How to get a Distinction in piano exams

Written by Andrea Vargas Kmecova, founder and managing director of Piano Maestros

Hello :) 

If you are a parent/carer of a young pianist working towards grade exams, welcome - this blog is for you. 

I have been teaching piano privately and in schools for almost twenty-five years, and most of my students participated in grade exams, working on ABRSM or the Trinity College syllabus. I am very proud that most of them achieved the desired Distinction in their grade exams, so I thought sharing my success-secrets might be a good idea.

But before I do that, I must stress that students shouldn't play the piano, or any musical instrument, just for the sake of taking grade exams. 

I have worked with students who had lessons solely because they wanted to do grade exams, and I know one thing; it doesn't work. These poor students didn't enjoy themselves, and most stopped playing as soon as they could and never wanted to return! 

Playing the piano should be an enjoyable activity and a skill to be cherished for a lifetime. I am not saying we should forget grade exams, but the primary focus has to be mindful musical education, and exams will come when the student is ready. 

We are all unique, and respecting everyone's learning pace is essential. If we push too fast, the dream of a Distinction will not be achieved.  

However, let's get down to the way all of this actually works. 

How are music exams marked?

Understanding how examiners award marks is not only helpful for exam preparation but also for learning and progression generally. The exam syllabus offers a steady progression ladder, and I highly recommend it even if you do not want to sit these exams.

There is a defined list of marking criteria examiners use to award their marks. We need to understand these requirements to reach our goal, and the great news is that with hard work and dedication, anyone can achieve a distinction. 

Each exam section is marked separately; each piece (three in total for face-to-face exams), scales, sight-reading and aural. Pieces attract the largest portion of the overall mark, so, naturally, we spend the most time working on these, but never underestimate practising scales, and other parts of the exam, as one needs to score well in every section to earn a distinction.

What's the secret? 

Examiners are looking for the ingredients of a convincing and musical performance. Playing the right notes at the right time is not good enough for a distinction. A distinction-deserving performance has to stand out, and it simply has to be excellent. 

We know this, don't we? So why is it so tricky?  

Let's be more specific and break it into clear headings, followed by my recommendations or "success-secrets".


Selection of pieces matters

The choice of repertoire should offer a well-balanced and vivid performance, so it is worth considering this when choosing the pieces.

  • Success-secrets;

Contrasting pieces - students should demonstrate different techniques, styles, moods and characters. Students' abilities, strengths, interests and personality should also be considered. 

Music that inspires a student - if they like the pieces, they will enjoy learning, practising and performing them. 


Working on a piece of music is a process that takes time, and there is a lot to learn at every stage. 

It's a bit like building a house; first, we need a solid foundation (fluency and accuracy of notes), and then we make the structure and build the walls (work on tone and technique). Finally, when everything is under the roof (the piece can be played reasonably well from start to end), we can design the interior (work on musical character and detail). And when the house is ready, we invite our friends to celebrate the successful project with us and have a party (we perform in a concert).

Fluency and accuracy of notes

Fluency is one of the most fundamental aspects of playing well. A distinction-deserving performance has accurate notes (pitch) and a stable pulse (good sense of rhythm). Very small slips may be overlooked if the performance is otherwise convincing and engaging. 

  • Success-secrets;

Practice effectively - work on building a solid foundation from the beginning. Remember, playing a piece from start to end over and over again is not practising! Work on accurate notes and rhythms, and do NOT play faster than you are supposed to - your teacher will advise on the speed at every stage of the learning process. 

Good tone and technique

A confidently produced and controlled sound, not too harsh but not too soft either, should show subtle nuances, a range of dynamics, and the ability to sing the melodic line above the accompaniment. 

  • Success-secrets;

Practice regularly - Developing a good tone and technique takes time, which will not happen if you practice just a few weeks before the exam. Just like an athlete who has to exercise for months to be ready to run a marathon, a pianist needs months of dedicated practice to master each grade. A suitable instrument to practise on between lessons is also important. 

Musical character and detail

Musical character is expressed by elements such as articulation (the way each note is played - for example, legato and staccato), tempo (speed), dynamics (soft/loud sound) and expressive tonal nuances. A suitable tempo is crucial – too fast might cause slips and a rushed feel, whereas too slow alters the character and difficulty of the piece. 

This is the most enjoyable process for most students; it is when we can truly express ourselves and experiment with different colours, characters, accents, timing and textures until we find what works best. 

