How to get a distinction for ABRSM Performance Grade Exams

After helping quite a number of students attain distinction for their performance grade exams, I felt compelled to write this to help more people achieve a distinction for their exams. This article is not just for those who want to get a distinction for performance grade piano exams, but anyone who want to improve their standard of playing or teaching. While this article is written for piano students taking the performance grade exams, lot of these points can also be applied to practical (face to face) exams and also to other instruments.

Make sure that your foundation at least is on par with the grade that you are taking
Nowadays, with social media, you get to see quite a lot of kids taking the highest grade at the youngest age. While you should be happy for them, you shouldn’t try to force yourself (or your child) to do a grade higher than your/his ability. It should be common sense to realize that without a good foundation, you will not be able to do well for the exam. For some people, it can be achieved with a lot of practice, but for some, a good foundation can only be built with time. For example, you will need good sight reading and practice habits in order to practice correctly at home without having a teacher to sit beside you all the time to correct your mistakes. You will need time to improve on your sight reading. For those who do not have good memory, you will need time to improve on your memory by gradually working on pieces that are longer and require more attention to detail. The higher the grade you go, the longer the pieces will get, and you need to train your stamina in playing long pieces so that you will not get tired halfway. Similarly, the higher the grade, the more technique is required to play the pieces even if you choose the easiest ones. If you only have the technique of grade 3 standard, you can’t work on grade 6 pieces and expect to do well. Therefore if you don’t have a good foundation, you simply can’t just skip to a more difficult piece and expect yourself to learn it well.

Your choice of pieces matter
This point applies more to the higher grade students than the lower grade students. For lower grades, while it is true that there are some pieces that can allow you to score better than others, if you are not able to learn most of the pieces in the ABRSM selected pieces book and are only able to learn the 3-4 easiest pieces, then you should forget about progressing to the next grade. For higher grade students, it is important to choose pieces that are suitable for your ability, strengths, interests and character. For example, I had a student who had a nice light, non legato touch and Scarlatti is wonderful for her. Another student who is very sensitive does really well on romantic pieces by Brahms and Chopin. And another student who had a heavy touch, strong temperament and good technique that is perfect for Beethoven. For students who are technically weak, I would usually recommend the easier or slower pieces, and for students who do not have a good memory and/or have a lack of stamina, I would recommend the shortest pieces. Of course, it is good to practice pieces that you are not good in to improve your technique and musicality, but to do well in exams you should choose pieces that can highlight your strengths and allow you to deliver with ease (after much practice).

The problem is, the piece that is suitable for the student may not be inside the ABRSM selected pieces book, and I’ve come across transfer students (at grade 8) who would only choose pieces in that book. Many students (and even teachers) don’t know that for grade 8, you can purchase the Peter’s edition grade 8 piano anthology (shown below) that is approved by ABRSM and have much more choice of pieces for you to choose from. Otherwise, you could just get another book (with your teacher’s help) that would cost less than half a lesson, but will enable you to do much better for the exam because it has the piece that is more suitable for you. I always tell my grade 8 students not to worry about choosing the pieces not inside the ABRSM book, but to choose freely from all the pieces listed in the syllabus, or choose from the ones that I recommend. I usually would only get the relevant book(s) after they have made their choice.

Grade 8 Piano Anthology, Peter’s Edition

Practice correctly to reduce ingrained mistakes. Do not progress through the piece faster than you are supposed to.
This is a very common mistake that a lot of students make. In order to practice correctly, they need to pay attention to the score to check whether they are playing the correct notes, but a lot of students (especially at lower grades) tend to look at their fingers instead of the score, and rely on their memory (of what is taught during lesson) to play the piece. Unfortunately, as their memory is not perfect, they end up with a lot of errors in their playing. And ironically if they had practiced a lot, by the time they had the next lesson, their mistakes would be too ingrained for the teacher to correct.

Another mistake that students (and sometimes teachers) make is to progress through a piece faster than they are supposed to. Although it may be good to work by a deadline in order to push yourself to achieve your goals, sometimes your deadline may not be realistic (for example, learning fantasie impromptu in a week) and in order to push yourself to reach the deadline, you progress through the piece faster than you are supposed to and end up ignoring vital details and mistakes that you’ve made in the earlier parts. Teachers are sometimes guilty of this too. They end up lowering their expectations (of how polished the piece is supposed to be) in order to meet the parent’s expectations (of when the child should take the exam).

A very detailed artwork can only be achieved with time. The same goes for music.

Make sure you go through the appropriate order of progression when learning your pieces
As shown in the table below, this is the proper order of progression of learning your pieces. Many people would think that this is common sense – why would someone try and play up to speed before they have learnt the notes and rhythm correctly? It’s like trying to run before you learn how to walk.

