PIANO PERFORMANCE AND RECITAL DIPLOMAS
There is a strong performance element in Michael Spacie’s teaching, as that is what music tuition is all about; and for him, the sitting of piano performance diplomas as continuing professional development proved to be the perfect hook for the testing of his own musical skill, and in turn, the expertise of which can be passed on to students of all levels of musical development – not least absolute beginners where it is so necessary to build a firm and secure foundation in order to enjoy rewarding and developing musical skill let alone establishing a firm platform for advanced musical skills – thus encouraging promotion and optimisation of music education on all levels of demand. Continuing professional development also reinvigorates the tutor’s own musicianship and develops their professional life.
In order to be successful with piano performance diplomas, one has to have that special musical skill that can’t be taught. Also, in preparation, one has to be able to simulate a performance environment – practising for skill and practising for performance. Practising for skill means self-monitoring, self-critiquing; practising for performance means focusing on self-expression, staying in the moment and playing past mistakes – the opportunity to reach the end of the piece with expression, understanding and passion regardless of any mistakes. Before a performance, some musicians need a quiet corner away from other people, others prefer company, some like to pace the floor, others prefer stillness and mindfulness and just being aware of their breathing. To be completely successful, one needs to hear the music at all times which is the whole point of being a musician. For a performance diploma, it is no good just pushing notes down on a piano during a performance no matter how complex the musical patterns because it will lack depth of understanding. The concept and idea of ‘singing’ in relation to piano performance is paramount and this will encompass the physical, mental and spiritual and the sum total then produces the outstanding standard required to be successful. If there are tight wrists or shoulders, it is difficult to get the fingers to work effectively and to achieve a beautiful sound. The whole arm has to support each finger. It is necessary to understand how the body works so that energy is not wasted or fingers being pushed into the keys, by keeping the joints fluid to enable fluency and ease of playing. Mechanical practice which is finger-focused can be dangerous even producing focal hand dystonia which generally involves involuntary muscular contractions and abnormal postures such as the fingers curling into the palm or extending outward without control; the whole arm ideally should be used with the fingers not excessively curling inwards.
All the piano performance diploma examiners were complete strangers to Michael and all the performance diplomas were passed at the first time of sitting. For the major examining boards, there are always two examiners present at diploma level examinations and sometimes three if there is a trainee diploma examiner in the examination room as well. All the piano performance diplomas were an enjoyable and positive experience which also had the added benefit of reminding a teacher of what it is like for a student to sit an exam!
The piano performance diplomas are as follows:
In March 2015, Michael sat the highly regarded Licentiate Recital Performance Diploma of Trinity College London at the Derby diploma centre and was successful in gaining the LTCL Licentiate Recital Diploma in Piano Performance from Trinity College London whose diploma qualifications are fully recognised in the UK and the world over. The recital diploma was achieved at the first time of sitting. The comments of the examiners from the summary section of the LTCL Recital Piano Performance report form for Michael Spacie read as follows: “Stylistic intentions were high here and there were many musical insights. There was a high level of technical security. Good dress and an engaging manner at the instrument. A well balanced programme, within the time limits. Well informed [programme] notes. [Further comments included] ….the whole was expressively played, with an awareness of appropriate style….a deeply emotional presentation of the material….a stylish account….there was an impressive range of tone colours and much mature rubato and phrase shaping….the energy was maintained throughout.” The whole exam was also digitally recorded by the exam board.
In July 2014, performing on a full-sized grand piano at the Sheffield diploma centre, Michael sat the LVCM(Hons) (Recitalist’s Diploma): Licentiate Piano Performance Recitalist’s Diploma of The Victoria College of Music which he passed with Honours gaining 100 marks out 100. Whilst it is somewhat unrealistic to gain 100% at Licentiate level, the perfect score somewhat reflects this particular board’s ethos which is ‘to encourage’. The diploma signalled a green light to proceed with the rigorous LTCL(Recital) (Trinity College London) Piano Performance diploma which was taken in March 2015 of which Michael was successful. Michael writes: “The Victoria College of Music Recitalist’s Licentiate programme that I performed gave me an opportunity to play a contrapuntal four-voice fugal texture with all the usual dissonant features of the era such as episodic chains of suspensions as well as other interesting features such as the dynamic and articulation of the whole subject contrasted with fragmentary allusions to it etc.. Also in the programme, three movements of sonata form (ABCAB coda) were performed. This was followed with a piece consisting of theme and variations of seamless transition with a quasi-improvisatory section of ‘flying figurations’ and finally, ternary (ABA) march form with central trio in contrasting but related keys. As a whole, the programme gave rise to a comprehensive inclusion of some of the main forms and structures of musical composition without any duplication and served as a good initial introduction for study on Licentiate level before proceeding to the Trinity College of Music Licentiate programme of study.
