time management

Advice on Music Exams, Cramming and Number Games

Sometimes, our music students are still scrambling to get ready for their music exams. If you're like my one Grade 9 piano student who has been trying to memorize his Brahms' Intermezzo, it's too late. You need to start looking at the numbers and focusing your energy on the areas where it is do-able to in the time you have left to prepare. Take a look at what he'll be doing at his Gr. 9 partial examination through Conservatory Canada:

  1. List C (Romantic): 10 marks
  2. List D (Late Romantic to Contemporary Classical): 10 marks
  3. Studies (2): 10 marks (worth 5 apiece)
  4. Technical Tests: 14 marks
  5. Memory: 2 marks (1 for List C and 1 for List D)

Now take a look at what examiners are looking to award Honours (70 - 79%)

  • consistent tempo
  • clean rhythms
  • clean notes
  • technical facility
  • clear dynamic contrasts
  • some articulation
  • a sense of phrasing
  • good tone
  • sense of musical style

Memory needs lots of time for the music to settle (and performances). As you can see, memorization is only worth one mark for his Intermezzo. I asked him if he wanted to sacrifice the 70ish marks he'd get for all of the above for that one measly memory mark. For a piece that's not completely secure, there is a good chance that these things will crumble under the pressure of an exam.

If you're like my student, you're better off focusing on getting the basics as stated above. If those are secure, you can still walk away with Honours or even First Class Honours.

Technique is a big area. It's worth 14 - 16 marks alone, depending upon the grade and the music conservatory you are following. If your technical facility is lacking, examiners will penalize you. This is not an area to cram in at the last minute.

Sight-reading, rhythm and ear training are crammable - to a degree. If this is truly a weak spot for you, then it is an area you need to work on throughout the year, not just one week before your exam. However, bear in mind that sight-reading is worth 10 marks (clapping and playing), while ear and rhythm training are worth 10 marks. Those are easy marks to give away but just as easy to keep with some consistent practice.

I used to panic over melody playback (worth four marks). In hindsight, I should have focussed on nailing my intervals, chords and cadences more (worth six marks). That, combined with my clap backs, would have balanced the scales a bit.

To wrap up, when you're trying to play the "numbers game" with your exam marks, keep in mind the following:

  1. Beef up the foundation (the basics) of the areas that are worth the most marks.
  2. If you know that one area is going to be wobbly no matter what, then look at the other elements in that section and try to strengthen those areas.
  3. Just guess on the wobbly areas. You may get partial marks.

Speak with your teacher if you have any questions on this or need more advice. The mark breakdown for each grade is listed in the conservatory syllabi.

Sources: Conservatory Canada Piano Syllabus & Royal Conservatory of Music Examiner's Guidelines for Assessment of Repertoire.

Memory needs lots of time for the music to settle (and performances). As you can see, memorization is only worth one mark for his Intermezzo. I asked him if he wanted to sacrifice the 60 or so marks he'd get for having most of the notes, rhythm and the tempo there for that one measly memory mark. For a piece that's not completely secure, there is a good chance that things will fall apart under the pressure of an exam.

Excuses and Commitments

I have noticed that the excuses for not practicing increase around this time of year:  


  • “We were at my grandparents’ all weekend and they don’t have a piano.”



  • “My parents are renovating and the piano is all covered up.”




  • “The batteries on my keyboard are dead.”




  • “We went skiing.”




  • “I had a lot of tests this week.”




  • “I had a ton of homework!”




  • “I had a sports tournament.”




  • “I had a dance competition/exam.”




  • “I just wasn’t in the mood.”




  • “I was busy…playing with my X-Box/Nintendo/Playstation/Internet.”



Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathize with today’s kids. It seems like they get more homework than my generation did. I also do know what it’s like to be busy at their age, having been involved in several extracurricular activities.



Teachers get grumpy when they hear the same excuses from the same students on a weekly basis. Somehow, my brother and I made it work - good grades, extracurricular activities and piano. We didn’t practice as much as we should have but our parents made sure we practiced enough (try 6:30 AM AND 11 PM practices!).


One student recently used the last two excuses on the list. I told her that if there is something else she’d rather be doing, then do it and quit piano. However, if she does want to stay in piano, then she has to make a commitment.

Regardless of the activity, be it hockey, karate, soccer, drama, dance or piano – there is a level of commitment students must exhibit to make it worthwhile for the themselves, parents and teachers. For each of these, commitment equals practice time.


I'm jealous of my students, to tell you the truth. I wish I had their schedules. To just concentrate on piano, school and Iaido (the latter replaces the yearbook committee and basketball scorekeeping activities of my youth), would be heavenly.


Instead, Iaido practice is squished in before my morning administrative tasks and errands (if I’m not in an ARMTA meeting or workshop), while piano gets tacked on well after 10 pm, when I’ve wrapped up teaching for the evening and planning for the next day (my room-mate can attest to the “well after 10” part). Neither winds up happening daily but I do strive for five days a week for both. Some weeks are better than others. I need to make room for more writing, but that’s a dilemma for another day.


I really wish I could supervise my students’ practicing in their homes and limit their distractions and/or extracurriculars; but I lack Santa's ability to be in over 40 places simultaneously.

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