In today’s video, we’re going to discuss grade 1 piano in the RCM, which means Royal Conservatory of Music. There are two major systems of grading, exams and levels in the piano world, one being RCM and the other being ABRSM.
So we’re going to talk about the different exam categories of grade 1 piano: song categories, the technique that’s required, as well as ear and sight tests. Linked below is a copy of the online syllabus which is free to use and has all this but in more detail.
Grade 1 piano: overview
So first, an overview of grade 1. Grade 1 piano does not mean beginner – there is still what I like to call musical kindergarten, which, depending on your age and commitment, lasts anywhere between 6 months and 3 years (more on the six month end as an adult, closer to the three year end as a child).
Grade 1 also doesn’t mean playing Bach inventions or Clementi sonatinas – far from it. Both are standard repertoire for higher grades – sonatinas don’t begin until grade 3, and the Bach inventions at grade 7, but many students rush into them, very excited to devour the best of piano literature. I understand. There are a lot of great pieces at higher levels. But you gotta walk before you can run.
Grade 1 is all about developing hand independence, as well as musical sensitivity – conveying a scene or an emotion through music.
There are four categories – technically five – for your pieces. The first category is List A, which at a grade 1 level is anything written between mid-1600s to the 1800s. These pieces have titles like “Bourree” or “Minuet” and are little miniatures that are essential to master before getting into Bach preludes, inventions, sinfonias, and beyond.
These pieces, to me, are the most difficult – they require precision of playing, and both hands are usually doing completely different things, which builds hand independence.
To make playing these pieces more enjoyable, I suggest research into the dance form – what is a minuet? What is a bourree? Once you understand the dance, they style, when it was played and for whom, the title has more meaning, which makes it more fun. Also do some research into the composer, or the collection the piece is from – go beyond just playing the notes written on the page.
List B is the next category, and for grade 1 piano it basically means “modern-ish”. These pieces were composed in the 20th century, and have image-evoking titles like “Dream Journey”. This category is meant to develop your expressiveness – you wouldn’t play a piece with the title “Dream Journey” at a clunky forte, would you?
Many of these pieces are littered with expression markings like crescendos, diminuendos, accents, staccatos, and so on – and there lies the challenge. Again, it’s more than just playing the notes on the page – you’ve got to tell a story.
These pieces are in preparation for pieces by guys like Chopin – the really expressive romantic repertoire that starts coming around in grade 6 or so. Yeah, that’s a long way away, but if you can’t master the imagery of a song called “Clear Lake”, then how are you supposed to master all the subtlety of feeling in a Chopin Nocturne?
Then we hit List C pieces. These are inventions – an invention just means a piece based on imitation. So what you’ll see with these pieces is something like this: The right hand plays a short phrase, then the left hand copies it, and so on for the whole piece, with a bit of overlap.
This is the premise of what a Bach invention is, only his are infinitely more complicated and details. So we start with these simple inventions and take it step-by-step, so that when we get to the Bach ones, it’s not completely overwhelming.
Percentages for grade 1 piano
These three categories, list A, B and C, make up 56% of your overall mark, so they’re a pretty big deal. 6% of that is for memorization, so memorize your pieces, even if you’re not doing an exam! It’s a testament to how well you know something if you can memorize it. The remaining categories – technique/etude, sight reading and ear training make up the remainder of the mark.
The fourth category is studies, or etudes. These are little pieces designed to build a particular skill – like maybe playing staccato, or playing chromatic scales. They target an area of technique.
I like studies because even though you’re working on a specific technique, kind of like scales, they still sound like songs and are thus fun to play.
The fifth optional category in grade 1 piano is pop pieces. I don’t like to omit this category! There’s a pop syllabus for the RCM as well, which I’ll link to here: RCM pop syllabus. Basically, if you do an exam, you have the option of substituting a pop song for the study. You can play a pop song that is either at your grade level, or the grade immediately higher (so grade 2).
You might think, oh it’s a pop song like “Let it Be”, therefore it must be easier to play than these other pieces. It depends. Some of these pop songs actually have very complex rhythms, and are almost always longer (2-3 pages as opposed to 1). But at the same time, they’re very fun to learn.
So now let’s talk technique. For scales, they’re the basic ones but 2 octaves and hands separate – and there are a couple other scales too like a contrary motion scale and chromatic scale. Over the following weeks I’ll post tutorials for these scales, as well as the rest of grade 1 technique.
Aside from scales, you’re expected to learn triads – triads are just chords, in solid and broken form. So you need to know how to, say, play C chord, and then invert it a few times. Again, we’ll be doing videos on those in the coming weeks. You can also take a look at the Grade 1 Technique book, which has everything written out.
In the syllabus, it gives specifics, like how fast the scales are expected to be, and what specific ones you need to learn, so definitely check that out. Keep in mind the tempo listed is the MINIMUM required tempo, so you might want to go a little faster if you can.
The combination of technique and the etude or pop song makes up 24% of your total mark in a grade 1 exam.
ear and sight
Finally, we have ear tests and sight reading. They’re worth 10% of the final mark each. Sight reading involves reading a song fragment on the piano, as well as reading a rhythm to clap – both are going to be easier – sight reading usually steps down a level or two.
For the ear tests, you’ll be doing basic intervals, chord recognition (nothing crazy, just telling if it’s major or minor), clapback and playback.
There’s a sight reading/ear training book for this called “Four Star”, level 1, and it’s a good resource if you want to practice these skills but aren’t sure how to go about it. Unfortunately for the ear tests, you kind of need a teacher or friend to play the examples for you – someone who at least understands the very basics of piano.
more on the syllabus
In the syllabus, there’s a big song list of all the pieces you can play at a grade 1 level, in each category (List A, List B, and so on). Definitely check that out – if you like, you can buy the grade 1 RCM books, both the repertoire and study book, as they have a good, diverse collection of the pieces and then there’s no guesswork involved – you know the pieces are all going to be at the right level.
Another route is to get books that include these grade 1 pieces – these books often have songs at a variety of levels, not just grade 1. So for example, you could get this Kabalevsky book, which has a few pieces at a grade 1 level, but it also has some preparatory level pieces, grade 2 and even grade 3. This is a good route to take if you want to have a more interesting piano book collection, or if you want to diversify beyond the pieces provided in the Grade 1 books.
In the next video I’ll talk about my favorite grade 1 level books and why, so stay tuned for that.
Hopefully this has provided you with some general information about Grade 1 piano through the RCM – in following videos we’ll also discuss what to expect from an examination if you decide to go that route, as well as good books that I mentioned above.
If you have any questions about grade 1 piano, or things you’d like to see me discuss in a video, please leave a comment below! I always love your feedback, and want to help you out as much as I can.