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Choosing Inspiring Piano Exam Pieces

This blog post on choosing piano exam pieces was written by Joanna Shiel. Joanna is a UK-based piano teacher and has been entering students for exams for over 13 years. She believes that done right, exams can be a great motivator, forming part of a well-balanced musical diet. Her dessert of the month is apple pie.

Piano exams can strike dread into the hearts of students and teachers alike. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Done right, choosing the right piano exam pieces can strike inspiration and motivation for successful exam performances.

I come from a country where piano exams reign supreme. Even when a parent states that they just want their child to learn the piano for pure enjoyment, there unavoidably comes a point along the learning journey when they do request a piano exam. 

Rather than avoid exams entirely, I’ve learnt to use them to the student’s advantage. So much so, that out of all my students taking exams last year, 100% passed and more than 80% of them received distinctions – a sign that they not only played correctly, but musically and with enjoyment.

Why does it matter?

Exam pieces require a lot of practice and dedication. After all, your piano students will be performing their pieces and receiving a qualification, so it needs to be really good.

This is why it’s so important to get this part of the piano exam equation right.

Get it right, and your student will be diving into an exam piece that will open musical doors for them for years to come. But get it wrong, and piano exams can become the very thing that puts students off the piano all together.

What Makes An Exam Piece Spark Interest

In my experience, getting the repertoire right is a combination of factors. What inspires one piano student won’t always inspire the next one. That being said, there are a few factors that tend to pique more interest than others.

Famous Repertoire

Playing a well-known piece that others recognise can be very encouraging, especially when asked to perform them for contexts outside of an exam. 

It’s also very affirming when a student knows they’re able to perform an important work written by a notable composer.

A Well-Crafted Piece 

Exam repertoire selections tend to be extremely well-written by composers who are famous for a reason. Not only are these pieces rhythmically and harmonically beautiful, but there’s often something artistically profound to be discovered within these pieces which can resonate with students for years to come.

Plus, they just tend to sound really good.

Unlike method book pieces, which are intended for structured learning, exam syllabus pieces are likely a well-chosen collection written for the purpose of performance. They tend to be complete and complicated works meant to sound good, rather than just teaching a particular concept.

An Interesting Technical Feature

Choosing piano exam pieces with different and interesting features to play is a key factor in catching (and maintaining!) your student’s eye.

This could range from:

  • A contrast in dynamics
  • Challenging scalic features
  • Unexpected harmonic changes
  • A section that requires improvisation
  • Particularly long pieces that take the student and listener on a journey 
  • Character pieces that have a story to tell

Choosing Inspiring Piano Exam Pieces

Now we know what kinds of things catch our students’ interest in an exam piece, let’s make sure that each selection is right for each student. Because learning a piano exam piece should be a really fun and exciting process!

The Right Level

In my experience, piano exam repertoire becomes inspiring when students are at or above the level of the exam being taken. This means that when first presented with a piece, students should already have experienced the following:

  • Rhythmic concepts
  • Musical patterns (such as arpeggios, scales, chords)
  • Technical challenges of the piece 
  • Harmonic elements 
  • Any reading elements (such as ledger notes, landmark notes or intervals)
  • Articulation
  • If possible, some of the composer’s other works

When students aren’t using exam pieces to “catch up” with new concepts, they’re more free to explore the musicality of the piece, putting into action everything they’ve already learnt in their piano lessons.

A Student’s Strengths and Weaknesses

The truth of piano exams is that they really are just performances that are being critically assessed.

As performers, your students won’t always perform every style and genre at exactly the same level. So it’s important that students and teachers choose pieces that showcase your students’ strengths.

And that’s totally fine!

Consider pieces that are similar to those your student already plays well, or those that are similar in style, technical ability, expression or genre to others your student has played.

Chances are, if your student is already great with a certain style, genre or composer, they likely enjoy these pieces and will therefore be delighted with the discovery of new, similar pieces.

Teacher vs Student

It’s important that students practise how to choose their pieces. It’s also important that they have ownership in choosing the pieces they learn, including exam pieces.

Teachers also have an important role in choosing pieces they know will push, motivate, inspire and encourage their students beyond those they’re comfortable with.

You can strike a balance by creating an online playlist of a few selections you consider appropriate, and let your student choose from among those pieces.

Dessert, Not Broccoli

Performances can be one of the few opportunities that students have to really dig deep into a piece, getting it to a very high standard. 

It can be so tempting to give students one or two important repertoire works that will push them technically or expand them musically – I call these pieces, “Broccoli Pieces”.

Don’t do this.

Exams are tough enough already, and I don’t think it’s the time or place to be challenging students with pieces that might be healthy but ones they won’t enjoy. In the long run, you risk alienating students from piano exams altogether.

Instead, encourage your students to indulge in a lovely musical dessert – something they’ll enjoy diving into again and again. And you can explain this to students in just that way!

Consider saving broccoli pieces for other less intense performance opportunities, or as one of their longer-term-project pieces.

Selecting the Right Piano Exam Boards

Today, we have numerous options for choosing the right exam board, ranging from formal exams to ones you can pre-record with your student in studio (and everything in between).

So how do we choose?

It’s important to consider the right option for your student and piano family.

I personally wouldn’t say that one exam board is particularly easy over another, but there are differences that could make or break exams for your students.

  • Is your student a composer? Perhaps choose an exam board that allows students to enter their own pieces, such as the Music Teachers Board.
  • Does your student love the gravitas of performing in front of an examiner? Consider a more traditional exam board, such as ABRSM or Trinity
  • Does your student prefer contemporary music over classical? Consider an exam board that focuses on popular music or a jazz syllabus, such as Rockschool.
  • What about a very nervous student? How about taking the exam with an online exam board that you can record yourself? Again, the Music Teachers Board is a great option.

While these are the most popular options in the UK and are available globally, there might be a preferred option in your own country. Explore the options with your local music teachers association or other professional networking group.

Special Mention: Music Teachers Board (MTB)

The MTB became a popular choice among UK teachers during the pandemic. It’s a purely online exam board and can be taken worldwide.

Because of the lower stress factor, this is now my default, go-to choice. 

Students can submit any pieces at the level that they’ve learnt (including their own compositions), or they can choose from a wide and varied syllabus.

My student and I do the exam together, remotely, during regular lesson time, and exams can be taken at any point in the year – whenever we’re ready. 

These exams are marked by instrumental specialists of the exam being taken and they hold the same accreditation as in any other exam board.

In addition, marks and feedback tend to be very encouraging.

Inspiration as an Exploration Point

I’ve discovered many exciting and new-to-me pieces in exam syllabi, even some completely unique pieces, that were part of collections and editions which are now incredibly hard to source outside of the exam book.

Exam pieces are designed to push students musically, emotionally, and physically, and are well-crafted works of art. 

If your student finds a piece that inspires them, run with that opportunity to explore.

  • Are there any more works by that composer?
  • What about that style of music?
  • Does that piece belong to a collection?
  • Is this piece an adaptation of a longer piece, such as one movement of many?
  • Is there something about the harmony or articulation of the piece that reaches your student’s soul? Perhaps you could use this as a jumping off point for creativity.

What’s your favourite method of choosing exam pieces for your piano students?

I’d love to know more in the comments below.

For for more info about sitting for piano exams, visit the exams section of Nicola’s centralised Planning Lessons hub page.

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