Whether you are an independent learner or have a piano teacher, you’ve probably heard of music exams. And maybe you’ve always thought exams are for kids rather than adult learners.
But exams offered through organizations such as the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) are designed for piano learners of all ages. They provide an opportunity to improve your technical skills and overall practical musicianship. And they offer performance opportunities in person or from the comfort of your own home.
Although I was aware of piano exams through several organizations, including the ABRSM piano exams and those through Trinity College London, I had never participated in one until recently. But last week, I took my first piano exam and found the experience oddly motivating.
Keep reading to learn more about ABRSM piano exams and my experience preparing for ABRSM’s grade 5 online exam. And who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to film your own exam video!
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What is the ABRSM?
The ABRSM started in 1889 as a joint collaboration between the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. They aimed to create an examination board to inspire people to hone their musical skills.
And they did this by creating a series of performance grades guiding the musical development of a musician on their journey from beginner to advanced musician.
Today, the organization administers 650,000 exam sessions annually. Musicians can participate in practical exams, theory exams, or even online exams to gauge one’s performance skills.
There’s also a section on jazz if classical isn’t your passion. And singers even have the option of musical theater.
Why should you take an exam?
Learning a musical instrument is a journey. And there’s so much to know! Whether you’ve been playing for 3 months or 30 years, there’s always something you can improve upon.
Exams give you a structured learning plan. Through their gradual introduction to more complex material, they give you a pathway to musical success.
And they fill in the gaps where your musical knowledge may be lacking.
For example, the practical piano exams offered by ABRSM include grade-appropriate sight reading and aural tests in addition to piano pieces learned ahead of time.
Sight-reading and ear training are valuable skills for all musicians because they improve your accuracy and overall comfort with the instrument.
I regret not taking full advantage of learning music theory earlier in my life.
Although I took music theory in college, I didn’t realize the value of this knowledge at the time. I didn’t retain the information in a helpful way that benefitted me long-term. But now realize that I can augment my weak areas by following syllabi set out by organizations such as the ABRSM.
And if you want to be a well-rounded musician but music school is not practical right now, practical grades are the perfect way to improve your musical knowledge and skills.
Whether you’re enrolled in regular piano lessons or are learning the instrument independently, having goals is crucial. Without goals, things can feel aimless and haphazard.
And even though I love to sit down and play piano, that passion isn’t always enough to get me to practice daily. My practice self-sabotage usually presents in the form of procrastination and, sometimes, self-doubt. This is especially true when life gets busy.
But having definite goals on your calendar, such as several exam dates, can motivate you to sit down and practice. Your exam preparations suddenly take on a sense of urgency when preparing for something more significant than mock exams.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut of repeatedly playing the same composer and types of pieces.
But taking an exam forces you to play outside your usual box of repertoire. Each piano syllabus contains a list of selections from which you generally must select 3. A 4th piece is one of your choosing and doesn’t have to come from the list.
Some pieces on ABRSM piano exams are part of the standard piano repertoire, but others are more contemporary pieces that you may have never heard of before. Playing through examination pieces is a fantastic way to broaden your musical horizons!
After graduating from high school and college, the opportunity to get involved in musical groups and performances shrinks. It suddenly becomes much harder to find chances to perform for others.
Although not everyone relishes the opportunity to play in front of others, performance is a massive part of being a musician. And there’s something intensely satisfying about putting in all that hard work behind the scenes and being able to share it with others.
But exams allow you to perform in front of an audience.
And you can choose to participate in person or partake in digital exams. If you have any hesitancy about performing in front of other people, going for a digital performance grade is a fantastic option because if you don’t like your performance, you can simply re-record it. It’s a performance situation without all the pressures of a live performance.
Are there different ABRSM piano exams?
ABRSM offers several paths to participation in exams. Most exam routes have an initial grade level followed by 8 additional levels, referred to as “grades.” The organization sets an updated syllabus approximately every 2 years, listing the different pieces students can select from at each level.
