Preparing for an AMusA performance diploma exam – why bother?!

By Tim Topham | Exams

Feb 09

Preparing for an AMusA performance diploma exam - why bother_!_Website

I recently sat and passed my Associate Diploma of Performance (called the “AMusA” piano exam in Australia) with Distinction.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic!

It was a project that I’d been working towards for around two years, having last sat a piano exam when I was 12 and having had a break of around 10 years from serious piano playing when I left school.

Preparing thoroughly for the exam was a huge undertaking and certainly not without its difficulties, but it has been an incredibly positive experience that has developed my performing skills out of sight!

diploma1One of my blogging friends and fellow teacher, Fran Wilson (aka The Cross Eyed Pianist) from the UK also recently completed her diploma exams at Associate and Licentiate level with the ABRSM. She has written a couple of excellent articles about why on earth piano teachers would consider such a time-consuming challenge, and I’d encourage you to check out the more recent Why take a music diploma?. (Update 2014: also check out Graham Fitch’s suggestions at: The Countdown to Your Diploma Exam.)

Wilson notes:

Anyone who thinks a diploma is a step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest, Associate level, is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification, recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world.

…not to mention you get to put extra letters after your name, dress up in a robe and hang a pretty certificate on your wall!

At associate level, the exam consists of a recital program of 30-40 minutes duration, generally featuring four pieces of varied styles. For full details on the AmusA requirements, check out the AMEB website. The syllabus may be downloaded here. Similar documents may be found on the Trinity College and ABRSM websites for their Diploma equivalents.

keep calmThe first step for anyone considering a Diploma is getting a highly competent teacher – preferably one who has considerable performing experience. Just as Fran was coached by her teacher, Penelope Roskell, I was lucky enough to be coached by Caroline Almonte – one of Australia’s preeminent teachers and pianists.

At Diploma level, you not only need to be a competent performer under stress; you also need to demonstrate the correct stylistic interpretation of each piece depending on its era. For this reason, you need the support and mentoring of someone who has not only hopefully ‘been-there-and-done-it’ but who is able to teach the performance and interpretative skills necessary at this level.

For those unaccustomed to performing solo recitals, the Diploma is a huge undertaking, especially considering that even at Grade 8 level, the most time you’d generally spend playing during the exam would be 10-15 minutes (Diploma exams are closer to 40 minutes). In order to bridge this gap, the AMEB added another exam level to their syllabus in 2009 called the Certificate of Performance which is a recital-only exam designed to help prepare students for their diploma (see syllabus link above for repertoire). Trinity College as a similar “Advanced Certificate” recital-only exam and I’m sure the other boards do the same.

What to expect/what have I learnt?

  • The general knowledge requirements are detailed and need to be conversational by exam time. Know your stuff about the composers and their output in particular and have an in-depth understanding of your pieces, their forms, the history of the forms, the eras, performing norms, etc. etc. You may be asked a little or a lot come exam time so you must be prepared for anything!
  • The more you perform, the more comfortable you become with your program so play through your exam pieces in front of an audience (and in your practice room) as often as possible, even if it’s just one other person or even a student after a lesson.
  • I learnt that it’s not a good idea to perform (or sit an exam) after a full day’s teaching and/or practice. I had a disastrous run-through for my teacher a month out from the exam after teaching all day and practising for about three hours – my brain was fried. Lesson learnt.
  • Similarly, make sure you don’t plan anything on exam day (and preferably on any day of a performance). You need to be relaxed and focussed in order to play well.
  • Performance nerves do not disappear with more performing, although it can help! There are many ways to help manage performance anxiety – please read my previous article about this. I’ll be blogging more about this in the future.
  • Wrong notes and memory slips do not equal a fail. The examiners are looking for a musical performance, not a perfect one. The most important thing is that a memory slip or mistake doesn’t throw you. Keep calm and stay on-track.
  • You can choose your exam order to suit the music and your strengths. Bach does not have to go first!
  • At AmusA level, you do not need to memorise your pieces. I chose to memorise half of my program, but it isn’t a requirement. At LmusA level, you need to memorise at least one piece. If you feel more comfortable reading the music, do it.
  • There are no prerequisites for Diploma candidates except that you need to have passed Grade 5 Theory (Grade 6 for Lmus). However, the theory exam can be completed after your performance.

pianistWhat would I recommend to candidates preparing for their Diploma?

