Most people who learned a musical instrument while growing up in Ireland will have vivid memories of exams and musical grades. Exams provide an assessment by musical experts, an objective guide to students progresses. They provide a goal to aim towards. For a lot of people, this can be their first time playing for anyone outside of family, friends and their piano teacher(mine was!). They can be a good motivator for those who need it and provide a sense of achievement on passing.
Grades provide a systematic progression through the levels, with progress marked out very carefully. There are at least four exam boards available to Irish students – RIAM, ABRSM, LCM, and Trinity. They generally offer 8 main graded levels of piano exams and usually a range of pre-grade 1 options.
At the pre-grade 1 level a lot of students take their first exam at the end of their second year of lessons, and traditionally this would continue at a grade a year, although every student is different. This can always be spaced out more either with or without exams (I often let them go without for a while). RIAM offer 3 levels before grade 1(elementary, preliminary, primary) and ABRSM have a prep test which is umarked, allows an own choice piece, and gives a ‘soft’ introduction to what an exam can be like. Students at this stage are usually still using tutor books and may have played some very easy Jazz or Classical styled pieces. Christopher Nortons Stairway is a popular piece at this level.
For a graded piano exam, students are required to learn 3 contrasting pieces of music to a high standard with these often worth around 60% of the total marks of the exam combined. Scales are introduced in systematic progression throughout the graded levels.
Sightreading and aural skills are also tested, although some exam boards vary options here too. Sightreading involves playing a previously unseen short excerpt of music, a few levels easier than the exam pieces. Aural tests can include things like clapping a musical pulse, clapping back the rhythm of a short melody, singing back a short melody, singing at sight, answering questions on an excerpt of music.
Some exams boards offer a choice over which supporting tests (sight reading, aural, etc.) students can do in their exam.
Musical Grades in the UK and Ireland finish at Grade 8. This is a significant level to achieve, implying an advanced standard of development and having a lot of standard repertoire within reach of this level. Sonata movements by Beethoven, Mozart, etc. are typical at Grade 8. Pieces such as Grieg Nocturne Op. 54 no 4 and Debussy’s Clair De Lune are also playable at this standard.
There is usually a bit of choice over what time of year to put a student forward for an exam. At the moment, most of my students take theirs in the Summer term, with a few doing theirs in the Winter. It can be a little difficult for some students to have the focus build up all year to one short exam(especially the nervy type!). Sometimes so much focus can go into learning three difficult pieces that it can be hard for people to pick up a new piece, or play outside of their exam repertoire for fun. To avoid this, I make a point of trying to keep it all in balance from the earliest stages onwards, but that’s a post for another day!