For those of you following a graded approach, whether you’re doing ABRSM/RCM/other exams, taking my classes, or simply using it to add some structure to your private lessons or self-exploration, a question comes up:
When do you move up to the next grade level?
In my studio lessons, we would often begin a grade level in September and complete it in the summer. Each grade would take a year and would often be capped off with exams and/or a summer recital performance. This school-year cycle is especially useful to children, but works well with adults, too.
But how do you know if someone is ready to move to the next level? What if June rolls around and the student barely gets through their recital, and had quite a few stumbles along the way? Do they still get to “pass” to the next grade?
On the other hand, what about those who excel and fly through the material? Are they held to the same pacing as everyone else?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but I’ll share my thoughts on them.
3 Categories: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced
First, there are around 8 grades in music before hitting the diploma levels. Additionally, there are a couple of preparatory levels with most schools, and the RCM goes up to Grade 10. This is very useful for teachers and students to use as a reference!
But sometimes I prefer to think of things in broader categories: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Each stage would average about 4 years (with massive individual variation). The beginner stage is roughly from the preparatory level to Grade 2, the intermediate stage is around Grade 3-6/7, and the advanced stage is Grade 7/8 and up.
I am very unlikely to hold someone back when moving from, say, Grade 1 to 2, or from Prep A to B. Since these are all beginner levels, everything in this stage involves getting comfortable with the foundations of music – most rhythms and beats are encountered, sight reading should be fluent (at a simple level), and coordination should be sufficient to play level-appropriate pieces. If I have a “slower” Prep B student, I will likely still recommend they move to Grade 1. These levels are not hugely different; it’s more like a step, not a leap, in difficulty. And new repertoire, and new challenges, provide a ton of opportunities to improve, whereas being “held back” would most likely result in floundering and losing interest.
Important Junctions: Grade 1 to 2
But I really try to keep my eye on what the student’s abilities are shaping up to be by the end of grade 2. Stepping into the intermediate level is no small thing. The fundamentals should be thoroughly grasped. Past grade 2, we should be mostly beyond the level of note errors (it still happens, but shouldn’t happen often!) and very imprecise counting. Skills will of course be imperfect at this stage, but the student should still know how to do things like play legato, forte, ritardando, a variety of chords and scales, and so on.
The intermediate level is all about increasing technique and dealing with increased density in music. Skills really improve in this stage. But without a solid foundation, the intermediate stage can be overwhelming for many. Sonatinas prove fatiguing, sight reading is a daily struggle, and a disproportionate amount of lesson time is dedicated to learning how to count.
This is a long way of saying that, if I have a student finish grade 2 with significant deficiencies in one or more of these areas, then I might hold off on starting them in grade 3. Or perhaps we’ll start with simpler grade 3 work. Most likely, we’ll look at a variety of repertoire from a prep level to a grade 3 level and do some remedial work in order to get that musical foundation up to snuff.
It takes most people 2-4 years to get to Grade 3 in piano, so there is a lot of time to build foundational skills, and to correct deficiencies.
Students who move quickly
There is another side, though. Sometimes students fly through repertoire and things seem to sink in quickly. This even happens in the same student! One student might be struggling, but a year later, they’re blasting ahead. Learning journeys are seldom linear.
If someone is doing very well, I’ll occasionally recommend skipping a grade. At the beginner stage, this usually translates into skipping Grade 2. Grade 1 and 2 are very similar overall, with Grade 2 building on skills from prep and Grade 1. If someone is reaching all of the milestones of a completed beginner level, such as good sight reading, a sturdy sense of rhythm, and a good grasp on the basics of expression, chords, theory, etc., then they likely don’t need to go through Grade 2 and can move ahead to the intermediate level.
My own piano journey wasn’t linear. I took exams for grades 1, 2, 5, 8, 9 and 10. I skipped three intermediate grades (3, 4 and 6) largely because I was a young teen at the time and entirely disinterested in classical music and examinations. My focus was more on songwriting and contemporary music performance. As a young adult, my interest in “grades” was rekindled and I took some advanced examinations.
Moving on from a level
The biggest indicator on if you’re ready to move up to the next level is by how well you’re able to learn that grade’s repertoire. I recommend learning no less than 10 pieces per grade level, while ideally dabbling in at least double that. My piano would encourage me to play through an etude every week or two, completing an entire etude book in the term. The idea wasn’t to master all of the etudes, but to dabble in the technique and pick a few favorites to bring to performance level.
Create a performance repertoire and do an online MTB exam, or something similar. How are your marks? That will help give you a good objective measurement of where you’re at. Anything over 80 is fabulous. Anything over 70 and you’re probably still doing just fine.
But the big takeaway is that you don’t want to start getting to deep into intermediate repertoire until you feel really comfortable with the basics, and this can take a while (2-4 years). That is probably one of the best ways to avoid problems. That said, there is no need to over-linger on the lower levels. Grade 3 is certainly a step up, but no need to fear it! If you’re not ready, you can always demote yourself.