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When you take a grade exam you have pieces you have to prepare, and you are also expected to sight-read... but the sight-read pieces for each grade will be easier than the pieces you prepare.

I wondered how big the difference is i.e if I take a grade 5 piano exam, are the grade 5 sight-reading pieces similar in difficulty to prepared pieces in a grade 3 exam, or maybe grade 4 or grade 2?

In my case I'm new to piano so I don't really have a grip on how much harder sight reading is, or how much time someone would put into practicing a prepared piece to get to the right standard, but I assume the difference is substantial... but can someone quantify it in terms of numbers of grades?

I'm primarily thinking ABRSM but answers for similar grade 1-8 based systems used in the UK are welcome too.

  • From my own experience, if anyone cares, I have to work hard to be able to play a Grade 1 piece - but typically can sight-read each hand, since for me the ability to play two things at once is the biggest difficulty. – Mr. Boy Apr 17 '15 at 14:39
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    ABRSM sight reading example books are readily available in U.K. They will give you a far better clue than any answers here. The difficulty related to performance pieces is somewhat subjective - some are easier to tackle initially, but harder to perform for the exam, and vice versa. It's probably too much of a generalisation to say sight reading at grade III is the same level as a set piece at I, but a call to ABRSM on the phone would give you some indication. – Tim Apr 17 '15 at 15:43
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It isn't really that useful to think of the sightreading tests for a graded music exam in comparison to the performance pieces for graded music exams. This is because:

  • the sightreading tests are much shorter, more like exercises than actual pieces.
  • the sightreading tests are designed simply to test your ability to read notation and perform it at sight; they don't demonstrate the level of study that learning a piece does.
  • sightreading tests incrementally introduce the necessary elements of notation through the grades, whereas the performance pieces also incrementally introduce techniques (although this inevitably happens to a certain extent with sightreading tests too, it is certainly of less importance).

Although a Grade 8 sightreading test may, for example, seem on the surface to have a similar difficulty to read and play as, say, a Grade 4 or 5 piece, this similarity is reasonably superficial. The demands of learning a whole Grade 4/5 piece and sightreading a 10-bar Grade 8 sightreading test are completely different, even if a short passage from each seems to use the same complexity of notation and require a similar level of performance technique.

As @Tim points out, the best thing to do is try some of the example sightreading tests, which are available for all grades for each instrument.

This link takes you to an Amazon page listing piano example sightreading test books for each grade, as well as "Joining the Dots" books, which are really useful for improving general sightreading skills. You used to be able to get example sightreading tests for all the grades in one booklet, but I don't know if ABRSM still produce these (anyone?!)

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    Without wishing to seem obvious, I guess the answer would be "as well as possible"! In the end, sight-reading is difficult when first learning an instrument. For this reason examiners will be fairly lenient when marking sight-reading tests, and are looking to give marks for what you can do, rather than take marks away for what you get wrong. (Anecdotally I have heard that a certain number of marks are awarded just for attempting the sight-reading.) And this is also why the sight-reading tests are much easier than the level of the performance pieces... – Bob Broadley Apr 20 '15 at 16:10
  • ...however, to get full marks, you would need to perform the sight-reading test convincingly, with the correct rhythms and notes, and observing performance directions such as dynamics. This makes sense: it gives scope for candidates who are able to sight-read well to display their skill with a convincing performance. – Bob Broadley Apr 20 '15 at 16:13
  • If you haven't done so, I strongly recommend you look at some example sight-reading tests - you will see that compared to the performance pieces they are far less difficult, which should put your mind at rest somewhat! – Bob Broadley Apr 20 '15 at 16:15
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I’ve been told that you should be able to sight read pieces 2 grades below your standard.

Eg. If you’re Grade 5 standard, you should be able to sight read grade 3 standard pieces.

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