When should my child do a piano exam?
The answer to this question is not “every November.” Many people assume that piano exams are designed to be achieved at a yearly pace. This is not true. Many teachers would like to answer this question “not before your teacher says you are ready.” This is true! But what is exam readiness? For this article, I will refer to AMEB piano exams, but the principles are the same for other locations and exam syllabuses.
If your child has recently started learning piano, it is important for you to know that AMEB Preliminary level is not for beginners but for students who have learned for several years. P-Plate Piano books are published by AMEB and provide a mid-way point between beginner and Preliminary. There is an optional exam-like assessment (with feedback but not grading) for students that are interested.
Be ready for an exam before applying for an exam
The closing dates for applications are about two months before the first date of the exam period. Before sending in a piano exam application for any grade, I request that my students are already prepared for their exam. They perform all their scales from memory with correct notes and fingering. Throughout the year, we work on their technique as we learn the scales, and if there has been improvement in technique and tempo in the previous months, then at this stage I expect they will build up their speed, tone and dexterity in time to reach their exam goal. When they have performed their exam pieces with confidence, accuracy, musicality and with proficiency in technique and style, I will approve their exam application.
Exams are held in periods of about three weeks in length. I ask my students to expect their exam to be held on the first day of the exam period. I have learned from my mistakes. As a novice, I told one student his exam would be “in October/November” and he nearly fell off his chair when the exam was scheduled for October 2nd, not November 30th! AMEB piano exams in Victoria have five metropolitan sessions and two country sessions per year – lots of opportunities to choose the best time for a particular student’s progress. In fact, teachers can apply to the AMEB to hold exams outside the published session dates if they have more than three hours of examining time.
Take into consideration where the school holidays fall in relation to the exam period you are considering. There may only be six lessons in between the exam application and the exam itself, or perhaps five if there is a public holiday, four if there is a school camp as well, not to mention the possibility of sore tonsils (the teacher’s or the student’s!)
“But my child needs a goal. If we apply now, she will work hard until the exam.”
As I speak with other teachers, I hear that some students believe that they will spend the last few lessons - the time between the exam application and the actual exam - “learning notes” frantically, trying to “finish” a piece (or two, or three), or hoping that F# harmonic minor contrary motion will be left out of their Grade Four exam (which it won’t.) Playing musically is more than “learning notes.” Being confident, polished and expressive in performance doesn’t mean a piece is “finished.”
“But my child will be bored if we wait another six months. He has been learning these five pieces all year.”
Chances are this child is already bored. Learning the bare minimum and then sitting an exam suggests the goal of learning piano is doing exams: pieces learned must only be from an exam syllabus, and ticking off the exams one after the other is the goal. No. Surely the goal of learning piano is learning piano! I hope that students will play a wide variety of pieces every year – not just what they need to get ready for an exam. In this case of a bored student waiting six months, I would love to see them learning a few more pieces of their grade level, many pieces of an easier level and playing a duet with their sister, not to mention improvising, transposing, accompanying and composing! However, I love to see a student having a palette of pieces at their grade level to choose from before they apply for an exam. If you are not convinced, I would recommend reading the blogs of Elissa Milne and Samantha Coates who agree!
If an exam is many months away, you can create some smaller goals. Performing in a concert is one popular choice. I have been videoing my students (using my phone!) and playing the recording to them four weeks later so they can see their progress. One student emailed me a video recording of her piece. In the case of some teenage boys who are my students, I asked them to upload a video of their home performance to Youtube. (They were not convinced!) Most importantly, be in ongoing communication with your child’s teacher, who (as I have said before) is probably lying awake thinking of pieces they would love to teach your child.
 2011 AMEB Teachers Handbook
 Elissa Milne says: “learning a large number of pieces each year will have commensurate educational benefits.” Please read more: http://elissamilne.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/the-surprising-power-of-quantity/
 Samantha Coates says: “The 50-piece challenge has not only stimulated a healthy sense of competition, it has made sure the students don’t get into a ‘rut’ of learning just a few pieces over a whole year and becoming completely bored.” Please read more: http://www.blitzbooks.com.au/Blog/EntryId/24/Fifty-Pieces-in-a-Year-The-Repertoire-Conveyer-Belt.aspx