5 (Often Ignored) Skills Teen Piano Students Must Learn

AMEB exams are great. But there’s so much more to learning the piano…


Skills Teen Piano Students Must Learn


When I teach teen piano students, I want them to play music for the rest of their lives.

But as many parents can attest, all too often, teens sit their Grade 8 AMEB exam, then never touch the piano again.

I believe that one of the reasons this happens is that most piano lessons only focus on teaching for exams. When this happens, teachers fail to teach several other fundamental skills that are key if you want piano playing to be more fun, more rewarding, and more enjoyable.

Exams are important. But they’re not everything. So here are 5 non-AMEB skills all teen piano students must learn if they want to lay the foundation for a lifetime of piano playing fun and enjoyment.

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#1 – Playing By Ear

Many teen students have no idea how to play by ear. If that’s you, then you’re missing out! Being able to play the songs you hear on the radio is great fun, and it’s a fantastic party trick, too.

Because playing by ear is a rarely-taught skill, many teen students have bad or poor aural skills. But they don’t have to stay that way. Playing by ear is something I focus on with many of my teen students. It may be hard work in the short term, but in the long term, it will pay dividends for you.

#2 – Improvisation

There’s nothing more valuable than a pianist who can improvise. Yet this skill is neither taught nor examined as part of the AMEB syllabus.

Most Grade 8 students can play a Bach Prelude and Fugue perfectly, but if you asked them to improvise on a simple 12 bar blues, they wouldn’t know what to do.

Improvisation is about understanding how chord and scale systems work together. It isn’t difficult to learn, however many teachers don’t teach it. If you’re not learning improvisation, you’re missing out. However, the good news is that if you’re capable of learning the Grade 8 syllabus, you’re more than capable of learning how to improvise.

#3 – Chord Chart Reading

When I play pop music, I never read the sheet music note by note. Pop music is about playing with freedom. Freedom to improvise and freedom to play by ear. But if you’re going to do that, then you also need to be able to read the chord chart.

Many teenagers want to play current, modern music. To do this well, they need to be able to read chord charts. But most are never taught how.

All that’s required is to build upon a teen student’s already well-developed classical technique by teaching them about how chords and scales work. Then, when they go to play pop music, it’s fun, it’s interesting (because it’s never the same twice), and it’s a great creative outlet.

#4 – Accompanying Skills

Piano playing can often be a lonely pursuit, as you spend hours practicing by yourself. However piano playing doesn’t always have to be a solo exercise. In fact, playing the piano with other instruments and people is great fun.

While other music students such as trumpet players or oboists almost always learn to accompany other instruments, this is a skill that’s rarely taught to pianists.

Once again, this can be changed. All you need to learn about is listening and staying in time – two things I’m always sure to teach my students.

Learning to accompany other instruments can also be a great way for you to earn some extra money as a pianist. Other musicians such as clarinet players, saxophonists, and flautists often require piano accompaniment for their AMEB exams. So do singers. If you can learn to be a good accompanist, then you can get paid to accompany them during their exams.

#5 – Teaching Skills

By teaching older teen students (those in grades 10 to 12) how to teach young beginner pianists, they’ll know what to do when they’re at uni and want a part-time teaching job. But this isn’t something that many students learn.

Teaching beginners involves learning to understand the student. They need to be taught correct foundations and fundamentals, and they need to be motivated. (You can learn more about teaching beginners here.) I like to ensure that I teach my teen students about this so that they’ll have the option of taking on casual or part-time teaching work in the future.

That’s All, Folks

So there you have it – five often overlooked skills that teen students must learn if they’re to enjoy the true fun playing the piano has to offer.

Want to spread the word? Share this post on Facebook or Twitter with your followers to start a discussion!

If you’re a piano teacher, do you believe it’s important for teens to learn these five skills? If not, why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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What’s the Difference? AMEB Pianoforte vs. AMEB Piano for Leisure

Everything you should know about the AMEB’s two main piano syllabuses


AMEB Classical Piano vs. AMEB Piano for Leisure


If you’re a piano student, or the parent of a student, then you’ll undoubtedly encounter the AMEB at some time during your piano career. Many piano teachers, myself included, choose to teach their students the AMEB piano syllabus.

Although there are other music examination boards, such as ABRSM and Trinity, I prefer the AMEB syllabus because the AMEB has formal links to Australian universities, they help write the HSC music syllabus, and they have a larger repertoire for students to choose from and be examined on.

Nowadays, the AMEB offers several piano examination options. Before you or your child take a piano exam, it’s important to educate yourself on the differences between each option, and the pros and cons of choosing each.

