Why taking performance exams isn’t the only route to success

Secret rocker? More Beatles than Beethoven?

There’s no point trying to hide it. For many people, especially youngsters, classical music just doesn’t cut it.

After headlining Glastonbury with Elton last summer, and a string of other artists showcasing how a piano can perform with pop music (Alica Keys, John Legend, Lady Gaga, to name just a few), the modern-day appeal to learn to play is high.

There’s just one sticking point.

The exams.

But the question is do you really need formal piano grades? And if so, do piano exams always mean classical music overload?

Here we take a closer look at some of the key exam boards, how they differ – and why a love for what you’re playing should always come first.


What are piano grades?

Practical assessments are a formal way of documenting playing progress, look great on your CV and are a satisfying achievement. But they don’t come cheap. The price of a grade one exam starts from £35 and increases steadily with each level.

Practical piano grades are open to players of any age. The grades range from 1 to 8 – with 8 being the highest.

With most exam boards there are no prerequisites – you can even skip grades if you want to – unless you wish to enter for Grades 6, 7 or 8, in which case you must have passed Grade 5 theory or above first.


The different piano boards

There are three main piano exam boards in the UK – ABRSM, Trinity and LCME.

Historically, all three focused heavily on classical music and this approach has been guilty of putting people off progressing their playing.

Thankfully, things are beginning to change, with examination boards now recognising the importance of enjoying and relating to the music you perform.

Let’s take a look at what’s available:



ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) is perhaps the most prestigious examination board, partnered with the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music, and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Their practical grades are available as both face-to-face and remote exams, focused not just on musical knowledge and skill but also on performance.

Each exam is made up of three pieces (which you can choose from a select few), scales and arpeggios, and sight reading and aural tests.

The syllabus (and choice of songs) is usually updated every two years. It’s broadly organised into different styles from the Renaissance period to present day, and each candidate must choose one piece from each category. The idea being, that this provides the opportunity to showcase a range of skills – although you probably won’t be surprised to learn that even the ‘present day’ choices are still from a more classical genre.



Trinity College London is a well-established and internationally recognised examination board with performance at its heart.

Vocal about their desire for candidates to play music they enjoy, a new syllabus came out in 2023 but the board have stated that the 2021 repertoire will remain valid indefinitely. Not only does more choice mean that there’s more hope of finding pieces you’ll love to play, but the latest syllabus contains pieces from stage and screen, global pop hits – and even music from popular video games!

And if you’re a budding composer, you’re even offered the freedom to perform your own composition.

It seems Trinity has a forward-thinking approach, and not just with the music chosen. Candidates can choose between a face-to-face exam with an examiner present or a digital grade exam where a video is submitted. You simply pick what works best for you, so if you don’t thrive under typical exam conditions – there’s no need to worry!



LCME (London College of Music) is the graded examination department from the UK’s largest performing arts institute.

Committed to offering musical education to anyone who wishes to learn, LCME prides itself on offering a more diverse syllabus with contemporary composers.  Whilst you won’t find any Super Mario soundtracks just yet, the latest syllabus has been dramatically updated in response to feedback and now includes iconic film scores and a range of more current tunes.

Similar to Trinity, LCME also offers in-person and digital examinations. They even have a ‘leisure play’ examination option which gives candidates free scope to pick a performance piece of their own choice.

So, do you need formal piano grades?

This is entirely personal – you don’t have to take exams. Some of the greatest musicians to date don’t have ‘formal’ qualifications. The proof of their ability is very much in the playing.

That said, working on a clear path towards exam goals can often provide motivation for youngsters. People of all ages may also want to be able to mark their progress. And for anyone wanting to pursue a musical career, it’s always beneficial to hold qualifications.

The point here is not to let a lack of enthusiasm for classical music be a barrier. The key to real success is to enjoy what you play.

Pander to your musical preference and practice, prowess and pleasure will all increase. So take time to explore the different examination boards and find the syllabus list that most speaks to you.


Classic or contemporary – we can help!

Whether you’re a traditionalist who wouldn’t dream of buying a digital piano or you’re keen to embrace new technology – here at Richard Lawson Pianos, we like to think we cater for everyone, with an extensive range of pianos of all makes and models.

And if you’re keen to take exams why not take a look at our silent or digital pianos – offering the option of plugging in headphones, so you can put in the practice without falling out with the family!

Whatever your musical preference, and whatever your playing style, we guarantee we’ve got a piano that’s perfect for you.

Shop the collection now, or for more help and advice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the team.


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