It’s sad to find the all-too-common snobbery in classical music creeping in to reactions to the new piano syllabus from the ABRSM – a syllabus which has undergone quite a significant transformation from previous years to reflect the needs and tastes of piano students and teachers in the 21st century. (You can read detailed reviews of the new syllabus here and here.). Some piano teachers clearly don’t think it is appropriate for the ABRSM to include music by “the world’s most popular composer” Ludovico Einaudi in the new piano exam syllabus.
Some think Einaudi’s music is the piano equivalent of “eating Macdonalds”, that it is not sufficiently rigorous for inclusion in an exam syllabus, or that it “certainly isn’t music that most classically-trained piano teachers could take seriously to prepare an exam student” because “it’s cheap, pop piano”.
This “cheap, pop piano” music has earned Einaudi millions – in revenue and, more importantly, fans. His music is hugely popular (he has more followers on Spotify than Mozart), his concerts sell out (he played seven sold out concerts at London’s Barbican last year; The Guardian music critic sneeringly described the music as “nothing to listen to”). His brand of melodic, ambient “post-classical” music is easy on the ear and is particularly appealing to teenagers and young adults (one of my teenage piano students went to hear Einaudi in concert and absolutely loved it – and talked very articulately about what she liked about the music at her next lesson with me).
I’m pleased to see his music included in the new ABRSM syllabus. In my opinion, it’s about time the ABRSM recognised the popularity of this composer. I made the case for the inclusion of Einaudi at an early syllabus consultation meeting with the ABRSM; reasons for not including it were “it’s too popular” and “it’s too long”, neither of which are valid, and it’s good to see the ABRSM has not only recognised Einaudi’s contribution to contemporary music but also the fact that a modern syllabus needs a broad range of music to appeal to different ages and tastes and reflecting current trends in music.
I have taught several pieces by Einaudi, including L’Onde, I Giorni and Ombre. One of the criticisms often levelled at his music is that it’s “simplistic”, but all of these pieces present technical and artistic challenges, including playing octaves/large stretches (which require good lateral arm movement), changing time signatures, voicing and pedalling. It also offers “a great source of harmonic understanding. And, if so inclined, it can be used as a comparison to other music to demonstrate different levels of complexity harmonically across different genres…..” (Rebecca Singerman Knight, piano teacher).
As teachers, we appreciate the importance of finding pieces that will encourage students to practice, and – more importantly – enjoy their practising, and also foster a love of music. Variety is key here, I think, and a good selection of repertoire will enable teachers to find the right music to suit each individual student. The task therefore for any exam board is to create a syllabus with a broad appeal, while also ensuring that the repertoire selected offers at least a limited overview of music history if possible.
Grades 4 and 5 can be quite challenging for some students; not only do these grades represent a more significant step up from the early grades, but many students come to them at the time when they are switching from primary to secondary school, when peer group pressure increases and it may not be “cool” to be learning the piano. Teachers need to find ways to continue to engage students and perhaps the most signfiicant factor in this is repertoire. Students will not remain enthusiastic about their piano studies if they are playing music which they dislike. The music of Ludovico Einaudi is very popular amongst teenagers in particular, and also adult students. If this is a way to keep them engaged and to ensure piano lessons remain enjoyable and stimulating, then I see no reason why this music should not be included in an exam syllabus.
It is not helpful to sneer at this kind of music, to suggest it is “too simplistic” or has no merit. These kinds of attitudes merely perpetuate the idea that classical music is elitist and inaccessible. Our job as teachers should be to prove the opposite, as passionately and enthustiastically as we can.
Let’s not forget that superstar pianist Lang Lang was introduced to classical music via popular culture (watching Tom & Jerry cartoons).
Some comments from other piano teachers:
“….everything is change or die at the moment. If they don’t accommodate modern taste, they will be overtaken by MTB, LCM and Trinity. It is a small step towards a more diverse and overdue curriculum” – AH
“I think its right that ABRSM are working hard to remain relevant in a vastly changing world of music“ – RD
“For many of my teenage pupils he [Einaudi] has been the gateway to a joy Classical of music. They love playing his pieces and from there we moved on to other composers.” – JK
Some other similar composers to explore: