4 Things Pianists Can Do to Improve Their Sight-Reading

If you’re a singer, you might be used to singing in choirs. Maybe you’ve been in shows, perhaps in the chorus where there’s been plenty of ensemble singing. If you’re an instrumentalist, you might play in a band or orchestra. Maybe you play in chamber ensembles, quartets or trios.

Being part of these groups, singing and playing with others means you’ll be sight-reading on a regular basis. You’ll also be used to keeping going. The choir won’t wait for you while you work out the interval in bar 9, and the orchestra won’t wait for you while you work out for the fingering for the trill in bar 11.

If you’re a pianist, then the situation is probably a little different. In general, many pianists don’t play regularly with others. Pianists are not used to playing in ensembles in the same way as the singers and instrumentalists mentioned above. By consequence, pianists are often not used to sight-reading and keeping up with an ensemble in the same way.

I’m certainly not suggesting that pianists are at a disadvantage when it comes to sight-reading, but maybe they have to work a bit harder and perhaps more creatively to hone those skills.

With that in mind, if you’re a pianist and you’d like to improve your sight-reading*, here are some things which I think can really help. Most of them are pretty fun too!

*My usual disclaimer that sight-reading is something we, as musicians, do all the time. Every time we start learning a new piece, we’re sight-reading. Sight-reading is for life, not just exams.

1. Play duets

In my view, playing duets is seriously underrated, not just as a skill, but as an enjoyable act of making music with others. I’ve blogged previously about the benefits of playing duets and also written an article for Piano Professional magazine on the subject.

Playing duets (also trios, music for two pianos etc.) can be a great way for pianists to experience some of the things which singers and instrumentalists encounter regularly in the ensembles they play with. Above all, you have to be able to keep going, particularly if you get to the point where you’re performing your duets in an exam, festival or other public arena.

If you’re a teacher, then I can highly recommend Paul Harris’ Improve Your Sight-Reading! Duets books. There are two available one for up to Grade 1 and one for Grades 2-3. Not only are the a great way to improve your sight-reading (particularly in conjunction with the other books in the series) but also improving it in the context of playing with someone else. This means both keeping up and keeping going.

2. Accompany

I have accompanied for a long time. Until you accompany on a regular basis, I don’t think many people fully appreciate the amount of skill that is required. Firstly, accompanists are often required to sight-read at short notice (often at no notice). This is something you have to get used to pretty quickly. I once accompanied an exam with only five minutes notice when the candidate’s accompanist didn’t turn up. In such situations, there is no time to learn, practise or seek to perfect the piece. You’ve just got to do your best: play it and keep going.

Secondly, as an accompanist, you realise pretty quickly that in order to make a success of it, keeping up with the soloist (or ensemble) trumps everything else. You also have to remain constantly alert to what they’re doing. You need to be prepared to skip a page when they turn two pages at once or shout out a bar number when they’re lost. All this means that you may play some wrong notes, you may be able to keep only one hand going or may need to improvise for a few bars, but you have to keep going.

If, as a pianist, you have to opportunity to do some accompanying, grab it. Start small though: you don’t have to rush off and accompany a concert soloist in public. Most singers and instrumentalists would be only too glad of someone else to play with.

3. Play with accompaniment tracks

Sometimes, as a pianist, it’s actually quite fun to play with other people, and playing with backing tracks is a good way to start. Backing tracks are much maligned, but they have their place. You can now get music in a whole range of styles and genres that you can play along too: everything from Disney favourites to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. If you don’t have a duet partner or a willing soloist to accompany, backing tracks can be a good alternative.

Playing along to backing tracks is, once again, useful because it requires you to keep going, to keep up with the music. It also means you have to listen to what else is going on, much as you would in a duet of if you were accompanying. One of the biggest problems with sight-reading is that people either play far too slowly in pursuit of note-accuracy or people simply stop and start and the piece has no sense of flow or continuity. I find that pianists in particular are quite bad for this, so anything you can do which gets you used to keeping going, is vital.

You may also find it useful to find some pieces which have sections set aside for improvisation. Scary as improvisation may be, it can be hugely useful to the sight-reader (especially as an accompanist)!

4. Record yourself

Recording yourself has two potential benefits here. Firstly, recording yourself adds a bit of pressure to your performance. Rather like an exam or performance, you have to deliver in that moment; there’s no going back.

Secondly, try recording yourself sight-reading. Then, go back and listen to your performance. What do you notice? For example, can you tap a steady pulse whilst you listen back to yourself? Does it feel like a continuous flowing piece, or does it stop and start?

Improving your ability to play at sight will take time. It requires consistent work and a critical ear. Above all, one of the most important things about sight-reading is the ability to keep going. There are many instances, as cited above where a steady pulse, rhythm and tempo, by necessity trump note accuracy.

