New ABRSM piano syllabus released

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the Teaching Notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus rather than a detailed analysis.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does depress me to see a dull little piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972 still appearing in the syllabus), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, the board promises “a complete refreshment of repertoire” and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades: in practice this approach feels more like a gesture than a real attempt to create a syllabus to suit piano teachers and students in the 21st century. The supporting tests remain unchanged with sight-singing, that part of the aural test that everyone dreads, still intact, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the early grades (1-3) tend towards very “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists. It it almost as if the ABRSM thinks only children learn the piano, and the only concessions to early to intermediate adult learners are Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s ‘A Memory of Paris’ (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ ‘Anatolian 08’ (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s ‘Dream’ from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a broader range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM appears very concerned to maintain its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength of offering a syllabus which aims to combine rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website. The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information


Postscript:

Following some rather heated discussion online about the new ABRSM syllabus, I’d like to make the following observations:

  • I would urge teachers – and students – to select a syllabus which works for them. Adult students in particular may not wish to submit to sight-reading and aural tests and for this reason I recommend the Recital Grades from London College of Music. As mentioned earlier, the LCM repertoire is, in my opinion, the best across the three main boards, with plenty to appeal to adult learner of all abilities.
  • The graded exams (and for that matter Diplomas) across all three main exam boards are all regulated by OFQAL and accrue exactly the same UCAS/academic points (Grades 6-8).
  • Be aware that there is a lot of snobbery surrounding exam boards: many people consider the ABRSM to be “better” or “the best” for a variety of reasons, and dismiss Trinity and LCM without even examining the syllabuses.
  • An exam syllabus should not be used as an exclusive framework for teaching and teachers should include other repertoire to give students a broader appreciation of music
  • Personally, I favour a flexible approach to learning and teaching – and this includes an exam format – which enables students of all ages and abilities to play to their strengths.

Trinity College London

London College of Music

‘Under the Rowan Tree’ by Robert Peate

Following in the footsteps of Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok and Dmitri Kabalevsky, British composer Robert Peate has created a delightful collection of piano miniatures for children. Like Bartok’s For Children and his Mikrokosmos, Peate’s pieces are both imaginative and educational, and range in difficulty from very easy (pre-Grade 1) to more challenging (cGrade 3/4). The early pieces are written in simple 5-finger positions, but utilise dynamics, contrasting articulation, accidentals and the pedal to create interesting and characterful music, which will appeal to children while offering teachers opportunities to explore technique, expression and contrasting styles. There are also duets to play with a teacher, parent or older sibling or friend.

Inspired by the birth of his son Rowan, Peate’s pieces have evocative titles which are immediately appealing to young pianists – Sleepyhead, Cheeky Chappie, Sunrise, Steps to the Stars, Music Box. I particularly liked the more impressionistic pieces such as New Moon, By the Sea and Wind on the Water, and all the pieces offer much scope for expressive shaping and musical imagination.

This is a very welcome addition to contemporary piano literature for children.

Order Under the Rowan Tree

Indian Raags for piano – made easy

If you’ve always wanted to play traditional Indian classical music (“raags” or “ragas“) on piano but have no idea how to start, look no further than composer John Pitts’ new book Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy. This neat volume is a spin-off from John’s popular and acclaimed How To Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano, a comprehensive manual containing 24 raags, all newly composed by John within the raag genre, with detailed contextual information about the genre, step-by-step instructions to play each piece to enable pianists more used to playing western classical music to get started.

both-book-front-cover-slanted

Recognising a gap in the market for a simplified volume, John’s latest offering is aimed at early students (children and adults) and teachers, and provides “an introductory experience of classical Indian music-making”. Attractively laid out, with clear text and clean, easy-to-read music examples, each raag is followed by a short piece incorporating that raag. Each piece offers encouragement to explore and improvise, something I found surprisingly easy once I’d got into the swing of the distinctly Indian sounds (especially the sparkling little runs of notes which imitate the shimmering sounds of the sitar). There are opportunities for teacher and student to play together, and plenty of advice on how to get started with improvising – an area some pianists are reluctant to explore. In addition, there are free MP3s of the music in the book available to download and listen to as additional support and inspiration.

John has made an important contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Indian classical music, and both his books bring this important artform to a wider audience. In addition, he has added intriguing, attractive and engaging new music to the student piano repertoire.

Recommended

Purchase Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy

LCM piano grade handbooks 2018-2020

LCM_Piano_Handbooks_2018

I was delighted to act as a consultant in the selection of piano pieces for the new London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus and I was impressed with the breadth and variety of music under consideration. When I received copies of the new handbooks, I was pleased to see some of the pieces I had suggested included in the new syllabus.

