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How to pass an AMusA Diploma exam

By Tim Topham | Exams

Sep 09 2015

pass an AMusA diploma exam
If you’re a teacher or student living in Australia, you will no doubt be aware that the AMusA (Associate of Music Australia) is considered one of the benchmark qualifications for performers and teachers in this country and is a qualification to which most advanced classical students rightly aspire.

It is a Diploma-level music exam equivalent to those offered by other exam boards including ABRSM, ANZCA and Trinity College London and is of equal standing to courses offered at first-year university level. It is held in high regard throughout the music industry. For this reason, it is also a much more challenging examination than those offered at the Grade levels.

If you are a student embarking on your AMusA exam, you will no doubt have a lot of questions about how to prepare for the exam and you’ll be wondering whether you’ll pass. In this his article I will share with you some of my own thoughts about how to pass an AMusA Diploma exam and offer you references, particularly for the General Knowledge Component of the exam.

Related: Preparing for an AmusA performance diploma exam – why bother?!

See below for my 8 steps to Diploma Exam success.

**Please note that as exam guidelines may change in the future, it is the responsibility of students and teachers to ensure that they are properly prepared. While I have done my best to ensure that this article is up-to-date, I take no responsibility for the information presented here; it is presented purely as my own suggestions about how I successfully completed the exam. Make sure you check the exam requirements in the syllabus thoroughly before preparing for your exam

Step 1: Read the syllabus and understand the requirements

There is nothing worse than preparing for an exam without checking the requirements and finding out that you’ve failed simply for not following instructions (especially music choices – see below).

Here’s what the syllabus says:

The candidate must demonstrate musicality, maturity, conviction and confidence in the performance of a well-balanced programme which covers a variety of technical skills and musical emphases.

According to the syllabus, the candidate should demonstrate [my emphasis]:

  • A concept of the works as a whole, performed with an understanding of the structure and the musical content of each together with those elements which give them a particular unity or character.
  • Master of technical and musical elements resulting in a fluent, expressive and coherent performance.
  • The maintenance of unity and continuity in multi-movement works, including appropriate timing between, and the linking of movements.
  • Command of contemporary techniques appropriate to the instrument.
  • Understanding of performance conventions relevant to the works begin performed, and an ability to differentiate between a range of music styles.
  • A sense of professional presentation, with attention to posture, appearance and normal performance conventions.

At AMusA level, you do not need to memorise any of your music, although you may choose to do this of your own accord. Personally, I played two pieces from memory and my Bach and Beethoven from the music.

Looking and acting professionally is an easy part of this process to secure. For males, a suit with open-neck shirt is fine, good shoes, tidy appearance. Appropriate concert dress for women.

Musical Choices

The choice of repertoire is up to you. The program needs to be 30-40 minutes long with a range of styles demonstrated. You may choose music from either the First Listing or Second Listing in the Manual of Syllabuses [click for the AMEB shop and look for the piano syllabus for the current year].

If you choose the First Listing, you must choose one piece from List A and then minimum of three additional selections from List B. If you choose the Second Listing, you must make one selection from each of Lists A, B, C and D. The choice of Listing is really up to the student and the music they’d like to perform.

Make sure you select music that you are 100% passionate about. The AMEB diploma lists are huge compared to other exam boards, so you have plenty of options. You might need to change music after you’ve studied it for a while as you may decide  you don’t really like it.

I went though many iterations of my music choices before I settled on my own program:

Here’s the order I chose and the reasons for this order:

  • Kats-Chernin Russian Rag (memory) – I placed this first as it was my most comfortable piece, it was shorted and I really loved it so my passion and musicality would come through. I also wanted to start with a piece from memory.
  • Bach Partita in Cm, 1st Movement – This was my biggest challenge so I wanted it early on while I was still focussed and had the energy
  • Beethoven Sonata 13 Op 26 – This was the longest work and fitted nicely at this time in the program
  • Rachmaninov Elegie in Eb Minor (memory) – I put this last as I wanted to leave with a real sense of how much emotion I could put into the music and this was a very emotive work. It was also from memory and a piece that I had performed the most in the lead-up so I knew I could do it justice and leave the examiners impressed!

Step 2: Get a highly-qualified performance teacher

As I said in my previous article:

At Diploma level, you not only need to be a competent performer under stress; you also need to demonstrate the correct stylistic interpretation of each piece depending on its era. For this reason, you need the support and mentoring of someone who has not only hopefully ‘been-there-and-done-it’ but who is able to teach the performance and interpretative skills necessary at this level.

Search for teachers online and ensure they hold a diploma or licentiate (LMusA) themselves (or they are already concert performers). I don’t know how anyone who hasn’t sat the exam (or is a professional performer) can properly prepare a student for the exam.

Google for your local state associations as many of them have teacher listings on their websites. Alternative try music tutor/music teacher listing websites but be sure to carefully vet your teacher and ask for references.

While I don’t have time to personally teach many students, I am available for consultation during the preparation process, depending on time. Please contact me if you’d like to book an appointment. These are generally ad-hoc face-to-face or skype sessions to discuss pieces, requirements, general knowledge or performance skills.