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4 Things Pianists Can Do to Improve Their Sight-Reading

Top Tips for Singers for the DipABRSM Quick Study

Note: the advice here is aimed at singers entering for the DipABRSM in either performance or teaching; however, the advice applies more generally, particularly to the LRSM and FRSM.

As I have blogged previously, the quick study can often be the scariest part of an ABRSM diploma, and this is true for singers as much as it is for any other instrumentalist. That said, the quick study does present a particular challenge to singers as it is provided and administered in a slightly different way.

Like other candidates, singers also receive five minutes to look through the test and try out any bits they want to try before performing it. Singers will note from the quick study example on the ABRSM website that the test contains an accompaniment; however, the piece is to be performed unaccompanied in the exam. To quote the syllabus:

The Quick Study tests for singers are printed with a simple piano accompaniment, which candidates may use if they wish, to any degree of fullness, during their preparation time. During this time, candidates may also play any part of the vocal line at the piano. The actual performance of the test is unaccompanied, although candidates who need to relocate their pitch may play a guide note (from the vocal line), as appropriate. Candidates may also use the piano to play the key-chord and their starting note before performing the test. Examiners will not assist candidates as accompanist, nor will any other party be permitted to. Candidates must sing the text and will be offered a choice of English or Italian words.

ABRSM. (2017). Teaching Diplomas. London: ABRSM. p.11.

With that in mind, here are some top tips to help you with this somewhat unusual test.

Example of a DipABRSM quick study test for singers

What’s the point of the accompaniment?

Good question! Although an accompaniment is provided, it is not used in the performance of the quick study. As a singer, you may be used to performing an unaccompanied folk-song, but the repertoire of unaccompanied songs is fairly limited. In that sense, the accompaniment makes it much more like a standard song you’re used to learning and performing. It can also help you during the preparation time, and during the performance, can give you an outline of the harmony and harmonic progressions in the piece. Watching out for modulations, more obvious in the accompaniment, is especially useful.

Tip: when you next work on a song in your repertoire, think about how much you look at the piano accompaniment? I expect you look at it more than you may have thought. How does it help you?

How should I use the accompaniment?

How you use the accompaniment (if at all) is entirely up to you. If you are a competent pianist, you may like to play the accompaniment whilst you sing the vocal line; however, I don’t think this is the intention. Rather, as I say above, the accompaniment offers some sense of the overall harmony and structure of the song.

One thing I think is quite important here is that although you won’t be accompanied during the quick study performance, the accompaniment nevertheless exists. In that sense, I would advise that you perform the test as if you were being accompanied. This helps you to not only keep the momentum going but to shape the performance too.

Avoid falling into the trap of meandering through the notes with only an approximation of the rhythm. By all means, put your own stamp on it, sing it with expression and character, but perform it as if you were being accompanied.

Is it a good idea to play the vocal line during the preparation time?

When we learn new song, we often ‘bash through’ the vocal line to learn the melody. You could do this during the preparation time, but five minutes will fly by. Also, you won’t be able to play the vocal line during the performance so it’s wise not to be too reliant on it during the preparation time.

My suggestion is to try singing the vocal line yourself, and only use the piano the check or to play through any tricky bits.

Should I use the piano during the performance?

During the performance, you are allowed to use the piano to relocate your pitch (from the vocal line), and to play the key-chord and starting note before you begin. You should definitely use the piano to play your key-chord and starting note – no question. If you’re not used to doing this, I encourage you to do it with songs you’re already learning. The key chord will help cement the key and help the harmonic flow of the piece, linking it to the accompaniment I talked about above.

Whilst you are allowed to use the piano to relocate your pitch, I would urge caution. Try to do this only at the beginnings and ends of phrases as to not disturb the flow of the piece. Also, try to use the piano rhythmically as part of the performance. Don’t just sound random notes here and there. It is unlikely that you’ll want to sit at the piano to perform the quick study test, so you don’t want to be bending back and forth down to the piano.

Tip: if you do need to relocate your pitch, do it when you’re not singing, as suggested, at the beginning and ends of phrases. Using the piano to find notes whilst you are singing not only disturbs the flow of the performance but also highlights note errors which may otherwise have gone unnoticed!

In summary:

  1. Use the accompaniment to get an idea of the form and harmonic structure of the song;
  2. Perform the song as if it were accompanied;
  3. Don’t rely on the vocal line during the preparation time. Try to practise as much as you can without it, then use it to check;
  4. Do play the key-chord and starting note before you perform the test;
  5. If you need to relocate your pitch, try to do it only at phrase endings and beginnings, and not at the same time as you’re singing.

If you’re looking for some help and guidance with the quick study, you may be interested in my online diploma mentoring. As part of that, I can listen and offer feedback on recordings as you prepare.

