Month: August 2019

Play and Practice Pieces

I give my beginner piano students a lot of pieces to play after their first month or so, introducing at least one or two new pieces of music each lesson.

Being new to the piano, every piece of music has something in it for them to learn, be it technique, patterns, rhythm or note reading.

Some kids are able to grasp new pieces and techniques quickly so having many pieces keeps things interesting for them. Some kids take longer to work through a piece of music but this shouldn’t stop them from having fresh material. A piece of music doesn’t have to be “perfect” before we get started on the next piece.

In fact, there’s nothing more frustrating than only having the same eight bars to work on, with nothing else to play.

Frustrated Child


By introducing a variety of repertoire to students, there’s bound to be a piece they enjoy more than the others, one which naturally makes them sit and play. This is the start of effective practicing for many kids and it usually doesn’t take long for them to play that piece fairly well.

The concept of the “Play” Piece

In my studio, I like to distinguish between “Play” and “Practice” pieces for my students. Play Pieces are performance-ready pieces that a student can play correctly without needing any prompts or help from me. These pieces have essentially been mastered and as such, students don’t have to practice them any further.  However, rather than forgetting about these pieces altogether, we mark the ones they really like with a coloured tab so they can easily find them to play whenever they feel like it.

I adopted this concept of the Play Piece from an essay written by Dr. Julie Knerr (co-author of Piano Safari) where she explains that children are happy to practice when they can play pieces they have already mastered. She refers to these pieces as “Review Pieces” but I re-named it for my students as it’s easier for them to remember to simply “play” them.

Children like to do what they do well. If they play pieces well, they will like to play those pieces. Keeping pieces as Review Pieces allows the student to build a repertoire and allows the teacher to continue to refine the student’s technique and musicality. This builds the student’s confidence, because he can play a group of pieces he knows really well.

Dr Julie Knerr, Piano Safari

Practice Pieces

As the name suggests, Practice Pieces are those that aren’t quite there yet and need to be actively practiced. It could be that a piece of music has just been newly introduced and the student is still getting familiar with it, or it could be that a piece of music presents specific challenges that the student needs to work through.

Sometimes during a lesson, I’ll listen to a Practice Piece and hear parts that need refining, but my younger students don’t usually pick up on the same things. In their minds, if they’ve played all the right notes then the piece is done. Never mind if the beat is off and they’ve ignored the rhythm completely!

What Constitutes a Play Piece?

To help my students understand how a Practice piece becomes a Play Piece, I put together a checklist to show them the areas they need to think about when practicing a piece of music. I’ve attached a copy of this Play Piece Checklist below in case you’ll also find this helpful to use at home.

There are essentially five main components to the checklist:

  1. Correct notes
  2. Correct rhythm
  3. Appropriate tempo
  4. Observing dynamics
  5. Articulation / technique

Of course for very early beginners, I’ll give a lot of leeway for Dynamics and Technique as these take a long time to develop and they won’t necessarily be able to exhibit excellence in these areas yet.


Play Piece Checklist by Piano with Po

By giving each student a laminated copy of the checklist to keep in their folders or propped up on the piano at home, they can see easily what they need to work on during their weekly practice for any given piece. This allows them to self-evaluate outside of the lesson which is a good skill to have for eventually learning to play independently.

When it comes to Play Pieces, More is More

Play Pieces are a wonderful way to show students how practicing leads to enjoyable, tangible outcomes. Having a bank of repertoire that they can play is not only fun for kids, but it also shows them (and their parents) how much progress they have made. Seeing proof of progress is a great motivator for learning and I really like how this system really helps with continual progress.


How many Play Pieces do you or your kids currently have? Let me know in the comments below!

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What are Piano Exams?

If you or your children are learning to play the piano, it’s likely that someone will ask at some stage, “What grade are you in?”

This is particularly common in countries such as Australia and Singapore where a lot of of emphasis is placed on exams when it comes to learning the piano.

However, let me say upfront that you don’t have to do exams. You can learn to play the piano very well without ever doing one.

