All About Grade 3 Piano (RCM and ABRSM)

page0205In today’s video, we’re going to talk all about grade 3 piano through the RCM, as well as grade 3 ABRSM piano. These are two major systems of grading, exams and levels in the piano world.

We’re going to talk about the different exam categories of grade 3 piano: piece 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.

RCM Syllabus
ABRSM Syllabus

GRADE 3 PIANO: OVERVIEW

Grade 3 piano generally corresponds with your fifth year of piano as a kid (oftentimes the start of the third year of piano as an adult, depending on how hard you work).

Preparatory, Grade 1 and grade 2 piano are all about the beginner stages. You learn how to read notes and rhythms with increasing complexity. Once you finish this level, you should be comfortable with most notes on the staff, interval identification should be quick, and you should be reasonably skilled with the most common rhythms.

In grade 1 and 2, you start developing hand independence and style – like the ability to pull off louds and softs in an emotive way, or play staccatos and accents.

So once that’s out of the way, we hit grade 3, which is the first intermediate level. Grade 3 is considered “early intermediate”, and everything between levels 3-6 is considered intermediate. Once you hit Grade 7, that’s when things start getting advanced.

Basically, by Grade 3, you should be comfortable with all the basics. So in Grade 3 piano, instead of drilling rhythms and note reading, we get to start spending more time on theory, history, and interpretation.

Grade 3 piano: RCM and ABRSM

Grade 3 RCM and Grade 3 ABRSM are roughly equivalent in difficulty, which is why I’m doing a combined video of the two.

For Grade 3 RCM exams, you need to prepare 5 pieces: 2 etudes (studies), and 3 repertoire pieces.
For Grade 3 ABRSM exams, you need to prepare 3 repertoire pieces.

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Grade 3 piano: List A

The RCM and ABRSM both have 3 categories for pieces at this level – List A, List B and List C.

List A pieces in the RCM are Baroque dances. You’ve got a bunch of minuets, as well as other dance styles such as a gavotte, bourree and musette. This is the perfect time to pick up the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, as most of the pieces start at a grade 3 level and get progressively more challenging.

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These dances are written in contrapuntal style (mainly in 2 voices), which means they’re great studies for hand independence. Contrapuntal simply means that there’s two independent melody lines played at once.

In the ABRSM, List A merges both the Classical and Baroque eras. You’ve got some dances by Haydn, CPE Bach and Scarlatti, but you’ll also see a Clementi sonatina, which we’ll discuss in just a moment.

I say this every time, but this is almost always the most difficult category for students. Classical and Baroque pieces are generally the oldest styles we learn on piano, and thus they’re the most unfamiliar. They generally require the most dexterity and hand independence.

List B

Next up, List B’s.

In the RCM, this means Classical and Classical-style repertoire. This is the first grade the RCM splits Baroque and Classical into two separate categories.

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There are a few different styles of pieces in this category, but it includes the main feature of grade 3 piano – the sonatina.

I believe that sonatinas are too difficult to begin before a grade 3 level – they require a blend of really important skills and techniques, such as:

-scale passages
-cadence patterns
-Classical accompaniment styles, such as alberti bass

Starting in Grade 3 we can begin to study Clementi’s very famous op. 36 sonatinas (namely the first one). This is a big project, but it’s really rewarding.

When I was learning piano, I was always frustrated by the challenges of Classical-era music like sonatas and sonatinas. They would be the pieces I procrastinated on. But once I was able to play them, I often found them to be the most fun. They have a ton of variety, and they’re often really fast. They take a while to perfect, but they end up being great “show-off” pieces.

The ABRSM’s list B choices are a little different. Since the List A encompassed Baroque and Classical eras, the list B is Romantic-era music (19th Century). Romantic-era music is generally very well-loved because of its expressiveness and evocative titles (Witches’ Dance, as opposed to Sonatina in C).