  • Success-secrets;

Practise creatively to stay engaged - Working on the dynamics, style, mood, and character takes time, as it involves multiple layers of detailed work. Students should vary how they practice and have a clear goal every time. For example, a week's practice routine could look like this; 

Day 1 - Slow and steady practice focusing on rhythm, pitch and articulation.

Day 2 - Work on clear dynamic contrasts and sound nuances.

Day 3 - Practise pieces at different speeds; slow, medium and fast (if ready). 

Day 4 - Revise the progress achieved over the last three days, and identify what needs more work. 

Day 5 - Work on shaping the music - create a musical story for your pieces, then communicate it through your playing. Strong imagination and musical expression is the key here. 

Day 6 - Focus on technically challenging passages - it's good to divide them into shorter sections and work on one section at a time. 

Day 7 - Piano lesson time :).

With patience and consistent work, the musical character will start arising from the imaginative application and variation of technical skills.


Committed and vivid performance 

A Distinction performance is not only fluent and accurate but also confidently performed and delivered with poise. Students should be having fun, and they can learn this only by performing in front of an audience. 

  • Success-secrets;

Practice performing - Exam performance should be the same quality as a real concert performance, so taking part in concerts, workshops, and musical soirées is essential. A successful performance builds healthy confidence and supercharges the motivation for further practice. 

Look at how others perform - at this stage, it is helpful to listen to other people performing and to find out how they shape the piece, what level of detail they bring out, and how they communicate the character, mood and style of each piece. Observe the quality of these performances - not all will be good - perhaps discuss it with your piano teacher. 

Despite all the hard work and detail that goes into preparation, the examiner wants to hear a musician, not a technician, so the final stages of learning a piece should be about creative music-making. 


Scales and arpeggios

Mastering the scales and arpeggios should be one of the most straightforward tasks, as there are clear instructions that students can easily memorise. This is an excellent opportunity to "shop" for marks from the examiner - everyone can learn the scales; all they need to do is to practise them well and under regular supervision of a teacher to make sure no bad technical habits set in. 

  • Success-secrets;

Know your scales /arpeggios - if you can play them accurately and fluently, with a good tone and confidence, it will buy you a few useful marks. The difference between a merit and a distinction could be just one mark, so earn it where you can! 


This part of the exam scares many students, but it doesn't have to be this way. With regular practice, everyone can do it. And I mean regularly for a few months - just a couple of weeks before the exam will not do the trick. 

Many wonderful books with useful tips on how to practise sight-reading for each grade are available on the market, and we recommend Improve your Sight-reading series by Paul Harris. 

  • Success-secrets;
  1. Fluency and rhythm are the most important elements, so concentrate on getting a sense of the rhythm before anything else. 
  2. Look at the musical character and dynamics of the piece. 
  3. Look at the key signature of the piece, and figure out hand position and starting notes. 
  4. Off you go, and remember, a couple of errors are perfectly OK as long as the music flows. NEVER STOP to correct any mistakes. 

Aural tests

The purpose of aural tests is to establish the link between listening to music and playing music. Most candidates find that their abilities improve with regular practice. The examiner will notice the speed and accuracy of the response, which is what they will mark.

  • Success-secrets;
  1. Please do not worry about singing (in ABRSM exams); you're not expected to be a singer. 
  2. Practise aural skills regularly - the best practice you can get is with your piano teacher in your lessons.
  3. You can also make use of many available resources; search for the aural tests online or get an aural practice book for your exam syllabus - they come with a CD of pre-recorded tests.

Best marks are given for quick, accurate and perceptive responses.

So how can one achieve a Distinction? 

There's no simple answer or magic formula to this; as you can see, it's all about preparation. If a student dedicates regular time and effort to practising everything their teacher asks of them, they can absolutely achieve that Distinction. 

However, we must remember everyone is unique; some students do well or even excel in exams, while others don't. Not everyone performs well under pressure, and that's OK. It is worth doing these exams, and the final result is not terribly important as long as a student is learning, making progress and having fun playing the piano. 

I wanted to help you better understand the process of preparing for a grade exam and what is expected of pupils. I hope I've achieved it. My 'success-secrets' should be a useful tool if you wish to help your child with practising. These helpful points have worked for my pupils, and I hope they will now help even more students on their piano journey. 

If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me at, or you can book a one-off coaching/consultation lesson ahead of your grade exam. 

Andrea Vargas Kmecova, Head Tutor