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I have been playing piano for a few years and got a distinction in the Trinity grade 4 piano classical and jazz exam. I do plan to continue my piano studies and do further trinity-graded exams. I have been wondering how these piano examiners develop such good aural skills so that they notice the slightest of details just the first time they hear it during the candidate's exam. There is so much going on in performance to observe: tone quality, pedaling, phrasing, dynamics, overall effect, rubatos, interpretation, technique, etc. How do they hear all of this and that too all of them at the same time and write such quality feedback with only a single listening of the performance? I too want to become an expert judge of piano performances and be able to critically evaluate a performance. What are some exercises and strategies I can use to be able to observe all these details? How should I go about observing these details? What are the approaches to practicing this skill?

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    Everything here quite rightly deals with music as such, about which I know too little. However, I've heard audio-technicians, who are interested solely in the form, not the content of what they're processing say that some experienced musicians and producers can hear latencies of hardly thousandths of seconds… That seems to suggest either an innate talent bestowed by nature or - thanks goodness! - a skill nurtured by practice but in neither case, voodoo! Nov 20, 2023 at 14:18

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Adjudicating performances can be challenging. I've often sat through hours of auditioners, only to ask at the end of the night "So was X better than Y," and wish I'd taken better notes.

One thing that helps, especially student performances that will be imperfect, is some kind of rubric. I've participated in auditions for a large kids' orchestra organization that took several days and sorted students into several ensembles by experience level. We had no hope of relying on our memory to compare someone on day 1 to day 3, so all the adjudicators used the same rubric (and we recorded the auditions so we could listen again if there was any question). The rubric let us quickly mark down assessments of various factors, of technique, execution, and interpretation. The areas to consider will be different for different levels of experience. For example, in a violin context, I might grade a beginner on how they hold the bow and the violin, the tone they produce, and very objective questions of music reading, like whether they are even correctly understanding the pitches and rhythms. For more advanced players it might go without saying that they're playing "the right notes," but I might grade on whether their tempo and rhythmic precision are under their control (i.e. stable and regular, or flexible in ways that seem like artistic choices rather than unconscious accidents). For very advanced players and professionals, even this is assumed, and we wind up comparing apples and oranges, as we compare multiple "perfectly correct" performances that differ only in how the artist has rendered the drama of the piece, comparing how they feel about it and how it makes us feel.

Although this final step seems silly, it's really something to pursue, especially if your goal is your own enrichment. If you're tasked with judging players in an audition then it's important to be objective, but for enjoyment of music as a listener, you can train your subjective reception to give you greater insight and enjoyment. For a visual analogy, no one visits an art museum in order to rank the paintings and award points. Rather, you sit in front of an artwork until you start to notice details that escaped you on first glance, and until it changes you in some way and you're the richer for it.

I suggest comparing multiple performances of the same piece by multiple professionals. Pick a piece that you really enjoy, a popular one that's been recorded hundreds of times, and start a survey. You'll quickly discover just how different people's interpretations can be. If you include recordings that are old enough you might even discover how "the usual way of doing it" can shift over time. Try to hear live performances of the piece too. And while (especially in live performance) there will be flaws and perhaps technical shortcomings to critique, try to notice as well all the moments that someone does something new even to a familiar piece and helps you see it in a new light.

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  • thanks a lot, Andy Bonner. I'll try the method you suggested in the last paragraph.
    – Ved Rathi
    Nov 18, 2023 at 3:38
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First, keep in mind that the adjudicators have likely heard the pieces you're performing many, many times before your exam. They also have likely gone to music school, where they've learned through a variety of different classes how to "hear" music by reading the score. All of this, of course, involves years of training across many different music-related skills.

However, the starting point is to listen to and play a wide variety of music. As one learns to both hear and perform the "tone quality, pedaling, phrasing, dynamics, overall effect, rubatos, interpretation, technique, etc.", one develops the intuition to understand how they would apply even to music never before heard.1

Beyond listening and playing as much as possible, there is not a systematic way to approach your goal, because it involves both breadth and depth of knowledge and experience. There are general categories — familiarity with repertoire, understanding of music theory, ear training, rhythm training, music history — but there's no one way to approach them.

The Trinity exams are designed to give you exactly the kind of training you're interested in. ABRSM and RCM also, but all have slightly different approaches to what is fundamentally the same set of skills and experiences.

So, keep going with Trinity. As you advance, you'll learn to apply those new abilities outside of just the exam material. In fact, as a concluding thought: as you listen to and play music, look explicitly for the kind of things to be studies at your particular grade. Learning about pedaling? Listen to music with the pedaling as a specific focus. Learning about interpretation? Ask yourself how a particular piece is affecting you and see if you can discern how or why. And so on.


1 As an aside, there is a piano teacher I know of who, when his students are entering competitions, specifically helps them pick obscure or new music that the judges are unlikely to be familiar with. That makes it harder for them to gauge the performance, and they have to rely on intuition more heavily than direct experience.

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  • thanks for the advice, I'll keep your points in mind as I keep going with Trinity.
    – Ved Rathi
    Nov 18, 2023 at 3:46
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Agree with all Aaron says, totally, also with specific exam pieces to examine, they will have likely played the pieces - maybe even taught them, many times. After all, there will be a prescribed list.

Off piste slightly. I used to host guitar exams, where there were not so much fixed pieces as extemporisation over sets of chords, so each time it would be a very different rendition. Somewhat akin to the jazz exams mentioned. What the examiners would do was record sessions, and get together to mark each performance. Then discuss what marks each would award. A very important point, in order to create as level a playing field as possible. Especially as there would be only one opportunity for a candidate to perform what was the major part of their exam, so imperative that any and all examiners used the same criteria. Only really viable during post mortems with those recordings to reference.

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  • thanks for the adding on to the discussion Tim, could you please elaborate more upon the criteria that the examiners used? How did you decide on the criteria and what did the criteria include? What were the ways the marks were awarded?
    – Ved Rathi
    Nov 18, 2023 at 3:41
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    Not sure about Trinity, but ABRSM posts a comprehensive list of criteria used. Please check them out. Other boards should do the same - and probably do.
    – Tim
    Nov 18, 2023 at 10:07

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