Is There Any Point in Taking Piano Grades? Explained

If you take formal piano lessons, your teacher may suggest or require you to prepare for piano-graded exams. Or maybe you have a less formal approach to learning, and you are interested in how you can more officially assess your abilities. If you are wondering what the point of taking a graded piano exam would be, it largely depends on your personal goals as a pianist and your motivation for doing so. This article will take a look at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)grades for piano and how helpful they are for piano students.

What Are the Different ABRSM Piano Levels?

There are eight ABRSM practical grades for piano. In order to pass each grade’s exam, students are required to present three pieces from a set repertoire list, scales and arpeggios specific to each grade, and complete sight-reading and aural tests. The first five grades can be entered by students of any age and do not require previous grades to take the exam for a higher grade. Grades 6, 7, and 8 require a prerequisite of having completed ABRSM grade 5 or equivalent. Each grade qualification is designed to ensure that students have a well-rounded skill set encompassing technique, reading, listening, and musicality.

Do You Need to Use Piano Grades?

The short answer to whether or not you absolutely need to grade your piano abilities is no. However, there are several benefits to preparing for and taking a graded music exam.

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It gives you a specific, actionable goal

Sometimes the process of learning and moving on from pieces can stagnate progress if there is no clear objective a student is working towards. Having the incentive of an official exam can help narrow your focus and have a solid purpose for the pieces you are learning.

It allows you to clearly see your piano progress

While you may see this in part through the progressive levels of a certain piano method, using an official accredited grading system allows you to assess your abilities in a way that is easily recognizable by other people familiar with the widely known ABRSM grades and have your progress objectively graded.

Make Your Piano Fundamentals Strong

You can feel confident in knowing that you are learning all the musical fundamentals of piano. With a grade system that has been put together by music professionals and teachers who are at the top of their craft, you don’t have to worry about whether or not you know ‘enough’ to be at a certain level. All of the grades suggest repertoire and technique standards that will demand a certain level of skill and certain musical foundations to perform, so you can rest assured that your music education bases are covered.

Exams give you experience performing under pressure

Performing for uncritiqued recitals can be enough pressure to make anyone nervous but performing for judges requires another level of preparation. While it may not exactly sound like a positive aspect, performing for critique by judges can be a great learning experience. It can also help build your self-esteem as a musician to know that you can complete graded music exams.

Some schools and colleges offer credit for ABRSM grades

Some schools or colleges may recognize higher grades and award credit for them (highly dependent on individual school policies).

For these reasons, teachers often have students study and prepare for these exams. Grades can be a great component of a student’s learning regimen and an asset to their musical experience.

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However, it is important to note that piano grades, like any system, are standardized and may not be right for every pianist. Preparing for exams when a student has no choice in the matter can become an arduous task if the student doesn’t feel motivated by the exam goal. Some people may do better with the pressure of the exam than others. If a student dreads the exam to the point of indifference or worse dislike toward the piano, it may not be the best approach to learning for that student. They may get burned out and lose interest in piano altogether.

An alternative to taking the exams is to study the repertoire and technical requirements without taking the exams. While this won’t give you the satisfaction of officially grading your abilities, it will provide you with the comprehensive musical exposure and learning associated with grades.

Can You Skip Piano Grades? Does It Really Matter?

You can take an exam for any grade you wish, although it would obviously be a good idea to realistically assess your skill level beforehand and prepare for an appropriate grade. If you struggle with simple pieces, you may not want to try to prepare a more complicated piece for a more advanced grade. But if you take the exam for grade 3, for example, and find that you progress quickly through material for grade 4, you may want to consider preparing for the grade 5 exam.

As mentioned before, grade 5 or equivalent is required to take the exams for higher grades, so you can’t skip grade 5 if you want to take the exam for a higher grade. You could potentially skip grades after you have passed grade 5 though, such as skipping from grade 5 to grade 7. Just be aware of what the concepts and techniques of each grade are when skipping grades. Even if you don’t fully study and take the exam for a grade, it is beneficial to be familiar with some of the repertoire and requirements for a skipped grade so that you don’t have gaps in your knowledge.

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What is the Hardest Grade in Piano?

Grade 8 is the highest and most difficult grade for piano. The repertoire list for this grade includes several challenging pieces by composers such as Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy. Scale and arpeggio requirements include a variety of major, minor, chromatic, and whole-tone scales, as well as various arpeggios, often in keys with several accidentals. Students must be technically and musically proficient to play the music at this difficulty level.

Final Thoughts

The ABRSM piano grades are a great way for pianists to officially assess their playing abilities and have clear goals for their piano progress. However, it is ultimately up to you (and often your teacher) to decide whether it is the best way to achieve your personal goals. If you want to be able to play a variety of classical, jazz, and contemporary piano music while developing your technique and you do well with recitals, taking graded piano exams may be a good option for you. However, if you don’t want to deal with the stress of a graded exam and would rather just be able to play any piece you want at your own pace, it may not be a good option for you. In the end, you want to be able to find a sustainable learning method that you will be able to adhere to for as long as possible while enjoying it. There is little reason to continue down a path if you are not enjoying it to some extent, especially with music. Therefore, you must determine whether using a grade system will be helpful in the long run for you on your piano journey.

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