I am a recent convert to LCM music exams, having heard very favourable reports of both the exam formats and repertoire from teaching colleagues and friends who have taken both Grade 8 and the ALCM first level Diploma. LCM is clearly alert to the changing nature of piano teaching in the 21st century and in addition to traditional graded music exams, the board also offers Recital Grades, Leisure Play, Performance Assessment and the new Concert Diploma. This allows teachers and students to select an exam format which suits them (some students, particularly adult learners, prefer not to learn technical work or undergo the stress of aural tests or sight-reading). Several of my more advanced students have opted for the LCM Recital grade and are very much enjoying the repertoire, as am I. If we are to encourage and support students of all levels and ages, I believe it is important to be flexible in one’s approach to exams and to find an appropriate syllabus and format to ensure maximum enjoyment is combined with progress.

The new LCM piano syllabus is impressive in its variety. Across the grades there is a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, “crossover”, and contemporary classical music, as well as core repertoire from the classical canon, which should appeal to all ages and tastes. In the early grades, there are pieces which will suit adult learners (often a problem in other syllabuses, where there is a preponderance of “children’s music”). Of all the exam boards, LCM is the one which features the most music by female and living composers, including works by Max Richter, Joanna Macgregor, Sofia Gubaidulina, Teresa Carreno, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, and Lera Auerbach. In addition, there are pieces by perennially popular composers of accessible and interesting piano exam music, including Pam Wedgwood, Christopher Norton, June Armstrong, Ben Crosland and Elissa Milne.

The handbooks are very well-produced with robust covers and high-quality thick cream paper (very similar to the paper used in Henle Urtext editions). The books are slightly larger than the previous LCM piano handbooks and the typesetting of the music is very clean, uncluttered on the page with clear markings. Each piece is accompanied by a note which gives background information on the composer and the music and guidance on how to explore and shape the music for performance. It is particularly gratifying to find these notes are written by active concert pianists (such as Daniel Grimwood and Zubin Kanga) who are thus able to offer expert experience on how to approach the music in performance.

In addition to the pieces and notes, each handbook contains all the relevant technical work for each grade, two studies, guidance for the Discussion (viva voce) element of the exam, including sample questions, sample sight-reading pieces and notes on the aural tests, all of which should ensure candidates are fully prepared and means teachers/students/parents do not need to purchase additional books of scales and arpeggios or sight-reading exercises.

The new LCM syllabus is valid from 2018 until the end of the summer exam season 2021.

Further information about LCM piano exams, including the complete piano syllabus

A few highlights from the new syllabus:

Grade 1

Quasi Adagio from For Children – Bela Bartok

Grade 2

The Lonely Traveller – Evelyn Glennie

Grade 3

From the Rue Vilin – Max Richter

Grade 4

When Rivers Flowed on Mars – Nancy Telfer

Grade 5

In the Owl’s Turret – Liza Lehman

Grade 6

Railroad (Travel Song) – Meredith Monk, Forest Musicians – Sofia Gubaildulina

Grade 7

D’un jardin clair – Lil Boulanger, Bloodroot – Rachel Grimes

Grade 8

Desdémona – Mel Bonis

Spectrum 5 – 15 contemporary pieces for solo piano

The ‘Spectrum’ series, published by ABRSM, and compiled by acclaimed pianist Thalia Myers, holds a special place in piano repertoire in helping many pianists, young and old, discover the world of new music for piano, what might loosely be termed “contemporary classical music”. The first Spectrum collection appeared in 1996. Commissioned by Thalia Myers, it was a response to the dearth of serious contemporary piano music accessible to the amateur and/or student pianist. The latest volume, Spectrum 5, is now available, making some one hundred and seventy seven contemporary piano pieces available to pianists and piano teachers. Works from the series (5 volumes for solo piano and 1 for piano duet) now appear in exam and competition syllabuses, and are used by teachers of piano and composition as important reference materials. Perhaps what is even more significant is that the series showcases the work of contemporary classical composers around the world, allowing them to distil in miniature, characterful pieces the essence of their compositional language and style.

As in previous volumes, Spectrum 5 offers a broad range of pieces by composers such as Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy, Helen Grime, Chen Yi and Karen Tanaka. The pieces have appealing, evocative, and witty titles – Imaginary Birds, Schrödinger’s Kitten, The Jig is Up, Beethoven’s Robin Adair, Commuterland – to fire the imagination, and range in difficulty from around Grade 6 to Diploma level. The wonderful range, originality and variety of pieces prove that contemporary classical music is not “plinky plonky”, atonal, inaccessible or lacking in melody, and as such as Spectrum series is the best introduction I know to encourage young students in particular to explore contemporary music.

