Piano Exams: A Tale of Two Piano Students

This week I was delighted to receive the news that one of my 11-year old students had passed her Grade 1 piano exam with a very good distinction.  The student started with me as a complete beginner 2.5 years’ ago at the age of 8.

Although she doesn’t come from a musical family, she has always been really enthusiastic about learning the piano and has great support at home.   She has always shown a real interest in music and loves writing her own compositions as well as learning a variety of pieces.   After nearly two years’ of learning the piano we talked about whether she wanted to prepare for her Grade 1 and she was very keen to do so.  Over the course of about six months’ she worked really hard preparing her pieces, scales and practicing for the sight-reading and aural tests.  It has to be said that during this time we did less work on other aspects of her musical education – such as improvising and composing – as the exam preparation took priority.  However, the exam did provide the opportunity to prepare three pieces to a really high standard as well as developing the other skills necessary to succeed in the exam.

Because she had worked so hard for the exam, she actually really enjoyed the experience on the day itself.  It was lovely to receive a text from her immediately after the exam saying she thought she had done well and was ‘very happy’.  Two weeks’ later when I received her results I was over the moon as all her dedication and hard work had really paid off.

I have another student, a ten year old boy who started learning the piano at the age of six with his school.  The approach of his school to piano education was one of getting students through their exams as quickly as possible – an approach I describe as the “exam treadmill”.   He took his Grade 1 after only about 18 months’ of study.  His mother is a good pianist herself and worked very closely with him and he achieved a merit.   He was very quickly entered for his Grade 2 and again, with very good hands-on support he achieved another merit.  When I started teaching him he had just completed his Grade 3 – having started down this road soon after completing Grade 2. By this time, he was very disillusioned with the piano and his mother was having a difficult time getting him to practice regularly.  He passed his Grade 3 with a good grade but by this time he wanted to give up the piano completely.  After nearly four years’ of study he had achieved his Grade 3 but had spent nearly all of this time preparing for exams with limited opportunity to explore other repertoire or to learn about other aspects of the piano such as improvising and composting.

After his Grade 3, I agreed with his mother that we would spend time trying to re-engage him with the piano without the pressure of any exams to prepare for.   I’ve spent a lot of time with him exploring chords and chord progressions and how these are used in so many different forms of music – from his exam pieces to current pop-songs.  Whenever we improvise together at the piano he always amazes me with his ability to come up with some really creative ideas on the spur of the moment. He has also shown a real ability to develop these ideas into his own compositions and has composed some really inventive and wonderful pieces.  Most importantly, he no longer wants to give up the piano!

Reflecting on the experiences of these two students I am mindful of both how beneficial exams can be, but also how damaging they can be if used as an end in themselves and if students are rushed into them too soon.  (In fact, many of my students choose not to sit exams because the time taken to prepare and formality of approach does not tie in with their own areas of interest – but that is the subject for another blog!)   I could have entered my 11-year old student for a Grade 1 earlier – but she may not have achieved such a good distinction and she would have had far less opportunity to explore other aspects of the piano – and it would probably not have been the really positive experience that it turned out to be.  Further, had my 10-year old student not been rushed into his exams in the early years of his study, he may not have experienced the same disillusionment that he felt when I first met him.

Looking ahead, I fully expect both students to do further exams.  They represent a good benchmark of achievement and the process of preparing for them is a great motivator and provides the opportunity to really hone skills to a high standard. And, of course, it is a wonderful sense of achievement when the hard work is rewarded with exam success!  My 11-year old, having just finished Grade 1, is in no rush to start on Grade 2 – rather she is now excited by the prospect of spending the next few months working on other pieces and returning to composing and other activities.  We’ll start working towards Grade 2 when the time is right.  And my 10-year old, having had some ‘time-out’ from the exam treadmill, will, I hope, approach his next exam positively, knowing that this is just one part of learning the piano.  But most importantly of all I hope that both students will continue to play the piano throughout their lives and I feel hugely privileged to be part of their journeys.

For more on exams please see :

What is Grade 1? 

Exams: to take or not to take? 


12 Reasons why student concerts matter

12 Reasons why student concerts matter

My students and I are currently preparing for our next student concert.  As well as practicing their pieces in their lessons, we are also working on their wider performance skills – introducing themselves clearly and then finishing their pieces with style and taking a bow.

