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

Exam-obsessed?

The longer I teach (over 11 years at the time of writing), the more anti-exams I have become. For many – teachers, students and parents – exams are the visible benchmarks of progress, not just in music but in education in general. Children and young people are constantly tested, almost from the moment they enter school, and our society is now thoroughly geared to measuring of progress through objective standards or metrics (or “box ticking”). Exams and a structured curriculum are efficient from a teaching point of view as they can help students and teachers measure and compare progress, and the music exam structure allows students to sample music from different periods and genres, improve their technique etc. Many students take graded music exams each year, drawing pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument: I wouldn’t every wish to denigrate nor deprive students of these achievements – I went through the entire graded music exam system myself as a child and teenager and I drew a lot of satisfaction from it.

But we now live in a culture which is overly obsessed with attainment, competition and grading: the exam certificate is symbolic of “talent” but not necessarily indicative of actual talent, merely an ability to fulfil the requirements of the exam syllabus.  By the time I’d completed all my ABRSM grade exams at 16, I was a competent pianist, but those grade exams did not truly feed nor foster my musicianship and musicality – that came from exploring music by going to concerts and the opera, listening to my parents’ LPs or Radio Three, and my O and A-level music classes, where I learnt how to read and harmonise figured bass, how to compose a simple song accompaniment and how to analyse musical works in detail. I also played the clarinet as a teenager and this gave me the opportunity to learn how to transpose.

All this reminds me of a conversation with my driving instructor on the day I passed my driving test (in my early 30s, after three attempts). He shook my hand, gave me the official piece of paper and then said “Now you’re going to learn how to be a real driver.” Pianist and piano teacher Dylan Christopher expresses this perfectly with reference to music: “You pass the exam when you are ready, but you are not ready just because you passed an exam.” (read Dylan’s At the Piano interview here). What Dyan is of course saying is that grade exams do not necessarily make musicians. Students whose music tuition only follows the exam path may reach Grade 8 having learnt only 24 pieces of music – hardly what could be describe as “varied repertoire”! Nor does this route offer much opportunity for broadening a student’s musical horizons or developing an appreciation of music.

Unfortunately, a lot of parents believe graded music exams are Very Important (interestingly, those who took music exams as children themselves are often less concerned about their own children “doing the grades”). Many don’t really understand that the proper study of music is very broad, far broader than the narrow confines of the exam syllabus. In addition, there’s a lot of competition at the schoolgate, especially if you live in an area populated by high-achieving, ambitious people, as I do (read more on this here), and this competitiveness inevitably filters down to the children: not only are kids being tested to within an inch of their lives at school, they are also being pushed to take music exams by their parents…..

A recent encounter with one of my advanced students reminded me uncomfortably of how exam-driven/exam-obsessed young people are today. Her piano practise time has been eroded by the demands of school work (she is working towards the International Baccalaureate at a respected private school in SW London) and she has not progressed as far as I had hoped with current Grade 8 repertoire (though I am fairly relaxed about this). By the time she enters the Upper Sixth in September, her primary focus will be her schoolwork and university applications (which is how it should be). But she is adamant she wants to take Grade 8 because, to paraphrase her, she wants the “complete set” of graded exams.

This to me is not a valid reason to take an exam. If she had said “Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, and I really like the music”, I would have been more sympathetic to her decision. But does she really need that Grade 8 certificate to validate her pianistic abilities? I don’t believe she does. She is very musical (she also plays the ‘cello and is involved in drama and dance too), she plays with expression, poise and confidence, and is able to work independently. These abilities are not going to disappear if she doesn’t attain Grade 8. She is already playing Grade 8 and early Diploma repertoire, and I think anyone hearing her would agree she is a very competent and sensitive musician.

Rather than go down the narrow exam route, this student has a number of other options if she wants to put her music before another set of ears and receive formal critical feedback on her playing. She could have her performance assessed by a more senior colleague of mine or she could do a Performance Certificate (Trinity College London offers this option) or a Performance Award (London College of Music – info here). Alternatively, she could continue to work on and play the varied repertoire she enjoys (she’s currently playing a Chopin Waltz and late Nocturne, one of Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances and Gershwin’s The Man I love – all pieces which offer plenty of technical and artistic challenges), and go on to learn and enjoy other music which will stretch her and allow her to explore the wider piano repertoire. Personally, I feel this approach is far more beneficial to her ongoing musicianship and musicality than the highly artificial process of a formal exam, where one is playing to satisfy a set of criteria set out by the exam board (more box ticking) and the examiner’s personal tastes (to a certain degree).

It’s very encouraging to see music exam boards responding to the changing wishes/needs of music students, particularly adult students, who may want the challenge of taking a music exam without all the technical work and sight-reading/aural tests (the London College of Music Recital Grade for example is a performance-based assessment, with a viva voce). Imaginative syllabuses with a broad range of repertoire and alternative exam formats now offer prospective candidates a far wider range of exam options.

