written by
Stephen Walter

Exams—Are You Ready?

5 min read


Simple things to do to enjoy yourself and get the best result

There are some simple things you can do to improve your "exam experience" (bonus raffle ticket if you can come up with a better term than this!); and to get the best result.

Firstly, I've created a free “Exam Hints” chart

The first version of this page had just four hints!

Over the years, I've added hints as students and I have learned from each exam.

These are just hints: they're not compulsory, and some might not apply to you. But most of them have proven very useful.

Just ask for a copy in your lesson—it’s free!

Take a few moments to read through it, and you could make your life easier, and get a few extra marks as well!

General Knowledge

Here's some great news about General Knowledge:

1. It's pretty easy!

There are only 4 or 5 main notes, two clefs, a few volumes (p, mp, mf, f etc), and a handful of italian words. The only things that might be tricky are the key signatures, and if your song has a wacky time signature (like 12/8 time, but that's rare...)

2. It helps you play better!

Obviously, if you know what the marks on the music mean, you can play better, and with more expression and enjoyment for yourself and your listeners.

3. It's at least 8 easy marks!

Treble and bass clefs, quarter notes, bars, time signatures - these haven't changed in hundreds of years, so what you learn for your first exam will be the same in your next exam. Basically you just add a few new terms and some interesting music history each grade.

4. What you learn for piano applies for other instruments too...

If you’re in the school band (cool!), almost everything you learn at your piano lessons will apply at band. Notes, timing, chords, musicology, ties, slurs — they’re all the same. It’s a WIN-WIN!

5. There’s a FREE easy chart...

I’ve made a FREE General Knowledge chart that has most of the answers you’ll need!

Ask for a copy, and put it in your folder. Why not print off some more, and put one near your keyboard, and one in your room too!

Sight Reading

Sight reading is the silver bullet for musicians.

Sight reading makes almost everything easier, quicker, and more fun!

And these days, apps, software, and other material make it easy to improve.

You can read more about sight reading here:


Listening Tests

Improving your listening skills isn’t difficult, it’s just a bit tricky to do on your own.

Apps for listening tests are not as helpful yet as apps for sight reading.

A simple thing you can do to improve your listening is... listen!

Try listening to range of different genres: soundtracks, jazz, classical, blues, 50’s rock’n’roll, baroque, prog-rock, bluegrass... some things you won’t like, but may things you will.

One feature about non-21st-Century-pop music is that there are often other key signatures. Pop music that made the Top Ten from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s often used 3/4, 7/4, and 6/8 (or even multiple signatures). Simply by listening you’ll develop a feel for different rhythms — and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it!

Here are some examples:

Promises, Promises (Dionne Warwick) — Different Time Signatures
Golden Brown (The Stranglers) — 3/4, 3/4, 3/4, 4/4
Take Five (Dave Brubeck) — 5/4 Obviously!
Money (Pink Floyd) — 7/4

OK, Grumpy Time!

Most students have all their exam pieces completed, which means great marks (as well as some good pieces to play for enjoyment, family, talent shows etc)!


Thank you for all your hard work - but it was worth it!


BTW, Im often secretly very happy to hear students proclaim a very difficult piece (thats taken them lots of time and effort to master) their favourite, and that they love to play it for themselves and others.

Why? Well, firstly, because I'm overjoyed that students love their music, and I'm equally rapt that they want to share they joy with others - this is one of the great gifts of music. But also because very often, just a few weeks earlier, this piece had been pronounced “too hard”, and “I can't do it”, and “I don't like this piece as much any more”.

There's a lot of truth in the old adage that we value most the things we've worked hardest for...

(Or, from one of my favourite books: “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty.” Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers.)


Examiners love dynamics (and so do your listeners)!

Watch for p=piano=soft, f=forte=loud etc.

It's not just examiners... dynamics are are part of the expressiveness of a piece. Imagine if you spoke in a flat monotone, without any feeling in your voice. You'd sound like a robot! The same is true in music...

Uh Oh! Scales...

There are more than a few students that are going to get brilliant marks for all four of their pieces, and probably perfect marks for their scales and general knowledge...

So far, A+!!!

Then, they're going to get 6 or 7 marks out of 22 for their scales...

Oh No! What should have been an A+ is now a B, simply for want of a few 15 minute sessions with a metronome!

Pretty please, put a little effort into the scales and get the best mark you can!

Revise Note and Rest Names and Values

The easiest part of General Knowledge is often the bit that loses marks!

Simply: make sure you know the four common notes and their values (whole note = 4 beats; half note = 2 beats, quarter note = 1 beat etc)

You can check this on the General Knowledge chart.

Practise Efficiently!

You don’t need to play the entire piece if only one bar has a problem!

Save time! Work Smart!

Just practise the bit that needs the practise! In the time it take to play an entire piece through just once (therefore only practising the tricky bit once), you could instead do the tricky bit several times. This will take less time than playing the entire piece, and make the tricky bit less tricky...

(I swear that whilst this might seem obvious, apparently it isn't!)

That's it!


If you need any help or advice, or have any questions, please don't hesitate to email me, or call me on 4751-6196.



Stephen Walter

Blue Mountains Piano School

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