Whilst formal piano exams may not be right for all students, taking part in regular student concerts really does benefit every student – not just in terms of refining skills by preparing pieces to performance standard, but also in developing wider skills and confidence that will see them through many aspects of their future lives.

Teaching colleagues of mine, Andrea and Trevor Dow from TeachPianoToday, compiled this great list of reasons why student concerts (recitals) are so vital.  This list is written for parents and I am grateful to them for allowing me to share it below.  I’ve also included some photos of my past student concerts.

1.  Recitals provide a tangible goal to work towards. In having a set date and a pre-planned performance selection, your child learns how to manage their practice time and what it feels like to polish and perfect a piece.IMG_6970

2.  Recitals provide an opportunity to feel successful. Learning the piano requires many, many hours of solo practice. Performing gives your child the recognition they deserve for their hard-work.

3.  Recitals provide an opportunity for you to show your child that you value their involvement in music. Setting aside time in your busy life to attend a recital supports your children and their peers and shows your child that your family values music.IMG_6963

4.  Recitals provide a chance for your children (and you!) to reflect upon where they’ve “come from” when watching beginning students.  Progress at the piano can sometimes feel slow, but watching younger students perform reminds your children of the gains they have made and motivates them to continue to progress.

5.  Recitals provide a chance for your children (and you!) to see “where they’ll go” when watching more advanced students.  There are few things more motivating to a piano student than watching their peers perform. They get to hear pieces that they will enjoy playing in the future, see more advanced technique first-hand and experience the pride that comes from becoming proficient at the piano.Edward

6.  Recitals provide a chance for your extended family to be involved in your child’s piano education.  Athletes get all the glory… everyone comes to watch soccer games but no one really heads over to watch a piano practice session! Involving grandparents and aunties and uncles in the recital audience gives your child an opportunity to share their hard work with the ones they love.

7.  Recitals provide a chance for your child to experience nervousness… and to realize that those feelings are okay. We like to protect our children from feeling uncomfortable, but in “real life” these feelings are part-and-parcel of being human. Early experiences with successfully conquering nerves gives children confidence.


8. Recitals give you the opportunity to provide genuine and heart-felt praise. Bring on the photos and videos and big hugs and flushed-face smiles.  Clap enthusiastically.  Let your child know just how much you recognize their efforts and watch their commitment to piano lessons soar.

9. Recitals provide a chance for your child to practice public speaking and to gain confidence in front of a group; two skills that will serve your child well in many other areas of his or her life. Speaking and performing in a safe environment means that your child gains important experience in front of a crowd. The earlier these experiences happen, the easier it becomes for your child as they enter adolescence and adulthood.Me with all the performers

10.  Recitals provide an opportunity for your child to get to know his or her peers who are also taking lessons. Making these connections helps to build community within a studio and helps your child to feel as though he or she belongs which results in increased interest in lessons.

11.  Recitals give your children the chance to hear live music. Young children rarely attend a lot of live concerts… and piano recitals are a wonderful place for your child to hear a wide variety of music. Nothing can replace the “live music experience” and when your child is an active participant in the event it’s even more rewarding!photo (14)

12. Recitals provide an opportunity for you to sit back and marvel at the pride-inducing sight of your own child making beautiful music! Piano practice is often done amongst a busy household with siblings, pets, vacuums, dishwashers and doorbells.  It’s rare that you have the opportunity to focus only on your child and the music they are making. These moments matter.IMG_0732

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Dulwich Music Festival

I am delighted to have been asked to adjudicate in the Dulwich Music Festival next Summer.

Festival Director, Lorraine Liyanage, writes:

“The Dulwich Music Festival is now in its fifth year. It is an annual event that takes place several times during the year to provide performance and feedback opportunities for pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. The piano competition is well established and fully booked months in advance. We recommend early booking. Some of the June classes are already fully booked.

Repertoire has been carefully chosen to allow complete beginners the chance to gain their first experience of performing to a friendly and welcoming audience. We seek out innovative repertoire by contemporary composers who also adjudicate the classes. In addition to the contemporary repertoire, we also have graded classes and recital and exhibition classes”.