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What do examiners look/listen for at a piano exam?

You (or your student, or even their parent!) have decided to enrol in a piano exam

You have purchased the syllabus, read it carefully, checked for any prerequisites, and chosen the format: face-to-face, comprehensive, recital/performance or video. You have assembled the resources (legally!) that you and your student will need, have taught your student who has practised as per your instructions, and one or both of you thinks they are ready to enrol and sit the exam. Is your student (and you!) really ready?

When to enrol can be a big headache

There are so many factors that can affect when the student will be ready, especially since Covid19 and lockdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing have changed how we all do things. Working out how long a student will take to learn the pieces is often the biggest frustration for teachers as this will determine when the enrolment takes place. If done too soon, then the student will not be ready in time, or will have only partially prepared. If done too late, then the playing becomes stale and silly mistakes occur.

Most exam bodies will schedule an exam approximately 8 weeks after enrolment so the best time to enrol is when the student can play most of the technical work and most or all of the pieces. This then allows for enough time to for the criteria and performance details to be included instead of just the notes and rhythm. Let's look at each section, and its criteria.

What will an examiner look/listen for - Technical Work

Technical work for those sitting a comprehensive exam will usually include the objectives or marking criteria.

  • Prompt and accurate performance

  • Minimum tempo as indicated in the syllabus.

  • Most syllabi ask for scales to be performed from memory, and exercises from the score

  • Demonstrate a comfortable and well-balanced seating position

  • Demonstrate a stable, relaxed hand and finger shape with secure and efficient shifts between positions

  • Demonstrate a clear and expressive tonal quality

  • Demonstrate systematic fingering

  • Demonstrate smooth passing of the thumb under the hand and a flexible crossover

  • Demonstrate clear finger work, together with effective coordination between fingers, hand and arm

  • Play with a clear, even, legato touch or a crisp, even, staccato touch

  • Demonstrate secure coordination between the hands

  • include dynamic and articulation markings in exercises

It can take a long time to work through all the technical requirements and often, by the time the student has completed all of the work, they can only remember how to play the most recent set of work. To address this, a progress chart can be useful, as well as the occassional lesson devoted to technical work. Another strategy may be to set for the week one new scale and one completed/old one. Regardless, consistency and regular review is the key to allow for the marking criteria to be observed by the student when playing.

Sight Reading, Aural and General Knowledge

These are often left to the last few weeks before an exam due to the volume of technical work and pieces that need to be studied. However these can be usually included in at least one lesson each month, especially when directly tied to the pieces. Sight reading short passages of a new section in a piece, listening to an interval or melody and naming it, clapping back the rhythm of the melody, and discussing the performance directions on the score are quick and easy ways to include the requirements for these sections, and also have the benefit of deepening the student's understanding of the piece, often making learning it faster, easier, and more thorough.

Sight reading and Aural can also be done with the use of a quick study and easier piece (often 3-4 grades/levels lower than the one being studied) every few months.

The Sight Reading, Aural and General Knowledge requirements are usually set out very clearly in the syllabus, but if in doubt, most exam bodies also publish volumes of exercises and practise questions. Younger teachers can also book one lesson with a more experienced teacher to go through what preparation should be done, and to understand what proficiency will be required.

What will an examiner look/listen for - General Knowledge

Two to three general knowledge questions for each piece are usually asked in an exam. These same questions can be used to assemble a folio or performance program for electronic assessments. In the early grades the questions are usually:

1) What does the title mean?

2) What is the key?

3) What does this sign mean? (note, rest, term/sign)

In higher grades, the questions will range from:

1) What is the key?

2) What key does this change to?

3) What does the title mean?

4) What is the form?

5) What period does this come from?

6) What is the time frame of that period?

7) What is the style of this piece?

8) What are the features of this style?

9) Who is the composer?

10) Who influenced him/her?

11) Can you name another work by this composer?