One of the best aspects of ABRSM, as opposed to other exam options, is that they offer performance grade exams that allow you to record and send your performance for evaluation.
There are no prerequisites for initial through grade 5; you don’t have to start at the first level and work towards higher grades.
Grades 6-8, however, do have a prerequisite. You must have passed grade 5 in music theory, practical musicianship, or solo jazz before you can participate in the higher grades.
As I was completely new to the exam process, I chose performance grade 5 because there were no required prerequisites. I love the flexibility of being able to record and submit ABRSM exam pieces at any time rather than needing to wait for an in-person date.
This grade level also offered several fun pieces I had never heard of before, which made preparing for the exam a fun experience!
The practical exams emphasize overall musicianship in combination with performance skills. This route offers the same opportunity to prepare individual pieces for performance. It also includes various sight reading, improvisation, and memory exercises.
At this time, all practical musicianship exams are held in person. And if you take the grade 5 practical musicianship exam, you can proceed with grades 6-8 for either performance or practical musicianship.
Scoring is similar to performance and practical musicianship. Each piece is given up to 30 points, with an additional 30 points for the performance. In total, the score is marked out of 150.
You can also opt to pursue music theory exams.
ABRSM offers 8 levels of music theory, and levels 1-5 may be taken as an online music theory exam. If you choose to do grade 5 music theory and pass, you are eligible for levels 6-8 for either the performance or practical musicianship exams. Grades 6-8 theory exams must be done on paper.
ABRSM also offers ARSM exams for anyone seeking additional performance experience and feedback beyond grade 8. You must have completed grade 8 to qualify for a diploma exam.
The exam includes at least 20 minutes of prepared music from the syllabus and up to 10 minutes of additional music selected by the candidate. And the exam can be done in person or as a digitally recorded exam.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you take ABRSM exams on any instrument?
Most instruments, including brass, woodwind, percussion, and strings, have their own exam syllabus. You can also take an exam if you play the organ or sing.
Do you have to pay to take ABRSM piano exams?
Yes. There are different fees depending upon the instrument, grade, and exam. Consult the ABRSM website for the latest information on exam fees.
What is the benefit of taking ABRSM piano exams?
Exams give you structured goals to work toward. They also guide your development as a musician, whether or not you’re working with a music teacher. ABRSM offers various supplemental materials, including app recommendations and other online resources, to help you gain the skills you need for success.
Are there similar exams offered by other organizations?
Royal College of Music and Trinity College London offer similar opportunities to enhance your learning through structured exams. Stay tuned to Only Getting Better for additional information and reviews of other exams.
Final Thoughts on ABRSM Piano Exams
Taking a piano exam has been on my goal list for several years now, and I’m ecstatic to have finally checked it off! As I’m not currently working with a teacher, I chose to take an exam at a lower level. And I elected not to memorize my pieces because I wanted to take the exam as quickly as possible.
From start to finish, it took me around a month to prepare the pieces to the level where I felt they were ready for evaluation. I had been playing the fourth piece I chose off and on for a couple of months, so this one was, more or less, ready when I decided to submit it for evaluation.
As I’m not studying regularly with a piano teacher, I rely heavily on Dr. Josh Wright’s ProPractice course. In fact, my last piece is a piece he goes through measure-by-measure in the course, and I feel that I gained so much from his guidance and interpretation of the piece. I love this piece and enjoy its technical and interpretation challenges.
Although I’m still waiting on the results from the exam, I’m already weighing out different options for my next exam. I am considering taking the grade 5 music theory exam in preparation for moving on to a grade 6 practical musicianship exam.
I’m also considering taking either an RCM or Trinity College exam to make a comparison between the different organizations. Regardless of what I decide, I will keep you posted! Stay tuned because there’s definitely more to come!
Please take a few minutes to leave a comment below about your experience with exams. Have you ever taken one? What was your experience like? And would you recommend taking an exam?
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