In July 2011, Michael achieved the DipABRSM in piano performance – a recital diploma from The Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music which is respected and recognised the world over. All the components of the DipABRSM performance diploma were passed the first time. The exam was digitally recorded by the exam board.
Also, in December 2011, the ALCM (Recital) piano performance diploma was achieved, again passing first time. This diploma is recognised internationally as well as in the UK.
Michael’s DipABRSM piano performance diploma (Performance Diploma of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) was taken at the ABRSM York diploma centre. The senior examiner that wrote on the report form made some excellent comments regarding his piano performance: “Articulation used throughout was stylistically valid……Fingerwork was precise and clear……This was played with confidence with awareness of the character……Rubato was quite effective……There was fluency and colour here, together with moments of real sensitivity……Something of the required mood was conveyed……It moved with appropriate fluency and urgency and there were passages of promising musical insight……These were played with assurance and panache, and again there were attractive moments……The playing showed distinct facility and musical eloquence.” For the viva voce and programme notes the examiners wrote: “The programme notes were well produced and quite informative……Some of the statements might be considered somewhat controversial, though an ability to defend these quite plausibly was evident in the viva itself. This proved to be an interesting discussion in which a good deal of relevant ancillary information was offered, revealing a well-informed musical mind……showing a degree of thought about the various topics that was quite commendable.” The quick study (sight reading) attracted such comments as: “……the overall character of the piece was well perceived and it moved fluently and with general technical security……interpretative aspects were carefully observed and the performance as a whole was quite persuasive.”
In addition, Michael has also achieved the FVCM and FNCM diplomas in Piano Performance (Fellow of Victoria College of Music and Fellow of The National College of Music and Arts respectively). For the former, the examiner wrote: “Buoyant rhythm at a lively tempo with some stylish phrasing, articulation and ornamentation….some pleasing dynamics gave character….a good sense of line with generally balanced texture….a good sense of forward momentum with some colour and character in the playing….good tempo with some warmth in the RH cantabile.” And for the latter, the examiner wrote: “The movements were played exhibiting the style of the baroque with accuracy and an ability to interpret the mood by careful employment of phrasing and varied touch (approach to the cadences was excellent)….A good performance – 1st movement. The second movement was played with a superb cantabile touch – a most musical performance. Your excellent technique was obvious in the last movement….Your affinity to the French School was shown in this performance. A sensitive approach was always evident. Again your technique was more than enough to perform all the intricacies that this work possesses….The ‘folk song’ element of this piece, together with the touches of humour was well interpreted. Your ability to vary the touch added subtlety to the interpretation….Mood caught well: again this was highly sensitive playing, accurate in every detail….Your technique is perfectly developed to enable you to express the sensitivities and emotional content of music. You are perfectly able to interpret Baroque, Romantic and Impressionist music. An excellent and pleasurable Recital.”
Michael Spacie believes that in a nutshell, piano performance diploma exams must convey intensity, coherence, complexity and with achievement in assuredness, novelty and endeavour. Performances are best when they feel confident, complete, and with effort and inspiration, along with musical integrity and a thorough understanding of the music performed. Moreover, music is a constant discovery and an excellent teacher is also an eternal learner – constantly refreshing, growing, refining, increasing skill and moving forward by engaging further and deeper with music – both for themselves, their students and for life and humanity itself. Thus, for a performer, professional development is achieving an ever clearer and closer musical understanding, which must be allowed to evolve over a lifetime as a musician learns more of their own humanness. Performance then becomes a natural outcome of practising with a natural interest and ability to tap into on-the-spot quality and get into the moment which narrows any gap between practise and performance. Performances, whether for exams or otherwise, are not solely about measurement or some kind of perfection, but essentially about wanting to share yourself with others through music and thus to give something, hence transforming a performance from a self-conscious perspective to the generosity of giving to others.
Acknowledgement by Michael Spacie
Finally, I should like to thank my wonderful wife, Sandra, for her encouragement and solid support throughout all my plans, preparation and the taking of my piano performance diploma exams as continuing professional development in music. Without her understanding, it would have been impossible to achieve such qualifications and to run my teaching practice.