(Got questions or comments? Share them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to get back to you.)

The AMEB Piano Courses

In addition to their traditional Pianoforte syllabus, the AMEB now has two other piano/keyboard courses: AMEB Piano for Leisure, and AMEB Contemporary Popular Music (Keyboard). Of these three courses, the original Pianoforte and the more recent Piano for Leisure are the most popular choice for piano students to study.

But what’s the difference between the two? We’ll compare by looking at the Grade 5 syllabus for each of them.

Grade 5 Pianoforte vs. Grade 5 Piano for Leisure

At a glance, the AMEB Pianoforte and Piano for Leisure syllabuses seem quite comparable. Both examine technical work (such as scales and arpeggios), piano pieces, and general music and piano knowledge. For Pianoforte, students are examined on both aural and sight-reading skills, while Piano for Leisure students are examined on only one of the two, a choice they are able to make. Importantly, the standard/difficulty of the pieces in both syllabuses is the same.

However, while the two courses may be almost identical on the surface, a closer look reveals that they are ultimately very different.

A Closer Look

Here’s a breakdown of how the grade 5 AMEB Pianoforte and Piano for Leisure courses are examined.

Pianoforte Piano for Leisure
Technical 37 scales (legato & staccato) 13 scales (legato only)
Pieces 4 list pieces, 2 extra pieces 3 pieces
Sight-reading Always examined Optional (can choose aural instead)
Aural Always examined Optional (can choose sight-reading instead)
General Knowledge Always examined Always examined

As you can see, a piano student’s workload is 50-70% less if they sit the Piano for Leisure exam rather than Pianoforte.

The Pros and Cons of Choosing the Pianoforte Syllabus

While each AMEB piano course has its own advantages, each has its own disadvantages, too.

AMEB Pianoforte students benefit from a more thorough examination, with more pieces and more scales. Pianoforte is the better choice if you wish to apply for a music scholarship at a high school, and if you’re interested in studying piano at university level, Pianoforte gives you a much more solid foundation. The syllabus also goes beyond Grade 8 to A.Mus and L.Mus.

The only real disadvantage of studying Pianoforte is that the set repertoire is classical. However, this is barely a disadvantage, as students can choose to be examined on non-classical repertoire from the Piano for Leisure syllabus as their extra list pieces.

The Pros and Cons of Taking Piano for Leisure

The greatest advantage to choosing the AMEB Piano for Leisure course over Pianoforte is that it involves less preparation and is therefore ideal for less serious music students – for instance, those who have many other extracurricular commitments and do not have the time to devote to the practice required when preparing for a Pianoforte exam. Piano for Leisure also includes a wider range of music genres, including film, popular, and jazz music.

The Le Piano Academy Approach

Many piano teachers only teach for exams. But that means that a student will only be learning three pieces a year. If you’re only going to learn three pieces a year, you really shouldn’t be playing the piano.

At Le Piano Academy, my number one priority is to ensure that my students receive a thorough musical education. Learning to play the piano isn’t all about taking exams – or at least, it shouldn’t be. I don’t force my students to take exams, and I leave the choice of which AMEB syllabus they take up to them.

Every year, my students and I plan out what they will learn at the beginning of the year. We allocate pieces not only for exams, but also for their recital. The recital is just as important (maybe more) as exams, as it gives students the chance to play in front of others, including their parents, grandparents, and family.

Thorough Piano Education

For students who are planning on taking exams, I like to ensure that they still study a varied and thorough curriculum.

For Pianoforte students, I always pick popular or jazz music pieces for them to learn from the Piano for Leisure syllabus as well, because no one wants to play only classical music all the time! If they wish, my students can use these pieces as extra lists.

When my students choose Piano for Leisure, I still make sure they do the Pianoforte scale syllabus, as more scales mean better technique, and better technique will mean that they play the Piano for Leisure pieces more easily. I also still teach them both aural and sight-reading skills, because while they may only be tested on one, both are very important.

The Bottom Line

So there you have it – AMEB Pianoforte vs. Piano for Leisure.

While the AMEB might argue that Piano for Leisure isn’t a “lesser alternative”, it’s quite clear that it involves a lot less work and preparation than Pianoforte. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Instead, your choice of AMEB curriculum should be based on your personal circumstances, preferences, and musical goals.

Your Say

Have you taken AMEB exams? Which did you sit, and what did you like/dislike about it? Let me know in the comments below!

For any piano teachers reading this, which syllabus do you teach? Do you still teach your students aural and sight-reading skills, and extra scales, when you teach the Piano for Leisure course? Share your approach in the comments below.

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