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

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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.

 

New books for pianists from Trinity College London

It’s good to see Trinity College London extending its publishing programme to include more books for pianists, including collections of pieces from beginner to advanced level, and a compilation of piano exercises, selected from past exam syllabuses, all of which offer excellent resources for teachers and students alike.

Raise the Bar is a new series of graded pieces from Initial to Grade 8 showcasing favourite repertoire from past Trinity exam syllabuses. Edited by acclaimed teacher, pianist and writer Graham Fitch, each book contains an attractive selection of pieces in a range of styles and periods. Teaching notes for each piece are included, highlighting aspects such as technical challenges, structure, rhythm and expression, and each book contains a summary at the back containing the composer, title, key, time signature, tempo markings and characteristics of each piece. There is a good range of music to suit all tastes and the teaching notes can be used as a springboard for further discussion between teacher and student or a basic starting point for independent study. These books provide useful additional repertoire for students preparing for exams or simply for playing for pleasure and broadening one’s repertoire and knowledge of different style of music.


Piano Dreams is an attractively-designed series of books containing pieces for beginner and early intermediate pianists composed by Anne Terzibaschitsch. The pieces will particularly appeal to younger children with their imaginative titles and fun illustrations. Programmatic text weaves elements of story-telling into the pieces to stimulate the player’s imagination and encourage more expressive and colourful playing. There are notes on each piece highlighting aspects of technique or expression. In addition to the solo pieces, there are two books of piano duets in the same format.

I am a big fan of Trinity’s Piano Exercises which students learn as part of their grade exams. The exercises are designed to develop particular aspects of piano technique and many directly relate to pieces in the exam syllabus, offering the teacher the opportunity to introduce students to the concept of the ‘Etude’ or Study. This new compilation of selected exercises ranges from Initial to Grade 8 and each has a descriptive title to inspire students to interpret the music imaginatively (thus reinforcing the idea behind Etudes by Chopin and Liszt – that pieces should be both challenging and musical, testing technique and musicality). These exercises provide a useful resource for developing secure technique and can be used alongside repertoire to inform and extend students’ technical and musical capabilities.

More information about Trinity College London music publications here

Encore – your favourite ABRSM piano exam pieces

There are numerous anthologies of piano pieces which sit comfortably alongside the exam syllabuses, many of which are published by the ABRSM. Encore is a new compilation, in four volumes covering Grades 1 to 8, of over 70 favourite exam pieces from timeless classics to contemporary classical music and popular songs and show tunes or TV themes. Selected by Karen Marshall, one half of the team behind the Get Set! Piano series, the opinions of teachers, educators and piano students were sought in deciding which pieces to include. The result is a collection of music which will appeal to all ages and abilities.

 

By necessity such a selection is quite subjective, but overall I find the range of repertoire is interesting and stimulating and will suit most tastes. The earlier volumes are particularly strong, with some of my personal favourites (and favourites of my students too) such as African Dance, A Song of Erin, Vampire Blues and Top Cat featuring in the first book.

The clear, spacious layout of the pieces is familiar from the ABRSM exam books and each piece includes a footnote with concise information to help the student’s understanding of the piece, from details about the composer to guidance on tempo, articulation, phrasing, and ideas for further exploration which include practical musicianship, an area often overlooked in tutor books and anthologies. These include, suggestions on how to memorize, further listening, identifying musical patterns or motifs, simple structural analysis, keyboard spatial awareness, and in the later grades guidance on comparing different interpretations of the same piece or understanding how a fugue is constructed. There is no accompanying CD for the books, but I suspect most repertoire can be found online, on YouTube or via a music streaming platform.

I have already begun to use pieces from the Encore series to broaden my students’ repertoire. Far too many students “go through the grades” without learning any additional repertoire: thus by Grade 8 they will have learnt only 24 pieces. The Encore series offers an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to explore new and varied repertoire which will suit individual abilities and preferences, and hopefully encourage enjoyed and engagement with the piano and its literature.

The Encore books can be ordered direct from the ABRSM or other sheet music retailers.

 

What Are Piano Lessons For?

This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving. Elissa Milne

What Are Piano Lessons For?.