What are Piano Exams?

If you or your children are learning to play the piano, it’s likely that someone will ask at some stage, “What grade are you in?”

This is particularly common in countries such as Australia and Singapore where a lot of of emphasis is placed on exams when it comes to learning the piano.

However, let me say upfront that you don’t have to do exams. You can learn to play the piano very well without ever doing one.

Mastering skill without examsIt’s like learning to play tennis. You don’t have to compete in a tournament to develop a killer forehand. Similarly, you can be a great cook without putting yourself forward to be judged on MasterChef. Exams are a way to externally evaluate your skills but they’re not a must for every learning journey. In fact, piano exams can often be detrimental to a student’s enjoyment of piano to the extent that they give up playing altogether.

Having said that, piano exams are popular for a reason and can be a great motivator for students who are goal-focused. It’s also a great feeling when you see your efforts rewarded by a great exam score and certificate.

There’s a whole host of opinions one way or the other about exams which I’ll save for a later post. But for now, if you’re new to piano, you might simply be wondering what piano exams are like and how they work in general. This overview will give you some background information which can help you have a conversation with your piano teacher about whether you would like to explore the exam path.

Examination Boards

There isn’t one single global governing body for piano and there are multiple boards that you could potentially take exams with depending on where you’re located. Each exam board has its own syllabus and there are differences in the breadth and depth of material that is examined. If you live in the UK, Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong, you’re likely to have at least a couple of options for piano exams and it’s worth looking into the differences before you decide which one to go with.

Some of the more well known boards include:

The two most popular exam boards for students in Singapore are ABRSM and Trinity.

Both boards originate from the UK and their examiners are trained to assess students against a universal marking criteria. The qualifications received from both exam boards are internationally recognised.

Types of Piano Exams

Piano exams are usually split into two categories:

  1. Practical – performance-based exams where you play in front of an examiner;
  2. Theory – written or online exams that test your knowledge of learned musical concepts.

Most of the time, students will start with practical exams and do theory later on, especially if they’re starting at a young age.

Some students choose to not take theory exams at all but this can be problematic for progression later on, depending on the exam board. For example, with AMEB and ABRSM, you have to pass Grade 5 theory before you can take a Grade 6 practical exam. The idea behind this is that in order to properly interpret and perform more challenging repertoire, you need to know how to analyse a piece of music and understand the music theory that underlies the piece.

Piano Grades

Typically piano exams start at Grade 1 and progress through to Grade 8 (some up to 10). Some boards also have a preliminary or preparatory stage which you can take before Grade 1.

Piano Grades

You can choose which grade you want to start at and you don’t have to do every single grade. For example, a student who has been learning piano for four years might take a Grade 2 exam as his or her first exam, and in a few years’ time decide to take a Grade 5 exam without doing 3 and 4 in between.

Some exam boards offer diplomas in music, teaching or performance in addition to the graded exams.

What is in a Practical Exam?

Although each exam board has its own syllabus, there are general similarities when it comes to what is fundamentally being assessed in a practical piano exam. The core components include:

  1. Performance – playing 3 to 6 pieces of prepared music (chosen from a specified list of songs)
  2. Technical skills – playing scales, arpeggios, broken chords and/or technical exercises that focus on particular techniques
  3. Sight Reading – ability to look at a previously unseen piece of music and play it in a musical manner
  4. Aural skills – general aural perception and discrimination, ability to recognise rhythms and memorise short phrases
  5. Musical knowledge of the prepared pieces and/or new pieces of music

Not all exam boards assess the above components in each grade and some may also include other elements such as improvisation.

Want to do a Piano Exam?

Check Dates for Exams

If you’re keen to do a piano exam after reading the above, here are some next steps to consider:

  • Speak to your piano teacher and see if they think exams would be good for you
  • Choose an exam board (with the help of your teacher) that would be most suitable to assess your skills
  • Read through the syllabus for your grade – if there’s anything in there that really worries you, chat with your teacher about it before you commit to the exam
  • Check the dates for registration and the dates for exams carefully. A lot of the time, the exam period spans several weeks and you have to be available for the whole duration as your exam date doesn’t get confirmed upfront. You don’t get your money back if you’ve registered and then can’t make it because you’re on holidays overseas!

Are you anxious or excited to do an exam? Let me know in the comments below!

Posted by Piano with Po

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