Pieces are where students usually spend the most time as these take the longest to learn. They are also the area where technical weakness or lack of understanding can be exposed. Every piece should be played accurately in notation and rhythm, with expression and include the score’s articulation and all performance directions. The character or personality, groove or 'feel' will make the piece complete.

You will know when pieces are ready when they can be played fluently & without hesitations. Pieces should be played at a tempo close to that indicated on the score, and that tempo should be even and controlled. For the sake of accuracy, sometimes it’s a good idea to play at a tempo 5 or 10 beats per minute slower. Be very careful about going too quickly as a piece can sound rushed and breathless rather than controlled.

Finally, the sustain pedal needs to be used appropriate: does the pedal need to be used all the way down, or partly down? Should it be used at all? When should it change? For the lower grades, students don’t have to use the sustain pedal but if it is used it should be done properly. For the higher grades, a more sensitive and nuanced use is expected.

Looking on YouTube or listening to recordings of model performances are a really good way for students to 'hear' how their piece should be played. Sometimes students can't hear the difference between these examples and their own playing which is when teacher and student need to listen together, and listen for specific features. For example, while reading the score, listen to how or if the tempo changes, and when. Listen to how or if the dynamics change, and when. Listen to how or if the articulation/phrasing is used and when.

Another way to think about if a piece is ready is to ask video this performance and and then ask yourself if you would be willing to upload it to your social media pages? If the answer to that is no, then you need to think about what the student needs to be practising, and how, then help them achieve this.

On the PianoZone website in the “For Students” section is a form filled document in called exam-criteria-checklist that you or your student can download. Not all the criteria will be needed for all pieces, but it is a good way for students to think about what should and should not be part of the performance.

What will an examiner look/listen for - Pieces

The early grades will always have a bit of leeway. No examiner wants to fail a candidate and will try really hard to give them the highest possible mark. However, the candidate needs to demonstrate at least most of the time that they can demonstrate these 9 skills.

  • A comfortable and well-balanced seating position

  • Accurate and prompt performance

  • Appropriate hand and finger shape

  • Controlled and even tone

  • Controlled co-ordination of the hands

  • Independent action of the fingers

  • Performance close to the indicated minimum tempo

  • Smooth passing of the thumb under the hand

  • Systematic fingering

In the higher grades, the skills are the same as for the early grades, but there are 2 more that are very important and those relate to control.

  • Clear and even articulation throughout

  • Controlled gradations and contrasts of tone

With more experience than lower grade candidates, the examiner will expect that the basics are mastered, but will be listening specifically for these two extra skills. At the end of the day, the performance needs to be musical and convincing at this level.

Some final tips

Performance anxiety is something examiners are very aware of, and are careful to not add to. They want your student to do as well as you do. So there are a few things that you can do to help your student (and their parent!) that will make a big difference:

1) Carefully erase any marks that may have been made on the music that are general knowledge answers.

2) Candidates playing from memory must still bring their music to the examination for the General Knowledge section.

3) Photocopies should not be used. Bring the original or the licenced download. A photocopy taped to the original to make page turns easier or unnecessary is the only time a photocopy may be appropriate but don't assume. Some exam bodies don't allow this at all. Make sure that the music is not loose sheets, put them into a display book or scrap book.

4) Cut fingernails so that there is no audible clicking of fingernails as this impacts finger action and will almost certainly be commented on.

5) Practise taking the time to establish and maintain a comfortable and well-balanced seating position to avoid repositioning while playing, as well as to facilitate use of the sustain pedal. This will also support an even tone and wider range of dynamics.

6) Have a dress rehearsal and have students wear what they (or their parent) thinks is appropriate. Not only should the outfit not restrict movement, but should also be checked for potential wardrobe malfunctions. Wear real shoes, preferably closed ones, especially if using the sustain pedal.Flimsy shoes, sandals, flip flops or even bare feet will interfere with freedom of movement for playing. Some students may not understand that dressing in smart casual attire shows respect for the performance, the performer, the teacher and the examiner.

7) Practise 'fake it till you make it' = avoid false starts, apologising or explaining when making a mistake. Practise a 'keep going' mindest.

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