In this article, I’m going to share with you the lessons I learned from failing my piano exam and what you too can learn from this.
If you prefer, you can watch the video:
A few years ago, I decided to redo my Amus exam, which is short for “Associate in Music”. It’s a diploma-level exam which is a few grades above Grade 8. In Australia, to pass this exam, you must get an A. I took this exam for the first time when I was around 17. I obviously didn’t get an A because I failed the exam.
Since then, I stopped piano lessons. It’s only a few years ago that I decided to retake this exam but I wanted to do things a bit differently. I wanted to actually learn from my mistakes. One of the questions I asked myself was, “What do successful piano players do?”, “How do they pass this exam?”, and “If they can do it, if a 12-year-old can pass the Amus exam, why can’t I? Those are the answers I set out to find out for myself during my year of preparation.
The first thing I did was to spend some time choosing the right pieces because I knew that I would have to stick with those for a year. I wanted to make sure that I absolutely loved the pieces and that even after a year, I would still want to play them. So, I spent quite a bit of time going through the piano exam syllabus, listening to recordings, marking the pieces that I liked and then bringing the number down to four pieces, which is the exam requirement. I must say that I was happy with the selection. To this day, I still love these four pieces!
And of course, I decided to take piano lessons again. I found a local teacher that happened to be trained in the Russian piano method. I thought it would be interesting to have a different perspective. It’s thanks to this teacher that I learned things like mental practice and how to memorise music through mental practice.
Memorising the pieces
What I decided to do this time around was to memorise my four pieces which is something really outside my comfort zone because I’m used to reading music. I rarely memorise music but this is something I wanted to do, to prove to myself that I could do it. So that’s what I set out to do. But the way I memorised was very thorough. For example, I would sit away from the piano and in my head, I would mentally rehearse. I would think of every single note, all the details like the dynamics, the articulation, all of that had to be crystal clear. And anytime I couldn’t quite think of a note or the dynamic or whatever, I would go back to the score and check. So that’s one way I memorised.
I also tried to write out the music by hand on a manuscript. I tried to write out from memory my pieces and this is a really good test to see how well you know your pieces. I also listened to numerous recordings, not just by one artist but by many different artists, that way I could get more ideas on the interpretation. I would take notes of the things I liked about their interpretation and try to replicate what I liked.
During each practice session, I recorded myself and listened back. I took notes after practising, writing down my observations, things to remember, the tempo I had reached with the metronome, etc.. I even used an app called Modacity to track my progress.
When I wasn’t practising, I was watching videos on piano technique on YouTube such as Josh Wright’s channel. I wrote many notes from his videos which I keep in a notebook. I also watched masterclasses which are also available on YouTube.
After I learned all of my pieces really thoroughly, I spent probably about two months prior to the exam just practising performing. I got friends and family over and performed in front of them. I also performed to a former teacher. I even asked my partner to distract me when I was performing, making me run up and down the stairs so that I would feel out of breath and distracting me with noises and laughter. All the while, I had to keep going and play everything from memory. It was a really good way to test my concentration!
So, I did all of those things. In short, I fully immersed myself in this project. I wasn’t doing it half-heartedly like I had done the first time around.
Through this whole process, I learned not to be attached to the outcome. I decided that no matter what happened, whether I passed the exam or not, I would still enjoy the experience and focus on the music and the joy of learning.
So, you might be wondering… did I pass this exam?
Well, I’m happy to report that I DID pass the exam! I was able to perform all four pieces from memory. I had one little slip up in the first piece which was a fast Bach prelude. For some reason, my fingers got tangled up in one bit but I recovered and the rest was pretty good. It must’ve worked because I passed.
What I learned
But either way, I’m happy that I decided to take this exam again because I learned far more during the year of preparation than I did in the previous decade! I learned so much and it’s given me so much confidence now to tackle other difficult pieces. It’s also changed my mindset from thinking, “Oh, I’m not as good as those piano players” to “Well, I can be just as good as them if I put in the hard work, if I work just as much as they do”.
The thing is that you don’t really realise how much work something requires until you do it. The danger is that when you look up to certain people, people that are successful or further along than you, all you see is the end result. You don’t see how much work has been put in. You don’t see the sweat and the tears that have gone before it. All you see is them doing something that looks easy. They make it look easy.
I remember looking at my classmates when I was at uni and watching them perform these really difficult pieces on the piano and I would think, “I’m not like them” or “I’m not as good as them” but actually, all I needed was a simple shift in my mindset to “I can do it too”. I just had to figure out how they do it and replicate it.
So, what’s the big takeaway here? Well, if you want to be good at anything, whether it’s sight-reading, piano or baseball or what have you, look at people who are successful at this skill and try to see what it is that they do on a daily basis.
I think it was Jim Kwik who said in his book Limitless that: Genius leaves clues. I think this is so true. If you think of any great composer, artist or athlete and you look at their life, you can see the clues in how much work they put in and over how long. If you want to be as good as those guys, try to figure out what it is that they do behind closed doors. What behaviours do they adopt? What beliefs do they have? What habits do they have? And see if you can replicate that.
In your case, ask yourself, “What do good sight-readers do every day?”, “How did they get here?”, “How have they become such good sight-readers?”
To get started right now, why not listen to Phillip Sear’s story in this interview? He’s a pianist and YouTuber from the UK with excellent sight-reading skills. In the interview, he talks about what he’s done to get to where he is now so I recommend that you check it out and see if you can find the clues to his sight-reading skills. I have put them there deliberately.
READ MORE >> How to Prepare for a Sight-Reading Test
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