Piano teaching, Repertoire

ABRSM: Core Classics for Piano

When I was a young piano student in the 1970s, taking lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield, I remember having books like the ABRSM’s new Core Classics series, volumes such as Hours With the Masters and Step By Step to the Classics, edited by Felix Swinstead (whose music still regularly appears in ABRSM exam repertoire).

These are really nicely produced books, well-designed with clear music engraving. Sadly, the cover design suggests something from my early piano studies in the back in 70s and as such it would not induce me to pick up a copy if I saw it in a music shop.

In their blurb for this series, the ABRSM describes Core Classics as:

A rich selection of engaging pieces to form the backbone of any pianist’s repertoire.

  • Pieces gradually increasing in difficulty throughout.
  • Equally valuable for learners working towards a grade exam, between grades, or playing for leisure, building technical skills and confidence.
  • Elegant and attractive design with an unrivalled range of repertoire.

….works that any teacher would want their pupils to learn as part of their musical journey.

Unfortunately, I think the ABRSM’s definition of what constitutes “core” repertoire diverges significantly from my own – and indeed that of other piano teachers who seek to offer their students a wide range of music to explore. Where, for example, are pieces from Bartók’s delightful (and pedagogic) suite For Children in the early volumes and Mikrokosmos in the later ones? Where is Für Elise – surely a piece at the very core of the core repertoire for pianists? And what, no Clementi, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Kabalevsky (a composer whose music I loved as a piano student)….? Instead, we find the usual suspects which appear and reappear with tedious regularity in the ABRSM’s piano syllabus – Thomas Attwood, Félix le Couppey, Friederich Kuhlau and of course Felix Swinstead. Admittedly, the later grades fare somewhat better with Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith, Des Abends by Schumann and an Intermezzo by Brahms, but sadly there is very little post-mid-twentieth-century music, women composers hardly get a look in, and I do not really think Jason Rebello counts as a “core classic”, despite the fact that he is a very fine jazz pianist. The greatest sin of omission here is the absence of popular favourites, music which students will recognise and want to learn to play.

The ABRSM has also missed a trick in not including contemporary classics by composers such as Nico Muhly (whose music features in the current LCM syllabus), Philip Glass (his Études would sit well in the Grade 7-8 level), Michael Nyman or Ludovico Einaudi (whose music persuaded one of my students to carry on playing the piano when she reached her mid-teens).

Today, shifting cultural consensus and musical taste, a move away from the view that only dead white men wrote the music, and a desire to present greater diversity in concert programmes and teaching curricula have blurred the definition of the “core canon”. This has to be a good thing because it demonstrates and celebrates the breadth of the repertoire, and offers the opportunity to experience a greater variety of music alongside the well-known and much-loved “greats”. What a pity the ABRSM seems unable to move with the times and has instead presented a very staid and, frankly, rather dull set of pieces largely recycled from its exam repertoire.


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