There is no “right way” of course, and as a teacher it is my role to advise and support my students, whichever path they wish to follow.

 

 


Further reading

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

Grade Exams Don’t Make Musicians

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

This a question I believe we as teachers should all be asking our pupils. It came up in conversation between myself and my friend and teaching colleague Rebecca, and we agreed that in future all students should be asked to consider this question.

Why?

Because it is all too easy for teachers to become complacent about exams and for students to submit studying for grade exams without considering exactly why they want to take them.

I want to get to Grade 8 before I leave school

This was from one of my teenage students. He didn’t elaborate on this statement, and at the time (about 2 years ago)  I didn’t challenge him. As I recall, I think I was quite impressed by his determination. He sees exams as things to be attained and ticked off the list so that one can move onto the next one……

Because I enjoy having a goal to work towards, I really like the music – and because my mum wants me to do it

This is more encouraging, but the last comment worries me. Studying music should come from a passion and a willingness to engage with the subject in a mindful way. It should not be about notching up achievements which parents can parade as a kind of trophy or used for bragging rights

I don’t know

This student hadn’t really thought about the question at all…..! In this instance, one might wish to question why the student is taking piano lessons at all. Are they having lessons because they genuinely enjoy learning the piano, or because they are simply complying with parental wishes?

Here is my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight on this subject

I’ll only enter students for exams if it something that they really want to do. When the subject arises (“when am I going to do an exam?” or “when are we going to start working on Grade X pieces?“) I’ll ask them if they want to do an exam and, if so, why. I’ll make it very clear to them that they don’t have to do it – it’s not like school, where they have to sit exams whether they like it or not! Clearly I’ll also involve the parents in these discussions, especially with my younger students – but ultimately I have to be convinced that the student themself wants to do it.

Answers such as “all my friends do them” or “my parents expect me to” or “dunno” really don’t cut it for me. They won’t be motivated to work hard, and there is a real possibility that the process of preparing for the exam will put them off the piano altogether. However if the students come up with some or all of the following answers then it’s all systems go!:

– they want something to aim for and know that they work best when a specific goal is in mind

– the opportunity to learn 3 contrasting pieces to a very high standard

– the sense of achievement that comes with working hard towards a goal and then succeeding,

– the discipline it provides in preparing not just the pieces but for the scales and supporting tests

– they are taking (or thinking about taking) music at GCSE or A Level and believe that a graded exam will help towards this

Clearly they also need to be prepared to put in the work, and I make it clear that regular, probably daily, practice is essential. We then enter a few months of ‘exam boot camp’ – after all, if we’re going to do it we are going to do it properly!

Once an exam is done, I won’t allow the student to go onto the next grade until some specific non-exam objectives are met. Typically this involves spending one or two terms on a “X-piece challenge” in which we both agree a target number of pieces to learn to a reasonable (but not necessarily exam) standard. This provides a real contrast from the process of working on only 3 pieces – and really broadens their repertoire. Some students may also want to include their own compositions in the target. Only once the target is met will we discuss whether or not to start preparing for the next exam – and of they want to then the question is asked again!

In the affluent leafy suburbs of London where Rebecca and I both teach one quite often comes up against parents who demand that students are pushed into exams simply to notch up those results. Sadly, many parents, and some students, do not appreciate that with a complex art form such as music it takes time and effort (practising, engagement with that art form) to acquire the necessary skills to be able to take music exams. As the longstanding and highly experienced cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly notes in her article in the latest edition of ‘Music Teacher‘ magazine, today music lessons are viewed by some parents as a commercial transaction: “Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product” [exam success]. Teachers are expected by such parents to produce students capable of passing exams, yet the parents (and students) are not prepared to put in the effort to ensure practising is done. They focus on the exam as the end result, without appreciating that application and engagement are crucial in achieving that result, and instead, as Alison says, “instrumental music has become talismanic for middle-class achievement and accomplishment“.

I am fortunate that any students whose parents exhibit these attitudes have now left my studio (from the child whose mother asked me to “fast track him to Grade 5” – this was a pre-Grade 1 student – to enable him to apply for a music scholarship to a smart private school, to the parent who told me anything lower than a distinction in her daughter’s Grade 4 exam would be “unacceptable”), and I am blessed with a group of very engaged and committed students, who not only want to progress and achieve in their musical studies, but who also understand (in part, I hope, through my coaching and encouragement) that studying and playing music can bring huge pleasure and satisfaction.

My teaching philosophy is founded on a wish to encourage and support my students as individuals, but I will always question the student (or parent) who, on completion of one exam, wants to embark on the journey to the next one straight away.

Why do you want to take a piano exam?

 

Further reading

Exams don’t make musicians

Why take a music exam?

 

Grade exams don’t make musicians 

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these simply success as “bragging rights”. Do these achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure…..

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a  piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier. A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent

 

 

 

 

Exam mark sheets: help or hindrance?

 

It’s that time of the year again – exam season, when teachers and students everywhere are awaiting the results of their practical exams.

All exam candidates receive a mark sheet which includes brief commentaries on and marks for their pieces, technical work (scales, arpeggios and exercises), aural tests, sight-reading etc. At the bottom of the sheet is the most important number: the total number of marks gained which will indicate a Pass, Merit or Distinction.

Mark sheets are useful, but there is some debate amongst my teaching friends and colleagues as to how useful they are. I think it’s important to bear in mind that examiners are limited by time and space to write detailed commentaries. I used to photocopy the mark sheets and give them to my students, but now I extract the most useful and positive comments and discuss these with each student individually. I believe students should receive positive messages from examiners and teachers, so I tend to keep the negative comments back or rephrase them so that the student understands where marks might have been gained or lost. Often comments reinforce areas which have come up in lessons or highlight aspects which require further or more detailed study, and can be applied to new repertoire. Trinity exams divide the marking for the pieces into three sections which I find far more helpful – Fluency & Accuracy, Technical Facility and Communication & Expression.

Occasionally I have read a mark sheet which seems unnecessarily negative while the student has actually scored a good mark, or which to bear no resemblance at all to the student I know and teach. And sometimes, the examiner’s handwriting is simply impossible to decipher! In all cases, I think it is important to remember that an exam is just a snapshot of the student’s attainment, at that time, and that as teachers we should know our students well – their strengths and weaknesses, musical tastes, confidence etc. I know plenty of teachers who do not enter their students for graded exams for this very reason, but in my experience, most students, especially children, enjoy the challenge of working towards an exam or assessment and are always proud of the smart certificates they receive. And for both student and teacher, exams can be useful for benchmarking and assessing progress.

As teachers, we owe it to our students to judge when is the best time for them to enter for an exam and to structure their learning to ensure they are well-prepared.

Trinity College London graded music exams assessment criteria (PDF document)

ABRSM graded music exams marking criteria (PDF document)

 

(Picture source: SE22 Piano School)

 

Why take a music exam?

When I was learning the piano as a child, I remember feeling that I was chained to an exam treadmill: every year I took another exam, and as soon as the exam was over and the results were in, I moved on to the next grade’s syllabus. I did all this willingly, because it pleased my parents and my teacher, and I suppose I was pretty pleased too, to receive a smart Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music certificate as proof of my achievement.

My teaching philosophy is to make piano lessons fun and to share with my students – children and adults – my passion for and love of the piano and its literature. No one is obligated to take an exam in my studio, but in these days of ‘anti-competitive’ sports days at our primary schools, I find that most of the children I teach are keen to take graded exams, as a measure of where they are in their piano studies, and proof that they can do it.

For students who have been immersed in study for an exam for more than a term or two, it can sometimes be difficult to remain focussed on the task in hand and to remember why one is taking a music exam.

Motivation: taking a music exam encourages commitment, stimulates the student to practice and gives the student an extra nudge to their learning. Success in an exam offers a real sense of achievement, and the student will receive a report with positive, helpful comments and constructive criticism, plus a smart certificate which can be framed.

Benchmarking: Achieving a graded music exam gives the student a sense of where he or she is in their studies, and a visible, recognised measure of personal progress and attainment. Meeting other students who are further advanced in their exams is a useful and inspiring pointer to what can be achieved next or in the future. Graded music exams are also recognised by other teachers, schools, colleges and universities, and show that you have reached a certain level of competency as a musician and instrumentalist.

Building skills: Graded music exams are designed so that skills such as technique, memorisation and musical awareness can be developed gradually and thoroughly.

Exploring repertoire: At every level, from Initial/Prep Test to Grade 8, there is a good range of repertoire to choose from, from Baroque to present-day and jazz. This allows students to offer varied and interesting programmes, and to enjoy studying a range of musical styles.

Boosting confidence: The experience of playing for someone else, whether it is teacher, examiner, adjudicator or before an invited audience is incredibly valuable. Learning to deal with performance anxiety and playing a programme of whatever length to others builds confidence and presentation skills which can be transferred to other areas of your life.

Exams are not for everyone, of course, and some students, especially adults, are happy to study a variety of repertoire of varying degrees of difficulty for their own interest. For me, the most important aspect is to introduce students to as wide a range of music as possible, and to encourage listening, sharing and enjoyment of music. Between exams, I like to teach ‘step up’ repertoire, which allows the student to transition comfortably from one grade to another.

The spring exam season will soon be upon us. To all students, junior and advanced, young and old, I wish you the very best of luck.