Piano Performance Diplomas

There is a strong performance element in Dr Michael Spacie’s teaching, and for him, the sitting of eight specialist piano performance diplomas as continuing professional development over a nine year period between the years of 2011 and 2020 proved to be the perfect hook for the testing of his own musical skill (technical delivery and accomplishment, musicality and interpretation, musical knowledge and communication), 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.

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. Diploma examinations demand the characteristics of an effective, convincing and successful musical performance. All the piano performance diplomas had the added benefit of reminding a teacher of what it is like for a student to sit an exam! Performance diploma examinations of the major examining boards are digitally recorded and the results go through a very strict process before being awarded. All the diploma examiners were complete strangers and all the diploma certificates hang on walls in the teaching studio.

The Royal Schools of Music

In December 2018, Michael achieved the LRSM Piano Performance Diploma (Licentiate of The Royal Schools of Music). This is one of the most recognised and prestigious performance diplomas in the world. Taken at the Royal Schools of Music York diploma exam centre, the examiners’ comments were as follows:- The Recital: “The prelude moved along at an expressive Andante and there was a sense of forward direction through the phrases. The fugue was lively in approach……The articulation gave focus to the interpretation……Rhythmic energy was sustained in the brightly paced prelude……intricate passages had momentum and direction……Nimble fingerwork was evident in the Fugue……Cheerful in approach as a result of the sprightly articulation and crisp embellishments……The lyrical qualities became more apparent as you progressed……The articulation had much focus and you conveyed much of the momentum in the intricate passages. The natural ebb and flow was apparent in several phrases……Persuasive rubato and tempo changes, together with many balanced chords allowed you to convey the melancholy mood where colours were quite pertinent and the singing qualities were conveyed……Technical challenges were controlled in all the pieces.” The Viva Voce and Programme Notes: “The viva voce was confidently managed revealing much research and knowledge of context, form and style in the performed pieces. Plenty of information was volunteered, keen awareness and first hand experience of historical instruments informed good ideas for articulation, tone and pedalling. An enthusiasm for detail allied with confident recall of facts and dates gave an assured and knowledgeable response. Personal opinions were convincingly supported. The programme notes had plenty of information.” The Quick Study (Sight Reading): “Played with a sense of style and character and with dynamic details included throughout.” The whole exam was digitally recorded by the examiners. The LRSM is a hugely challenging performance diploma even for the musically able, and success with this qualification is solid evidence of a musician’s ability.

In July 2011, Michael achieved the DipABRSM Piano Performance Diploma – a performance diploma from The Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music which is highly respected and recognised. The whole exam was digitally recorded by the examiners. 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 exam centre. The examiners’ comments were as follows:- The Recital: “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.” The Viva Voce and Programme Notes: “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): “……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.”

Trinity College London

In March 2015, Michael achieved the LTCL Piano Recital Diploma (Licentiate of Trinity College London). This diploma is recognised internationally as well as in the UK. Taken at the Trinity diploma examination centre in Derby, the examiners’ comments from the summary section of the report form were 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 digitally recorded by the examiners.

Michael achieved a further LTCL Piano Recital Diploma (Licentiate of Trinity College London); entering at the Trinity diploma examination centre of Burton on Trent in March 2020, the comments from the examiners for this LTCL Piano Recital Diploma were as follows: “Playing was neatly articulated in the Prelude……There was some exploration of the shape of the music……An often careful attention to balance prevailed in the Fugue with the fugal entries well defined and a sensitivity in the handling of the shaping and shading……The tempo chosen reflected the grounded quality inherent……and there was a willingness to explore the dynamic colour……The wish to provide a clean line……was appreciated……There was some exploration of detail……A lively tempo was sought……There was an awareness of shape and direction……An appreciation of the timbral world……was evident……with pedal work often neat in its application……Balance was considered……There was a wish to elicit quieter colours and the accents were securely integrated……An intent to show the rippling nature……was apparent……An exploration of the dynamic shape was evident……An intent to provide connection to the material……Fluency was maintained in this recital……Willingness to engage with the detail of the scores on the whole……The programming explored a range of styles with an order which felt satisfying on the whole.”

