Rethinking Piano Exams Part 1: Reconsidering Readiness for Piano Exams

There are many factors in how teachers assess readiness for piano exams. But one of the biggest ones has no place in the process, and that’s pressure from parents, students or ourselves.

Rethinking Piano Exams Part 1 Reconsidering Readiness for Piano Exams2

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So let’s give this question a fresh look.

When is a student ready for a piano exam?

Is it when we know they’re capable of passing the exam? Is it when they have already learned some pieces at the same level as the exam repertoire?

Is it just when it’s been a year since their last exam?

When I put it like that, surely not. But that is essentially how many parents and many of us teachers (myself included in the past) act.

It’s assumed that a student will do grade 2 this May if they sat grade 1 last May.

But should they? And are they really ready?

Readiness Assessments

Your gut.

That’s the number 1 readiness assessor. Please, please, trust it.


Now when your gut isn’t sure (or needs bolstering) here’s some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Has the student successfully learnt any pieces at around this level of technical difficulty?
  • Can the student sight read fluently at about two levels below this exam level?
  • Does the student know all (or at least most) of the scales required for the exam?
  • Can the student name or explain most of the theory terms that would come up at this level?
  • Could the student get about 80% of the aural tests right without your help or preparation?

That’s a tough list, and it’s really just a starting point. But for me over the years, it has all come to boil down to one question:

  • Can I see this student realistically getting a great result in this exam with 3 months preparation time?

If the answer is “probably not” then they are not ready. It’s really as simple (and as complicated) as that.

I’ll talk more about that 3 month benchmark in next week’s article.

For now, just start asking yourself that question about your own students. The answers might surprise you.

The Broader Picture

Let’s zoom back out. You’ve looked at the details of this particular exam and how ready your student is for each component – but how does it fit into the big picture?

Saying yes to something is saying no to something else.

In the case of an exam, saying yes means saying no to other skills you could teach them during that time and other pieces they could have learnt.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the exam brings you closer to achieving what you want to achieve for your students, then fantastic!

But does it?

To think about that question, you need to first know what you want for your students. If you’re not sure about your big “why” behind your teaching, you might like to read this post.

When you know where you’re headed, you should be able to think through whether this exam will bring your student further down the path, or whether you could get there faster without it.

Enriching Experiences

This ties into both the considerations above.

What is this experience going to be like for the student? If it’s too easy it’s not going to be enriching – nor will it if it’s too hard.

And there’s something extremely enriching that is missing from many exam-led educations: exposure to enough repertoire.

sheet music

My goal is for my students to get through about 35 pieces, at varying levels, in between two exam grades. Before that has happened I don’t want to entertain the idea of the next exam – because their experience is simply too narrow, and an exam will make it narrower.

If they have learnt that amount of repertoire then it can be beneficial and musically enriching to slow down. Whether that’s to prepare a special recital piece, work on an in-depth composition, or to sit an exam.

What’s your mark of readiness for piano exams?

Did any of the factors I mentioned surprise you? Do you disagree with where I’ve put exams in the planning process?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments or in the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers group on Facebook.

12 thoughts on “Rethinking Piano Exams Part 1: Reconsidering Readiness for Piano Exams”

  1. Wow, Nicola, great article and just what I needed! I have a couple of students that are beginning to ask about exams (or rather, their parents are!). You’re article gave me some good reasons to resort to. And I really like what you said about the repertoire they need to experience in between exams… I’m looking forward to the other articles in the series.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Karissa. I hope that these posts will give you the confidence to choose exams when they’re right for your students, not when they “should” happen.

  2. Wow, Nicola, great article and just what I needed! I have a couple of students that are beginning to ask about exams (or rather, their parents are!). Your article gave me some good reasons to resort to. And I really like what you said about the repertoire they need to experience in between exams… I’m looking forward to the other articles in the series.

  3. Thanks Nicola. I’m at the thinking stage about exams for a few students. One thing that I do find difficult with exams is the concentration on limited repertoire – children can get to Grade 8 and have played very few composers/standard repertoire. Saying yes to exams often means no to lots of exploration. It can often suck the life out of lessons – so many things you have to get through with your student. It has to be a well-considered decision.

  4. Thanks for this; good food for thought for me today. I have a student who loves the process of preparing for an exam, but I am finding that her exposure to other composers and repertoire is limited…as well as being able to explore other skills (like improvisation, reading lead sheets, etc.)! Here in Canada, students can earn high school credit if they complete a certain level of exams; this particular student’s parents are hopeful she’ll earn those credits…but at this point I am becoming doubtful that she will make it to that level. It’s a terrible reason to take exams, in my mind! I’m not sure how to bring it up with her parents…something I’ve been avoiding, but need to address before too late.

    • Yes, you need to tackle it head on in my opinion. It’s great that she’s motivated to practice when prepping for an exam, but is that really the primary reason why she’s learning music? To get a credit? I’m sure if you ask them point blank the answer will be “NO!” and you can go from there.

  5. Thanks for this Nicola! I usually have students that want to do an exam every year especially those are are working towards getting credits for high school. Some I do believe need to be working a little longer at a certain level to learn more technique and more songs as well as improvising. Maybe I need to even rethink about this as students get to the intermediate levels as well.

    • I think often we need to think about dipping in and out of exams too. There’s nothing (in our exam boards at least) to stop a student doing grade 2 and then 2 and a half years later doing grade 4, and this might take away some of the sour taste of not doing the next exam the next year.

  6. Exams certainly helps them to reach a bar and pushes them forward. But I do like idea of broaden the scope of music in between their exams. The younger levels seem to have much more choice and availability of songs to choose from. Its the intermediate and advanced levels that seem a bit harder to narrow down fun and exciting choices. Maybe I just don’t know where to look. I have run into parents who want to skip levels and push the exams when they just need to play for fun and learn technique. Thank you for this advice to think past the bar and find some fun in the journey.

    • Do you mean for in between exams? There’s certainly lots of great rep for intermediate and advanced students too! At that stage it’s great to give them choice. Put together a YouTube playlist of options and see where their musical tastes lie.


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