Monthly Archives: March 2013

Understanding Piano Exams

Exams are totally optional and many students choose not to do them for a variety of reasons. However, I find it helps to understand what options are available so that informed decisions can be made.

There are four accredited examination boards

Each board runs exams from Grades 1 to 8. These exams are all accredited by the QCF and are equal to each other. Grades 1-3 are GCSE D-G standard. Grades 4-5 are GCSE A*-C standard. Grades 6 to 8 are A-level standard. In fact gaining Grade 6 or above will gives UCAS points, which may help with university entry.

For Grade exams the usual format is three pieces, a set of scales and/or technical studies, then two of aural tests, sight reading, musical knowledge or improvisation.

Prior to Grade exams there are a number of other exams which students may wish to do. These are shown in order of difficulty.

  • Pre-preparatory (LCM) – Classical
  • Step 1 (LCM) – Classical or Jazz
  • Initial/Debut (TCL/RS) – Classical, Contemporary or Rock & Pop
  • Step 2 (LCM) – Classical or Jazz
  • Prep Test (ABRSM) – Classical – this one has no pass or fail
  • Grades 1 to 8 (All boards) – All Styles

Deciding if a child is ready for an exam is a delicate balancing act and a partnership between the teacher, student and parent. Progress will depend on age, aptitude, practice and whether they already play another instrument. If exams are important to you then we can increase the focus, but if pushed too soon there is a risk that they’ll get put off both exams and piano. We must ensure a child isn’t put under pressure to do exams, since they are by no means essential.

For shy or nervous students there is the option with LCM to submit their performances by DVD.  They don’t get the full accredited grade, but instead receive a performance certificate to show their performance skills are equivalent to those required to achieve the corresponding grade.

It’s hard when other children talk about which grade they’re on. Progress through the grades and learning music is such a personal journey and dependent on so many factors. It’s not a competition. Some children get pushed through grades quickly and come out the other side without many skills other than the ability to play 3 pieces really well. I prefer to take a well rounded approach and nurture a confident and able musician.

Theory and Note Reading Practice

My students love music theory!  I know!  I can’t believe it either.

I have to thank the authors of the wonderful books I use.  Lina Ng and Ying Ying Ng (no relation) have both produced beautifully illustrated sticker books for young (and old) pianists to learn theory.

Finding the right theory book for a student can be tricky. For young students I use Ying Ying Ng’s Music Theory for Young Children which is a set of four colourful sticker books which take them from understanding left and right hands, to Grade 1.  For older children and adults it is a bit more difficult.  If they are happy with the sticker books then that’s great.  If they are competent then starting them on Ying Ying Ng’s Music Theory for Young Musicians – Grade 1 is good.  A problem arises when they think the sticker books are too young, but the Grade 1 book is too fast.  For those I use Lina Ng’s My First Theory Book which is a set of three books but doesn’t quite cover everything needed for Grade 1.

But what happens when they need extra practice?  You can’t photocopy the pages for them to do again, because apart from contravening copyright law, it’s a bit demotivating!  In the past I have created my own worksheets, but after the joys of the beautifully illustrated sticker books they don’t really want my scrappy worksheets!  Each student has different needs so I do use their manuscript books to quickly mark out some exercises.  However, if you watch the students doing these repetitive exercises, they tend to work out the first couple of answers and then just copy across the rest.  Hmmm, not ideal.

But wait a minute – I’ve just discovered a fabulous new website created by Ricci Adams.

You can create note reading games and send them to your students.  They can play them on their pc at home (actually they have iphone apps too but I haven’t looked into these – since I don’t actually have an iphone!!).  You can tailor them to the student by selecting the note range they are practising and there’s no copying!!

Here are a few exercises I have created for my current students

Key Skills – Bass F to Treble G
Treble Clef –
Bass Clef –
Both Clefs –


Initial – Bottom C to Top C
Treble Clef –
Bass Clef –
Both Clefs –


Level 1 – All stave notes
Treble Clef –
Bass Clef –
Both Clefs –


The students can play the games at home and then report back with their score.  I tried it with my son, age 6, and he kept on playing, and playing, and playing!  Well that can’t be bad can it!?

The website provides so much more than just note reading.  For beginners it can test them on their keyboard geography.  For more advanced students it can test key signatures, intervals, chords.  There are also aural tests for recognising chords, scales and intervals.  I think I’m going to be using this site over and over!  Thank you Ricci Adams!

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