Mastering skill without examsIt’s like learning to play tennis. You don’t have to compete in a tournament to develop a killer forehand. Similarly, you can be a great cook without putting yourself forward to be judged on MasterChef. Exams are a way to externally evaluate your skills but they’re not a must for every learning journey. In fact, piano exams can often be detrimental to a student’s enjoyment of piano to the extent that they give up playing altogether.

Having said that, piano exams are popular for a reason and can be a great motivator for students who are goal-focused. It’s also a great feeling when you see your efforts rewarded by a great exam score and certificate.

There’s a whole host of opinions one way or the other about exams. For now, if you’re new to piano, you might simply be wondering what piano exams are like and how they work in general. This overview will give you some background information which can help you have a conversation with your piano teacher about whether you or your children would like to explore the exam path.

Examination Boards

There isn’t one single global governing body for piano and there are multiple boards that you could potentially take exams with depending on where you’re located. Each exam board has its own syllabus and there are differences in the breadth and depth of material that is examined. If you live in the UK, Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong, you’re likely to have at least a couple of options for piano exams and it’s worth looking into the differences before you decide which one to go with.

Some of the more well known boards include:

The two most popular exam boards for students in Singapore are ABRSM and Trinity.

Both boards originate from the UK and their examiners are trained to assess students against a universal marking criteria. The qualifications received from both exam boards are internationally recognised.

Types of Piano Exams

Piano exams are usually split into two categories:

  1. Practical – performance-based exams where you play in front of an examiner;
  2. Theory – written or online exams that test your knowledge of learned musical concepts.

Most of the time, students will start with practical exams and do theory later on, especially if they’re starting at a young age.

Some students choose to not take theory exams at all but this can be problematic for progression later on, depending on the exam board. For example, with AMEB and ABRSM, you have to pass Grade 5 theory before you can take a Grade 6 practical exam. The idea behind this is that in order to properly interpret and perform more challenging repertoire, you need to know how to analyse a piece of music and understand the music theory that underlies the piece.

Piano Grades

Typically piano exams start at Grade 1 and progress through to Grade 8 (some up to 10). Some boards also have a preliminary or preparatory stage which you can take before Grade 1.

Piano Grades

You can choose which grade you want to start at and you don’t have to do every single grade. For example, a student who has been learning piano for four years might take a Grade 2 exam as his or her first exam, and in a few years’ time decide to take a Grade 5 exam without doing 3 and 4 in between.

Some exam boards offer diplomas in music, teaching or performance in addition to the graded exams.

What is in a Practical Exam?

Although each exam board has its own syllabus, there are general similarities when it comes to what is fundamentally being assessed in a practical piano exam. The core components include:

  1. Performance – playing 3 to 6 pieces of prepared music (chosen from a specified list of songs)
  2. Technical skills – playing scales, arpeggios, broken chords and/or technical exercises that focus on particular techniques
  3. Sight Reading – ability to look at a previously unseen piece of music and play it in a musical manner
  4. Aural skills – general aural perception and discrimination, ability to recognise rhythms and memorise short phrases
  5. Musical knowledge of the prepared pieces and/or new pieces of music

Not all exam boards assess the above components in each grade and some may also include other elements such as improvisation.

Want to do a Piano Exam?

Check Dates for Exams

If you’re keen to do a piano exam after reading the above, here are some next steps to consider:

  • Speak to your piano teacher and see if they think exams would be good for you
  • Choose an exam board (with the help of your teacher) that would be most suitable to assess your skills
  • Read through the syllabus for your grade – if there’s anything in there that really worries you, chat with your teacher about it before you commit to the exam
  • Check the dates for registration and the dates for exams carefully. A lot of the time, the exam period spans several weeks and you have to be available for the whole duration as your exam date doesn’t get confirmed upfront. You don’t get your money back if you’ve registered and then can’t make it because you’re on holidays overseas!

Are you anxious or excited to do an exam? Let me know in the comments below!

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