Piano Exam Preparation in Just 3 Months

How long does the piano exam preparation process take in your studio? From start to finish – how long do your students spend working towards an exam?

For many years, my students would spend 6 or sometimes even up to 9 (!) months working on exam repertoire and scale requirements. I would tell myself that we were doing other stuff at the same time…but the truth is, the exam preparation really took over everything for more than half of the year.

That is, until several years ago when I returned to teaching after a break and started to rethink piano exams.

And that’s when I committed to following my 3-month piano exam rule.

This article was originally published in May 2018, and updated in November 2022.

3-Month Piano Exam: The Concept

The idea is extremely simple: No student can start to prepare for an exam unless they’ll be able to sit for that exam in about 3 months.

But when I share my little rule with teachers in exam-focussed countries like Ireland, the UK, Australia and Canada, they’re pretty shocked.

And I get it.

Just a few years ago, I would have been deceived by how this could work.

The key here is what I’m not saying. I don’t have some revolutionary way to prepare students for an exam within 3 months.

This is much more about the assessment of readiness than it is about the piano exam preparation. And that starts with picking the right exam level.

To me, the right level is one that I know they can be ready for within about 3 months. A bored student is not a motivated student.

If it’s going to take 6 – 9 months for them to successfully play the pieces for that grade – practising at the same rate they are right now – then you should pick a lower grade or postpone the exam until next year.

Bearing that in mind, it obviously also requires some well-planned preparation, once we’ve established that the student is in fact ready.

3-Month Piano Exam: Preparation Process

When condensing the exam prep time, it’s especially important to structure your student’s assignments by working together to plan smaller goals along the way.

Use this piano exam preparation planner with your student in a lesson. DO NOT fill it in and then present it to them; they must be involved in the process if you want it to be successful.

Members of Vibrant Music Teaching can download the Painless Exam Preparation Planner from the Printable Library. Not a member? Learn more at vibrantmusicteaching.com.

Start at the End

Start by printing out the exam preparation planner and filling in the exam date at the bottom of the sheet (or the earliest possible date, if you’re given a range.)

You can then keep this date in mind as you set small goals along the way.

Benchmarks and Check-ins

Now you need to fill in the details. Prompt your student by asking questions such as:

  • When should they have mastered all the scales?
  • How many sight reading exercises should they have finished before week 8?
  • When are you going to do a mock exam?
  • When will they do a trial performance of the pieces for their family?

Some examples of benchmarks could include:

  • Being able to play all the scales at 120bpm one month before the exam
  • Performing your pieces at a family concert 3 weeks before
  • Knowing the notes well enough to play the pieces at half the performance tempo 2 months before

Keep this plan in your student’s folder and refer to it regularly so that you both know what mini-assessments and benchmarks are coming up next.

Not only will this process keep your students on track, but they’ll also learn a ton about time management and effective practice.

Will you consider bringing in a 3-month exam rule?

How much time do you spend on piano exam preparation? Do you think a 3-month rule like this might be helpful in your studio? Share your experiences in the comments below or in the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers Facebook group. 🙂

Hop on over to my Planning Piano Lessons hub page for the latest-and-greatest resources on repertoire, technique, technology, strategies and more!

4 thoughts on “Piano Exam Preparation in Just 3 Months”

  1. Hi Nicola! I had a question: during the 3-month preparation period, are you also working on “other stuff”, or do you focus on exam material?

  2. Hi, Nicola,

    Thank you for this article. This is very helpful especially with we are dealing with “pushy” parents who are so exam-focused.
    A quick question: does this apply for higher grades (eg. grade 5-8), too? Thanks Nicola.


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