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Top Tips for Singers for the DipABRSM Quick Study

5 Reasons Why the DipABRSM Quick Study Is More Than Just Sight-Reading

Ask many DipABRSM candidates which part of the exam they fear most, and nine times out of 10, it’s the quick study. My own experience of mentoring instrumental teachers has confirmed the very real existence of this fear.

If you’re working towards either the performance or teaching DipABRSM, you’ll probably be conscious that the quick study (which is the same for both diplomas) is worth only 15% of the overall marks available, yet, one mark below the pass mark for this part of the exam can equal a fail overall, even if you’ve passed the other sections. It’s a scary prospect, is it not?

In this blog post, I’m going to consider five reasons why the quick study is more than just sight-reading. When I mentor teaching diploma candidates, many are, justifiably, under the misapprehension that the quick study is merely a double-length sight-reading test. It’s true, there are clearly similarities, but look at the mark scheme more closely, and some subtle differences emerge.

For ease, I have compared the mark schemes for the sight-reading and quick study in a single document which you can download as a PDF here. You may find it useful to have this easily viewable as you read the remainder of this blog post.

1. Performance versus presentation

Compare the ABRSM mark schemes for sight-reading at Grades 1-8, and the quick study at DipABRSM level, and you will note a subtle difference in language. For the sight-reading tests, examiners assess a presentation of the music, marked as being ‘confident’, ‘largely secure’, ‘cautious’, ‘insecure’ or ‘very uncertain’. For the quick study, examiners assess a performance of the music, marked as being ‘excellent’, ‘well performed’, ‘good’ or ‘sufficiently competent’.

I believe this reinforces the need for your quick study to be a performance. It is not enough to merely present your reading of the test, but rather you need to perform the music.

Tip: think about performances in other contexts. If you were to perform a piece of music you’d learnt and practised, what would you expect? If you were to attend a performance, what might you expect to hear? Think about how you can apply this to the quick study.

2. The devil is in the detail

Once again, compare the two mark schemes side by side, and look at the word ‘detail’. For sight-reading, the word does not appear until the distinction marking band. That’s not to say it’s not welcomed at lower levels, but the realisation of musical detail is not explicitly stated until the highest of the marking bands. Contrast this with the quick study, and we find that the word ‘detail’ first appears in the fail category: ‘little or no attention to matters of detail’.

What does this tell us? Ultimately, you cannot pass the quick study unless you are realising the musical detail. This term encompasses a whole range of things, but may refer to dynamics, expression, tempo changes, articulation and ornamentation. Unlike sight-reading, accurate notes and rhythms are not, in themselves, enough.

Tip: think about listening to a performance of a piece with little or no musical detail. How would you rate it? How does it sound to you? Try playing a piece you know well with nothing other than correct notes and rhythms. How much is it missing as a performance?

3. Your approach matters

The diploma syllabus states explicitly that the examiners are not assessing what you do in your preparation time; however, they are assessing your approach. Look at the quick study mark scheme, and you’ll see that the word ‘approach’ appears at all the pass levels. I’m convinced that a successful quick study attempt at DipABRSM level is built upon a solid approach. I shall be considering that, and some of these other issues in more detail in future posts (sign up to my mailing list here to receive my monthly Creative Notes newsletter which, amongst other things, features new blog posts).

Tip: if you’re already working on the quick study, what’s your approach? What do you spend the five minutes preparation time doing? Does this differ from how you might approach a sight-reading test where you have only 30 seconds? Do you think you have a systematic approach which you can apply to each attempt?

4. There’s a clue in the name

This might seem like an obvious point, but if you think about the name ‘quick study’ what do you think of? Particularly, what is a ‘study’? Think about some of the studies you’ve played over the years. What was the point of them? I reviewed Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies earlier this year, and as part of that, I included a definition of the word ‘study’ (or étude):

‘Any composition intended as a basis for the improvement of the the performer.’

Scholes, P. (1975). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press. p.336

I think there’s once again, a subtle distinction to be made here between sight-reading and the quick study. Based on the definition above, a quick study is intended as a means to improve the performer (or teacher). To me, a sight-reading test is just that, a test. Again, I think this reinforces once again the notion of the quick study as a performance, rather than just a test of reading skills.

Tip: learn and play some studies for your instrument (or voice). How do they differ from other pieces you play? What do you think that these studies are aiming to improve?

5. 30 seconds has increased to five minutes

Finally, there’s a quantifiable difference between sight-reading tests and the quick study. Firstly, for a sight-reading test, you are given 30 seconds in which to prepare, but for the DipABRSM quick study, you are given five minutes. This is quite some increase, and with such an increase in preparation time, comes a higher expectation.

