With a growing number of students taking part in piano exams each year, I originally thought to address the question, What does it take to get an ‘A’ or ‘A+’ on a piano exam? But as I write, I realise that much of this has application to any performance, and therefore any student. So, don’t put it down just yet.
There are a number of ways I might answer my own question. The most obvious way is to look at the criteria set out in the syllabus. I could, quite reasonably, just copy and paste half a page of text: tick all the right boxes and that ‘A’ will be served on a platter. However, trawl through words like, ‘hand shape’, ‘accurate performance’, ‘fluency’, ‘coordination’, ‘control’, ‘dynamic levels’, ‘expressive realisation’ … and you’d be asleep in no time.
I could break it down into layman’s terms: expect a ‘C’ if you can show that you know the scales pieces with a reasonable degree of fluency; play everything technically correct, expect a ‘B’; make it a ‘performance’, hope for an ‘A’.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in all of that. I can go through every criteria and demonstrate its importance to your playing. But really, it’s the wrong question.
Turn the problem around for a moment: think from the perspective of your audience. Imagine you are an examiner. For weeks at a time, you are away from home, shut in a variety of rooms, listening to an endless stream of children (mostly), playing pieces from a really very limited set of books. You can see how reading the syllabus quickly becomes a blessed relief!
Now, insert little Johnny or Jemma, who’s hoping for that ‘A’ this year. While it would be very easy to blend in with thousands of other hopefuls, the question is, how can I stand out? And that is true, not just of exam students, but of any student in any performance setting. How can I make any performance extraordinary?
So, I guess most people will be able to predict what I’m going to say, I do it often enough: practice. But this is less about the “What”, and more about the “How” and the “Why”. Just going through the motions won’t cut it, it’s about what you’re trying to achieve.
Your first goal will be familiarity with your music. Most people naturally stop here, as though “knowing” a piece is enough. It isn’t. In reality it is just the stable base upon which to build a creative performance.
Once you’ve learned the notes, look for the details: speed, volume, articulation, style, and the like. Yes, it’s about technically correct playing, but its also about making a connection with the music yourself and communicating that to your audience.
Then, step back from the piece and ask yourself why anyone would want to listen to your performance? Give them a reason. What kind of reasons? How about excitement, laughter, joy, peace, beauty, … What do you feel when you play? Can you communicate that to your audience? My favourite, though, is … surprise. Imagine that examiner again, who’s heard the same piece played the same way a myriad times, no doubt. Imagine giving her a “wake up call”, something to pique her interest, make her sit up and pay attention!
Another thing you will agree is vitally important is first impressions. In any music exam, that is supplied by … scales! Yes, they can be boring, and some candidates do have VERY long lists of them. But aside from helping you to play your pieces better, a sure knowledge of your scales is music to every examiners’ ears. On hearing a student struggle through their scales, an examiner is already deciding that a ‘C’ grade may be the likely outcome. But if that same student presents their scales well – without hesitation, at the correct tempo, fluently and evenly – they’re more inclined to lean towards a higher grade.
Let’s talk about making mistakes. A mistake need not be the end of the world, so long as it doesn’t become the end of the piece. Move through it rather than going back to correct it. An exam, like any performance, is not about showing that you can play something correctly. It is about performing. If you are listening to a concert, you don’t want to be subject to a constant stop-start-stop-start, as the performers go back and correct errors. To me it feels something like sitting on a train carriage which is constantly being jolted instead of moving smoothly forward. A simple error, quickly passed over, is easily forgiven and forgotten – don’t etch it in my memory by going back over it! To that end, I often recommend students practise playing through a piece no matter what happens: it’s not practising making mistakes, its learning to perform despite them.
Finally, let me say that some people are born performers! I teach one or two of them, and I am jealous in the extreme. However, for the other 95% of us, performance can be learned. Never forget that a performance is merely the end of a long process which begins with you alone with an instrument and a few pages of sheet music. It’s what you do during the intervening period that makes the difference between an ordinary performance and an extraordinary one.