This is a transcript of an article I wrote to accompany the release of Trinity College London’s new piano syllabus, for which I also contributed teaching notes.
Here I introduce the new piano syllabus for Grades 3 to 5 and explores some of my favourite pieces from the repertoire. For music examples, please see the original article, published on TCL’s website
A new syllabus is always eagerly anticipated by teachers and there’s a great deal of pleasure and excitement in browsing the new selection of music and considering which pieces will appeal to our students and which ones we will enjoy teaching.
As teachers, we really 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 is to create a syllabus with a broad appeal but which also addresses the appropriate technical and artistic issues for each grade. And with so many adults taking up the piano, there is also a need to offer repertoire, especially in the early and intermediate grades, which suits their musical tastes.
Trinity’s new piano syllabus offers both a balanced teaching curriculum and a wide range of repertoire, from the Renaissance to contemporary, and the commissioning of new works through the Young Composers’ Competition has produced brand new music to explore. In addition to providing an overview of music history, the inclusion of newly-commissioned music is an important reminder that composers are still alive and working today, and their contribution to the repertoire is significant. There is also a good quota of pieces by women composers, including Fanny Hensel (sister of Felix Mendelssohn), Amy Beach and Madeleine Dring, as well contemporary composers Pam Wedgwood and Nikki Iles, both of whom write popular, accessible music for piano students.
In each grade band, the syllabus addresses the needs of the less confident and the more ambitious student, and those in between, as well as the inclusion of music to suit the tastes of teenagers and adults, who don’t necessarily want to play music that is too ‘kid-oriented’. For example, at Grade 3 adult students may well enjoy pieces such as Andante (Haydn) and Ballad (Tadman-Robins); at Grade 4 Étude (Lemoine) or Remembrance (Mifsud); and at Grade 5 Süße Traumerei (Tchaikovsky) or Large Wave (Wedgwood). Meanwhile, there is no shortage of pieces to delight the younger student, from nDcvr Agnt (Lynch/Grade 3) to Calypso (Knowles/Grade 4) and Settle Down (Goodwin/Grade 5). All of the pieces offer scope to harness the imagination to bring the music to life in performance – and examiners certainly enjoy hearing pieces which are played with character!
The intermediate grades (3 to 5) serve as an important bridge in students’ musical development. By Grade 3, students should now be: confident in playing hands together, with more involved hand independence and awareness of keyboard geography; proficient in note reading; have some technical facility (including staccato, legato, scale and arpeggio figures); an ability to play with expression; and some musical knowledge. By Grade 5, students should be able to: demonstrate good command of the instrument with confident technical facility; secure reading skills; good musical knowledge; and perform their pieces with some independent artistic, stylistic and interpretative choices. What is particularly satisfying about the Trinity repertoire, from the point of view of both teacher and student, is that all of these aspects are fully addressed within the context of music which is appealing, attractive and accessible to players of all ages and which encompasses a broad range of musical styles and genres, from mainstream classical music to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary piano music.
My picks from the new syllabus
This cheerful piece by Diabelli displays all the characteristics of late Classical-era music in miniature form and is a delightful opportunity for pupil and teacher to play together. Not only are duets great fun to play, they also provide important learning tools, for example time-keeping, coordination and balance between the parts. Contrasting articulation and dynamics, and a clear pulse are key to bringing this enjoyable piece to life. A great opportunity for students to practice very precise, crisp staccato and accents, which add to the music’s drama and humour. This piece will appeal to students of all ages.
The coded title gives a good clue to the mysterious character of this piece and there is much scope for expressive, colourful playing. There is also the opportunity to use the pedal here, showing how it can be employed to enhance the atmosphere of the music, as well as assisting in legato playing. An appealing piece for younger students, who will enjoy using their imagination to bring the music fully to life.
The Sleepy Panda
This piece, by Edric Tan, was a winner in the Trinity Young Composer’s Competition. Many younger students are intrigued by the black keys of the piano and the special, ‘Eastern’ sound created when playing only on the black notes. This expressive piece gives students a wonderful opportunity to really appreciate the distinct soundworld of the black keys and the pentatonic scale. The notes themselves are not that challenging, but pedal is employed throughout, providing an excellent opportunity to practice good legato pedal technique while also bringing greater atmosphere to the music. A very appealing piece for students of all ages.
Étude No. 23
A sophisticated early Romantic piece which combines a variety of techniques with artistic expression. Here students can begin to make their own interpretative and artistic decisions as the music offers plenty of scope for characterful playing. This piece will suit a more ambitious student with confident knowledge of keyboard geography and good musical imagination.
Balloons in the Air
This lovely piece combines jazz-infused harmonies, pedal and expression to create music which is wonderfully atmospheric. It requires great accuracy in the placing of the hands and chords, and from a technical point of view is an excellent exercise in keyboard geography and managing leaps. It’s surprisingly sophisticated, despite the seeming simplicity of the scoring, and will appeal to more artistically mature students and those with an interest in jazz.
Another Young Composer Competition winner, this elegant piece will suit the more technically and artistically assured player and would certainly appeal to teenagers and adults. This piece will suit a more ambitious player as it employs a number of techniques including lateral arm movement (for the LH broken chord figures) and voicing, to manage both a melody and accompaniment in the right hand. The nostalgic, rather poignant character of this music offers plenty of scope for expressive playing and more personal interpretative choices, for example, in the use of rubato to enhance the mood.
This vivacious dance is a wonderful opportunity to discover some English Renaissance music and to find out more about the kind of keyboard instruments which were played before the invention of the piano. This may also inform teacher and student’s approach to stylistic aspects of the music. Technical challenges include legato chords, clear articulation and precise rhythmic control to highlight the dance character. While there are limited dynamics marked, this should not deter the student from employing more expressive elements in their playing.
A lively, perpetual motion piece, this is an excellent example of characterful contemporary piano music and will appeal to players of all ages. It combines a number of technical demands – hand independence, ostinato bass, contrasting articulation – with a full range of expressive elements, and will suit a more confident student.
Another sophisticated contemporary piano piece, this music is inspired by the Japanese artist Hokusai’s ‘Large Wave’ and owes something to the music of Claude Debussy in its impressionistic character. As such, it will appeal to more ambitious students who are able to manage its technical and artistic challenges, and it presents the opportunity to demonstrate how fluid hand and arm gestures inform and enhance the sound in performance. It’s definitely a piece that adult students or teenagers would enjoy playing. There is great scope for expression and a degree of artistic freedom is invited from the start.
The new piano syllabus 2021-23 is available now. Full details on TCL’s website