One thing that I’ve learned on my journey of playing the piano is that things aren’t always easy. Pieces that appear somewhat “easy” can be deceptively challenging to play musically - take the famous “Moonlight Sonata” Adagio, for example. Bringing out the melody can be quite a tricky thing to do... (try pressing the play button to hear this example!)
This helps to illustrate a critical point: knowing what level you are (or leveling a piece of music) can be very subjective. With that being said, some objective things can help to draw some obvious lines and help to identify what level you are as a pianist. As someone who has taken classical piano lessons, these will focus more on that realm. I hope this article will help show you what some key differences are between the three main categories used to distinguish a pianist’s skill level.
I will help you categorize your skills into three groups: Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced. There are often sublevels in these categories that get used to quantify a pupil's exact level of skill, but in this article, I will focus on these three overarching levels. I will also explain some of the skills that can take you from a novice piano player into the land of intermediate and beyond.
A lot goes into playing the piano. If you are serious about this whole piano thing, then at some point you have probably studied scales and arpeggios. A family friend of mine (and wonderful pianist!) Carol Stivers once told me that “scales are the bread and butter of music.” Learning scales is so important because entire songs from the Common Practice Period revolve around and use them. This is why learning scales will drastically help to improve your skills and give you a serious push towards becoming a more experienced pianist.
Above is a piece one of my first teachers showed me to help drive in the importance of knowing your scales. (For those that are curious, this is Beethoven's 3rd Piano Sonata (Op. 2, No. 3). The material circled in red is scalar type material, ranging from textbook Major scales to slight variations of different five-finger scales and scales in thirds - which can be quite tricky! The material circled in blue are arpeggios, which are another crucial song component that you will come across while studying the piano. Arpeggios are basically just chords that get played one note at a time, instead of all the notes in the chord being played simultaneously.
As you can see, scales and arpeggios make up a pretty big part of this piece. This excerpt is also meant to be played quite fast, which reinforces the importance of mastering your scales and arpeggios. Without lots of practice, you cannot expect to ever gain the speed necessary to pull off a piece of this difficulty.
Here’s one more example that shows some more scale usage, the famous: “Rondo Alla Turca” by Mozart.
This excerpt starts off with a descending A minor 5 finger scale, then quickly turns around and ascends using the A Major scale. From there, the A Major scale is used going both up and down, with periodic moments of chromaticism and skips. (Okay, I might have been showing off just a little bit with my music theory knowledge there.)
The point is: Scales are everywhere in music. The more that you practice them, the more automatic they will become and the easier pieces will become to learn. Not to mention that once you have memorized your scales, you have also internalized the fingering used for them. With practice, scalar passages quickly begin to be recognized as “hey, that’s a G Major scale” instead of note-by-note “G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G”. The more you practice and develop your technical skills, the more you will “open the door” and gain the skill set necessary to play more advanced repertoire.
Here’s an example to think about: Imagine you were five years old and I asked you to read the passage below by Shakespeare.
“We burn daylight: here, read, read; perceive how I might be knighted. I shall think the worse of fat men, as long as I have an eye to make difference of men’s liking: and yet he would not swear; praised women’s modesty; and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness, that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words; but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves.’ What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor? How shall I be revenged on him? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease. Did you ever hear the like?”
Chances are that this probably wouldn't go too well unless you were some kind of child prodigy. Honestly, some adults would probably have a pretty tough time reading this as well, not to mention comprehending it. I've literally never heard of some of the words used in there before!
This is very much similar to music. The more lessons and education you acquire, the more your ”vocabulary and grammar skills” will develop, which will help you to be able to actually tackle something of this caliber.
This leads me to another important skill: reading music. No matter what you hear from anyone else, being able to read music is one of the most rewarding and important musical skills. It took me a very long time to realize that; don’t be like me. Start working on developing your reading skills as soon as possible.
Below is a great video by Margaret Fabrizio that accurately describes why reading is so important and how to know when you are reading versus “decoding”. I'd highly recommend giving it a watch.
Reading is what will open up so many musical doors for you. Good readers are the ones that can learn new pieces every couple of days (or faster!) or sight-read material on the spot for family or friends. I can’t tell you how frustrating it can be to work on two pieces for months and then only have ten minutes of material to play for others. If your reading skills were up to snuff, you could open up any book and perform many of the pieces right there on the spot! Sight-reading is the key to making this possible. Not to mention, it also gives you the ability to learn pieces fast because you are able to start "grabbing hunks of notes, instead of just one note a time".
Ok, so now it's time for what you all came for: figuring out your piano skill level. If any of the previous topics seem a little bit above your head or don't make any sense, then there's a good chance you are in the beginner phase, and that’s ok. Maybe up until now you’ve been playing by ear or you have never studied Classical Piano, and that’s totally fine. When I first started this whole music thing I was the same boat but foolishly thought that I was the best, even though I couldn’t sight-read easy children’s material. As a matter of fact, I was actually laughed at by one of the professors during my college audition for how bad my reading skills were. This was something that I personally needed - I was blind to what I didn’t know and seriously needed to be humbled. The more music classes I took, the more knowledge I started to learn, and slowly I started to become more aware as to how intricate and deep music really is.
Let’s get on to the distinguishing yourself as a Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced pianist. To do this, I have made a list below with bullet points underneath each category. These come from personal experience, so some might ring true while others might be a bit off. That's ok, just try to identify which category sounds most like you. Try to be brutally honest with yourself.
In writing this article, I actually called up my former college piano teacher and fellow colleague to get their brutal opinions of where I am at on the grade scale. The answers I got were: very late intermediate/early advanced (leaning more towards early advanced) and advanced. As much as it scared me to ask this question, I knew that asking it was the only way to accurately write this article. Try to do this for yourself - wherever you are, there's always more to learn!
If none of the above really sound like you or are things you’ve known about and been familiar with for a while, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re an advanced pianist who has been doing this piano thing for a little while now.
I’m not going to elaborate on this stage because I’m just barely on this level myself. I do know, however, that there’s a long way to go. Currently, I've been doing this piano thing for about 5-6 years now, about every single day. I got my all-time high on my SASR score recently, scoring a 919. I'm focusing a big chunk of my practice time on reading practice and developing the skill of learning pieces quickly through reading as opposed to memorizing.
I sincerely hope that this article has been helpful and insightful for you! My hope is that you can now have a clearer map that will help you achieve your musical dreams.