Broadly speaking, the standard of the quick study is around ABRSM Grade 6 level. It’s worth remembering that ABRSM sight-reading tests are broadly two grades behind, therefore Grade 8 sight-reading, is around Grade 6 standard. The difference at DipABRSM level is not only the level of performance required, but also in the length of the test. Most Grade 8 sight-reading tests for piano are a page long, but for the quick study, they are two pages. Similarly, Grade 8 instrumental sight-reading tests tend to be half a page, whilst for the quick study, they are a page. In that sense, between Grade 8 and DipABRSM level, the length of the test has doubled, but the preparation time has increased tenfold.

Tip: never be afraid to backtrack and improve your basic sight-reading skills. If you’re struggling with the DipABRSM quick study, then spend some time working through earlier grades. I would suggest that you need to be secure in performing Grade 8 level sight-reading tests before attempting the quick study.

However intimidating the quick study may seem, with a secure foundation in sight-reading and a clear and systematic approach to the diploma-level performance, the experience can be a positive and fulfilling one.

Working on your own towards a teaching diploma can be a lonely, and often, overwhelming experience. If you’re not sure where to start or how to approach your teaching diploma preparations, then one-to-one online mentoring could be for you. Find out more here.

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5 reasons why the DipABRSM quick study is more than just sight-reading

Why Take a Teaching Diploma?

For those teaching privately in the UK, there is no requirement to possess any kind of qualification; however, every year, thousands of teachers choose to work towards a teaching diploma in order to, amongst other things, achieve an accredited qualification. In addition, many instrumental teachers in schools and colleges choose to work towards a teaching diploma, even when they’re often also not required to do so.

So, why do teachers choose to work towards a teaching diploma? Why do teachers commit time and money to something which they essentially don’t need? Having talked to a number of instrumental teachers who are both working towards or have taken their teaching diplomas, I wanted to share some of their reasons.

If you’re thinking about taking a teaching diploma, maybe reading some of their reasons will inspire you and aid your decision-making process? Their reasons fell broadly into three categories:

  1. To improve teaching and be more confident teachers;
  2. To have a goal to work towards;
  3. To gain professional accreditation and validation.

Let us think further below about each of those categories:

1. To improve teaching and be more confident teachers

The primary reason teachers cited for choosing to work towards and take a teaching diploma was to improve their teaching, something which they saw as beneficial to both themselves and their pupils.

Some candidates said that working towards a teaching diploma allowed and encouraged them to explore new ideas, and to develop their existing knowledge and skills. Some felt that going through the process of working towards a teaching diploma would allow them to reflect on their teaching approach and philosophy, and by consequence would empower them to be better teachers as a result.

There was also a sense that some teachers were curious to see whether they could achieve a teaching diploma, and virtually everyone said the process had increased their confidence as teachers.

2. To have a goal to work towards

A number of teachers said that the teaching diploma had given them something to work towards. One said that whilst they could have gained new skills and increased their knowledge without the framework of a qualification, they felt that working towards the diploma gave them an end goal so that the study they undertook had purpose.

Connected to this was the sense that working towards a teaching diploma allowed you to bring together various ‘pots’ of different training courses, events, workshops and CPD opportunities. Whilst these things didn’t necessarily exempt you from elements of the diploma, they could be drawn upon as part of the preparation process. Whilst each ‘pot’ may not have, in itself, led to a qualification, the collective knowledge and skill gained could be counted towards their diploma.

3. To gain professional qualification and validation

Whist this was by no means the primary reason for most teachers, candidates recognised that working towards the diploma gave them an accredited and professional qualification. For some, that meant having post-nominal letters after their name. Others felt that having a qualification reinforced their credibility as a new teacher.

Other teachers had worked towards a diploma because they felt it increased their professional standing when it came to applying for teaching work in schools, often on a self-employed basis. It was recognised that in an unregulated marketplace, having a teaching qualification was often a means of standing out from the crowd.

I think what these experiences show is there are many different reasons why teachers choose to work towards a teaching diploma. Above all, I think they present a challenge. They allow teachers, often working in fairly isolated circumstances, to reflect on, evaluate and validate their teaching.

Whilst the end result is to have achieved the qualification, the process and journey of exploration and reflection is as, if not more important.

If you’re considering working towards a teaching diploma, I offer a popular and bespoke online mentoring programme. The programme offers one-to-one mentoring for the DipABRSM, DipLCM(TD), ALCM(TD) and ATCL diplomas. I seek to empower teachers to approach their diploma preparation with confidence, and to take them on a journey of reflection and validation of which they can be proud.

DipLCM(TD): Delivering an Effective Demonstration Lesson

In this blog post, I want to share some thoughts about planning, rehearsing and delivering your demonstration lesson as part of the DipLCM(TD) teaching diploma. The advice given here is equally applicable at ALCM(TD) and LLCM(TD) levels, and may also apply to other qualifications which require similar.

