Piano Levels are the basic framework of learning the piano.Piano mastery is based on learning specific skills. These skills are grouped together into levels. Once you have learned the skills in one level, you are ready to advance to the skills in the next level. These new skills build on what you already know. There is no time limit or minimum time requirement for learning these skills. This is why some people can get so good so fast, and others are still beginners after years of lessons.
So who needs to know about what skills are covered in each level? Always the teacher should know this information! If you have a teacher who doesn’t know what you need to learn to improve, then progress will happen on accident rather than by intention. Any teacher worth her salt will be on the lookout for ways that you need to improve. She will give you exercises to help with your weaknesses, and practice tips to help you accomplish your goals. However, I believe that this is only the start of a successful learning relationship. I believe that the student should also know what they need to learn in order to progress to the fullest of their ability.
But why is it important for a student to know what skills are covered in each level? Knowing what the most important skills to master in your level will help you to prioritize your practice. You will see your strengths emerge. This in turn makes you feel proud of your progress. You will also see exactly where you need to improve. Knowing what you must master helps you to ask the right questions. Your teacher will be able to help you more efficiently. You are now a part of the learning process.
So, what exactly is covered in each level? Each teaching curriculum will be slightly different, but most agree on the basics. I’ll give you a synopsis of the first 5 levels.
Level one may be divided into two parts because there is simply so much information. This is the foundation to all your piano learning, and should be covered carefully and thoroughly. You may see the levels called 1A and 1B or Primer and Level One. Really they mean the same thing. The first part of level one covers finger numbers, note and rest values, basic rhythm and counting, and intervals up to a 5th.
In reading music, the first part of level one covers the treble and bass clefs and introduces the notes of the staff. Most curricula group notes into “positions” so that you can concentrate on learning 5-10 notes at a time before moving to the next position and its notes. You will also be introduced to dynamics and expression in music and the notations for volume and the basic touches of legato and staccato. In music, the skills necessary are not only in your mind, to recognize and understand what you are seeing, but also in the body and hands to express and execute those concepts in a tangible way.
This is where practice comes in. You must train your hands what these skills feel like. The skills we need to learn in the first part of level 1 is feeling and moving fingers by their finger number. You’ll also learn to press the keys at the correct time and learn to feel the beat. There are so many combinations of notes, that many songs are needed to really hone this skill. You’ll also learn what intervals feel like in the hands, and learn to play both hands at the same time in a limited way. You’ll also begin to play 2 notes at the same time. How you approach playing each key also comes into play to produce either a smooth sound or a separated sound. One of the most important things you can learn in the beginning is how to practice.
During the second part of level one, you’ll build on the skills you already know. You’ll learn about key signatures, whole and half steps. You’ll finish learning the notes on the edges of the grand staff, and learn about the ledger lines between the treble and bass clefs. Most curriculum will introduce the eighth note during this level. Sharps and flats are covered. Touch and dynamics become more precise with the addition of crescendo and diminuendo, and basic speeds are covered. Some curricula will start experimenting with crossing one hand over another and playing in multiple positions during the same song. The most important skills to master will be note reading, matching the finger with the written note, and being able to play the touch requested.
This level is all about expanding your hands. You will cover larger intervals of 6th 7th and octaves. You will begin to move away from strict positions, and learn what makes good fingering. If you have learned your notes thoroughly in level one, it will be an easy step to change what finger plays what note. If however, you have used your finger numbers as a crutch, you’ll find this really challenging. You’ll now be playing much more hands together, and sometimes one hand or the other may play 3 notes at the same time. Note reading is expanded with the ledger notes above the treble and below the bass. You’ll also learn about the triplet. The most important skill to master in level 2 is fingering and confidence in note reading.
Ah, level 3! This is where your songs begin to really sound like something. The big push of this level is to understand chords. You’ll learn how chords are related to the scale, and often will play a 3 note chord in one hand while playing the melody in the other. Level 3 will also build on the fingering skills from level 2. You’ll find much more finger changing in level 3. You may also learn about pedaling and sixteenth notes. Eighth notes are used in abundance, and counting will include syncopation. The skills that are the most important, are the coordination for playing 4 or five notes at the same time. You’ll also learn how to break down music in practice.
You’ll be expanding your base of keys. Working with key signatures of up to 3 sharps and 3 flats. You’ll also learn about minor keys. You won’t really learn new notes in this level. Instead, you’ll gain confidence in fingering, chords and counting, putting these concepts together in the same songs. You’ll also learn how to follow more extensive directions in the piece like D.S. al Coda. At some point in level 4 the idea of 2 part writing will be covered. Two part writing is where two things are going on in the same hand, at the same time. For example a half note and two quarter notes in the same hand during the same two beats. The technique of staying relaxed in order to execute this is imperative.
This level is preparing you for the work of the master composers. You’ll be learning about musical form, ornaments in music, and will be experimenting with emotion on a much deeper way than before. You may begin learning about the different eras of western music and what makes Baroque music baroque. More keys are also introduced.
Applying this Information
There are more, levels, but this gives you an idea of what to expect in the first 5 levels.
So where does the magic happen?
How do you gain these skills and work your way to true musical proficiency? There are two places. First, your piano lessons and study. If your mind understands the concepts, you are far more likely to be able to put them into practice. Ask questions, be an active part of your lesson. Second, practice at home. There really is no substitute for time spent at the keyboard. Concentrate on each skill; tell yourself when you get it right. Rejoice with every victory. Build skill upon skill and experience what it is like to master level upon level.
When should I have learned these concepts?
How long should it take? This really depends on you. There is no “right” amount of time. Every person is different, every schedule is different. However, most people agree that an average person practicing 2 -3 hours a week will be able to easily finish a level a year. I find that active practicers and focused teaching can cut that time in half. Sometimes students finish levels even faster. Again, time is not really a factor here, skill is the factor.
How do I make sure that I have learned all of the concepts and when do I know I can progress?
Choose a curriculum that has a reputation for being pedagogically sound. You can find out what curricula is favored by the best teachers. Look at the results in the students. Are students really well rounded pianists who can sight read as well as perform? Do they progress at a good rate? Ask students how long they have played and then see if their level corresponds to 1 year or less per level.
I have studied multiple teaching curricula, and have my favorites that I find work well for these goals. My favorites are Alfred Basic Piano Library, Faber’s Piano Adventures and Bastien Piano Basics. There are other method books that are equally good, but these are my favorites. Look through your lesson book and notice the “teaching pages” What are they talking about? Make sure you understand. Do the songs have any red marks? Some curriculum will print in red for a new concept. Make sure that you can understand and execute this concept really well. Finally, review. You need to remember and practice each new skill until you can never forget it. As you progress, the skills from the previous levels will become so ingrained, that you’ll forget there was ever a time when you didn’t know them.
To make doubly sure, it helps to know what to expect in each level, and have a checklist. That way, as you learn, you can see the progress you’re making toward proficiency.
So you really want to learn to play the piano. Now, armed with the knowledge of how piano learning happens, and what skills you’ll need to gain during each level, you can confidently choose a teacher who can help keep you motivated, answer your questions, and guide you on the path to mastery. You can now understand what you need to focus on during each practice session at home, and you can be an active part of your learning by asking questions. You can see the progress you’re making, and feel proud of making the wish of learning the piano into the reality of playing.
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