The London College of Music at The University of West London

In December 2019, Michael achieved the LLCM Piano Recital Diploma (Licentiate of The London College of Music awarded by The University of West London). This diploma is recognised internationally as well as in the UK. Taken at the London College of Music York diploma exam centre and playing for 50 minutes as per the requirement of the Recital Diploma exam syllabus, the examiners’ comments were as follows:- Performance: “You presented a wide variety of styles and forms from the piano repertory….Had good appreciation of style in articulation and part playing….tempo and rhythmic drive were maintained….within this idiom of rhapsodic freedom there was some poise.” Programme Notes etc.: “Competent in information about biography, commentary on programme with background and analytical information presented.”

In March 2019, Michael achieved the LLCM Piano Performance Diploma (Licentiate of The London College of Music awarded by The University of West London). This diploma is recognised internationally as well as in the UK. Taken at the London College of Music York diploma exam centre, the examiners’ comments were as follows:- Performance: “There was an admirable sense of occasion evident at this Recital – Thorough preparation was also evident – Admirable translation integrity in the performances of the Bach……You maintained ambience well, – with engaged qualities.” Programme Notes: “Well presented, – informative – with invitational qualities – and generally readable qualities.” Sight Reading: “A good grasp of the primary elements. Literal detail was good.” As with all Licentiate performance diplomas, this was challenging, yet exciting and a rewarding musical experience.

Also, in December 2011, the ALCM Piano Performance Diploma (Associate of The London College of Music) was achieved.

Victoria College of Music

In July 2014, performing on a full-sized grand piano at the then VCM Sheffield diploma centre, Michael achieved the LVCM(Hons) 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 solely ‘to encourage’. 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, a piece composed in the early 20th-century using for all three movements sonata form (ABCAB coda) was 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, a piece in 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 Licentiate qualifications of the major examining boards of The Royal Schools of Music, Trinity College London and The London College of Music.” A Victoria College of Music diploma examiner who was a complete stranger to Michael wrote the report for the LVCM(Hons) Piano Performance Recitalist’s examination which contained the following comments: “There was a constant ebb and flow to this in the Prelude that appeared effortless. The fugue with all its counterpoint was played expertly and musically well understood. Each line had a cantabile feel. An outstanding performance.” “The atmospheric mood you created was quite magical with trickles of colours that floated high into the ceiling. This was a masterful performance. I felt transported to a chamber room in Paris, early 20th-century, most impressive playing.” “There is rarely a bar that goes by in this piece that does not have some type of performance instruction – typical of the period – but also this can leave the pianist feeling unable to make their own and unique perception. You did indeed create your own rendition which was superbly executed and you demonstrated a powerful and expressive playing of this piece.” “Just like an encore this acted as a great finale with all the aspects and nuances you would expect. Whizzing fingers and a real showcase for your talents. A superb performance.” Sight Reading: “A fabulous reading, full of character!” Viva Voce Questions: “Very knowledgeable and informative discussion on how you put this programme together.” General Comments: “The most impressive playing I have ever heard! Congratulations, you clearly enjoy performing and I hope to hear more of you!”

Continuing Professional Development Comment

Dr 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 a constant learner – always 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 Dr Michael Spacie

I should like to thank my wonderful wife, Sandra, for her encouragement and solid support throughout all my plans, preparation and taking of my piano performance diploma examinations as continuing professional development in music. Without her understanding and total patience of the amount of time involved over many years (2011 to 2020), it would have been impossible to achieve such qualifications as well as carry out my teaching. Furthermore, if you wish to achieve high-flying piano performance diplomas, you have to be determined with sustained interest and self-discipline that is structural and effortful over a long period of time. On a final note, I have now completed my extensive professional development in terms of sitting examinations and I now look forward to hopefully having more time to play simply for my own amusement and pleasure rather than examination and also to compose music as well as do some teaching on all levels from absolute beginner to diploma standard – with students benefiting from my ‘musical development journey’, expertise gained and experience acquired, particularly through my attaining five Licentiate Piano Performance Diplomas: LRSM LTCL LTCL LLCM LLCM – I guess one for each digit of the hand starting with the thumb!