Is it a good idea to take piano exams?

When signing up for piano classes, whether with a private teacher or with a school, a choice is usually offered to take graded examinations through one of the many examining boards which offer such service.

Entities such as the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), Trinity College London (TCL), London College of Music (LCM) to name a few, all have their syllabi for every instrument and other musical disciplines such as composition and music theory.

There are a variety of advantages in undertaking such learning path:

  • all those syllabi are carefully designed in order to be as progressive as possible, meaning that each step is perceived by the learner as an effortless transition from the previous level to the next.
  • technical aspects and requirements (scales, arpeggios, broken chords, etc.) are set in relation to the keys and tonalities of the repertoire pieces, i.e. the pieces to be practiced are in the keys of the scales and arpeggios to be studied, which gives students an aural awareness of the sense of tonality of the pieces they are practicing.
  • having exam day as a goal to work towards involves the student into the planning process and motivates towards consistent practice.
  • the sense of achievement of receiving an official certificate further motivates the student.

With such a detailed plan laid out in a syllabus it should be only a matter of course that people manage to achieve their desired level of mastery at a musical instrument of choice, so that they play any tune they like, at will, with technical facility and full musical expression.

We all know reality is slightly different.

There is the small matter of daily practice, for example, which not every student abides by, the reasons of which falling outside the scope of this article. We could also say that, while we all deserve equal opportunities and access to a musical education, not everyone possesses equal musical disposition: some people learn music better than others, the reasons of which also fall outside the scope of this article.

But let’s assume for a moment: let’s take someone who did their piano exams, as most do, through childhood through their teens, working diligently and achieving somewhere between grade 5 to 7, maybe 8, even enjoying the process up to a point. This hypothetical student is lucky enough to have a teacher who is bright, knowledgeable and motivating, living in a home environment which is encouraging and stimulating, and having an instrument at his or her disposal which is of good quality, and the repertoire being mostly pleasant. A perfect scenario. Why is it that the vast majority of these students do not continue playing their instrument after achieving the “Grade” that they agreed with their parents they would manage to get?

As a piano teacher for the past 10 years, the number one complain from students returning to music is the following:

“I got bored of only practicing the three pieces for the exam”

Let’s now do some maths:

From total beginner to Grade 8 there are, of course, eight grades plus the preparatory grades before Grade 1 which vary from board to board; let’s assume there are two preparatory grades for the sake of argument.

The norm is that three repertoire pieces are learnt for each grade, which means by the time Grade 8 is reached the student will have learnt 30 pieces; piano lessons usually start at age 7 or 8 and continue through to middle to late teens, let’s say seven years worth of piano lessons.

That makes an average of four pieces each year, rounded down, with only the material contained in the higher grades being of such nature that it can be retained as “Useful” repertoire i.e. music that can be performed for any reason outside of the scope of a practical music examination.

In this scenario, expectations are not met: the parent who hoped to instil a love for music in the child, and the child who has been practicing diligently are both equally disappointed. Images of house parties, birthdays and Christmases enriched by the sound of a piano are shattered.

So, what went wrong? The child was practicing, passed all exams all the way to Grade 8 with some distinctions and few merits along the way.

I will try to answer that question and offer a solution; here is a simple concept:

“What you do in the practice room gets you more and more of… what you do in the practice room”

In other words: if practice time is devoted entirely to learning a graded exam repertoire, and the technical requirements for it, that is what you will be able to play. Nothing else.

Therefore, a graded exam syllabus becomes useful only when it is part of a wholesome plan for the complete growth of the student as a musician; such plan must include the following aspects:

  • listening, active and critical, to a variety of pieces of music chosen between various styles, eras and genres.
  • harmony in relation to the repertoire
  • musicianship, which is a broad term for what I like to refer to as “Musical intelligence”
  • sight reading
  • rhythm reading
  • sight singing
  • quick studies
  • improvisation
  • ensemble playing, duets, etc.
  • composition
  • proper technical training
  • effective practice strategies

If all these aspects are addressed in the course of planning the musical growth of an individual, there are very good chances that the student will become empowered with the necessary tools to walk his / her own musical journey, and practice will be deliberate and fruitful. In such framework, a graded syllabus becomes integral part of the journey, providing structure and progressive learning of repertoire, technique, etc.

In short: music grades are good, as long as they don’t become the only goal of your music practice. Make sure you get yourself a good teacher who will look after you by empowering you with all the tools and knowledge to become the musician you can be.

ABRSM theory ABRSM theory grade 3 blog music theory

Key signatures and tonic triads, few concepts – ABRSM theory grade 3

This is a theory lesson aimed at furthering the understanding of key signatures and their relationship to the keys. Also the relationship between major and relative minor is looked at. Specifically to gain knowledge required to answer correctly some questions of ABRSM grade 3 standard. Get writing, and HAPPY UNDERSTANDING


blog Free tutorials intermediate Sheet music TV themes and soundtracks

Downton Abbey theme tune piano lesson

Here it is finally, a full lesson on how to practice the theme tune of the opening title from the Downton Abbey TV show. This is a transcription I made myself, and I did my best to stay faithful to the original. Download the sheet music and have fun.

Download sheet music here

If you enjoyed the piano lesson and would like to contribute, please consider donating. Any amount, however small, contributes to keeping the website alive so that all this content can be kept free and available. Thank you.


