written by
Stephen Walter

What Piano Exam Should I Do?

21 min read


Update: 2020-11-05

Firstly, Exams Are NOT Compulsory!

I want to say up-front that exams are NOT compulsory!

Some students get very anxious, and some students have different goals.

So it’s perfectly OK not to do a piano exam.


I believe that they're a great idea, and I've set out my reasons below...

Why Exams?

Exams provide many benefits...

1. Exams provide a goal for students

Many parents will know that their children practise more as exams approach. This practise in turn helps them to complete at least four pieces (which they end up playing for friends and family, school talent shows etc). This equips them with the skills for the next level of pieces, and it also encourages them to continue working.

2. Exams provide a framework of basic skills

You only need to learn four pieces in a YEAR. However, those pieces will be in different genres (a technically demanding study to help dexterity and keyboard skills; a classical piece; and perhaps a jazz and rock piece).

Further, you need a little bit of theory and general knowledge, matched to your grade. These skills help you to progress as a musician, until you are independent and able to play whatever pieces you want.

You also improve your sight reading (the “silver bullet” for making music easier and more fun); and gain new listening and rhythm skills.

3. It lets everyone know what level the student is at

Occasionally I inherit students from other teachers. Some students have been taught well and are doing fine.

Regretfully, I have sometimes had students who have been actively discouraged from taking exams (exams are old fashioned; they'll bore you; you'll learn more just doing these pieces etc).

The parents have then been told that their child is at X level.

Unfortunately, it's quickly apparent that these students are often missing something (usually no pieces have been polished, or they don't know how to read music, or they can play treble clef, but haven't been required to play bass clef). It's then very discouraging to have to inform parents and student alike that they'll basically have to go back and re-learn, and that they've wasted years and a lot of money.

Exams prevent this by providing detailed feedback to parents, students and teacher alike about a students strengths and weaknesses.

No downside! (Well... see below...)

Look at the benefits above. You get four good pieces, learn more about the piano, and improve your skills.

What's the downside? Well, you have to... PRACTISE. But you'd have to practise anyway, wouldn't you? There's no goal in life that doesn't require a little hard work. Do you think Ian Thorpe won medals just by getting in the pool at the Olympics? I'm sure there were a few million laps beforehand. To get a good result in music will only require a few MINUTES in the comfort of your own home each day, not hours in a smelly chlorine pool!

But I Don't Want To Do Exams...

That's OK, but to progress you'll still need to set goals.

These could be to learn a few specific pieces by the end of the year, or to perform at a school talent quest or class concert, or perhaps to get your Duke of Edinborough Award. You'll also need to learn some basic theory and technical work (not knowing basic theory is like learning to read without knowing the alphabet).

Other than that, it's your choice!

What Happens Without Goals?

Each year there are a few students who move into High School. The appearance of homework and detailed projects can be a shock! Occasionally, these students will ask if they can skip exams that year, “just while we get used to High School”. But without goals, these students often don't feel the need to practise.

In one very extreme example, a boy I taught went from doing well in exams (and learning over 20 pieces in one year) to actually failing to complete a single piece in his first year of High School. It wasn't that the pieces were harder, or that he had soooo much homework - it was simply that without a goal, he didn't practise.

So, I hope it's clear that I believe in setting goals, and aiming to reach them.

Whilst exams are not compulsory, they are the most obvious goal to set, perhaps with the most useful outcomes.

“It is a paradoxical but true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at the goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.” Arnold Toynbee, 1852-1883

What Exam Options Are There?

1. AMEB Traditional Pianoforte

For many years this was the only option for students. However, the AMEB found that numbers of students fell away dramatically with higher grades, for two reasons:

Firstly, the amount of technical work increases each year until by Grade Eight you need substantial work just to get all the technical elements (there are more than 50 individual scales and arpeggios!);

Secondly, most of the music is by people long since dead... and then mostly white European males.

It’s almost as if the AMEB doesn’t realize Australia is really part of Asia, or that 50% of the population are women...

Requirements: four to six pieces in a variety of genres from a list of about 80 pieces (some by composers who are still alive); extensive scales; general knowledge; sight reading and aural work.

Opinion: perhaps if you want to be a concert pianist... but why?

