Exploring Piano Exams and Recitals

Exploring Piano Exams and Recitals

This month, we’re going to focus on two sometimes controversial aspects of piano teaching: exams and recitals. This will include discussions around performing, competitions, festivals, performance anxiety and so forth.

We’re going to discuss the best approaches for incorporating exams into your studio, when students should sit exams and how to discuss exams with pushy parents.

When it comes to performing, we’re going to consider alternate approaches to recitals and discuss issues around competitions, festivals and performance anxiety.

See below for a full list of resources for this month which will automatically update as new articles and podcasts are released.


In Australia, and I know many parts of the world, music education is based heavily on the exam system.

In a traditional exam-based studio, all students would progress through a grade each year, aiming to get to the top of the system before leaving school.

Usually, teachers would start teaching using exam repertoire and technical work as soon as a student had finished a method book. They would begin following a timeline that would look something like this:

piano exam timeline versus method books

How the method book/exam timeline often looks in an exam-focussed studio.

Note the red line which shows where students quite often quit lessons (and playing) because they’ve “finished learning”.

Unfortunately, the reality for many students who are shuffled aboard this “exam express” is exactly that: students start to equate progress with exams and so when they finish exams, just like finishing school, they stop playing.

(That is, if they haven’t quit long before that time from the boredom that is often associated with an exam focus.)

While some students will go onto tertiary studies and/or diploma exams, for most teachers (including me), this percentage is very low.

The solution?

Don’t use exams as a teaching curriculum: you may be setting them up for a premature end to their music-making.

As Tim Arnold, Executive Director of Global Operations from the ABRSM (one of the world’s biggest examination systems) says:

…an exam is a syllabus, not a curriculum. A curriculum is a plan of action for a year, whereas a syllabus is a measure of your ‘temperature’ at any one point in time.

To read more about this and watch my video interview with Tim, check out my article about Planning a Piano Teaching Curriculum.

We’ll be discussing these ideas in more depth this month. We will also be keeping in mind that for some students, exams can have a hugely motivating effect on their practising and can be a very positive experience.


Performances can strike fear into even the toughest of students. Is it all worth it?

What approach to recitals is best? A strictly formal affair with top hats and tails or something more relaxed with food and drink?

This month we’re going to explore:

  • What alternatives there are to the traditional ‘classical’ recital
  • Hear from some of my members about the innovative things they’re doing with recitals
  • Chat about competitions and festivals and how they can be used in your studio
  • Lots more!

To kick off this discussion, make sure you watch my video with Kristin Yost about Reinventing the Recital:

You can access the links and downloads by clicking here.

Got any Questions or Ideas?

If you’ve got any thoughts about exams and recitals, please leave them below. I’d love to hear from you.

This Month’s Resources

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Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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