But I’m sure that many teachers, including me, have come across many students who do that. I have even come across transfer students, who are only about a month away from their exam and can play at actual speed, but with lots and lots of ingrained mistakes in their pieces. The main reason is because they progress through the piece faster than they are supposed to and the correct playing is not practiced until permanent before they move on to the next part or next piece.

In order to make the correct playing permanent, the number of times that you play correctly should be many, many times more than the number of times you played wrong. This would require a lot of patience and time, which is something that some students are unwilling to give because they want to ‘finish’ learning a piece in record time. Furthermore, playing with correct notes and rhythm is only the most basic stage of learning your pieces.

Order of Progression Chart

Trust that your teacher will register you for the exam when you are ready. Otherwise, assume that you are not ready until your teacher tells you that you are, or register only when you have a good recording ready.
As I’ve already mentioned earlier, sometimes teachers lower their expectations to meet parent’s expectations. If a strict deadline is set and the teacher have to get the student ready for the exam by that deadline no matter what, sometimes teachers have no choice but to lower their expectations. Sometimes, students and parents (and even teachers) overestimate the student’s readiness for the exam and think that they are ready when they can play fluently but still with some details not intact – and that’s what the table/checklist above is for.

Remember, the examiner can pick up the smallest flaw in your playing. Don’t underestimate the examiner’s sense of hearing even in a recorded exam. It comes as no coincidence that my students who score the highest for the exam are those who think that they are not ready even when I thought that they are.

Practice with the metronome.
Practicing with a metronome is something that cannot be overemphasized. I make all my students practice with the metronome. To practice effectively with the metronome, set it to a speed that you can play a part of the piece without any mistakes or tension. When you can play it easily, increase your speed by a notch and repeat the same thing all over again. The increase in speed is usually not noticeable by a notch, but if you keep on increasing (and making sure that you don’t make any mistakes at the next speed), you’ll find that you are eventually able to play at a speed much faster than you’ve just started with.

A metronome also helps you to be more aware of your mistakes. The parts that you don’t know well will come out as mistakes when you use a metronome or when you increase the speed. And it is much better that you find out about these mistakes when playing with a metronome than when you are about to record for your actual exam.

Unfortunately, a lot of students don’t have the patience to practice with a metronome and want to skip to the actual speed immediately after they can play a part correctly, and they just want to “get it” immediately without going through that much practice. But they end up with lots of mistakes when they increase the speed too fast. In fact, practicing with a metronome will actually save you a lot of time from practicing wrongly and ‘unlearning’ the mistakes that you made by playing faster than you can control. A thousand miles start with a single step. For those who are not used to playing with a metronome, it may be difficult to get started on or get used to using it, but once you experience the benefits of using one, you will not regret it.

Pay attention to details
Unlike other arts forms, music requires a much higher standard of perfection and attention to details. It is not enough just to get the notes and the rhythm correct. It is shown that the average number of wrong notes played by a (grade 1) distinction candidate is about one is 150. In carefully prepared examination work, candidates often play fewer than five wrong notes in every thousand. Many students don’t realize that playing the notes and rhythm correctly is just the most basic thing in learning a piece, and if they only do that, they will just get the minimum passing mark for the exam. Details include lesser blemishes (missing tone, small slips, not observing rests properly, unstable pulse or rhythm), attention to articulation and phrasing, dynamic contrasts and playing with good tone. The higher the grade, the more attention to details is required to get a distinction.

Many times, students get upset when the teacher “corrects them too much” in their playing. But what they don’t understand is that if the teacher doesn’t correct them, they will not get the results that they desire. Of course, an experienced teacher will correct within each student’s threshold and slowly increase the expectations when the students gets better (This however, may be hard to apply to transfer students, especially at higher grades and if the student have a strict deadline to work on). And this leads to the next point.

Do not be stubborn and listen to your teacher.
I used to think that my teacher was being very fussy by correcting me a lot, especially on minor issues that are not even noticeable, until I started teaching and recording my own playing and started to hear those minor mistakes/blemishes myself. As what I’ve mentioned earlier, an experienced teacher will be able to hear the mistakes that people like yourself, your parents, or even other teachers cannot spot. If your teacher is not correcting you, it is either that you have perfected the piece and ready to move on, or that he/she is not doing his/her job or has given up on you. Of course, an experienced teacher will correct within the student’s threshold (as what I’ve mentioned earlier). So, stop giving excuses like “I’m already used to ________ and I cannot change.” If you cannot change, then you will not improve.