2. AMEB Piano For Leisure

About a decade ago, the AMEB set out to rectify the falling numbers of students. The PFL Syllabus was their excellent solution. Scales were dramatically reduced (although they are the same speed and difficulty as the traditional exams); students can choose sight reading OR aural work; and pieces include modern music (including pop tunes and TV and movie themes).

I was one of the first teachers to adopt this syllabus, when it was first introduced as a trial in NSW. At the time some teachers claimed it wouldn't last. Now most teachers use this syllabus...

I believe that despite the massive inclusion problems outlined below, this syllabus is sensible, and has been improved over time in a beneficial manner.

Requirements: just three pieces (including one of your own choice); reduced technical work (4 to 6 scales rather than 20); sight reading OR aural work.

Opinion: Recommended

3. AMEB P-Plate Piano

Introduced in 2010, this “syllabus” is aimed at young beginners. On paper, it’s a good idea: students go to the exam, play three pieces, and get a very nice certificate. Parents are allowed be an audience in the exam. After completing three exams, students get a cute “Piano License”.

In practise however, I have my suspicions...

The website is .com (or commercial) rather than a .edu (for education). It promotes the purchase of the books, and suggests that the exams are inexpensive.

Unfortunately, the enterprise suggests a profit motive: consider the actual costs...

All pieces must come from the three P-Plate Piano books, which must be bought in addition to your regular piano tuition books. The books cost $35 each, or $79 for all three. Each 10 minute exam is $29.90, and is held only at AMEB exam centres, during work hours. In the Blue Mountains, the Penrith or Katoomba centres are up to 50km away.

The exams themselves are ungraded: the certificate is pre-printed before you arrive, everyone passes, and no mark is given. You’ve paid for your child’s success. Hopefully not a model of a real exam experience...

This means the cost of doing these nine beginner pieces is (at the least): $90 for the exams, $80 for the books, 300km of travel expenses, and 3 half-days off school and work.

I think you're better off doing the AIME exams at your teachers’ studio.

Requirements: three exams, each with three pieces.

Opinion: good try, AMEB... but no...

“Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn't. In some schools, they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. Failing grades have been abolished and class valedictorians scrapped, lest anyone's feelings be hurt. Effort is as important as results. This, of course, bears no resemblance to anything in real life.” Charles J. Sykes, 1996

The AMEB, Gender, and Culture...

The AMEB have been bitterly disappointing when it comes to inclusion.

Every few years the AMEB produces new books for their exams. For the Series 4 books, they touted an impressive editorial consultant, and mentioned a number of directions that they intended to pursue.

In 2017 they finally released the latest Series 4 Piano For Leisure books.

What a disappointment...

Compared to the progressive moves made by Trinity, the Canadian Conservatorium exams, and Australia’s own ANZCA exams, the new Piano For Leisure books gave us more of the same.

Worse, perhaps, in an age of inclusion and cultural awareness, was the glaring omission of women or ethnic music (especially from Asia).

Before someone complains, let’s actually look at the books:

Each book has 12 pieces. Given that 50% of the population are women, and 16% of Australians were born in Asia, you would expect some attempt towards representation....

Preliminary. Women: 0 / Asian: 0 / Australian: 4

Grade 1. Women: 4 / Asian: 1 / Australian:

Grade 2. Women: 2 / Asian: 0

Grade 3. Women: 3 / Asian: 1

Grade 4. Women: 3 / Asian:0

Grade 5. Women: 0 / Asian: 1

Grade 6. Women: 1 / Asian: 0

Grade 7. Women: 0 / Asian: 0

Grade 8. Women: 1 / Asian: 0


There are 108 pieces in these 9 books.

14 (or 12%) are by Women. 3 (or 2.5%) are by Asians.

It’s worse if we consider the Level 2 books (which is Grades 5 to 8).

Here we find that out of 48 pieces, just 2 (or 4%) are by Women, and there is only 1 piece by an Asian composer.

BTW, the situation is actually SIGNIFICANTLY WORSE than I’m setting out above.

Along with the grade books, the AMEB has a syllabus list of around 80 pieces per Grade. I’ve just checked the Grade 7 list (82 pieces).

Grade 7 Complete List 82 pieces: Women: 0 / Asian: 0

Out of 82 pieces for the Grade, the AMEB couldn’t find a single women composer to include.

It’s not as if women composers are rare.

