On Preparation of the dipABRSM Viva Voce Section

More DipABRSM Viva Voce Questions

More on dipABRSM Viva Voce

For the preparation of the dipABRSM exam’s viva voce section, I usually start the more intensive study with my students a few months before the scheduled exam. I prepare for them some reading materials including books and notes, and ask them some questions on the pieces and find out the answers on their own first. It is important that the students know how to do some simple research about the music they are playing, so that they have the knowledge acquired earlier on but not crammed in in the last minute. Of course after that I go through the answers with them, analyze the piece together section by section, even chord by chord when necessary.

When it is closer to the exam date, I would ask the students to write out the details for each of the exam pieces in the following areas:

● Background
● Structure and form (sections)
● Key/harmony
● Melodic materials/motives
● Composers (for exam pieces and other contemporaries of that period)
● Piano the instrument (and its forerunners)


1. The examiners will usually start with a question to put the candidate at ease, most likely, ‘Why did you choose this program?’

2. Understand the historical background of the exam pieces, for example when and where they were composed, in what circumstances, if there be any dedication to any specific someone (any special relation), and how/whereabout they fit in to the composers’ output (e.g. a Beethoven’s sonata: early, middle or late period). Research about the characteristics of the works if they are typical or atypical of the composers’ style as well.

3. Find out what works were composed at the time by other composers, and have a general concept of the social and cultural background of the time of composition.

4. Familiarise yourself with the history of the instrument and the mechanics of how it works.

5. If you are playing a transcription of a Baroque or Classical work as part of your programme, listen to a recording of the piece played on the original instrument and think about the stylistic differences. Think about how it would have been played on that instrument, and how it differs from the way it is played on the piano.
6. You must know everything you have written about in your program notes, as the examiners wou
ld refer to it in their questions.
7. Understand and analyse the basic structure of all the exam pieces, as you might be asked to point out where the sections/first subject/fugue etc. appears in the score.
8. To finish, they will ask you if there is anything you want to talk about that they haven’t already asked you about. You can talk about anything else that you know about the pieces but have not been asked yet.


I also give them some sample exam questions, for instance:

1. How did you choose your programme? Why did you choose these particular pieces?

2. How did you consider the period of composition when preparing the performances of the pieces?

3. Since there are no written dynamics in the (Scarlatti sonata), how did you decide how you would perform your dynamics?

4. What is the difference between how the (Scarlatti sonata) was performed in the Baroque period and how you performed it today?

4. Tell us about the style of the (Scarlatti sonata) and its performance today.

5. Identify a few chords in the (Scarlatti sonata) (the examiners point to a few on the piano score which you then have to identify).

6. Where was the first piano made? What instruments came before the piano?

7. What was the piano like in Mozart’s day?

8. Tell us where this theme (the examiners point to a certain phrase in the Mozart) occurs again in the score.

9. Tell us about the person to whom this piece was dedicated?

10. What is the form of this piece/movement?

11. Can you explain what (Intermezzo/Sonata/Minuet) is? In terms of form and style?

12. Can you give me some brief background of the piece?

13. What are the elements in the (Ravel’s Sonatine) that show the piece as a Neo-Classical sonata?

14. Are you familiar with any of Schumann’s other works?

15. Can you name any piano works/works other than piano of (Scarlatti/Beethoven/Brahms/Debussy) other than the one in your program today?

16. Can you name any of (Scarlatti/Beethoven/Brahms/Debussy)’s contemporary composers and their piano works ?

17. Can you name any pianists whom you favor for their playing of Bach/Scarlatti/Beethoven/Brahms/Debussy? What do you like about their playing?

I always remind my students, the examiners’ job is to find out if the candidates understand the piece well, rather than try to fail them when they do not have the answer. So if they know the music, they can reply with reasonable answers showing their knowledge relevant to the music, they can easily pass the viva voce section.

Do not try to cram in in the last minute. To gain real knowledge and be able to answer the questions in exam with confidence and certainty, you must learn to understand in much depth the music you play during the preparation period earlier on prior to the exam. As a matter of fact, when you are learning to play the pieces, it is tremendously important to know all the information above. That is the real learning of one single work. Think about what you want to convey in your playing, is it merely the notes, the rhythm, the fluency, the dexterity, or the meaning inside the music? But if you do not understand the music inside out, analyse it, give meaning to it, feel it, breathe it, structurally, technically, musically, and emotionally, or if you never read any background information about it, never listen to any good examples of how it is being played, then what are you trying to say in your playing? That would not be something the examiners approve of an exam performance that deserves a pass.

Teresa Wong

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