
Having the piece ready to go is like finally making it to the top of the mountain. But what happens then? If you are not very careful, that piece will start to slide down the other side of the mountain! Jelly Fingers will set in!! You need to 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!
So what does all of this have to do with wild horses? If a student practices a piece over and over again at a fast pace, that piece can turn into what I call a 'wild horse'. We talk about that horse galloping across the field, totally out of control! What we need are reins so that we can get that horse under control.
And what do the reins represent? You guessed it.....the metronome!
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
The metronome should be your best friend. I encourage my students to name their metronome.....I call mine George V!! I've gone through a few metronomes in my time!
George V is a much more sophisticated model than his predecessors. I LOVE this version (Korg KDM-2). I especially love the middle button on top. I can tap along with a student and know exactly what speed they are playing. I can also tap the exact speed that I would like for a piece and it will tell me instantly what that speed is. And unlike a traditional metronome, it goes up to 256 (which I actually used this week with a student!)
This past January, I had 3 students do Royal Conservatory of Music exams.....two Grade 7's and one Grade 8. All of them did quite well.....one received First Class Honours and the other two First Class Honours with Distinction. I also had two Grade 10 students audition for University and College programs. This June, I have students doing exams for Grade 1, two Grade 4's and Grade 5. For each student, the challenge is the same....how to maintain the faster pieces.
Here are some effective ideas that I have used with my students:
Preparing to maintain a piece starts on the very first day the piece is introduced. I work with the student to divide the piece into logical sections, according to phrases and form. (I will talk more about this in a future blog post). I label these sections with capital letters and circle the letters. If there are more than 26 sections, we use double letters. I also have the students figure out the basic key signature of each section, making special note of sections that modulate to a different key. If the piece is in a certain form, then we label these sections as well. i.e. Exposition, Development & Recapitulation.
Draw a box around any tricky areas that needs extra practice and label these as Box #1, Box #2 etc. These should be practiced separately until they are fluent.
Learn the piece in small sections, using the metronome as soon as possible. Consistent metronome practice helps to keep the piece in control. Learn it correctly the first time....it's so much easier than having to fix things later. Of course the rhythm and notes are important. However, also pay special attention to all the details such as fingering, articulation, phrases, rests and dynamics. Learn one section at a time. You can add more sections once you have mastered the first one.
Once the piece has been learned correctly, then you can memorize it in small sections, preferably hands separately. Be able to start playing at any section. This gives you safety nets all the way through the piece. You can also compare sections to see which ones are the same and which ones are different.
My students love to play the musical card game. I have a set of file cards with letters which correspond to the sections in their piece. I shuffle the cards and hold them up, one at a time. They love playing the mixed up version of their piece!! For an extra challenge, ask for the left hand only!!
Always have a maintenance speed and work at the slow speed several times before attempting allowing yourself to it up to speed. Four times slow and once fast works well! Exaggerate the arm motions at the slow speed.Be very careful not to over practice at the fast speed.
Remember....Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
Putting a song on a shelf is a good strategy for maintaining a song. I actually draw a little shelf on the student's lesson page in The Student Music Organizer. I put it right underneath the lesson practice chart. Putting a piece on a shelf means that we leave the piece and don't play it for a while. This can also be called plateau learning. Then, when we revisit the piece, we can take it to the next level!
Table practice is a good way to maintain finger strength and articulation. Play the piece away from the piano on a flat surface. It helps to play with a little 'bite' in the ends of the fingers, using correct arm motion.
Another valuable technique is to "mind play" your piece. Find a quiet place away from the piano. Read the score as you would a book, while you 'listen' to the music and imagine yourself playing the notes. Observe and make note of all articulation and dynamics. This can also be done in sections. It is also a great way to reinforce memory.
One of my students is working on a piece called Intrada by Graupner. It is her Baroque piece (List A) and she is doing it for a Grade 5 exam later on this month. Click to see how I divided it into sections and prepared it for her to learn. It is now memorized hands separately in sections. She played it for me at her lesson last week and it was quite good...just about ready to go. But she doesn't play her exam for a few weeks. So we go into maintenance mode and we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses!!
Here are a few of the pieces that my students have maintained or are continuing to maintain for exams, auditions and recitals this year.
Prelude & Fugue in E+ (Bach) Grade 10
Prelude in c#- (Rachmaninoff)
Sonata in C+ K330 1st movement (Mozart) Grade 9
Etude in c- Op.29 #7 (Bertini) Grade 7
Suite #8 in G+ HWV 441 IV: Aria (Handel) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 55 #31st Movement (Kuhlau) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 36 #3 1st Movement (Clementi) Grade 7
Suite #1 in D+ VIII: Gigue (Krebs) Grade 7
Wound Up (Norton) Grade 7
Intrada in C+ (Graupner) Grade 5
March of the Terrible Trolls (Niamath) Grade 1
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!