Here are some famous women composers for piano from years gone by:

Teresa Carreno (who taught Edward MacDowell, and had 5 children); Cecile Charminade; Louise Farrenc (who was Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory); Elisabetta de Gambarin; Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (who was a great help to her more famous little brother Felix Mendelssohn, and has 6 of her songs in his Opus 8 & 9); Wanda Landowska; Marianne von Martinez; Clara Wieck Schumann (who was a better pianist than her more famous husband, Robert Schumann; edited his music, was Principal teacher at the Frankfurst Conservatory, and had 8 children); Adaline Shepherd; Maria Szymanowska; Marianna von Auenbrugger; Agathe Backer-Grondahl; Amy Marcy Beach; Margaret Ruthven Lang; Clara Gottschalk Peterson; Florence Price; Elena Gnesina (who taught Aram Khachaturian).

Let’s remember that these women accomplished what they did in a society far less accepting of women’s accomplishments than today.
They really are trailblazing heroes and role-models!

In Australia we have Miriam Hyde, Elena Kats-Chernin, and of course Dulcie Holland (I really enjoyed playing her pieces when I was a little tiny student—but not her theory books (sorry!))

And then there are the many accomplished modern composers:

Pam Wedgwood (very cool!); Naoko Ikeda (so expressive); Catherine Rollin (check out her “Forest Nocturnes”); Martha Mier; Laura Karpman (the “Family Theme” from Lovecraft is beautiful); Margaret Goldston; Susan Ogilvy (really cool technical pieces); Diane Hidy (good technical studies); Wendy Stevens (very popular); Beatrice Miller; Carol Matz (very popular with my students); Gayle Kowalchyk (she came to Australia and gave one of the best music education talks I’ve ever seen, and introduced me to the music of G.P.Tingley); Melody Bober; Rachel Portman (her piece “Frank Churchill Arrives” from the “Emma” movie is very popular); Anne Dudley etc etc etc.

It’s the 21st Century. How unimaginative must you be to not include a single woman or Asian composer in an entire grade of 82 pieces?

Why does this matter?

Half my students are girls. Am I supposed to tell them that girls can’t compose music, or, if girls do compose music, that it doesn’t matter?

The AMEB might feel comfortable with this, but I certainly do not.

Many of the girls I teach enjoy composing. Why shouldn’t they have female role models?

I know women compose just as well as men.
I will NOT tell my students anything less than this.

As to Asian music: Asian music has many wonderful features not found in Western music, most obviously pentatonic scales (and bear in mind that different pentatonic scales are used in different countries), but also different rhythmic patterns, and even different ideas about compositional structure.

Let’s not forget different instrument sounds too: the koto, shakuhachi, erhu, pipa, the guzheng, and many others.

And let’s not forget the beauty of the different languages!

Most people I know find pentatonic scales to sound absolutely wonderful (I have yet to find a student that doesn’t think that “Sakura” sounds beautiful).

Watch the way she bends the koto strings with her left hand like a rock guitarist (see 2:06 and 3:06). BTW I’ve planted my yard with many Australian natives, but someday I WILL plant a cherry blossom tree (and put an Acer Palmatum in a big pot). Gorgeous!


Finally, it’s a simple fact that Australia is a part of Asia...

Our largest trading partners (2018 figures): China $214bn; Japan $81bn; USA $73bn; South Korea $41bn; Singapore $32bn.

Let’s consider that: 4 of our top 5 trading partners are in Asia.

16% of Australians were born in Asia, and have contributed massively to this country (as have people from all of the many nations that make up our fabulous multi-cultural society).

Australia: distance to Asia = 700km to Timor-Leste; 3,300km to Singapore; 3,700km to Beijing... and 13,900km to London.

Yup, we’re part of Asia (only with the SLOWEST internet...)


Shouldn’t Australian students learn to appreciate the art and culture of our major trading partners, and of so many of our citizens? Isn’t this in the interests of cultural understanding, and economic sense?

My final reason is very simple: a lot of Asian music is really, really beautiful.

My favourite three composers are J.S.Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler (Sibelius, Prokofiev, Satie, and Vaughan-Williams are in the Top 20)—so it’s clear I like baroque, classical, romantic, and 20th Century European music! I’m VERY keen that students get to hear and learn this music too—but at the moment the western tradition is getting 95% representation, so it doesn’t need any support from me.

