If you are looking to use ABRSM to assess your skill level as a pianist, you may wonder how long it might take to reach the highest grade. ABRSM grade 8 is the highest you can go without including diploma levels, which are different and more advanced than grades. In order to take the grade 8 exam, you will need to have taken the grade 5 exam or above, so you definitely need a very strong foundation and knowledge of piano to play at this level. In this article, we will go over some of the material leading up to grade 8 and the potential time frame from beginner to starting ABRSM practical piano grade 8.
So, before discussing on how much time and practice it will take to reach ABRSM Grade 8, you should be well versed with any grade which is 5 or above.
So, first let’s talk briefly about Grade 7 Exam requirements before diving deep into the Final Grade which is Grade 8.
ABRSM Grade 7 Exam 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.
Grade 7 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. The list for each grade is tailored by experts to accurately reflect the difficulty of the grade. Pieces in higher grades are increasingly more technically challenging and emotionally demanding. It takes a great deal of practice and focus to reach these levels.
Here is an excerpt from a piece on the grade 7 list A, Mozart’s Gigue in G Major, K. 574.
This piece has a rather fast tempo and requires excellent control of articulation. It also has multiple voices which must be brought out according to the musicality of the piece. It also has some quick octaves in the left hand towards the end.
Here is an excerpt from a piece on grade 7 list B, Chopin’s Mazurka in A Major.
This piece must be played both expressively and effortlessly. It is full of trills and careful articulation and requires careful dynamic control.
At this level, pianists should now be very focused on providing a good interpretation of the piece and less focused on just playing the right notes with basic technique. It will be necessary to have the musical maturity to analyze and understand the music on another level, allowing you to fully express the piece as the composer intended.
Grade 7 Scales and Arpeggios
The technical requirements for grade 7 are substantial. Students are expected to be prepared to play similar motion scales in the keys of D-flat, E, G, and B-flat major and harmonic and melodic minor, legato and staccato, as well as scales a third apart. Two-octave contrary motion scales in these keys are also expected, legato and staccato. Legato and staccato scales in third are an introduction from grade 6, requiring another level of finger independence and dexterity. Contrary chromatic scales are also added from the previous grade. Legato arpeggios, dominant sevenths, and diminished sevenths for four octaves are the last components of the scales and arpeggios requirements.
All of these elements will require regular integration with normal practice sessions. If you are able to prepare all of these scales and arpeggios for the grade 7 exam, you will have the technical foundation to tackle the repertoire in grade 8.
Time to Reach Grade 8
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. So one way to figure out how much time it might take for someone starting from an absolute beginner level (initial grade) to reach grade 8 would be to add up all of the total qualification hours from all the grades initial through 8, which is a total of 1,130 hours. The total guided learning hours from initial through grade 8 is estimated to be 242.
If you multiply 242 by 2 for half-hour lessons, it comes to 484 lessons, which if taken weekly would spread out over 9 years and about 4 months. If you practiced for about two hours every week or 24 minutes a day, you would fulfill the rest of the TQT (942 hours) in that time frame. However, this is assuming you continue to take half-hour lessons all the way up to grade 8 which is unlikely, as students may begin taking hour-long lessons when they are more advanced at their teacher’s discretion. In addition, this is a blanket average of the total time for all the grades which assumes that a student will practice the same amount of time regardless of skill, which is unrealistic. This is just a quick calculation that may be considered on the higher end of how long it might take a student to go from an absolute beginner to grade 8 with minimal but consistent practice.
If we were to calculate another estimate accounting for these factors, we could assume for grades 6-7 that lessons are an hour long and weekly, and total GLH would be 84 hours. With an average of 5.8-6 hours of practice a week or a little over an hour of practicing a day for 84 weeks, plus 104 instructional hours (208 weekly lessons) for the lower grades, a student could potentially get to grade 8 in about five and a half years.
Now, it may seem like there is a big difference between those estimates. And there is, almost four years. This is because progress can be made much faster, in the later grades especially, when daily practice time is increased. It may not seem that big of a difference on a daily basis, but the minutes and hours add up. Even though this is a very subjective estimate based on the ABRSM estimates for each grade, this breakdown should show you that you can certainly reach grade 8 if you are willing to put in the time and effort.
If someone had some prior piano experience and was very motivated, it might be possible to reach grade 8 in as little as three or four years, but this would be a very accelerated pace.
While time is possibly the most important factor when determining how fast you can progress through piano, there are several other factors that may affect your progress. In the syllabus, ABRSM qualifies that the numbers given are “…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 the time it might take to progress through grades.
Some factors besides time that can affect your progress speed are:
Obviously, very young children will take longer than older children to learn the basics of piano because they are still learning things like dexterity and pattern recognition in the world. However, it can also sometimes take adults longer to progress if they have no prior musical experience because they don’t create new brain connections as easily as children. If a child starts very young, they will take longer to learn the basics but will have an advantage sooner than someone else who starts later. However, how age influences a person’s ability to learn is very subjective. Ultimately, you should never let age discourage you from starting. Now is always better than later (unless maybe if you are an infant).
Prior musical experience
If you have played an instrument before, you will have an advantage when learning to play piano, since you likely already have some skills regarding finger independence and note-reading. If you have prior piano experience, you will obviously have a shorter path to grade 8, but it depends on your true current skill level and technique.
This one may be obvious, but if you aren’t motivated, it will be very difficult for you to practice as often as necessary to move forward quickly. If you can find a reason to stay motivated and keep practicing even when you don’t feel like it, you will have a much better chance of succeeding at moving through all the piano grades.
This is very important. Even if you don’t practice for the same amount of time every day, consistent practice means that you at least sit down and begin the process of practicing regularly. There’s a much higher chance of you practicing for a longer time period if you at least start than if you don’t start at all.
This is how focused you are in your practice sessions. There is no replacement for hard work over time, but there is certainly a difference between good practice and bad practice. If you aren’t ‘paying attention’ to what you are practicing, you can easily go an entire practice session without making much progress because you let mistakes slip by and don’t use good technique. You can make the most of your practice time by always being sure to engage with the material you are working on and being aware of exactly what your hands are doing. This way you can work smarter, faster.
Playing at the grade 8 level is a substantial accomplishment for any pianist. But it won’t happen overnight. It will take concentrated effort over a long period of time to develop the technique and dexterity to play at this level. Like any goal, it will be much easier if you break it down into smaller goals and have a plan to reach each one. This is why calculating the necessary practice hours may be helpful for determining how long it may take to pass each grade, or even each piece. However, remember that it is only a rough estimate, and your individual progression may look very different. Try to pick pieces that you really enjoy for each grade and that will keep you motivated to practice. This will greatly increase your chances of persevering and making it all the way to grade 8.