The book contains biographies of all the composers and in most instances, the pieces are accompanied by footnotes by the composers giving background information about their music and guidance on interpretation. There is an accompanying audio download of all the pieces, elegantly and characterfully performed by Thalia Myers.

Recommended.

Further information

‘Spectrum for cello’, compiled by William Bruce, and ‘Spectrum for Clarinet’, by Ian Mitchell, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively.

 

 

Mindfulness – the piano collection

mindfulness-piano-collection-coverI showed this new book from Faber Music to one of my teenage students and she exclaimed “Wow! That’s so cool!”. She told me she liked the design, the selection of pieces and above all the illustrations which one can choose to colour in between practise sessions.

Mindfulness, a simple practice of meditation which encourages one to be “in the present moment”, to banish negative thoughts and alleviate stress and anxiety, is now very popular. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation. It has significant a role in music making and performance, and its benefits have been recognised by practitioners, teachers and musicians – so much so that the Guildhall School of Music and Drama now runs courses on mindfulness for performers.

Adopting a “mindful” approach while engaged in music practise can lead to an increased awareness and help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication.

The pieces in Mindfulness – the Piano Collection have been specially selected to reflect the meditative aspects of mindfulness and to encourage one to play in the moment. There are popular classics such as the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and a transcription of Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’, simplified to suit cGrade 3-4 level players. There are also works by living composers/musicians including Nils Frahm, Howard Goodall, Evelyn Glennie and Ludovico Einaudi (his ‘I Giorni’ perhaps being the most meditative piece in the collection). The general level of the collection is cGrade 4-7. Each piece is preceded by a short introductory paragraph suggesting a simple mindfulness technique to be used while playing, for example:

The simplicity of this piece allows you to give all your attention to the sounds you’re creating. Focus on the hypnotic patterns, harmony and chord changes and if you notice your mind wandering bring your attention back to the music.

[introductory note to ‘Earnestly Yours’ by Keaton Henson]

Of course, students and pianists of all levels should ideally engage in mindful piano playing at all times, but the mind does have a tendency to wander, and the text at the beginning of each piece provides a useful focus. Teachers can work together with students on aspects such as technique, dynamics, articulation and expression.

The book is attractively-designed with an eye-catching treble-clef design on the front cover. A CD of the music might be a useful addition in a subsequent edition, but overall there is much to enjoy in this new collection, and I think it will have a particular appeal for teenage students.

Published by Faber Music RRP £9.99

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

The Adventures of Ivan – piano pieces to delight young and old

The Adventures of Ivan is a suite of eight characterful piano miniatures by Aram Khatchaturian (1903-78), the titles of which suggest a narrative or snapshots in the life of a young boy called Ivan. Perhaps best known for his concertos and scores for the ballets Spartacus and Gayaneh (which includes the brilliant ‘Sabre Dance’), he also composed symphonies and other orchestral works, film and theatre music, chamber and band music, and a large number of patriotic and popular songs. His music is rich in the idioms of his Armenian heritage, marked by a strong rhythmic drive beautiful cantabile melodies and colourful textures. He was one of the most popular and successful composers of the Soviet period, alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The Adventures of Ivan offers a fascinating glimpse into Khatchaturian’s distinctive style. Each piece in the suite has an evocative title which assist the pianist in shaping character, mood, and expression in the music, and each offers interesting technical and musical challenges, making the pieces very satisfying to play and to teach. ‘Ivan Sings’, for example, (the first work in the suite, written in 1926, and the best known) is marked Andantino and cantabile and has a singing melody in the right hand over tenuto chords in the left hand, which turn into a gentle syncopated rhythm in the second half of the piece. There is much scope for shaping of the melody, understanding how to balance the melody with the accompaniment, and syncopated pedal. The descending melody and piquant harmonies lend a wistfulness to this piece which is hard to resist.

In contrast, ‘Ivan Can’t Go Out Today’, scored in 3/8, has the dancing, swirling rhythms of a tarantella and is an exercise in coordination between the hands. It’s lively and dramatic, with crunchy harmonies, emphasised by accents to suggest Ivan’s frustration at being kept indoors, perhaps because it is raining or maybe because he has been naughty. But the final C major chord suggests the sun has come out again and Ivan is allowed out to play.

‘Ivan Goes to a Party’ is a humorous light-hearted waltz with hints of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Op 18 (particularly in its grandiose opening), while ‘Ivan is Very Busy’ is a sparkling little number, all staccato chattering. The works are intermediate level (the first two are cGrade 3) and there is much to delight pianists young and old in this charming suite.