But along with European music, I also like Japanese music (traditional, but also Kitaro, Ryuchi Sakamoto, and Ayumi Hamasaki just to name a few), I love Chinese and Vietnamese folk music, and I appreciate Gamelan.

Christopher Norton has recently released a book of Asian piano arrangements. Try this famous Korean tune, “Arirang”:

And he has a discussion of the various technical elements of the arrangements here (great for piano teachers and students!):

Now tell me: why shouldn’t music this beautiful and educational be on the syllabus...


A Few Notes About AMEB Exams

(a) I have no control over AMEB timetabling. The AMEB gives you a time, and you must turn up. This will be during business hours, so the student will need to miss school, and a parent will need to take them to their exams.

(b) The closest metropolitan exam venue is the Joan Sutherland centre in Penrith.

(c) The AMEB requires original music. No photocopies of copyright music are allowed.

“The man without a goal is like a ship without a rudder — a waif, a nothing, a no man. Have a purpose in life, and, having it, throw such strength of mind and muscle into your work as God has given you.” Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881

4. Australian Independent Music Examinations

Since 1993, AIME have offered examinations that are similar to the AMEB PFL syllabus.

The main differences:

FOUR pieces are required, and like the traditional exams, these must include one study and one `classical' piece. The other two pieces can come from a list of over 200 pieces, including lots of pop and rock pieces. The Technical work almost exactly follows the PFL requirements.

Another difference is that students must learn triads. Triads are the basis of pop, jazz, rock, and song writing. They let you play lead sheets in bands, and are essential for improvising and jazz. This used to be standard in AMEB exams, but were removed. Now, some students that complete AMEB grades are unable to improvize or make their own music!

Since the syllabus is so similar to the AMEB, students can switch to these exams (if they need an official grade for University or TAFE, for example), without disadvantage.

The exams are externally examined, to give students the full exam experience. However, they should not be considered as comparable to the AMEB. Our exams are held in a familiar location, on the same instrument students use each week. The exams are longer, giving more time to relax and think.

The exams are held on week-ends (so you don't need to take time off school or work), and there is some flexibility as to your preferred exam day and time.

Candidates receive a detailed two page report, and a beautiful certificate (most people agree these are much better than the AMEB ones!)

Students also receive an official Academic Transcript, which they can use for RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) at TAFE or college.

Requirements: Four pieces (including one study and one classical piece); technical work as per the AMEB-PFL Syllabus plus triads; sight reading OR aural work.

I admit bias: I am on the Syllabus Advisory Committee!

Opinion: Highly Recommended

AIME: Lower Cost, Better Support

‎There are other reasons to consider the AIME.

Firstly, cost. Their syllabus is designed around copyright and royalty free music. You can literally do the exams without paying a cent for your music! Alternatively, you can buy one book that will do for several grades, rather than an expensive grade book to do only three pieces.

For support, the AIME provide scales pages, technical guides, sight reading and theory worksheets, and backings for scales and triads - all for FREE!

Trinity Guildhall UK

I like the Trinity exams. The syllabus is very flexible, and the requirements are a balanced blend of practical, theory, and knowledge. They are recognized world-wide.

Unfortunately, some students find it difficult to choose three pieces that they like from the small list of choices. Also, the exams are expensive, and require travel to the city.

Opinion: I like Trinity Exams.


The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music offer exams that are recognized world-wide. They also have a good jazz piano syllabus.

However, they are not well known in Australia, so exams require travel to the city, and RPL credit may be difficult.

Their website offers a range of materials for parents and students.

Opinion: Good


ANZCA has nowhere near the recognition of AMEB, Trinity etc, but I’m guessing in a short time they will have, because they are a very responsive organization.

The Australia & New Zealand Cultural Arts organization offer exams for keyboard, popular piano, and classical piano. The exams seem to be similar to the AMEB PFL exams. They have a reasonable website, and you can download their syllabus.

They recently released a very good Jazz Piano syllabus. In designing it, they’ve obviously considered the requirements and goals carefully, and they've approached Christopher Norton to be involved.

But for me, one of the most impressive things about them was they way they responded to the COVID crisis. While other organizations went missing (and STILL do not have a really clear strategy (Nov 2020) for coping with 2021 exams, leaving many of their students disenfranchised); ANZCA sent out very regular and informative emails, and has set up an admirable plan for video exams that has proven popular enough for some students they will continue to offer it as an alternative to face-to-face exams.

