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  • Writer's pictureDavid G. Miller

“Oh, so it has a piano part?”

Flying the Flag for the Examination Collaborative Pianist.

Students taking an exam, whether it be AMEB, Trinity Guildhall, ABRSM, for high school finals or university entrance, are likely to be young, inexperienced and quite possibly terrified! Therefore, the pianist in the room with them performs a vital role in supporting and guiding the student, to ensure they enjoy the experience and produce their best possible result. As a professional musician, an experienced collaborative pianist can also provide personalised advice on performance and collaboration techniques and a more in-depth understanding of the repertoire. Developing these skills in young students helps them to become more sensitive, confident and effective performers, in whatever career they eventually decide to pursue.

Providing support and security on the day

Examinations can be a stressful experience for young students, and examiners can at times appear rather formidable face-to-face! It can be a great comfort to have a familiar face across the keyboard; someone on the student’s side who provides moral support during the exam. David Howie, lecturer in Collaborative Piano at Sydney Conservatorium, affirms that, “we certainly help the students on a nervous level by easing their anxieties … they depend on you and know you are there.”

A professional collaborative pianist is also trained to be flexible and adaptable. They can accommodate changes during a performance – whether they be intentional variations in interpretation or actual mistakes. The show must go on! For a young student going into an exam, knowing that their pianist has the ability to save them if things go off the rails is a great comfort. Professional collaborative pianist Jo Allan agrees that “you have to tailor your approach to every single different student that you’re working with. It’s a one-to-one process.”

Improving ensemble technique

While a teacher’s role is to develop the student’s technical competence and musical ability, the young student may have had very little practical experience playing with other musicians. Working with a collaborative specialist provides an overview of the complete musical piece, including the piano part, cultivating the practical ensemble skills of tuning, balance, signalling and partner communication. David Howie comments that he always aims to “make sure [the students] fully understand what is actually happening from the keyboard part of the ensemble.” Dr Ros Dunlop, examiner for the AMEB, agrees that “you can always tell the kids who have worked consistently through with [a pianist], so they actually understand the whole score.”

While examiners primarily assess the technical and musical skills of a student, the quality of the collaboration and ensemble is likely be noticed. A musical partnership that is secure and comfortable looks much more professional. Ros Dunlop confirms that, as an AMEB examiner, “at higher grades, such as AMusA, you do make comments about the ensemble … schoolteachers will say that you really need to spend time working with your pianist because, if you don’t, you are going to compromise the result.”

Providing a valuable learning experience

In preparing for exams, collaborative pianists work with children, teenagers and young adults who have not yet committed themselves to a life as a professional musician, or possibly have no intention of doing so. However, parents will know that exams are important opportunities to develop young skills such as discipline, goal achievement, self-confidence, teamwork and musical appreciation.

As a professional consultant, the collaborative pianist will work with the student’s teacher to get the very best from the student, and satisfy, if not exceed, the expectations of the parents. Just as your GP will recommend a medical specialist, your teacher should refer you to a pianist who is a specialist in musical collaboration. In addition, I find it valuable to invite the parents to attend at least the early rehearsals, to give them an idea of what professional ensemble and performance coaching involves. David Howie agrees: “I’ve had people come to me for the first time, and they say: Wow, I didn’t think that that’s what you would be doing. I thought we’d just come along and you’d play together and that’s it!”

Establishing a trusting relationship

In preparing for an exam, students will need time to develop a relationship of trust and respect with their collaborative pianist. The rehearsal schedule should take into account the experience of the student and the challenges of the repertoire, both technical and ensemble. Rather than leaving it to the last minute, early rehearsals with the pianist are invaluable in the learning process, even if the student’s technique is not yet secure. Ensemble and tuning will inevitably improve as a result. According to David Howie, “you’d always get phone calls a week before an exam saying one rehearsal will do it … it’s unfair for the student!”

Taking an examination should be an exhilarating and fulfilling event for a young musician. While working with an professional collaborative pianist cannot guarantee better exam results, it helps to ensure the best possible preparation and performance. The confidence, perspective, practical skills and musical insight gained by working with an experienced musical partner encourages enjoyment, satisfaction and valuable learning for the future.


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