Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Preparing for a performance exam can be exciting, nerve-wracking, time-consuming and motivating. So many emotions are circulating as our students reach these milestone moments. Here at SYNERGY, our piano students use the RCM curriculum which has a number of elements to it.
Repertoire: your pieces
Etudes: shorter pieces that focus on developing specific technical skills
Repertoire tends to get the most time and energy which makes sense! They’re longer and more challenging. Plus - it’s worth more than 50% of your grade! Our students want to play pieces, not exercises. But what often happens when exam time rolls around is that the other areas of study are not quite ready. We go into cram mode.
How can we as teachers avoid this and how can we help our students effectively and efficiently prepare for the technical portion of exams?
First, we begin right away. Don't wait to start technique until the exam. Make it part of your regular practice plan. I like visual and colourful things to keep myself and my students organized. We need a plan and a path forward in order to progress. I first start by working through the material week after week beginning with ‘Key Sets’. Rather than work through the technique book from start to finish, I start with all the requirements for a single key.
RCM 7 - C Major
Dominant 7th: broken and solid
Arpeggios: tonic and dominant 7th
This will familiarize them with the key as a whole and will begin developing skill in all patterns. If we study one at a time, it tends to get forgotten as students move on to the next.
Once all of the keys have been learned, it’s time to review.
Review in three steps.
Step 1 and 2 are similar, but we first need to play through everything to review it since some of these keys may not have been played in weeks or months. Put your metronome on and play through all of your scales. Start with major keys, then minor harmonic, then minor melodic. Review any that pose a particular challenge. Do this with every section.
Now that you’ve reviewed all of the requirements, we’re going to do a quick test. Pull out the chart provided in our downloads or the chart at the back of your RCM technical requirements book. We’re going to colour-code things. You need 3 colours. Put your metronome on and play through each again. Only once. No reviewing. - Green: If you can play it comfortably, accurately and up to tempo on the first try, colour it green. It’s ready to go. - Yellow: If you have a small stumble, tension/anxiety, restart, slightly under tempo or just don’t feel quite secure colour it yellow. I tell my students that the yellow ones would pass the exam, but are 70-90% ready. - Red: Under tempo, note mistakes, generally not well know. Colour these red.
Armed with your chart, you now have a plan. Begin with red. Review these first until they are ‘green’. Then move on to ‘yellow’. Finally play through all. The more strict you are with yourself, the better. Don't pass yellows off for greens if you 'sort of' have it. When nerves kick in during the exam, this 'almost green' may become yellow or red.
Vary your articulation: all staccato, all legato, combination of slurs and staccatos, displace accents
Vary rhythm: swing, combination of 16th notes and 8th notes. Hold the first note longer. Hold the last note longer.
Use the Metronome Ladder technique described by Nicola Cantan. One of my favourites when tempo is a challenge.
My favourite exercise involves accenting. This works especially well for Level 8/9/10 arpeggios and scales.
Put your metronome on at the minimum speed required.
Begin by playing in 8th notes and accent every other note.
Then play in triplets and accent every 3rd note.
Finally play in 16th notes and accent every 4th note.
Once this is comfortable, you will be up to tempo. Turn your metronome off and play through fluidly.
You can access the charts here:
Good luck with your preparation! If you have tips and techniques you use to prepare your technique for exams, make sure to leave a comment below!