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From Scratch to Success: Give your pupils a firm foundation for their piano exams

A plus on an exam paper
It’s that time of year again!  We’re all thinking who should we enter for their ABRSM grade exam, are they ready? Of course “ready” doesn’t just happen and you need to prepare your pupils so that they have the best possible exam experience.
First off all it’s an excellent idea to get inside the head of the exam board and examiners and this is what ABRSM’s “Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces 2015-2016” book does. There are a few sentences about what is expected at each grade and then the writers dive in with tips, advice and practical help. Not having one of these books is like setting off on a journey without a guide book.
Each grade has technical demands and teaching each piece in isolation would be hard. Make life much easier by choosing some really useful support materials. The A Dozen a Day series (from the Mini Book for complete beginners to Book 5 which prepare pupils for the higher grades) lays the foundation for a solid technique with imaginative exercises, and is not tied to one tutor book system. So if your grade 1 piece has chords, there’s an easy exercise to help, if staccato is proving difficult, there’s a supportive jumping or hopping exercise.
Of course it’s really important to not just play the pieces but to understand them as well. This makes a more secure performance and helps all round musicianship too. So don’t neglect the theory. Bring it out of isolation and integrate it into your practical teaching. Get those “Music Theory in Practice” books and as well as working through the questions with your pupils, use them to design a Quick Quiz of questions related to the pieces, for example you could include: What’s this interval? Can you circle all the minims? Etc. And when your pupils go on to take the theory exam there are always the Past Papers- vast quantities of them now- and Model Answers and The AB Guide to Music Theory books 1 and 2.
Scales are the first thing pianists play in their ABRSM grade exams so it’s important for them to be as secure and confident as possible. One way of teaching them is to use the Scale Shapes for Piano by Frederick Stocken (an ABRSM examiner), Chester. It uses diagrams to speed up the learning process and pupils can work the scales out for themselves.
Sight Reading is often the most dreaded part of a grade exam but there are several publications that will help remove the pain. Paul Harris’ Improve Your Sight-Reading books progress from grade 1 to 8 (the grade 8 book has a very serious black cover!). Each book goes from stage 1, which starts at the level of the previous grade, to the final stage, which could probably help them have a reasonable pop at the next grade tests.
So get ahead of the game and make sure your pupils’ progress is backed up and thorough. They will thank you for it come results day!
(Written by: Fiona Lau)

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