As part of the DipLCM(TD), the London College of Music’s first-level teaching diploma, candidates are required to teach a 20-minute lesson to a pupil, live in the exam. In exceptional circumstances, candidates may ask to submit their lesson in video format; however, the advice here still applies.

Based on the current (2019) syllabus, a few points to bear in mind:

  • You must have been teaching the pupil for at least six months;
  • The pupil can be any standard from Grade 1 to Grade 8;
  • The standard of the pupil used for the demonstration lesson will form the basis for the whole exam;
  • The lesson will concentrate primarily on repertoire pieces (which can be exam pieces or otherwise);
  • You can include the teaching of pieces chosen for your presentation (Component 2) in your demonstration lesson;
  • You are expected to also cover other areas teaching, such as sight-reading, aural skills, technical exercises, theory etc.;
  • If your lesson runs over 20 minutes, the examiner will stop assessing it.

Many have argued that classroom teachers in schools have been subject to regular and routine lesson observations over a long period of time. Whilst this is true, I think there’s a subtle distinction to be made between an ‘observation’ and a ‘demonstration’. Generally, in an ‘observation’, another teacher or outside course mentor will observe one of your ‘normal’ lessons ‘in progress’. For the DipLCM(TD) demonstration lesson, you will be required to effectively deliver a one-off lesson, out of context, in front of one other person, and at an unfamiliar location. Because of that, I often say to people that the demonstration lesson is inevitably artificial, and I do think the examiners realise that.

The first thing to say is that you need to have a plan. I’m not saying you need a fully-fledged and written-up lesson plan, but you need an idea, particularly with such a tight time constraint, where your demonstration lesson is heading. I often find that candidates haven’t thought about lesson planning before, so if you’re one of those, check out the following resources (some piano-based, but they can be adapted):

3 Useful Styles of Lesson Plans for Piano Teachers (Nicola Cantan)
Lesson Plan Templates for Piano Teachers (Tim Topham)
Simultaneous Learning Practice Map (Paul Harris)

For a more conventional approach, there are also some lesson plan templates in ABRSM’s The Music Teacher’s Companion.

I particularly like Paul Harris’s Simultaneous Learning approach to lesson planning, that is, by identifying a piece’s ‘ingredients’, this helps make links between repertoire and other skills such as scales, sight-reading, theory etc.

20 minutes is not a long time, and in that time you need to give a good overview of your competence as an instrumental teacher. Remember, although this is a standalone lesson, it needs to have context, even if that context is invented. The pupil will have come from the previous lesson, via practice at home, and they’ll be going on from this lesson to practise at home once more, in preparation for the next lesson.

One of the biggest criticisms of candidates’ demonstration lesson is that it is focussed too heavily on repertoire without reference to other areas of learning. I think it’s useful to be working on a piece with which the pupil is already fairly familiar, because it seems a waste of the demonstration lesson teaching basic notes and rhythms. Assuming the piece is already in progress, which areas might the pupil be finding tricky, and how could you cover these in the demonstration lesson?

Photo of the LCM Grade 2 Piano piece, The Somersault King mentioned as an example piece in the blog post about preparing an effective DipLCM(TD) demonstration lesson

Let’s take The Somersault King on the current LCM Grade 2 Piano syllabus, List C. The piece is in C major. Could your lesson begin with revision of the C major scale, arpeggio and/or broken chord? Could you introduce the lesson with a warm-up improvisation in the key of C major in which you ask a pupil to improvise as if they were somersaulting? These things provide a link with technical work, exercises, aural awareness and interpretation. It may only take a couple of minutes, but it adds another dimension to your lesson. These things also help set your piece within a wider context of learning.

When you’re preparing for the demonstration lesson, make sure you select a pupil who is not only willing to take part (and may also have willing parents), but one who won’t freeze when required to ‘perform’ in front of the examiner. There is nothing to stop you ‘rehearsing’ the lesson in advance, and I would encourage you to do this. This component is about demonstrating your competence as a teacher in a one-off exam, not a periodic observation. You cannot show in your next observation, that which you forgot to show this time.

It’s easy for me to say, but try and relax as much as possible. The examiner is a silent observer in the demonstration lesson, so as far as possible, you should just ignore them.

Whilst the advice above can be applied alone, don’t underestimate the value of having someone to mentor you for your diploma. A mentor can empower you to reflect on your teaching; go into the exam with confidence; and come out with a qualification which validates your teaching skills. If you’d like one-to-one help and guidance for all aspects of your DipLCM(TD), or indeed any other teaching diploma, I offer a bespoke online mentoring programme which offers you support with all aspects of your chosen diploma.

Teaching Diplomas: which one should you choose?

When people ask me about mentoring them for their teaching diplomas, they’ve generally already decided which diploma to go for, but what if you’re not sure? I’m going to focus here on the three first-level diplomas: the DipABRSM, ATCL and DipLCM(TD) and hopefully offer you some of my own thoughts on each one.

