ABRSM Piano Exam?!-experience and what I learned

Hey Readers,


So today’s post is about something you might not know I’m doing. I’ve been playing piano since I was 7 or 8 years old and I’ve always enjoyed it. Well, maybe not always… Piano is hard and requires a lot of coordination and concentration (which I had very little of), which made practicing frustrating at times. Throughout the years I became better, and I started to learn new pieces of new levels, like Fur Elise and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I started to love piano and music! I did a couple school talent shows, competitions, and concerts, but never have I ever done a piano exam. I thought exams were for school and school only.

Here’s what I learned from my ABRSM Exam:

What is a piano exam? If you think exams were only for school, think again.  There are music exams too. There are the playing exams (which I believe are referred to as Practical Exams), and there are theory exam (showing what you know about chords, composition, rhythms, ornaments, and all kind of fun stuff).  I took the ABRSM level 4 Practical Exam. I will be taking the level 4 theory exam later but for now, I’ve just done the practical.

I keep hearing ABRSM, what even is that? ABRSM is a fancy British music education company that stands for Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is the world’s leading music-examination provider, with over 630,000 candidates in 93 countries each year! They also can provide scholarships towards so of the best music colleges and universities in the world. For more information, visit their about page or the home page.

What’s in the exam? In the practical exam, you must play 3 songs from their lists. You can find these on the abrsm website.  List A is usually Baroque and Classical, while List B is Romantic, and List C is Contemporary. Then you need to play scales, arpeggios, contrary motion, and chromatic. They will only give you 1-3 of each during the exam but a whole book of them to memorize while practicing. You never know what scales out of the book you’ll get so I guess they just want to keep you on your toes. They also give you sightreading-THE DREADED SIGHTREADING. Sightreading is when your examiner give you a piece of music you’ve never seen before, gives you half a minute to prepare and off you go! And lastly, aural testing. This is the hardest for me, while others might be able to slide through this with ease. There are 3 parts. First, the examiner will play you a melody, then you will sing (or if you choose to) play it back. Then, this is the hard part for me, they will give you a 5 random notes. Then you have to sight-sing them. They give you the first note, then you sing the rest. Lastly, they play you a song and ask questions about tempo, character, and rhythm. (it’s different for each level so you might need to check out the requirements here)

What do you get after the exam? You get the satisfaction and bragging rights of finishing an exam but you can also get a certificate (great for college applications). You can either get a pass (100 points out of 150), a merit (120 points out of 150), and, the highest, a distinction (130 points out of 150). More info here

My Experience…  I went last Thursday at 9:18 (British people are very precise with timing). I had to drive to Mountain View because that’s the closest location to my home that they hold exams. They lead me in a sitting room/lobby where I checked in and gave me a sheet of paper. I wrote the songs I was playing on the paper. The women at the desk told me to keep that with me and not lose it. Then she checked my student ID- You can use a passport, driver’s license (if old enough), or school ID card. Remember to bring that!! She showed me to a practice room where you can warm up your fingers and practice your songs. After a couple minutes, I came back out and sat, since it was 9:00 and there was the possibility that the examiner would run early. So I waited. And waited. I was so nervous. My hands were shaking, my stomach growling (probably from the lack of breakfast I had), and my palms sweaty.The girl before me came out with a smile. She said she made only small mistakes in her pieces, and she left hand in hand with her dad, grinning from ear to ear. This made me more nervous for some reason. I clutched my books and gravely walked in. The door was misconceiving, it made me think the room would be pretty small. But it wasn’t. It was an auditorium with a shiny, hardwood stage in the back. A beautiful grand piano sat there, waiting to be played. A tall man, my examiner, sat in the corner at a desk, full of papers, books, pens, and music. His briefcase was neatly unpacked by the desk. “You must be ********.” He said in a very thick British Accent. He looked serious and intimidating. I nodded, put on the brightest smile I could and stuck out my hand.

-Rule no. 1 be confident and polite

He took my hand and shook it firmly. “Nice to meet you,” I said. He nodded, ”Likewise, now, let’s get this done shall we? The slip of paper?” The slip of paper. The slip of paper?! THE SLIP OF PAPER?! It was laying in the practice room forgotten.My heart pounded. “I don’t have it, it’s probably in the practice room, shall I go get it?” I tried staying calm but panic rose up my throat. He smiled at me, and said it was okay, people forgot all the time and said I could just fill one out here.

-Rule no. 2 be prepared

So I did. The writing came out a little shaky but I felt relieved. This examiner was nice. I played my pieces for him. After each piece his ink pen scribbled furiously. I could hear the words as they formed on the paper. I nailed my pieces. Not one mistake! No mistakes at all! I hoped he thought that too.

“Very nice playing!” He finally said after writing about 30 billion paragraphs. Next, we did scales. I did fine except for one shake up on my D Minor scale. Hopefully he ignored it, but judging from the urgent lettering on my exam sheet, it didn’t seem like it. “Now for the aural exam” he said, his British accent booming throughout the whole room. My heart sank. I had the small hope that he might forget about the aural part for my exam, even though that would be impossible. I sang back the notes okay. But I failed sight singing. My voice just made up notes as a tried to sing the note. The examiner corrected me on 3 out of the 5 notes. Not good. Next he played a piece for me. I was surprised at how brilliant his playing was. It was so dynamic and wonderful. “Well that was wonderful playing!” I said after listening. It was true, it was the best music I’ve heard in a long while.

-Rule no. 3 Compliment your examiner

He smiled, I could tell he liked my compliment. Maybe that could make up for my sight-singing fail. After that, the exam was more enjoyable. He asked me questions and joked around with me. I was more relaxed too and laughed at his jokes and jokingly groaned when he pulled out the Sightreading Book. “It’s my favorite!” I cried sarcastically. He smiled and winked at me and I started sightreading. I only messed up once so hopefully that was good enough for a pass in sightreading.

It really wasn’t that bad and I smiled with confidence as I waved goodbye to the examiner. I came back to the lobby and hugged my mom. I was confident I passed and I was relieved. It was over and I think (I hope) I did well!

I’ll keep you updated but until then…


californiangirl signing off




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