Practice tips: if you’re stuck…

It happens regularly to all of us musicians, and as a piano teacher I hear it frequently from my students: ‘this is just TOO HARD’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘I get stuck here’, and all variations thereof of this main theme. Whether you’re an advanced student or the parent of a young student who’s past the elementary stage, I will share here some thoughts and strategies on how to best tackle those seemingly insurmountable passages.

This entry is aimed at my older students – grade 5/6 upwards – and also my younger students’ parents.

So you’re just through with your school homework and, between now and dinner time, you worked out you can spare 20 minutes of practice time. GOOD. However there’s this nasty bar with a complex rhythm, strange fingering, angular up-and-down melody, complicated coordination between right and left hand that is just not coming out right, and every time it gets to that you just stumble over and over again. First thing to do is…


… and do something differently!

if you just go over and over the same troublesome spot at the same speed, in the same exact way, stumbling mindlessly, that’s exactly what you are learning: to stumble mindlessly! You cannot expect a different result if you do something in the same way over and over. You cannot hope to bury a problem under a big pile of repetitions in the hope that it’ll go away. The problem will still be there, unsolved, under that big pile of repetitions.

You want to make this passage MANAGEABLE. At the moment, as it stands, it is UNMANAGEABLE.

In order to make it manageable we must do something differently by removing some layers of complexity, in no particular order, but usually the first culprit is too much speed so, please…

2) SLOW DOWN – and enjoy it! Enjoy being slow and musical, enjoy the sound you’re making

… and try again. Still unmanageable? Then it’s still too complex yet, and we must remove another layer of complexity, so now try


Take away either the left or right hand. This will allow the brain to concentrate on one hand only and usually dramatically improves the situation (and the morale!). At this stage things might start look up and you might want to see if you can add back a layer of complexity – by reintroducing the other hand and/or increasing back the speed a little without losing sound or musicality; however, if the passage still represent a problem it might be time to


This entry might as well been number 1… Using the right fingerings is THAT important! You know the spot where you consistently stumble? Well, check that your fingerings are right from few beats before, right up to that point: your problem might not lie there where you get stuck, but just before. In other words: if you fall down to the ground, do not look where your face hit the pavement, but rather look back where the feet might have caught on some unseen obstacle.
Make sure that you are using either the fingerings indicated in the piece OR the ones that we agreed on during the lesson. I believe working out your own fingerings, trying them, experimenting and questioning them is an essential stage of the endless circle of problem-solving that piano practice is.

Problem-solving, yes, what we are doing here is peeling back all these layers of complexity, one by one, breaking down the problem to its main components and working them all out separately. If you’re still not happy it might be time to


If you are a student of mine you already know that it is beneficial to practice your piece in manageable snippets: sections of few bars each, phrase by phrase, etc. Sometimes we even begin practicing a piece starting from the very last bit! If the passage you’re dealing with is still problematic you might need to split it in two halves or smaller parts and try them separately. If you need to get as small as just two notes/events then do it, and build up from there, glueing the smallest into increasingly bigger snippets as they get more fluent. As you do this, please DO NOT TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE PIANO KEYBOARD: you’re working towards building a continuity of coordination here, and if you take the hands off the piano you interrupt the – extremely slow – flow of movements and events, and thus your thought process stops and must be restarted later. Only take the hands off the piano if you really must annotate a better fingering that you discovered during the process, then test again look at here.

Finally, sometimes it might be time to just


Remember when I talked about a ‘pile of repetitions’ earlier? While it’s somewhat undeniable that practicing an instrument requires a certain deal of repetitions, we must take care not to overdo them. Personally I think 10 GOOD (no mistakes) repetitions of anything in the same guise is enough. There should be NO REPETITIONS at all of anything with mistakes (otherwise you’d be practicing the mistake, not the right stuff!); in other words it shouldn’t take more than two repetitions to decide whether you need to remove a further layer of complexity from the passage you’re practicing. So, if it’s still not right, then take a break, look outside, do something else and take your mind off it for few minutes: sometimes music just needs to settle.

You are now on the way to turn this passage from UNMANAGEABLE into MANAGEABLE: when things start to look better, do not dive back into full overdrive, but rather


until you restore the whole passage into a beautiful flowing unity. If you look back at what we’ve done so far, all we did was taking all the components apart, we looked at them, and after we understood how everything works we started putting things back together. Just like you do with toys sometimes, and you want to know what’s inside and how they work.

PARENTS OF YOUNG STUDENTS, please read: if your child is practicing in the next room and you hear him/her struggling, you can take on board any of the points above and, in a slightly less technical language, you might make him/her feel that you’re participating by saying stuff like “TRY A LITTLE SLOWER” or “TRY WITH JUST THE RIGHT/LEFT HAND”, “TRY JUST HALF THE BAR” etc. Please remember that I NEED YOUR HELP. Without your precious help at home during practice time, half of your hard-earned money might as well be going out of the window!

Oh, there is one last thing, but it’s so important that it might as well have been entry number ZERO! Yes, it’s more important than using the right fingerings. Are you ready? If you get stuck…

8) SMILE ?

it works! Getting upset or angry serves no scope whatsoever. It’s damaging to learning and everything and everyone else. Smiling works magic, just trust me on this one.

What do I always say at the end of my videos?


blog performances

J S Bach 2 part invention n.3 BWV 774