The first thing to say is that all three of these diplomas are accredited at the same level (Level 4, i.e. the first year of an undergraduate degree). ABRSM‘s new entry-level performance diploma, the ARSM, has slightly confused matters as this is also accredited at Level 4, even though the requirements are lower than the DipABRSM.

The primary consideration when thinking about teaching diplomas is twofold: firstly, what do you want to get out of taking a diploma, and secondly, which skills and areas of knowledge do you wish to be tested on. It’s worth remembering that it’s perfectly possible to acquire skills and knowledge without being tested on them. It’s also important to state that in the case of all three diplomas, they are not a course of study. There are no written materials provided and candidates prepare and enter themselves (either with or without assistance) for the diploma.

A few practical considerations should also be taken into account:

  • Availability of a centre locally at which to sit your diploma;
  • The pre-requisite qualifications the diploma requires.

These apply whichever of the boards you decide to sit your diploma with. Here are a few thoughts individually on the diplomas:


This is probably the most popular of the teaching diplomas. It consists of three sections:

  1. A 1,800 word essay submitted with your entry, on one of the topics prescribed in the syllabus;
  2. A viva voce exam based around three current ABRSM Grade 6 pieces chosen by you, in addition to general teaching issues;
  3. A quick study of around ABRSM Grade 6 level (the same as for the performance diploma).

The DipABRSM offers a good balance of practical and written materials. It’s primary focus is on the Grade 6 pieces chosen, so the ability to teach and demonstrate confidently at this level is a bonus. Although no prior teaching experience is necessary, I think it’s useful. The quick study often puts people off if they’re not confident with sight-reading. The written submission can also feel overwhelming, especially if you haven’t written academically for a while.


Trinity‘s ATCL is, in the main a written-based submission, and I’ve always been in two minds about it. The requirements are:

  1. A written submission totalling 4,000 words consisting of an analysis of your experience as a learner, observations of other teachers, case studies of teaching experience, and original teaching resources;
  2. A practical exam consisting of a presentation, initiative test of teaching skills and a viva voce.

One practical consideration with the ATCL is ensuring that you have access to other teachers in order to complete the observations. To my mind, the ATCL is especially good if you’ve not yet started teaching, or are in the very early stages. Keep in mind that if you aren’t yet teaching, you will need to be working in some kind of support capacity in another setting in order to complete the case studies. Whilst the ATCL is useful, if you’re already well into your teaching career, you might prefer the practical nature of the DipABRSM or DipLCM(TD).


To my mind, the DipLCM(TD) offers a good balance of requirements. For this first-level London College of Music diploma, you’ll need to:

  1. Teach a live 20-minute demonstration lesson (or in exceptional circumstances, submit this on DVD);
  2. Perform a piece of Grade 6 standard or above;
  3. Give a presentation and demonstration of how you’d approach teaching a selection of repertoire pieces;
  4. Engage in a discussion with the examiner about all the above, and a range of other teaching-related issues.

One benefit of the DipLCM(TD) is that you can tailor what you do to the kinds of ages and levels of the pupils you’re teaching. The syllabus offers a range of options depending on the level of pupil chosen. One practical consideration is the need to have a willing pupil for the demonstration lesson, and probably to be able to access a centre within easy distance of them. The DipLCM(TD) is very much a practical exam, and unlike both the ATCL and DipABRSM, there are no written requirements.

There’s much to think about here, and I’m always willing you answer any questions you might have and advise further: please contact me. You can find out more about the mentoring I offer for teaching diploma candidates here.

Teaching Diplomas: How long does it take to prepare?

One of the questions I’m asked probably more than any other, is how long you should take to prepare for your teaching diploma (DipABRSM etc.). As you might expect, the honest answer is “It depends”, but there are things you can do to get yourself on-track.

How much time have you got?

Nearly everyone preparing for one of the teaching diplomas is already teaching or working in some capacity. That means you’re going to need to fit in your diploma work alongside this. Chances are you’ll also have to fit it in alongside family commitments too.

How much time should it take?

According to the Register of Regulated Qualifications, the DipABRSM requires a minimum of 60 guided learning hours, the LRSM 120 hours and the FRSM 150 hours. That means that if you were preparing for the DipABRSM over the course of a year, as a rough estimate, you might be expecting to spend an hour a week; two hours a week over six months or four hours a week over three months.

How much work have I already done?

Of course, not everyone starts from the same point. You may have already sat a performance diploma so the quick study element has already been covered; you may have been granted an exemption from the written submission because you’ve passed the CT;ABRSM; or you may feel you have enough experience already and don’t expect to need a lot of extra work. These are all things to take into account.

