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How do you choose pieces for an exam?

Pieces fall into four very broad categories.

Technical pieces are those that use a technique that is new or needs work. Expressive or stylistic pieces are chosen to encourage or expand dynamics and phrasing or to explore stylistic conventions. Theoretical pieces are those chosen that includes a key, scale or chord progression that also appears in the technical work. Creative pieces are chosen for fun, to explore cultural folk songs, to encourage improvisation and composition.

What about arrangements?

To know which arrangement to use, you need to consider what has been included that is achievable for that level, and will it allow for a fluent performance? Does the arrangement have notational, harmonic and rhythmic accuracy? Is it piano-friendly or has it been arranged by a pianist rather transcribed from a MIDI or guitar score?

Is it stylistically accurate so that it sounds musical and has a convincing ‘groove’? Has it been typeset using internationally accepted notational conventions?

Has phrasing, articulation, dynamics, pedalling, etc been included and is it appropriate? If it has not been included, what should be added? Most of the time, performance directions are added by the editor or publisher, not always the composer. This means that some directions are not always correct, musical or stylistically accurate. Most teachers prefer what we call Urtext editions, or clean music with no performance directions. This doesn’t mean students don’t play them, but you should teach students to decide what articulation, phrasing and dynamics will be appropriate.

What piano skills are needed?

You will develop over time an understanding of what piano skills are needed for each level as well as know how to look for what piano skills are included in a piece. This will help you choose a piece and level that is appropriate. This is how exam bodies choose pieces for each level too.

Please keep in mind that the skills in these lists are a general guide and not set in stone and I will go into more detail for each level in a moment. For Preliminary and Grade 1, keep in mind what skills the student has based on the method book or teaching philosophy you have. Most students will have these skills.

Essentially, beginners through to late elementary are learning keyboard geography, finger isolation, hand coordination, and reading. Familiarity with articulation, phrasing and basic theory is the focus. This means that while they may not have these completely under control, they can demonstrate that they are aware of these performance directions. Elementary players will be able to sit for a Preliminary, Grade 1 or Grade 2 piece when they are confident in some hand position changes, some finger extensions and 3 note chords.

Intermediate players should by now be reading both clefs, know most key signs, can confidently include articulation and phrasing, and are experiencing complex rhythms and time signs. Most teachers don’t spend a lot of time on intermediate grades, usually because of the pressure students or their parents put on progressing through the exam grades, however at these levels doing even a few additional activities such as playing by ear or arranging a pop song makes for a stronger musician who can mature into the advanced levels. At this level, students need to be able to confidently include articulation, phrasing and be aware of some stylistic conventions. They also need to be aware of a variety of practise strategies, and with guidance, should be able to set their own progress and daily goals.

It’s at this level, technique becomes crucial, as well as an understanding of theory. This is the time to use theory and industry terms when giving instructions. Another benefit is that by the time students reach advanced levels, they will very likely be using music programs either at home or at school and the functions and menus in these programs use theory terms.

It is for all those reasons that this is the level I will often help a student do their own arrangement of a piece and present that arrangement as one of their exam pieces. Sometimes it’s from a pop song, or the theme from a movie or game, or even a theme from a symphony or sonata. It depends on what the student enjoys listening to.

Advanced players read fluently, always include stylistic details, articulation and phrasing, and experiencing irregular rhythms and time signs. Most teachers don’t teach advanced levels, and, like teaching very young children, it’s a specialist area, but this is one area where teachers can grow with their students. At this level, students need to be able to fully control articulation, phrasing and include all stylistic conventions. They should also be independent learners where they can set their own practise schedule, and the teacher’s role changes to be more of a coach, and someone to help solve problems.

All of this now brings us to where to find pieces? The obvious one starts with buying a book from the various exam bodies, but often students (or you!) will only like 1-2 pieces and even if you buy the book and then lend it to a student it still is an expensive way to go. There are lots of online options as well where you can buy a legal single sheet to download and use, but the problem with these is that the arrangement may indicate a broad category, but will not usually match up to a specific grade. The other problem is that there are often many mistakes in either how the music has been laid out, or the arrangement has harmonic errors. Even worse, some sheets are adaptions for piano from guitarists and are physically impossible to actually play! So what is the solution?

Welcome to Piano Zone. This site is a resource for piano and theory students, teachers, and music school owners.

There are beginner piano courses to takes students to Preliminary level. There are theory courses for Grades 1-5. There are Professional Development courses for piano teachers on teaching, business, marketing and so on. But the most important and useful section is the piano music page. Piano sheet music is arranged in zones that match levels and grades.

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