So we’re going to talk about the different exam categories of grade 2 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.
RCM Piano Syllabus (PDF, all grades – scroll to grade 2)
ABRSM Grade 2 Syllabus
RCM Popular Selection Syllabus (PDF)
GRADE 2 PIANO: OVERVIEW
Grade 2 piano generally corresponds with your fourth year of piano as a kid (oftentimes the second year of piano as an adult, depending on how hard you work).
Grade 1 and 2 have a lot in common – they’re both late beginner levels (grade 3 is early intermediate) and teach the development of similar skills, only grade 2 is slightly harder.
Like grade 1, grade 2 piano is all about developing hand independence, as well as musical sensitivity – conveying a scene or an emotion through music. There’s also more pedal work to be found here.
One thing that I do with my students in Grade 2 is explore a wider range of genres, everything from Baroque to Latin styles. In Grade 1, it’s all about getting our footing with the new challenges, but by Grade 2 the basics should be locked down – note reading all across the staff, and more complicated rhythm patterns. This foundation leaves more freedom for genre-exploration.
For the grade 2 RCM exams, four pieces need to be prepared – list A, B, C and study. For grade 2 ABRSM, only 3 pieces need to be prepared: A, B and C.
List A is extremely similar between RCM and ABRSM, and the options are short Baroque and Classical pieces by guys like Handel and Mozart.
These pieces, to me, are the most difficult – first of all, since they’re pretty old, the style is a little foreign to us modern musicians. They require precision of playing, and both hands are usually doing completely different things, which builds hand independence.
As I mentioned in the Grade 1 version of this video, the best remedy to the “boring” problem of List A pieces is to research them. Yes, the title “Minuet in G” isn’t as exciting as “Fireflies”, but if you have no idea what a minuet is, or who Mozart is, then it’s 0% exciting. Learn about the Baroque period. Learn about older dance styles, and the famous composers who wrote them. It’s interesting stuff, and can be a big motivator.
Next up, List B’s. In the RCM, these are modern-ish and encompass everything from the Romantic era all the way up to the 21st Century. In this section you’ll get guys like Bartok, who’s long-dead, to composers who are still alive and kicking, like Christopher Norton. The styles range immensely, and the selection is huge (probably somewhere in the ballpark of 100 songs for RCM), so you’re guaranteed to find something up your alley.
Grade 1 and 2 List B’s are always, always, always the favorite category of my students. This is where all the “fun stuff” lives.
ABRSM List B’s are similar, except your options are 6 pieces instead of ~100.
These are also generally the pieces with the highest expressive demands, like beautiful pedaling, dynamics and phrasing. Their modern-ness might make them seem easier, but there’s a lot of detail work to be found.
List C pieces are where RCM and ABRSM diverge a little bit. In the RCM, List C pieces are “inventions”, pieces where the right hand and left hand do a sort of imitation (as opposed to chords/melody). It’s pretty difficult, but it’s a great and important gateway to more challenging Baroque pieces like Bach’s inventions (starting in Grade 7).
In the ABRSM, List C’s are more like RCM studies. The genre range is wild, and the pieces are intended to develop a particular skill or technique.
RCM requires a fourth piece to be learned, called studies or etudes. Like the ABRSM list C’s, 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.
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 linked to at the beginning of this post. 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).
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 let’s start with RCM technique. It’s basically an amped-up version of grade 1. There are a couple new keys to contend with (Bb/Gm), and they need to be a little faster. This is also where we see the introduction of the melodic minor scale, which we’ll talk about in the near future. It’s a little crazy.
There’s also the formula pattern to contend with – people tend to either love them or hate them. They’re kind of like Scales Gone Wild. I enjoy them, but there’s a bit of a learning curve.
With ABRSM, there are a couple new scales to deal with (like E contrary motion), and the melodic minor scale is also introduced in all its glory. There isn’t a formula pattern in sight, but ABRSM does start arpeggios this year. We’ll get into those in the ABRSM technique video.
Finally, we have ear tests and sight reading. 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.
So the sight reading example you’ll be expected to do for grade 2 piano is about 4 bars long, and isn’t hands together.
Ear tests between the RCM and ABRSM are a little different.
For the RCM, you’ll be expected to clap back a tune the examiner plays, hear the difference between a major and minor chord, a few intervals (maj/min 3rd, perfect 5th), and play back a short tune that the examiner plays. It isn’t too tough, it’s about 5 notes long and the examiner tells you what note she’s starting on.
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.
How the tests are marked
Finally, let’s talk percentages, starting with RCM.
Songs (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 study is worth 12%
Ear tests: 10%
Sight Reading: 10%
Now let’s look at the percentages for ABRSM.
Songs (List A, B, C): 30 marks each (total 90, or 60%)
-each song 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 2 level, in each category (List A, List B, and so on). Definitely check that out – if you like, you can buy the grade 2 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 2 pieces – these books often have songs at a variety of levels, not just grade 2. 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 2 books.
In an upcoming video, I’ll talk about my favorite grade 2 level books and why, so stay tuned for that.
Hopefully this has provided you with some general information about Grade 2 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 2 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.