How long does it take to prepare for the first level diploma exam

I have written quite a few posts on preparation for diploma exams. As I just noticed that some posts/videos are in Chinese/Cantonese (鋼琴演奏考試文憑預備需知 (一) ), I figure I should write them in English again just to be fair.

Q1. How long does it take to prepare for the first level diploma exam (meaning ATCL/dipABRSM)?

A1. It is not such a straightforward answer. Depending very much on the previous experience of a student, it would mean a completely different timing for one student to the other. The better training and more solid foundation a student had for his/her graded exams, the easier and faster the student can prepare for a diploma exam. Although it might seem that the candidate only has to prepare 3 to 4 pieces, each piece is of much longer duration and more complex in technical command and musical expression. The level of performance that the examiners look for is of much higher standard as well. And if one chooses to memorize them, it would even take much longer time to understand each piece very well in order to do so successfully in the actual exam, which is regarded as a performance rather than a test (to paraphrase an examiner’s words, it’s like “a recital people pay to get in, would anyone pay to listen to your playing? Think about it.”) . And for dipABRSM, the candidate is required to not only write more about the pieces but also to be able to answer questions about the pieces performed by the examiners on the spot during the exam. Does the candidate have the ability to do so?

To make it simple, I would give this guideline (do not hold me to this, I say it based on my teaching experience, and I would have a much better judgment and timing if the candidates have been my students “from scratch” or for longer time): if a student has passed grade 8 with merit, s/he shall be able to prepare for ATCL in 1.5 years. If a student has passed grade 8 with distinction, s/he should have no problem taking dipABRSM in 1.5/2 years. I would not recommend anyone preparing to take a diploma exam within a year right after passing grade 8 no matter how great the result is, although there are always exceptions, that some truly gifted students can finish diploma exams faster than anyone (for instance, a student with grade 8 distinction can take ATCL in a year, or I had a student who never took any graded exam but passed ATCL within two years of lessons with me, but that is a very rare exception).

I think it mostly depends on how well a student had been taught during the graded piano years. I can see that after 10 years of being back to Hong Kong, that there are a lot of problems in students’ technique in general. Very few (even among teachers) have been taught about the weight transfer, the relation between the body movement and playing, or even how to play a scales/arpeggios correctly (and that is why I have been developing a piano beginner program to promote solid foundation in a student’s playing and learning right from the start) I am often saddened to see a lot of bad habit has been formed in the playing of many enthusiastic players in their early years of training that has either hindered them to or even stopped them from continuing on their journey to more beautiful music that requires a more advanced level of playing. And such advanced level is not going to be built from a weak foundation no matter how hard one tries. It needs to be broken down, and build a new solid strong foundation in order to progress further. It is indeed possible and not as difficult as most think and believe. One only needs to take away the bad and put in the good. And that is why I am going to launch a technique transformation course specifically for those who would like to change their technique forever for more advanced playing.

I do understand the concern from parents, that it seems like a well has no bottom, when they put all the money and time into their children’s piano lessons not knowing how much more resource they might need to put out further for the completion of a diploma exam. I can say that, with a proper guidance of a good and professional teacher, s/he would be able to tell you just how much time your children would need for such preparation. One thing I would like to add though, music is not an academic subject, and although there are techniques to gain and analysis to write, there are yet another elements, and they are emotion and expression, which cannot be taught but guided. And just how much is that one or two years spent on understanding the music as well as the drilling of the pieces? When I say understanding the music, it is not just the practicing a piece to perfection (playing all the keys correctly in at the right time). Rather, it is listening to the piece, reading about the piece, feeling about the piece, thinking about the piece, all extending to other aspects of the piece, including the composer, the period, the performance practice, the style, the interpretation, the analysis etc etc. How much effort has a student been putting on all these other aspects than merely drilling the piece? It seems all these complicated tasks would be left to be completed only when one is preparing for the dipABRSM, but I can assure you that if you perform all these tasks even when you are working for your ATCL (or LTCL), you would be able to achieve much better result in the exam.

I welcome you all send me any questions regarding diploma exams. And instead of replying on a one-to-one basis, I believe this open answer would benefit many together. I hope this platform has be useful to many of you and it will continuously grow into a bigger community in which we contribute to help each other out in our music journey independently and co-dependently.

Have a great weekend ahead everyone, and enjoy some beautiful and inspiring music!


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