October 4, 2023

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

Preparing for your piano exam is more than just knowing your pieces and your scales but also working through the ear training syllabus and sight-reading.

Many times ear training and sight reading get overlooked in preparation because of the vast amount of work that you have to prepare for your music exam.

When I studied for piano exams, the former mentioned was in most cases left for the last month or two. Fortunately, most students studying music will have a good ear to be able to recognise intervals, chords, etc., and you could get away with only practicing it the last two months to be secure for the ear tests given at the exam. This is not the ideal though! It would be better if you could try to incorporate it into your lesson or practice time at least once a week.

Man playing on a stunning grand piano

When it comes to sight reading, it can be quite challenging for a student not well trained or not naturally good at reading. My piano professor would do sight reading with his students the last two months before the exam. He would start training us with playing easy pre-grade one pieces for sight reading every week, working it up to the grade we needed to be at. In the last few weeks, we would do sight reading nearly daily to improve it. He would be quite strict on counting, knowing the key you are playing in and not stopping even if you do make mistakes. It was quite amazing to see how quickly one improves in reading skills.

For practicing sight reading, there are graded sight reading books available all over the internet. Best would be to start with the easiest sight reading grade and slowly work it up to the grade level you are at. As with most things – consistency is once again key!

Hands playing piano keys

Let’s look at scales.

Scales need to be secure, and you need to know the pattern and fingering perfectly to enjoy scales. Scales playing can actually be easy and exciting if you know the scale pattern which each scale creates on the keyboard. Do try to see the visual pattern each scale forms which in turn makes remembering scales very easy. Scales played in accents of fours make it rhythmic to play and to enjoy.

When playing your scales at the exam – do be sure that you know them thoroughly and play with strength and good working fingers at an easy manageable flowing tempo. Rather play scales a bit too slow than too fast and sloppily.

Preparing for the exam means that you know your pieces and your scales. It can take quite a long time to conquer these but well worth it because it will be building blocks to the music you really want to play in the future!

To prepare for the exam, as I mentioned, is much more than just knowing your pieces. Of course, it’s very important to know them thoroughly. If you know them from memory, even better!

When practicing your pieces, practice to be able to play right through without stopping regardless of mistakes. This is especially important if you like to practice your pieces in sections rather than as a whole.

Hands writing on the notes

When you make a mistake, mark it with a pencil on your music sheet so that you can specifically practice those few places where you make “mistakes”. These mistakes have to be ironed out – so to speak – so that the whole piece will flow and be a pleasure to both you and the examiner.

Mistakes will not just disappear. One has to stop and totally slow down your playing in order to understand why a mistake occurred and correct it. It might mean that you have to practice that part very specifically and slowly or correct a finger etc. Practice it over and over again until it is sorted. It’s important to know why the mistake is occurring and correct it, whether it’s a wrong finger or whether it’s just a difficult technical passage. So instead of continuing to play your pieces through from beginning to end, practice those specific spots so that they will not trip you up.

Today we have wonderful technology right in our hands with which we can record ourselves. The smartphone. Record your playing and re-listen to it. It’s a great way to hear and improve your playing.

Before going into the exam room, take your time and keep yourself totally at rest and peace. It’s really important to believe that you know your work and not to let fear talk to you. I found it helpful to literally talk to myself in a positive upbuilding manner about my ability and that I will be playing well. It does make a difference. Do try it!

One way to distract yourself from all the time thinking about making a mistake is by totally focusing on the lovely music and being absorbed in it. This is a huge secret also for performance, where the performer gets so “lost” in the beautiful tunes and music that he or she does not give attention to people around them. This is the only way to really interpret music and to impart the joy of the music you play to people around you.

Cropped unrecognizable male playing piano

Be ‘in’ the music you are performing.

Totally disregard any mistakes that might happen. The beauty of the music you play will cover the few mishaps. If you are ‘mistake-minded’ – it will mar all the beautiful parts you played. So start to compliment yourself about the parts you play well and try to disregard the less perfect.

When you practice your music, actively concentrate on letting your inner ears listen to the music you are practicing. Active listening is needed, not just hearing.

In order to enjoy the beauty of the music you are playing, you have to really hear and play with your ears. When you do this in your exam, the examiner will immediately like your music, regardless of whether you make a mistake or not.

Talk to yourself before your exam!

Acknowledge you have done your best and worked at it within the time you had available and your ability. You can do it the next year, but you chose to do the exam now! Of course, next year it could be better, but it’s not about performance but rather about moving up in level.

So go and enjoy your exam, even if you feel it’s not perfect yet. You are moving forward! Well done!

Gentleman playing a piece of music with emotion and enjoying himself!

What is the secret of playing your exam and enjoying it?

Well, speak to yourself before your exam and be at peace, believe in what you are able to do! Because then you are setting yourself up for enjoyment and success.

Before you start playing your pieces, take your time, try to hear the piece in your head so that you can play your piece at a good tempo which you can manage. Coming to an exam means that you will already be a bit stressed, so take the time to make sure that you do not play too fast. Rather “think” the tempo of your piece a bit slower so that you will feel you are in control rather than feeling the cart is running away.

So take your time before playing your pieces or even your scales when asked for it.

Keep yourself at rest and peace at all times.

You do not have to be rushed or let anyone rush you.

Important conclusion: Try to enjoy your exam! It’s not the end of the world and nothing really turns on it! Have a bit of a NON-perfectionist attitude!

Use a bit of the “who cares” attitude of a no-care teenager.

It’s only an exam. It’s not your life source! Let it be a small thing and so you will enjoy it!

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