How I Got off the Piano Exam Express

How I Got off the Piano Exam Express

This month has been all about Exploring Exams and Recitals and one phrase has popped up a few times: exam express.

I’m Sean and you may have seen a few articles written by me recently featured on Tim’s blog.

I learnt piano with Tim at high school for four years and during this time, Tim transformed my understanding of piano. I became a confident improviser, explored composing, chords, jazz, blues and singing. This was alongside completing piano exams and studying VCE music performance.

Prior to this, I was basically completing a piano exam a year. I learnt the repertoire, learnt the required scales, general knowledge and other technical work and progressed through the grades.

Today’s post will show you why getting out of this rhythm was the best thing to happen to my piano education.

What is the Piano “Exam Express”?

You may have seen this diagram that Tim made and featured in the opening post of this month.


piano exam timeline versus method books

How the method book/exam timeline often looks in an exam-focussed studio.

The exam express is a useful phrase. It captures the unfortunate reality of many piano students; a repetitive and mindless piano education.

A student starts at a low-level grade, learns the required repertoire and technical work and (hopefully) passes the grade.

The following year it starts again. You learn the three to five exam pieces, practise the scales every day and pass the exam. So on, so forth.

What happens when you take away the exams? The student feels as if they have finished learning. They have conquered the exam system and can now walk away from the piano.

Some students actually stop playing. Skills deteriorate quickly and they may come back to the piano months or years later surprised at how much they have forgotten.

The exam express is an easy and lazy way of learning. It’s not what exam boards envisioned, and it significantly limits a student’s music vocabulary.

My Experience

When I started with this style of learning (ie. on the piano exam express), playing the piano quickly became like a chore.

I filled in a daily practice log and felt as though I was just ticking off all the boxes to make my teacher happy. I learnt each piece and practising the piano became repetitive – the same songs and same scales.

Each year, I was learning a maximum of five exam pieces. I learnt a few other pieces here and there, but I wasn’t able to explore many other genres and styles of music.

Piano became boring. I was stuck in the same rhythm every week and was relieved when the exam cycle was over.

My motivation deteriorated and at times I lost interest in learning piano.

So, what can you do to make sure your students don’t get stuck on the piano exam express?

Start Lessons Creatively

Piano should be enjoyable and practice should not be viewed as something you ‘have to do’.

Students should practise music that interests them and engages them. Make sure your students know they can still learn fun and motivating pieces alongside their exam repertoire.

As one idea, when your student walks in for their piano lesson, surprise them.

Put a piece of music they have never seen before in front of them and ask them to play it. Or, explore the chords to a pop-song. You could ask them what their favourite song of the week has been, and then try to learn it.

You could give them an interesting sight-reading piece to do, or ask them to learn a piece by ear with you.

Exploring other genres and styles of music in lessons, alongside your teaching of exam repertoire, is vital to ensure your students are motivated and engaged.

I remember Tim always surprising me with things like this when I went to piano lessons.

I had prepared all my exam pieces for the lesson and was feeling confident. All of a sudden, Tim had me playing pop songs, improvising with 12 bar blues patterns, and a range of other creative piano exercises.

Related: 20 Creative Ways to Start a Piano Lesson

This engages students. It makes sure they don’t get stuck in that boring rhythm each week of playing the same four songs for their teacher and getting similar feedback each time. It also allows them to explore a far greater range of repertoire.

If you don’t hear all of your student’s exam pieces each lesson, make sure you ask your student how they are going with them. You could solve a problem they are having with a piece without them playing it.

This also saves time. Piano lessons aren’t long and you need to make the most out of the time you have.

Encourage Them to Join a Band

Tim encouraged me to join the school Stage (Jazz) Band early in my high school years, even though I had no idea how to improvise. I didn’t have any understanding of jazz or blues styles as I was classically trained by the exam system for seven years.

I was forced to adapt to a new style of piano playing. I had to play in time with a full rhythm section, learn how to play solos and learn a variety of different jazz chords.

If there was something I didn’t understand in rehearsal, I would take the music to my piano lesson and we would go through it. Although I had exam pieces that I was also working on, I didn’t feel as if I had to always play them every lesson. Just as my home practice was more varied and interesting, lessons were too.

At first, I was nervous during these band rehearsals. But my confidence quickly built. I learnt how to improvise in a variety of keys, and learnt different types of scales and chords, which I didn’t even know existed.

Once I had the confidence to perform solos, I became accustomed to a different type of performing.

Joining a band helped my sense of rhythm and time, improved my listening ability and helped me explore different styles of music. Importantly, it gave me a distraction from my exam pieces.

Recommend Breaks from Practice

During an exam practice cycle, I often came to stages where I just could not nail a certain passage. I would have trouble with the fingering or simply just couldn’t get my head around the notes.

I would keep practising and practising and practising. What I didn’t realise, is that I was actually just practising the errors I was making into my brain, instead of taking the time to fix them.

When I was so focused on exams and eager to make sure each piece was perfect, I never thought that taking a break from a piece was an option.

Tim suggested this to me once. I was terrified at the idea. I was sure I would come back to the piece in a week having forgotten the whole thing.

But I took a break from that piece. I continued to practise my other pieces, but also took some time to learn various pop songs. I explored YouTube tutorials and also bought various books of sheet music (from Stevie Wonder to John Lennon to Adele).

When I came back to the piece and passage that was bothering me, my head was clear, fresh and ready to start again. Breaking out of this practice mould and a repetitive timetable is important.


There is nothing wrong with completing exams; you just need to use them in the right situation.

Make sure your student is ready to do them, but also ensure that they are learning other music while they learn their exam pieces.

Subjecting your piano students to only one style of music is a detriment to their education. By showing them how to play lots of different music from different styles and genres, they will become better musicians.

What do you think? How can you ensure your students do not get stuck on the “exam express”?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic and my suggestions, leave your comments below!

Sean Wales

Sean is one of Tim's former students and a University of Melbourne graduate. He studied a Bachelor of Arts, majoring Media and Communications and Italian, and is currently working as a journalist for the ABC in Horsham.

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  1. Hi there! Really resonated with the article on getting off the exam express! After I ‘finished’ piano (aka exams) I realised that I really wasn’t a rounded musician and so spent quite a bit of time and money ‘catching up’ what I had missed! My ‘exam’ years would have been so much more enriching if my teachers had had a more wholistic approach. At the present, I am really wondering whether to drop exams entirely for some students – I have a couple who are keen and musical but they just don’t have the drive to get those pieces polished up for exam presentation. They enjoy playing their repertoire and don’t really care if two bars are out of time or they fluff their way through a difficult passage. It takes too much time trying to get these pieces up to ‘exam standard’ when we could be happily doing other repertoire and creative activities. So I am wondering how other people approach the whole question of ‘to exam or not to exam’? Your thoughts would be appreciated ????????????

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s so important students are learning heaps of different music. Keep exploring the resources on this blog for more ideas 🙂

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