When it comes to the world of graded piano examinations, the first grade can seem a little intimidating to new players. Whether it is yourself or your child learning however, we have a few quick and simple tips to help enhance your learning and put you on the right path to passing with distinction!
As with any examination, it’s always best to know how the exam is broken down. Currently, the Grade 1 ABRSM piano exam generally lasts around 12-15 minutes and is broken down into three sections.
- Scales and arpeggios – the candidate plays a selection of scales, arpeggios and broken chords from the syllabus, as requested by the examiner.
- Sight-reading – the candidate plays a piece of music they’ve never seen before.
- Aural tests – the candidate listens to the examiner play a passage of music on the piano and then answers questions about it.
1) Practice Makes Perfect!
It may seem obvious, but the first step and best way to pass any examination is to understand what you’re expected to do and practice, practice, practice! If you are learning with a tutor (which we’d highly recommend) then they will be helping you every step of the way and able to guide you through all of the key concepts in the exam.
Not only that, but with plenty of home practice too, they will be able to help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your playing, for example if you struggle with broken chords, they will be able to help offer advice on correcting your technique. Likewise for sight reading, they will have a plethora of sheet music available for you to try your skills. If you are learning with a child and they perhaps find it difficult to focus whilst practising, explore our guide to keeping piano practice fun and entertaining here.
In the Grade 1 examination, candidates need to know how to play scales in C, G, D and F majors as well as A and D minors. They can play each hand separately but need to play two octaves of each scale. Broken or diminished chords cover all the same keys except D major.
For particularly young learners, Grade 1 chords are adapted for smaller hand spans. Ask your piano tutor or look online for the required pattern.
The Aural part of the test is normally a point of nervousness for a lot of players, however it’s important to remember that this is not a singing exam! In the aural test, the examiner will play a short passage of music. Candidates will be asked to: Clap in time to the music and identify whether it is in two time or three time. "Echo" a phrase that has been played by singing it back to the examiner. Identify a change in pitch, a place where the music moves higher or lower. Answer questions about the dynamics (loud or quiet) or the articulation (smooth or detached) of the piece played.
Again though, this is NOT a singing exam and so there is no need to worry about vocal quality, the examiner is only interested in seeing you can identify pitch and so you can potentially hum or whistle or sing at a different octave if needed!
Many first time piano grade students may find this a little intimidating, if this is the case, read our guide to overcoming the fear of playing (or singing!) in front of others here.
2) Positive Encouragement Is Key!
One point to note here on practice however is not to ‘over-practice’, particularly on the day of your exam, we’ve seen it a few times where students have gone over and over and over their pieces on the day and made a few mistakes, which has taken a hit on their confidence. Practice once or twice until you are confident that you know the piece, then take a rest and try to take your mind off of the exam.
Little and often is a good approach to piano practise, especially when your child is at Grade 1 level. Encourage your child to play for 10 to 15 minutes every day. We’d also encourage you to find and listen to your piano pieces online. Listening to them can give you a better understanding of how a piece is meant to sound.
Everyone struggles with motivation from time to time. Rewards and incentives can help. Extra time on the iPad, a trip to their favourite place or just a fun sticker could encourage your child to keep practising.
3) You've Got This!
Here’s something we often remind people who are nervous about exams...remember why you are there! For the most part, chances are that someone has recommended you do this exam because they believe that you are fully capable of taking this grade.
There’s a reason why your teacher feels you are ready to take this exam. They believe that you are talented at playing piano and they believe you can succeed. The only person left to believe this is yourself.
Confidence in examinations is definitely not something that comes naturally to many people and it’s easy to talk yourself out of an exam. However for the most part, even just a few subtle language notes can make the world of difference. Instead of thinking things like: ‘What if…’ or ‘I can’t’, try using more positive phrases such as “I will do well” or “I am going to pass” or “I’ve remembered it all”. You’ll be amazed at what happens when you say positive things about yourself.
This is one reason why we love encouraging new learners to start a piano diary, as this is a fantastic way to keep track of your progress!
4) The Examiners Are There To Pass You!
This is another point we love drilling home because it’s so true! The examiner is not your enemy here. They would love to see you pass just as much as you or your parents would!
It’s their job to be fair and to review your performance on a number of factors. But ultimately, they get joy and pleasure out of seeing students pass. So don't fall into the trap of thinking that they are there to point out your faults or flaws, they're on your side!
5) Get a good night sleep!
If you’re feeling nervous about the exam the night before, it’s good practice to try to get an early night and (for older learners especially) lay off the caffeine.
Likewise, on the morning of your exam, it's best to steer clear of coffee, energy drinks or anything that might give you the shakes. You'll already have those nerves, so adding extra shaking into the mix is definitely not a good idea!
If you are still finding practice difficult or uninspiring, don't be afraid to take some time away from the piano. We have written extensively about this in our guide to reigniting your piano passion, but sometimes a break a week or two before your exam can really reset the mind!
All in all, the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano exam is a great introduction to piano examinations and if taught correctly, can be a fun, rewarding experience for any new learner. It’s challenging but accessible for beginners and offers an introduction to a world of excelling your piano playing at a great rate. We hope this information will help you or your child to prepare for their Grade 1 Piano exam...Good luck!