During COVID we’ve seen some people / businesses / governments struggle to respond.

We’ve seen others rise to the occasion.

We’ve seen 99% of Victorians become National Heroes.

I have been genuinely impressed with ANZCA’s approach to their teachers, students, syllabus development, and COVID. Thank you.

Opinion: Recommended (especially the Jazz syllabus).

Bonus marks for communication.

Australian Guild of Music & Speech

Every student that I have ever met who has done an AGMS exam (and that doesn't seem to be many) seems to have gained an A grade. Their syllabus is average, and their website offers few clues as to requirements, pieces, recognition or anything else.

Opinion: Not recommended.

“The most important thing about goals is having one.” Geoffrey F. Abert

9. Assessment

Some younger students get nervous about being in a room with an unknown examiner who is writing about them on a clipboard! Others can't make the week-end exam time, or don't cope with stress. A few just want a more casual experience.

Therefore we offer FREE assessments. As a qualified assessor, I can test the same material required for an exam. Students receive an official report.

The differences: the assessments are NOT directly comparable to exams; your friends may get suspicious of a good mark awarded by your teacher(!); and we cannot promise a specific date for the assessment. In all other respects it is identical to the standard exam.

10. Certificate Of Accomplishment

Students can complete each of the requirements of the exam progressively. We mark off each goal as it as attained: when all items are complete, students receive their report and certificate.

This should NOT be seen as a replacement for exams. However, it does provide assurance that students are mastering all the work required for each grade.

What Pieces Should I Choose?

(1) Choose pieces that you like. If you don't like 'em, chances are you'll avoid practising them!

(2) Keep 'em short and simple! You are better choosing shorter, easier pieces that you can learn fast and play very well.

Remember Leigh Hunt's advice:

“The pretension is nothing; the performance is everything. A good apple is better than an insipid peach”. Leigh Hunt.

(3) Choose good arrangements. Music can be edited to make it easier to read and play, and sound better. Good arrangers include Dan Coates, Philip Keveren, Jerry Lanning, Bill Galliford, and Stephen Walter!

See the “Why I Like Dan Coates” page for more information.

Scales: part of a positive exam experience!

(1) There are NOT many scales to do.

For the first three exams, there are only FOUR scales (that's one scale every three months, or one note every 11 days!). Even at 8th Grade there are only SIX scales and EIGHT arpeggios.

(2) Marks.

Scales are a large proportion of your exam mark (especially if you are doing AMEB exams).

(3) Get 'em out of the way!

If you do them early, you'll only need a few seconds a day to maintain them. This beats the usual non-plan, which for some students seems to be to leave them until a week or two before exams, work for hours, panic, and despise the exam process.

“I attempt an ardous task; but there is no worth in that which is not a difficult achievement.” Ovid, 43BC-17AD

How To Do Exams For FREE!

1. The Assessments are FREE (as part of a standard lesson)!

2. Use the books you have. Many of the pieces come from the Alfreds books, which are our standard teaching text.

3. Use the internet. There are many pieces that are out of copyright (generally, pieces of music by composers dead for 70 years; printed 25 years ago).

The advantage: there are thousands of standard classical repertoire pieces available for FREE. The BMPS Internet Music Guide has links to 18,000 pieces!

The disadvantages: the music is mostly older classical music; and sometimes the editions aren't as legible, accurate, or helpful as modern editions.

4. Use my pieces. My compositions and arrangements are free, and I have pieces from Preliminary to Grade Four.

“In teaching, you cannot see the fruit of a days work. It is invisible, and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” Jacques Barzun, 1907-

How To Do Exams Inexpensively

1. Use a book that has several pieces at your grade level. Books like Contest Winners, MicroJazz, Sonny Chua, lDog Gone It, Elissa Milne, Dennis Alexander, & Kitten KaBoodle contain many pieces at the same grade level.

This means that you can pick two or three pieces from the same book.

2. Use a book that has pieces at several grades. By far the best example here is the Microstyles Collection by Christopher Norton. These pieces are on the STUDIES and OTHER lists for all grades from Grade 2 to Grade 6.

This means that one book will provide you with multiple pieces at each grade for FIVE YEARS (and it includes a CD with the backings, by the composer himself!)


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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