If you are an absolute beginner pianist and are planning to use the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) grading system, you will probably start at the initial grade that comes before grade 1. The initial grade requirements provide a solid foundation for a student to begin learning piano. You may wonder how long it will take you to get past this initial grade before starting on the full piano grades. In this article, we will go over the content requirements for the initial grade and how long it should take to complete it and start ABRSM practical piano grade 1.
ABRSM Initial Grade Requirements
Each ABRSM grade exam requires preparing three pieces, scales and arpeggios, and taking sight-reading and aural tests. The syllabus includes guidance on what is expected for each component of the exam. The pieces should be chosen from a selected list of skill-level appropriate pieces provided by the ABRSM syllabus. The scale and arpeggio requirements are also specified in the initial grade syllabus.
Initial Grade Pieces
The repertoire list is split up into 3 sub-lists. Pieces in list A are generally faster and technically challenging, while pieces in list B are generally more lyrical and expressive. List C contains pieces from a variety of styles and musical traditions, offering students the opportunity to diversify their repertoire.
Here is an excerpt from a piece from list A, called ‘Little Playmates’ by Chwatal.
It contains eighth-notes which may require an element of speed and agility. There are also chords in the left hand, so the student will have to demonstrate basic finger independence and playing multiple notes at once. But the overall score is still very simple and appropriate for complete beginners.
Here is an excerpt from a piece from list B, titled ‘A Waltz that’s a Little Melancholy’ by Schonthal.
This pieces moves at a slower tempo and has more quarter and half notes. It is a waltz which gives the student an opportunity to play expressively and make the most of the contrasting articulation while still keeping the notation very simple.
The pieces in list C cover a wide range of piano genres, including pieces like an arrangement of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ from The Lion King and ‘Piano Junior Blues.’
While there is variation in difficulty within the pieces on each list, they are all quite accessible for beginner pianists. Each piece could take roughly a month or so for a young beginner to learn, while an older student may pick up on these simple pieces more quickly. Just remember when selecting pieces to study that you find pieces that you enjoy and will be motivated to practice.
Scales and Arpeggios
The scale and arpeggio requirements for the initial grade are very minimal but give students an incentive to practice technique and agility. Students should be able to play one-octave C major and D minor scales which each hand separately, as well as a short C major scale over a 5-note range, starting on C.
Here is the notation for the contrary motion scale.
For arpeggios, students only need to play a C major and D minor broken triad arpeggio, in this pattern.
These should be fairly simple for even a very young or beginning pianist to learn.
For the sight-reading and aural tests, students shouldn’t be too concerned about the difficulty. The aural test will require the student to do things like clap to the beat of a piece of music as the examiner plays, repeating after a specific rhythm by clapping, sing a short musical phrase back after hearing it, and answering a question about a section of music after hearing it.
Here is an example of what a student may be asked to sight-read.
They will need to be able to identify the notes as well as rhythm and may need to observe any necessary articulation or dynamics. It is also important to keep in mind that while these passages should be played evenly, they do not necessarily need to be played quickly, so don’t worry too much about speed during sight-reading.
Time to Pass Initial Grade
The ABRSM practical piano grade syllabus has rough time estimates for how long it might take a student to pass each grade. These are given in guided learning hours, or hours spent with a teacher, and total qualification time, which is total preparation time. For the initial grade, it is estimated that a student will need approximately 8 guided learning hours and 40 total hours to prepare for the exam.
8 hours of the 40 total hours will be about 16 lessons if you take half-hour lessons. This leaves an estimated 32 practice hours. If you spread them across 16 weeks, this would be 2 hours of practicing a week, or roughly 30-40 minutes a day, depending if you practice on weekends. Therefore, by the board’s estimate, it is possible for a student to pass the initial grade in 4-5 months with consistent lessons and practice.
However, the syllabus qualifies that “…estimates of the average amount of time that it might take a candidate to prepare for these qualifications, and should be used as guidance only.” It goes on to recognize that everyone’s experience and ability is different. This is important to keep in mind when considering this estimate. There are a variety of factors which may impact the speed at which a student may move through the initial piano grade. Age will play a large part in a students’ ability to move quickly through material. It may take a young student who is 6-7 years old up to 1-2 years to complete the initial grade and be at an appropriate skill level to start grade 1. Children this young often have difficulty consistently practicing for as long as 30-40 minutes at a time and will take longer to understand the basics of music. However, it may take a teenager or adult only a few months to grasp the concepts and material in the initial grade. Motivation is also an important factor, as it affects how productive a student will be during practice time and whether or not a student will consistently practice.
Every person will have a different experience with the ABRSM grades. The initial grade is intended for young students and for older students who have little to no experience at the piano. If you have minimal experience and are thinking about starting at Grade 1, it may be worth looking at a few initial grade pieces to brush up on your technique and reading skills.
While you may use the time estimates as a guide, it is important to remember that your individual skill and ability may develop more quickly or slowly depending on your previous skill level, age, and motivation to learn. However, arguably the most important factor in how quickly you progress will be how consistently you practice and how engaged you are during practice sessions. Setting specific goals as you practice the material will help you stay focused. If you practice consistently every day and are fully focused on your practice goals, you will certainly progress more quickly than if you don’t.