Don’t underestimate the preparation needed

One of the most common problems is teachers underestimating the time needed to prepare, often suddenly realising that a month before the closing date they haven’t yet started on their written submission. All the elements of the diploma preparation take time. When you consider the research and reading required, the writing, the checking and the presentation, many candidates will write the written submission over several months. Nearer the time, I often pose potential viva questions for candidates to answer: again, they take time to answer, particularly if they expose an area which you need to read up on.

Plan ahead

For ABRSM diplomas, there are only two sessions a year (unlike the graded examinations). The closing date for entries is often about three months before the diploma week. Entries cannot be made online, and you also need to send any written submissions etc. with your entry. Considering all the above, at some stage, you’ll need to make a decision about how long you’re going to need in order to prepare for the teaching diploma in your preferred session.

What if I need help?

The reason I’m often asked this question is because candidates are normally enquiring about the mentoring service which I offer for teaching diploma preparation. Despite my best advice, candidates often fall into two categories: they either start preparing far too early, quickly lose momentum, and then end up with a mad dash at the last minute; or they start too late at which point, with the best will in the world, there is a limit to what I can offer. I also have a limit to the number of candidates I can mentor at any one time which means you should enquire in plenty of time so that, if necessary, I can schedule you in.

Some candidates I support like some help to get them started on the written submission and are then happy to go away and spend a few months working on it before coming back to me to look at it and work on the other diploma elements; others prefer help right the way through. Many people work on the written submission up to the closing date then concentrate on the viva voce afterwards – again, this is a worthwhile consideration.

It’s difficult to advise about the time taken, but as a general rule, too much time is inevitably better than too little time.

Looking for more advice? Drop me a message or find out more about the mentoring I offer here.

DipABRSM: Where to start with the Written Submission

Anyone considering taking the DipABRSM in Teaching will nearly always, after reading the syllabus, begin by preparing the written submission. As the submission has to be sent with the entry form, candidates often prefer to get this element out of the way before concentrating on the viva voce and quick study.

Which topic should I choose?

On pp. 30-31 of the current syllabus you will find 11 topics from which you can choose the title for your written submission. There are several things to consider when choosing:

  • The word limit is tight at just 1,800 (+/- 10%) so the topic needs to be small enough so that you can write about it to a sufficient depth;
  • You need to be interested in the topic as you will need to write authoritatively about it: it’s not enough to just summarise the research you’ve done as there has to be a good degree of analysis and critique;
  • Choose a topic which will be accessible to research; consider whether you have access to the kinds of books and materials which will aid your research;
  • Choose a topic which you can relate to your own teaching; the ability to give ‘real life’ examples is an important ‘bonus’.

It is surprising how many candidates choose to write on a topic of which they have little knowledge and experience. For example, do not choose the title ‘Discuss your choice of material for use with adult beginners’ if you only teach under-10s. It seems terribly obvious but you wouldn’t believe the mistaken choices people make.

How do I plan it?

Once you’ve chosen your topic, you need to think carefully about what you are going to cover in your essay, particularly considering the small word limit. Let’s say for example that you’ve chosen the topic ‘Discuss your approach to the development of technique in the early stages’. Firstly you need to think about what ‘technique’ means in the early stages – what techniques do you teach your pupils and why? How do you teach these elements of technique and why do you teach them in this way? What has influenced your decisions? As well as referring to your own teaching, you need to reference material in other books and resources. Your essay needs to have a logical progression and needs to flow easily through the material you cover.

What makes a bad essay?

It’s probably easier to tell you what makes a bad essay than what makes a good one! One of the most common problems is trying to cover too much which means your essay lacks sufficient depth. These essays tend to be summaries of books which the candidate has read without any analysis. Another common problem is repetition; I have seen a good number of essays where the candidate has repeated the same point three of four times. A common fault is to fail to give any examples or to back up the points made. Good essays are critical of the sources they cite.

What makes a good essay?

A clear progression with points made succinctly and clearly. Evidence to support points made with real-life examples, particularly from the candidate’s own practice. A critical and analytical approach to the question with clear arguments. Examples drawn from a wide variety of sources including books, the internet and music itself.

How can I maximise the marks?

In addition to the points above make sure you check for the obvious: spelling, grammar, layout, word count etc. Make sure that your sources are referenced correctly: this is a very common fault. Always keep in mind the marking criteria currently on p. 62 of the syllabus; highlight the key points.

The Written Submission and the Viva Voce

Remember that your written submission will be up for discussion in the viva voce element of the exam. You need to be prepared to expand on and defend the points you’ve made in your essay. Remember that the examiners are not trying to catch you out, but rather clarify points and allow you to expand on them further.

