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.
(Teresa Richart) Study - Teacher’s Own Choice (Canadian Composer) from 'At Sea'
(Frances Balodis) Study - Teacher’s choice (Canadian Composer)
(Boris Berlin) List C (Canadian Composer)
(Martha Duncan) List D (Canadian Composer) from 'Isla Vista Suite'
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
"A goal is a dream with a deadline."
This is a quote from the early 20th century American author Napoleon Hill. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers on how to be successful in life. Another of his hallmark expressions was, "Anything the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve."
The beginning of the piano year is an ideal time to talk to our students about musical goals. It’s important that the teacher knows what the student would like to accomplish in the year ahead. The student also needs to know what the teacher believes they can achieve.
Here are some simple goal-setting strategies that you can use with your students:
I always take a few minutes at the first lesson to discuss and record each student's goals. This gives me the opportunity to suggest an appropriate amount of practice time per week. Even beginners can have musical goals. For them, it can be something as simple as 'This year I’m going to love music!' On the Forbes website it states, "Creating clear and measurable goals and writing them down is the key to success."
- Communication between parents, students and teacher is very important. Make sure that the parents have the same expectations as the students. Problems can arise when the goals of the parents are too difficult for the student. You may need to speak to the parent alone to express these concerns and come to a compromise.
- Goals for more advanced students might include finishing a level or grade (practical or theory), doing an exam or taking part in a competition. If students don’t want to do exams, then their goals could be to improve their sight reading by completing a certain number of classical or popular pieces. It helps to be specific. For example, a good goal might be to learn a number of scales or pieces by a certain date.
- Musical goals will depend upon the students' abilities and also on how much time they can devote to practice. It’s important that their goals be achievable so they don’t get discouraged.
Having said that, sometimes I've had students set a goal that I thought was too difficult. I try to support them and so we discuss the practice time required to reach their goal. For example, last year I had a student who was working at a Grade 3 level. My goal for her was to do a grade 3 exam. However, she expressed a strong desire to complete Grade 4 by the end of the year. We adjusted her practice time and came up with strategies to accomplish this. She worked very hard and did complete her grade 4 with an excellent mark.
- Once we have set some attainable goals for the year, then we discuss how much time they will need to practice each week to attain those goals. Students are juggling many things—school, sports, their social life, family commitments and other activities. The list is endless!! I usually write 3 different daily scenarios on the practice page at the front of the Student Music Organizer....for example: good (30 minutes), better (35 minutes) and best (40 minutes). The length of time will depend on their grade and their goals. Once we have decided on their practice time, I require that they practice that amount 6 days a week...they can have one day off! We then break the time down even further. (i.e. 5 minutes for Sight Reading, 10 minutes for Technique and 15 minutes for pieces).
- Review the student's goals throughout the year. This helps to ensure that they are still on track. You may have to adjust the goals from time to time depending on the progress of the student.
- There is such a great feeling of accomplishment when students are able to reach their musical goals. A Musical Report card is a wonderfully positive way to finish the year. I always list goals that have been completed. I also recognize students at the year-end recital who have completed all of their practicing for the year. I call them my “Perfect Practicers” (see blog post entitled It's June - Musical Report Cards and a Fond Farewell).
'The Student Music Organizer' has a special spot on page 2 at the front of the book for listing musical goals. This makes it very easy to review these goals regularly throughout the year. This page also includes a place to keep track of favourite repertoire and a section for exam planning. On page 3, there is a very handy place for planning and organizing the student's practice time.
Teaching is like a triangle. The parent and the teacher are at the bottom supporting the student at the top. Working together as a team is the best way to ensure musical success for the student. Remember - The First Step to Reaching your Goals is Believing You Can Get There.
♥︎ Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: mindfulwishes.com
How do you motivate students to practice?
This is one of the biggest challenges for a piano teacher. We want our students to love music but they have to practice if they are going to progress. And practicing is work! How can we motivate our students to practice more effectively?
My goal for my students is for them to have what I call "no nag" practice.
I want them to enjoy their practice AND I want them to progress. Here are some of the strategies that I have used in my own teaching to help my students meet their musical potential and have fun doing it!
#1: Set Goals
I always take a few minutes in their first lesson and talk to them about what they want to accomplish in the upcoming year. It's also a good idea to speak with a parent so that you know what they are expecting from their child's music lessons. I write these goals on a special page at the front of the Student Music Organizer. For a first-year student, their goal might be something as simple as becoming a better note reader, to learn lots of new pieces and, of course, to love music! For an older student, maybe they want to do an exam or finish a grade. Some students may have upcoming auditions or competitions. Each student is unique. Setting goals helps to ensure that the teacher, parent and student are all on the same musical page!
#2: Set Daily Practice Time
Once we have set some attainable goals for the year, then we discuss how much time they will need to practice each week to attain those goals. Students are juggling many things—school, sports, their social life, family commitments and other activities. The list is endless!! I usually write 3 different daily scenarios on the practice page at the front of the Student Music Organizer....good (30 minutes), better (35 minutes) and best (40 minutes). The length of time will depend on their grade and their goals. Once we have decided on their practice time, I require that they practice that amount 6 days a week...they can have one day off! We then break the time down even further. (i.e. 5 minutes for Sight Reading, 10 minutes for Technique and 15 minutes for pieces).
#3: Have Students Record Their Practice Time Each Day
There is a great chart on each assignment page of the Student Music Organizer where they can keep track of their practice times. If they do extra time, I write this below the chart. We call this a "Musical Bank". Then, if they have a crazy week and can't complete all of their time, they can 'borrow' some time from their bank! Students love this idea. I've had students competing to see who can get the biggest bank....it's a very sneaky way to motivate them to do more practicing!! For younger students, I usually have the parent fill in the practice time or have them initial it.
I have found that all students love stickers, not just the younger ones! I always have a special "Sticker of the Week". If they have completed their practice time for the week, then, at their lesson, I will put this sticker on their Assignment page. If they have a 'musical bank', they know that they can borrow from that bank and still receive their sticker.
#5: Studio Practice Chart
In September, I make a large chart on a piece of Bristol board and place it on the wall in the studio. If the student has completed all of their practice time, then they can put a special sticker on the chart for that week. Just knowing that they will be able to put their sticker on the wall really helps motivate them to complete all of their practice time! I also encourage them to try to spread their practicing out over the week. Consistent daily practice is much more effective than a marathon just before the lesson!
#6: Treat Week
If students have completed all of their practicing for the last 5 weeks, then they receive a treat. You wouldn't believe how motivating a Rice Krispie Square can be! My teaching year consists of 35 weeks, so that means that there are seven treat weeks in the year. I use a different sticker on the studio practice chart after each treat week. At the recital, I honour those students who have completed all of their practicing for the entire year with a special certificate. I call them my 'Perfect Practicers'. Most of my students will receive this honour.
Both of my recipes for these delicious and simple Rice Krispie Squares are shared with this post - 2 separate files. (Chocolate-Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Squares and Regular Rice Krispie Squares).
Have fun helping your students to achieve their goals. Please feel free to share any motivational ideas that you have used in your studio.
♫ A SPECIAL NOTE ♫…The Student Music Organizer Website is having a fantastic 15/15 sale! For the entire month of August, teachers will receive 15% off of their entire order if they order 15 organizers or more. Use the discount code AUGUST at checkout to take advantage of this terrific deal.
♥︎ Remember, Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