List C

Finally, we have List Cs. They’re pretty similar between the RCM and ABRSM – they focus on modern 20th and 21st Century pieces.

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It’s in this category, you’ll come across modern genres like jazz and blues. You’ll find mood pieces and character pieces. This is the category for Christopher Norton, Martha Mier and Mike Schoenmehl, who are some of my favorite modern composers.

Etudes

RCM requires a fourth and fifth piece to be learned, called studies or etudes. These are songs designed around a specific technical concept, like light staccatos, working with fifths, chromatic scales, and stuff like that. They can be old or new, quirky-sounding or more traditionally song-like.

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You’ll encounter composers from Czerny to Bartok, to modern composers like Norton and Donkin.

Pop music

The fifth, and optional, category in grade 2 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. 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 3 or 4).

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.

That covers, in a nutshell, every repertoire selection for an exam. Let’s move on to the other important study categories!

Grade 3 piano technique

First, let’s talk technique. In the RCM, grade 3 is the first grade you’re expected to do 2-octave hands together scales, which is a bit of a learning curve.

Aside from new scales, triads and formula patterns in different keys, the only other main addition to RCM technique in grade 3 is 2-octave triads (instead of 1 octave in grade 1 and 2).

In the ABRSM, you need to be able to play your scales hands together and separately, the same as grade 2. The only other change is that there are now some hands together arpeggios.

EAR AND SIGHT

So we’ve talked about the repertoire, and we’ve talked about technique. That makes up the majority of your learning and practice – but there are two more important categories that we shouldn’t overlook:

Sight reading and ear training.

Sight reading involves reading a song fragment on the piano, off the cuff. The RCM sight reading for this level is quite a bit easier than the ABRSM – it’s only a four-measure passage, and in simple and familiar keys like C and G major.

In the ABRSM, the sheet music might be up to eight measures, and in slightly more unusual keys like Bb and Eb major.

In the RCM, you have an additional sight reading hurdle – reading/clapping a rhythm while tapping a steady beat with your hand or foot.

Then we have the ear tests. In the RCM, you have to listen to the examiner play something and clap back the rhythm and identify interval distances. You have to discern the difference between major and minor chords while also being able to identify specific notes in the chord such as root, third and fifth. And finally, you’ll have to “play back” a short little ditty that the examiner plays (they’re short and 1-handed).

For the ABRSM, you’ll also have to clap back a tune, in addition to a “sing-back”, where you echo the tune the examiner plays. She’ll also play something twice that has a slight pitch change the second time, and you’ll need to pinpoint where that pitch change was. You’ll also need to be able to do a listening analysis, where she plays a short piece and asks you questions on things like the dynamics.

Grade 3 piano grades

Finally, let’s talk percentages, starting with RCM.

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Pieces (List A, B, C): 56%
-list b is worth the most, 18%, where the other songs are worth 16%
-an extra 6% is awarded for memory (2% per song)
Technique (scales and stuff, as well as study): 24%
-all technique is worth 12%, and the two studies are worth 12% (6% each)
Ear tests: 10%
Sight Reading: 10%
Pass: 60%

Now let’s look at the percentages for ABRSM.

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Pieces (List A, B, C): 30 marks each (total 90, or 60%)
-each piece is worth 20% of the overall mark
Technique: 21 marks (14%)
Sight Reading: 21 marks (14%)
Ear tests: 18 marks (12%)
Total Marks: 150
100 marks needed to pass (66%)

MORE ON THE SYLLABUS

In the syllabus, there’s a big song list of all the pieces you can play at a grade 3 level, in each category (List A, List B, and so on). Definitely check that out – if you like, you can buy the grade 3 RCM/ABRSM books, 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 3 pieces – these books often have songs at a variety of levels, not just 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 3 books.

CONCLUSION

In the near future, I’ll talk about my favorite grade 3 level books and why, so stay tuned for that.

Hopefully this has provided you with some general information about Grade 3 piano through the RCM and ABRSM – 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 3 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.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.