Initial Grade Piano exams

1 year ago
Sally Cathcart

Sally Cathcart

Sally is co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers. She has many years of teaching experience both as a piano teacher and as a classroom music teacher.

Teaching beginner pianists is, for many teachers, some of the most rewarding work they do. The joy that young children bring to early lessons, as they experience the magic of the instrument for the first time is infectious!

Building a solid musical foundation takes time though and teaching beginners is frequently slow work with children's eagerness and ability to play outpacing their skills in deciphering and reading notation. Becoming a Grade 1 level pianist is a big step for most; without careful structuring and repertoire choices, motivation can often dip. It takes time and well-prepared, steady work by both the teacher, pupil and parent to ensure that there are no shortcuts taken in the journey to reach Grade 1 piano.

So the new Initial Grade introduced by ABRSM is a welcome addition that should help to bridge this gap. It will sit alongside the well-established and much loved Prep Test which continues to provide a more informal start to instrumental exams.

An Initial Grade exam follows the well-established format of Grades 1 to 8 with technical work in the shape of scales and chords, three contrasting pieces, sight-reading and aural. The repertoire that makes up this first Initial Grade have been chosen carefully for their musical qualities and appeal. Rhythms are straightforward, moving and changing hand position is limited on the whole, while the pieces that do move around the keyboard more frequently are highly patterned.

With a choice of ten pieces for each list, there is something to suit everyone. List A repertoire requires a more technically based approach, with performers needing secure technique. Whether it's a dance by Praetorius or the well known This Old Man, reliable arm, hand finger coordination will be required. The List B choices highlight the more expressive, lyrical and storytelling aspects of playing; The Lost Bone by Yvonne Adair, for example, will capture the imagination of many youngsters. The final set of pieces found in List C focusses on character; Let's get on those Dodgems by Alan Bullard or sing-a-long to I just can't wait to be King from the Lion King.

As teachers, we have all experienced exam room situations. We know that going into the exam room for the first time can be quite a daunting experience, no matter what your age! How lovely therefore that an Initial Grade candidate can include one duet in their programme providing the option of walking in accompanied by a familiar adult. Although this might be challenging at the moment, given the COVID 19 situation, when in-person exams resume this will undoubtedly prove a popular choice. There are some real gems to be found amongst the duet repertoire. Christopher Norton's Enchanted Castle provides a magical atmosphere, while The Grand Waltz by Jane Sebba is a real showstopper!

Now there is an Initial Grade does this mean you should automatically enter every student? Not necessarily; like any exam, it is an option that should be used wisely and carefully as part of an overall teaching curriculum. What it does offer everyone, however, is a fresh look at teaching material and repertoire pre-Grade 1.

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