David provides comprehensive, flexible and cost-effective packages for supporting diploma candidates. If you have any questions about the Written Submission, or you want to find out more about the mentoring David offers, do send a message

Top Tips for Teaching Diplomas

If you’re a vocal or instrumental teacher and you’re thinking of taking one of the teaching diplomas offered by ABRSM, Trinity or LCM, here are my top tips to get the most out of the experience.

1. Get some support and advice

As you prepare to take your diploma, get some help along the way. This might be from your own teacher, from someone you know who’s already sat a diploma, or from someone like myself who provides specialist diploma mentoring. Although you might have many years of teaching experience, knowing how to best approach the inevitably artificial situation of a diploma exam is a skill in itself.

2. Take time to choose which diploma suits you best

The diplomas offered by each board are quite different in their emphases. For example the DipABRSM is largely focussed on a viva voce exam, whilst the ATCL is focussed more on reflecting on your own and others’ teaching. Think about your own strengths, and think about what you want to get out of taking a diploma, then decide which of these qualifications would fit best with that. I am always happy to advice on which might be best-suited, and indeed, you can find a blog post about that very subject here.

3. Get some teaching experience

This may sound really obvious, and indeed, at the first level of diploma, the exam boards don’t necessarily require any evidence of teaching, but I believe you’ll get far more out of the exam if you’ve got some experience to draw on. It means that you can test out your ideas and methods before hand, and in the exam you can make reference to specific situations. If you’re not already teaching, try and take the opportunity to observe other teachers in action; some may even be willing to let you do some ‘work experience’ with them.

4. Be clear about your teaching philosophy

What matters most to you about your teaching? What do you see as the main reason for teaching? What do you most want your pupils to get out of their lessons? These are fundamental things which begin to define your own teaching style. Whilst at the first level of diploma you don’t need to be absolutely clear about this, it’s a useful thing to be able to demonstrate. It shows that you’ve reflected on how you see your teaching, and it contributes to an overall opinion of you as a ‘professional’.

5. Be prepared to discuss your teaching approach

All the teaching diplomas have an element of discussion (often referred to as the ‘viva voce’). One of the most common misunderstandings is that people expect this to be a question and answer session. A discussion, or ‘viva’ is very different. You are likely to be asked relatively broad questions and you’ll be expected not only to answer these, but to extend the discussion further. Part of the assessment is in your ability to communicate your ideas – a candidate who provides short answers to the examiners’ questions is unlikely, in my experience, to do as well as one who can demonstrate real leadership of the conversation.

6. Be prepared to defend what you say

You need, as far as is possible, to be able to defend what you say in the discussion element. Sometimes, you can draw on specific examples from your own experience, and sometimes you might be able to refer to resources you’ve brought with you. Occasionally, you may be able to refer to a theory or piece of academic research too. The candidates who come away most disappointed are often those who feel that they haven’t had the chance to get their point across. They usually feel this is because the examiners have talked too much, but often, the reverse is the case: they’ve talked too little. There is a subtle difference.

7. Remember, the examiners aren’t trying to catch you out

Contrary to popular opinion, the examiners want you to pass! They aren’t trying to catch you out in their questioning, rather they’re trying to establish what you know and whether you can explain and defend it confidently. If you give very short answers, the examiners are likely to have to ask more questions, quite often to help you clarify what you’ve said. That’s why it’s vitally important that you take some responsibility for leading the discussions. The questioning can be challenging, but your ability to respond with confidence is an important skill.

8. Play to your strengths

Whatever questions the examiners ask, play to your strengths. If the examiner asks “Would this piece be good for developing good breathing habits?” you are free to answer “yes” or “no”, but make sure you extend this. If you say “no”, then follow this by saying not only why you don’t think so, but go on to highlight another piece which you think would be more suitable. This is a good way of showing that you’re able to think quickly on your toes – an enormous advantage for any teacher!

9. Be enthusiastic

I know it’s hard in an exam, but make sure you’re enthusiastic about your teaching. There’s a lot to be said for giving the impression that you are a committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher. If you can show that you take a professional a business-like approach, this is a big advantage.

10. “Is there anything else you want to say?”

Nearly all the diplomas conclude by the examiners asking this question. Sadly, a good number of candidates just say “no”, but this is your golden opportunity to say something you haven’t said already. Tell them that little extra bit of information which will make you stand out from the crowd. When I sat the DipABRSM I wanted to highlight the value of organising performances for pupils – I only had a minute at the end, but a quick explanation, a link back to something I’d said earlier, and a couple of programmes and photos was all that was needed. Surprisingly, it got a very big ‘thumbs up’ in the comments, despite it being such a tiny part of the overall discussion. Don’t waste this opportunity to leave your mark.

Above all, enjoy the experience. We are ready and waiting to help you too! Always make sure you thoroughly read the syllabus to start with – if necessary make some bullet point checklists to get you started.

If you have any queries, or would like to find out more about the teaching diploma mentoring which I offer, please send me a message.