Initial Practical Grade exam: Piano Star success story

Using Piano Star 2, Piano Star Duets and Piano Star Skills Builder

By Karen Marshall

In September 2020 two of my younger students embarked on their first steps into piano exams. Very familiar with the Piano Star series (as I’d worked on it as a consultant) I enthusiastically included those pieces in the ones that I performed for the children to pick from. It was lovely when one child selected the entirety of his Initial Practical Grade programme from the series and the other child picked two pieces (the third being Pam Wedgwood’s ‘Whirly Bird’ from Up-Grade 0-1 published by Faber Music). In addition, I supplied the new Piano Star Skills Builder book I’d written with David Blackwell which provides material to prepare for all the supporting tests – scales, aural and sight-reading. Both children took their exams in the November lockdown and to my utter delight they achieved distinctions. The whole exam process was such a positive experience for the children (they had a lovely examiner) and parents were delighted too.

With the permission of his parents, I will share in more detail the learning journey one of my students (James) embarked on, along with additional observation I have made as a teacher using the materials. Hopefully this will be helpful to teachers also wanting to explore the Piano Star books (Piano Star 2, Piano Star Duets and Piano Star Skills Builder) as a resource for supporting ABRSM’s Initial Practical Grade exam for Piano.

First things first! The scales

Using Piano Star Skills Builder my students learnt the five shapes needed, which are: C major and D minor one octave scales, right hand and left hand; C major contrary motion (but only the first five notes); and C major and D minor broken triads (termed arpeggio in the exam), right hand and left hand. The lovely thing about these scales – with the help of Piano Star Skills Builder – is that they can be learnt accurately and to a high standard in a short period of time. An added bonus is that the broken triad shapes also provide an excellent foundation for working on the sight-reading, as all tests are in those positions. In Piano Star Skills Builder there are songs written on the broken triad (arpeggio) pages that provide additional sight-reading practice and also the opportunity to build aural skills (three in one). James loved the duet parts, beautifully written by David Blackwell (click here for audio files) and additional scales pieces and activities. He was so confident in the exam that he received full marks for the aural section.

The pieces

James selected for his List A piece, ‘This Old Man’ arranged by David Blackwell (in Piano Star 2 but also the exam album), for his List C piece, ‘Action Stations’ by Heather Hammond (Piano Star 2) and for his List B piece, ‘Butterfly’ duet by June Armstrong (Piano Star Duets). All these pieces are perfect for smaller hands, and due to their composition allow the student to shine very easily in terms of expression and technique. There are very few hand shifts included within them, leaving a good distance of progression moving to Grade 1 but not too long a journey to get to Initial Grade stage. Hands together work is easily achieved and articulation is present but not over-bearing. Playing a duet with his mum in the exam was a huge bonus for James. Having her there just for the one piece gave him a big boost of confidence. Click here to see James and his mum perform ‘Butterfly’ together.


James used all the material in Piano Star Skills Builder that supported him specifically in working towards the sight-reading. He also enjoyed playing some ‘Classical Ringtones’ (not within the exam sight-reading hand positions) that developed his reading in a holistic way whilst working towards the exam. We are revisiting these now after the exam too. As already mentioned the additional activities within the scales pages also helped his reading. Starting three weeks before they exam, James worked through the Initial Grade Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests book (click here to see it) as a belt-and-braces approach, so he got even more practice. He achieved a wonderful mark of 18/21 even though sight-reading has been a challenge in his piano-learning journey.


The use of traditional rhymes set out in grids in Piano Star Skills Builder really helps children work on the difference between pulse and rhythm. James naturally has such a good ear that these activities were covered for fun, breaking up the lessons, and simply as a contrasting activity! The introductory aural activity rhyme ‘Now Listen Up’ proved a favourite for James (as it has done for many of my students, including children in the classroom as part of their curriculum music lessons). There are lots of clapping examples throughout the Piano Star Skills Builder book, lovely accompaniments for marking the pulse, and creative ways to get a student to identify musical features of dynamics and articulation. James was thrilled to be a ‘Musical Detective’ on those pages in the book.

After the exam and ongoing use of the Piano Star books

Perhaps the biggest bonus of all in using the Piano Star books in the Practical Initial Grade exam is that there’s just tons of material you can use after the event. It’s been lovely to explore the entirety of Piano Star Skills Builder post-exam. ‘My Favourite Note’ pages are excellent recaps to help with note reading, as is ‘Right-Hand Travel Tune’ where the student gets to compose. Not forgetting the ‘Classical Ringtones’ where a student can explore the whole world of classical music, and ‘My Strange Zoo’ which is perfect for helping with bass-clef reading (complete with its wonderful duet part by David, available online here). Piano Star 2 provides lots of additional material to explore for quick-study pieces and Piano Star Piano Duets will be a useful resource for several years to come! All in all, these three books have much to offer students and teachers as a truly creative and pedagogically rich set of books that are beautifully designed and extremely affordable.

Digital resources

We have additional resources for Piano Star Skills Builder and Piano Star Duets – MP3 recordings of duet parts and teacher accompaniments – available on our website. They’re ideal support for COVID-safe teaching. You can find all our Piano Star Series resources on our website here.

Coming soon – Initial Performance Grade for Piano

From August, you’ll be able to book an Initial Performance Grade exam, with the first exam submission dates in September. You can read more here.


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