Related: Helping Your Students Overcome Performance Anxiety: Faculty of the VCA and MCM

Step 3: Practice like you’ve never practiced before

It takes a lot of time to properly put together a 30-40 minute recital that you can perform under stressful exam conditions. It also takes stamina and concentration. Unless you’re accustomed to performing solo recitals of this length or longer, you’re going to have to get used to playing at this level.

  • Get into a really regular practice routine! For me, this was 7.30am – 9am every morning before I started teaching, plus afternoons and weekends whenever possible (I’m a morning person). Holidays were a big practice time for me; indeed, the last holidays before my exam consisted pretty much solely of practice, lessons, mock performances and study.
  • Regularly video/audio record your playing and listen/watch back with a critical ear. This really goes for all students at all levels: the more you record and listen to your playing, the more you’ll discover whether you actually sound like you think you sound!
  • I can’t stress enough the need for regular practice: you can’t get by with ad-hoc practice every now and then if you want to do well and pass this exam.

Step 4: Only book in for the exam when you are 100% sure you’re ready!

With exam fees over $200, you don’t want to withdraw (or fail). Only sign up when you’re 100% sure you’re going to be ready. I delayed applying twice when I took my exam. The whole process eventually took around 2 years and I’m very glad I waited as the final examination was actually not that stressful because I’d played the program so many times and I’d performed all the work in front of audiences and teachers lots of times in the lead-up.

Why give yourself the stress of a rushed exam? Take your time, really absorb the music and you’ll enjoy the experience much more.

Step 5: Start your general knowledge early…preferably with a specialist teacher

Don’t leave the general knowledge until a few weeks before the exam. Your general knowledge answers must be conversational. That is, you need to be able to speak in a normal, conversational way with the examiner about the music. One-word answers will not rate highly. Expand on your answers and give as much information as you can.

Treat the GK as more of a discussion than a question and answer. The examiners want to have an intelligent conversation with you about the music and composers, not be given one-word answers to a hundred questions.

The other reason for starting early is that the things you learn by digging into the lives of your composers and their music will have a positive impact on the way you play your pieces.

The general knowledge requirements are detailed and need to be conversational by exam time. Know your stuff about the composers and their output in particular and have an in-depth understanding of your pieces, their forms, the history of the forms, the eras, performing norms, etc. etc. You may be asked a little or a lot come exam time so you must be prepared for anything!

Related: General knowledge/analysis help for your students – Ross Hamilton

Step 6: Play for other teachers

Don’t just rely on your own teacher’s ideas of how to perform your pieces; make sure you play for other teachers. Ask your teacher for references and connections to other teachers but make sure you only play for teachers who know the AMusA requirements and are competent performers themselves. Discuss this with your teacher (please don’t go behind their back). Any good teacher will encourage you to work with other teachers at the right time.

You can start playing for other teachers as soon as you can play through your pieces, even if they are not 100% perfect (that’s the point, right?). Don’t leave this until the last minute as you want time to incorporate the ideas of the other teachers (if appropriate) into your playing before your interpretation becomes set in stone.

Even better, set up a performance with an examiner (see below).

Step 7: Do mock exams (preferably in the exam room)

As you get closer to exam time, start planning mock exams. Do these as much as you can when you think your program is ready. I did around five full-on mock exams before my actual exam and the experience was vital to my eventual success.

Do a mock exam in the exam room on the exam piano if you can, preferably with a teacher to give you feedback. I did this and it was an excellent experience! You get a sense of the nerves you’ll experience on the day and how that may affect your playing. You also get a chance to get used to the exam piano.

Have a final recital and invite all your family and friends. For the first part of the recital, ask the audience not to clap between pieces and play your whole program from start to finish as if it were the final exam. Afterwards, you can play other music you might have been preparing. Doing this will ensure that the final exam, with only two people watching, will be a much more relaxed affair!

Step 8: Relax & enjoy

By the time your exam comes around, there’s nothing more you can do, so just enjoy the music and the experience. Sure, you’ll be nervous, but if you’ve properly prepared, there should be an element of being able to relax when the exam time comes.

The examiners only want you to do your best, so view them as much as friends and supporters as you can. They will never do anything to put you off and will always give you the best chance to succeed. Smile, be friendly and respectful and show them what you’ve got!

If you’ve followed all the steps above, double-checked that you’re following the requirements, you’ve played for multiple teachers in lots of concerts and mock exams and your teacher feels you’re ready, then go for it! You should be ready to blitz the exam and enjoy the process.

Points to remember

  • Wrong notes and memory slips do not equal a fail. The examiners are looking for a musical performance, not a perfect one. The most important thing is that memory slips or mistakes don’t throw you. Keep calm and stay on-track.
  • You can choose your exam order to suit the music and your strengths. The Baroque piece does not have to go first!
  • At AMusA level, you do not need to memorise your pieces. I chose to memorise half of my program, but it isn’t a requirement. At LmusA level, you need to memorise at least one piece. If you feel more comfortable reading the music, do it.
  • There are no prerequisites for Diploma candidates except that you need to have passed Grade 5 Theory (Grade 6 for LMusA). However, the theory exam can be completed after your performance.

Links

Got any tips for Diploma Candidates?

Do you teach Diploma-level students? Have you got tips for other teachers about how to ensure students pass? Alternatively, if you’re a student, I’d love to hear how you got through your AMusA diploma and what tips you might have for others. Please leave your thoughts below.

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Tim Topham

About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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