Make sure that your interpretation is stylistically appropriate and on par with the composer’s intentions.
This point is especially for higher grades. Sometimes, when you practice too much and are too used repeating your piece over and over again without being mindful of your playing, or when you get more fluent and you playing gets faster, or when you record last minute and couldn’t get a good take after many tries and you start to get frustrated, your interpretation of the piece may go “out of point”. Teachers are sometimes guilty of this when they get too used to hearing their student’s playing that is slowly getting “out of point” and failed to correct them because they forgot what the correct interpretation is like. That is why it is important to learn about the background of your piece and its composer, and always listen to good recordings and to compare your own playing with them. And nowadays good recordings are easily assessable on YouTube. You just need to ask your teacher to recommend some. And also it goes by no coincidence that my best students actually take their own initiative to search for good recordings to listen to.

These are some ways where your interpretation of the piece can go “out of point”

  • Playing with unsuitable articulation – this should be corrected right from the start, but sometimes when the student starts to play the piece faster, they may overlook the articulation (this is especially so for students with weak technique and/or memory)
  • Playing a piece or passage too fast or too slow. Sometimes, when a student have been playing a certain piece for too long it can get faster than the actual speed – which may not be a good thing especially if the piece is supposed to be not fast. If the actual speed is supposed to be fast, the student may end up rushing when they play it at a faster speed than they can control. Also, if the student is using a publication other than ABRSM, it may not have the metronome marking. The student and teacher will need to check what is the ideal speed to play the piece.
  • Playing a happy piece sad and vice versa. This can be caused by playing too fast/slow or loud/soft. And playing a dance-like piece sounding like a march, vice versa, etc.
  • Rushing through the piece because you know it too well.
  • Sounding frustrated or tired in your playing because you have recorded too many times but couldn’t get a good take. This is why I do not recommend trying to record before you are fully ready, or trying to record your whole programme without practicing recording piece by piece first.
  • Playing a piece or passage too loud or too soft. Or playing a certain part (e.g. left hand) too loud when it should be soft.
  • Playing with unwanted accents or not emphasizing on the main/correct beats
  • Not being mindful of the pedalling and playing with blurring of pedal
  • Overdoing the rubato, or playing a romantic piece with no rubato. Note that too much or unsuitable rubato in a romantic piece is also not good.
  • Over reliant on metronome such that the playing becomes too metric, with no spaces/breaths in between phrase transitions.

    For those who think that they can make it through the exams without having a teacher or having regular lessons, the reasons above are why you should not do so. Because these are the things that usually only teachers can spot. And it is better for your teacher to spot it than for the examiner to do so.

    Be familiar with the recording process.
    There are too many details to be included in this point, so I wrote an entire article on this. This article is about the recording process and technical guidelines in preparing for the performance grade exam. To read the article, click on this link – Tips on submitting the best recording for performance grade exams

Owning a good piano matters
This is another point that cannot be overemphasized, and I’ve repeated this quite a few times in other articles. Note that the title here is about owning a good piano, not just recording on one, because there is a difference recording on good piano that you own and just recording on a good piano without owning one.

One of the biggest advantages of the performance grade exams is that you can record on your own piano. For face-to-face exams, students would be examined in an exam studio on an unfamiliar piano. So in order to do better for the exams, many students book the exam studio to practice on the piano (which may be worse than their own piano at home) just to get used to the piano. For a face-to-face exam, all students taking at the same exam centre are examined on the same piano, so if the piano is not so good (and the examiner knows it as he/she would have played on it him/herself), the examiner may give some slack to your marks.

However, for a performance grade exam, those who record on a good piano will have an advantage over those with not so good pianos. While you could just rent a good piano to record for your performance grade, this is not as easy as it seems. Almost all students play better on their own piano (and maybe the excuse “but it sounds better at home!” is legit after all…) There are some who could play well on any piano, but it is either that they have no stage fright, or that they had practiced until a level where a change in piano or environment does not affect their playing (see progression chart above: stage 8). And the higher grade you go, the more time and more takes you’ll need to get a good recording, and there’s simply not enough time to get a good take in one lesson/session. Furthermore, with a good piano at home, you don’t need to ‘book’ a timeslot to do your recording. You can record any time you like and take breaks without worrying about ‘wasting’ the recording time. This is the reason why I almost always choose the recordings that students had done at home even though I allowed them to record at my place, as their playing at home is usually more confident, less tense, with lesser rushing and mistakes or blemishes than the one taken at my studio.

Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee that the points above can help you to get a distinction, as there may still be some external factors that you cannot control – like having a strict examiner. However, it will at least help you get better in your playing. Good luck for your exams!

Like this article? Check out my article on Tips on creating the best recording for ABRSM Performance Grade Exams

You might also be interested to read my article on
When will my child be ready for the Grade 1 Piano Exam?
What you need to know about ABRSM exams

Click here to see my student’s achievements for past-year ABRSM exams.
Check out my past-year student concerts and performances