  • Try and play a variety of pieces from the syllabus at exam level before you set your heart on any in particular. For example, I tried a number of Beethoven and Mozart sonatas before I found one that I really fell in love with and that could allow me shine. Keep in mind that when you do choose your final pieces, make sure you really, really, really love them as you’ll be living with them on a daily basis for some time!
  • Start the General Knowledge (GK) early – you learn so much from the process of researching your pieces and the composers that it can influence your performance dramatically. Don’t leave it until the last-minute like some students do for grade exams. At diploma level, it’s not about simply regurgitating facts; the examiner wants to see that you’ve done thorough research, made connections between composers, eras, historical events and styles and gone beyond the basics.
  • Don’t try and do the GK yourself – go to a specialist teacher. Contact me if you’d like recommendations in Melbourne.
  • Treat the GK as more of a discussion than a question and answer. The examiners want to have an intelligent conversation with you about the music and composers, not be given one-word answers to a hundred questions.
  • Perform for as many people as possible – preferably different teachers. Everyone will have their interpretive opinions – some you will like, some you (and your teacher) may disagree with. That’s fine. That’s what preparing is all about – trying different interpretations before you settle on your favourite and the most appropriate. I played for around eight other teachers during my preparation.
  • Regularly video/audio recording your performing and listen/watch back and critique yourself. This really goes for all students at all levels; the more you record and listen to your playing, the more you’ll discover whether you actually sound like you think you sound!
  • Play your exam program under exam conditions everyday for the month leading up to your exam (I’m not kidding!). You’ll know it inside-out and know exactly the mental effort that will be required on the day. For the rest of your practice time, work through all the hardest technical elements of your pieces. I had a list of all the hardest bits I needed to practice on a daily basis.
  • Do a mock exam in the exam room on the exam piano, preferably with a teacher to give you feedback. I did this and it was an excellent experience! You get a sense of the nerves you’ll experience on the day and how that may affect your playing. You also get a chance to get used to the foibles of the exam piano.
  • Examiners in particular know the system and what is expected of you and they can also provide advice on what other examiners will be looking for, so if you know any examiners, ask them to give you a ‘mock exam’.
  • Get into a really regular practice routine! For me, this was 7.30am – 9am every morning before I started teaching, plus afternoons and weekends whenever possible (I’m a morning person). Holidays were a big practice time for me; indeed, the last holidays before my exam consisted pretty much solely of practice, lessons, mock performances and study.

So in answer to my first question: Why bother preparing for a Diploma?

  • I’m a strong believer that all teachers should continually develop their own performing and teaching skills through lessons/mentoring from a master teacher. Having a Diploma exam as a goal ensures you set aside the necessary practice time to ensure improvement – quite tricky when you’re an adult.
    I learnt so much from my teacher about interpretation as well as tackling technical issues. All of that knowledge can now be passed onto my students.
  • Similarly, I found that all the work I did on my GK was immediately relevant to my teaching and useful on a day-to-day basis.
  • Preparing an exam introduces you to new repertoire. For example, as part of my preparation, I studied Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles (List D). When I first heard these, I really didn’t take to them at all, but with encouragement from my teacher, I ended up thoroughly enjoying practising and performing them and started looking for more of his music. Similarly, I listened to (and tried to play) heaps of the music on the syllabus when I was selecting pieces – all again useful for my own teaching and a general broadening of my musical knowledge.
  • Given the performance expectations for Diplomas is so high, you are likely to work on your pieces more than you’ve ever worked on anything at the piano! For me, this consistent, deliberate practice meant my performing ability improved exponentially during the time I spent preparing for the exam. I ended up performing at a level I never dreamed possible and this would simply not have come about without the pressure of the exam.
  • You get a real sense of what your students are going through and how much practice they have to do when they are working towards exams, competitions, recitals or auditions.
  • I gave a number of recitals in the lead-up to my exam and found that my ability to control performance nerves also improved over time. This was due to a number of recommendations by my teacher and also the brilliant content of Dr Don Greene’s Book “Performance Success” (the best $25 bucks any musician or teacher can spend).

By the way, you may be wondering why I didn’t do one of the many Teaching Diplomas offered by the various music examination boards given I’m a piano teacher. I already have a Diploma of Education and Bachelor of Music, so didn’t feel the need for more pedagogical study. However in order to continue teaching performance at higher levels, I wanted the performance experience. However, if you don’t currently hold a teaching qualification, I’d strongly encourage you to consider options such as the ATmusA or ATCL and check out these tips for teaching diplomas.

Finally, here are some links you might find useful:

What about you?

Are you thinking of taking a piano Diploma? Have you already started? How are you going with it? Have you experienced a Diploma by another exam board? What’s it like? How is it different?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, comments, ideas below.

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About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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