DAVIDCONNORS.COM
Piano | Percussion | Practise
DAVIDCONNORS.COM
Piano | Percussion | Practise
DAVIDCONNORS.COM
Piano | Percussion | Practise

How much should you study for piano grade exams?

by David Connors

Over the past two and a half years of learning the piano I have done three classical piano performance grades with Trinity and I’m nearly half way through the studies for my fourth. 

I have really good notes on how much time I spent at the piano and so I thought I would write down my thoughts on how much work you need to put in in order to grab a distinction or even a 100% result on the exams. 

Total Qualification Time

Trinity describes the time you need to put into each grade using the term Total Qualifying Time, calculated as:

Guided Learning Hours (time spent with your teacher)
x
Independent Learning Hours (time spent practicing by yourself)

GradeGuided learning hours (GLH)Cumulative GLHIndependent learning hours (ILH)Cumulative ILHTotal qualification time (TQT) (hours)Cumulative TQT
Initial8832324040
Grade 11220488060100
Grade 218387215290190
Grade 31856102254120310
Grade 42480126380150460
Grade 524104156536180640
Grade 636140184720220860
Grade 7481882229422701130
Grade 85424226612083201450

Are TQT numbers accurate?

In a word, yes. Uncannily so.

I did not look at the TQT numbers relative to my own performance until after I received the results from my Grade 3 exam. I practiced for each grade until my teacher told me I was ready, and then some more until I felt I was ready.

In other words I did not practice the recommended number of hours deliberately – but it turns out I did by chance (well, Trinity probably know a thing or two about how long it takes to learn to play at a given level 😃).

Let’s look at my practice hours for each grade relative to time spent:

GradeTrinity TQTMy Actual Hours% of TQT StudiedGrade Received
Grade 16083.10138 %100 / 100
Grade 29089.8899.8 %100 / 100
Grade 312083.4069.5 %93 / 100

There are a few interesting things in this:

  1. I studied approximately 70% of the recommended time for grade 3 and received a 93% grade. When you consider getting 100% is all about diminishing returns of polishing and polishing, this makes a lot of sense.
  2. It is astonishing to me that I independently chose to spend 99.8% of the time Trinity recommended before submitting my Grade 2 performance exam.
  3. I short changed myself on practice for Grade 3 (mostly out just being sick of the whole thing) and that was reflected in the result.
  4. Regardless of grade, I appear to have spent an almost identical number of hours on each grade.

Given I was sick of grade 3 at ~70% of the TQT hours required, Grade 4 is going to be a slog.

Moving forward I will be using the TQT numbers as a practical minimum I will study, regardless of how fatigued or fed up I am.

Activity Breakdown

Trinity grades you out of 100 marks. The digital performance exams are made up of the following components:

ComponentWeighting
Pieces
These are the pieces you play. Each is worth 22 marks.
66%
Technical Work
You select two technical exercises from six options available. You are also expected to play some scales and arpeggios.
14%
Performance Delivery and Focus
Do you look professional and like you know what you’re doing? How well are you transitioning between pieces? Are you focused and committed to what you’re doing?
10%
Musical Awareness
How is your musicality? Are you playing within the style of the given pieces? Do you demonstrate musical personality?
10%

I didn’t record my time in a way that lets me directly map to these scoring areas so I have to roll a couple of them up. This table compares the time I spent as a percentage of the total time I spent on that grade against the weighting. The variance is not how much more or less I studied for the given area, but how much I studied relative to how many marks it was worth.

GradeAreaWeighting% StudiedVariance
1Pieces66%78%+12%
1Technical Work14%9%-5%
1Performance Delivery and Focus + Musical Awareness20%13%-7%
2Pieces66%73%+7%
2Technical Work14%9%-5%
2Performance Delivery and Focus + Musical Awareness20%17%-3%
3Pieces66%70%+4%
3Technical Work14%15%+1%
3Performance Delivery and Focus + Musical Awareness20%15%-5%

I adopted a habit from the first grade of practicing the entire program as if I was recording it and really trying to put myself in the mental frame of being assessed. I spent 10, 12, and 13 hours doing this for grades one, two, and three respectively. I recommend doing this as a dedicated activity in the run up to your actual performance exam.

Final Words

I probably should not be as surprised as I am that the metrics Trinity provides are accurate. They have been at this a long time and it is their business.

I should also point out that I do a lot of study and pieces unrelated to Trinity while I am studying for Trinity. That is no doubt a big help in the exams and general musical comprehension, but I left it out of these figures as it is impossible to understand how much learning some contemporary classical piece has or has not helped me understand a Baroque period piece.

And probably the least surprising thing is that excellent results are from a concomitant amount of practice.

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