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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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)

 

Celebrate every pass, merit and distinction

Now is the season of piano teachers up and down the country expectantly waiting for the sound of exam results dropping through the letterbox or into their email inbox. The summer season for graded music exams is the busiest and results are coming in thick and fast. It is cheering to see from colleagues’ posts on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs that students are achieving excellent results in their grades. Of course we want to celebrate our students’ successes in achieving a Merit or a Distinction in their piano exams, but we should also pause to consider the value of a pass. It’s not “just a pass”. As my colleague David Barton expresses eloquently in his own article on this subject:

We’re very focussed these days on results. I am conscious that when I send my own pupils for flute, piano or singing exams here in Lichfield, or in Sutton Coldfield, it is the result rather than the experience which is at the forefront of their minds. Children are driven to succeed at school, and adults the same at work; there are targets to be met every step of the way. Whilst when I was having lessons as a child, I and most of my friends would have been happy to pass an exam, more and more people are now hunting for that elusive merit or distinction mark. There is a lot of talk from parents, particularly online, about exam results; there’s an inevitable competitive edge. It can be disheartening for pupils who’ve worked very hard for their exam to be made to feel that they have somehow fallen short of the standard by not achieving either a merit or distinction. But let’s stand back and look at the wider perspective.

If we think about most HE level exams and assessments, the pass mark is often 40%. For graded music exams, the pass mark is normally around 65%. This means that any candidate achieving even just the pass mark has ensured that well over half the material presented was commendable.

Music exams are hard. Maybe they have dumbed down slightly from when I took mine in the 1970s and early 80s, but graded music exams are still challenging, not least because the student is required to take the exam alone, and to perform to an examiner whom they have never met before. For some students, children and adults in particular, this can be an incredibly daunting prospect, let alone processing all the notes and being able to play the assigned music in an expressive and meaningful way. Alongside the repertoire, there are scales, technical exercises, sight-reading, aural tests: taken all together, these elements create a very comprehensive test of one’s musical ability. Teachers can help their students perform confidently and with poise by assisting them in the preparation of their pieces and technical material, by offering advice on stagecraft and performance anxiety, and be reassuring them that it is about the whole experience, the chance to show off one’s playing to someone else, rather than the end result which is an important part of one’s musical development.

So every result is worth celebrating and teachers should congratulate their students, whatever the mark achieved. (I would like to congratulate my students Jessica, Vicky and Daniel who achieved Merits and a pass in their exams this summer.)

Further reading:

Why a grade 1 pass is a superb result (article by David Barton)

What is Grade 1? (article by Rebecca Singerman-Knight)

Be prepared! Getting ready for your piano exam

Here is some advice to help you prepare for your piano exam, at whatever level.

  • You should aim to be ready for your exam at least two weeks ahead of the exam date. By this time, your pieces will be thoroughly learnt and finessed, and your technical work (scales and arpeggios, technical exercises etc) should be very secure. Last-minute learning is never a good idea, as it can make us panicky and may lead to additional nerves on the day.
  • Your practising in the weeks leading up to the exam date should take now take two forms:
  1. Detailed practising to make sure everything is fully covered in your pieces. Be especially careful to note dynamics and articulation, ornaments, and any other features of the pieces which need to be highlighted in performance. Any uncertain passages should be gone over slowly and carefully to make sure they are fully learnt.
  2. Practice “playing through” without stopping to correct mistakes. Get into the habit of “performing” your pieces and think about how you want to transmit the music to the audience. Always think of an exam as a performance (rather than something to be tolerated and “got through”!). How do you want to “tell the story” of the music? What images, moods and emotions do you want to convey to the audience?
  • Your teacher will help you practice aural training and sight-reading in your lessons, but you can help yourself by listening to music at home. See if you can hear the beat/pulse of the music and practising clapping to it. If you have another musician in the family, ask them to play a short rhythm on the piano which you should clap back. Or get them to play a few notes for you to sing to. When listening to music, keep your ears alert for interesting features, such as changes in dynamics or articulation (staccato, legato etc).
  • Your teacher should do a few “mock” exams with you so you are familiar with the format of the exams. ABRSM exams usually begin with technical work, then the pieces, then sight-reading and aural. You will feel confident and prepared if you know what to expect in the exam.
  • If you have a tendency to suffer from performance nerves, discuss this with your teacher. We all have different ways of dealing with nerves, but one of the best ways is to know that you are well-prepared, so that even a slight slip or error in your playing will not throw you off course in the exam. I also use deep-breathing and positive thinking techniques to help with nerves. But remember – it’s ok to feel nervous! And a little bit of anxiety on the day can make you play better.
  • In the last few days before the exam, don’t over-practice! At this stage, it is possible for mistakes to creep into your pieces and it can then be very difficult to unlearn them. Enjoy playing your pieces, keep your technical work fluid and accurate, and look forward to performing your pieces to the examiner.
  • On the day: arrive at the exam centre in good time. The steward will tell you where to wait – and don’t be shy about asking to use the loo if you need to! Make sure you feel comfortable before you go into the exam room. Many exam centres have a practice piano: do use it, but only if you want to. However, I would not recommend playing your entire programme of pieces in warm up. Some light exercises, a few scales and maybe the beginnings and endings of your pieces.
  • In the exam room, be poised and calm. Adjust the piano stool height if you need to, and make sure you feel comfortable before you start. If you are feeling nervous, take a deep breath before you start and as you breathe out, allow your hands to float onto the keyboard into the position for the first piece. Or, if you are starting with scales, take a moment to think about the starting position. Don’t rush.
  • During the aural and sight-reading sections of the exam, if anything is unclear, don’t be afraid of asking the examiner to repeat an instruction or question. And in the sight-reading exercise, keep going not matter what!
  • Remember: the examiner wants you to do your absolute best and is not there to trick you or trip you up. Play with a sense of enjoyment, as a performer
  • And finally….. GOOD LUCK!!!!

Useful resources:

A helpful article by concert pianist and teacher Graham Fitch on exam preparation

My Turn Next – a booklet on exam preparation from the ABSM

ABRSM Mini Guide to Exams

Picture Scales & Arpeggios

Here are some useful visual aids for students and teachers. I have found these picture scales and arpeggios particularly helpful with younger students or those who find it easier to visualise the notes on the keyboard rather than reading from the score. They are relevant for ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall exams.

Click on the link to download a PDF document:

Scales:

1 Octave Major Picture Scales

1 Octave Minor Picture Scales

2 Octave Major Picture Scales

2 Octave Minor Picture Scales

Arpeggios:

2 Octave Major Arpeggios

2 Octave Minor Arpeggios

(These diagrams come from Susan Paradis Teaching Resources and Discoveries Piano Studio, two websites which contains lots of useful resources for piano teachers and students).

Guest Post: Piano exams success – 9 key points

With the spring exam season upon us, I asked a friend and colleague of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has experience as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), to offer some tips on how to do well. Here are her 9 key points for exam success:

 

  1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence equals distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.
  2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.
  3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.
  4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.
  5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).
  6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.
  7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should develop is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having ‘practice runs’ will help you do this.
  8. Remember the exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.
  9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good luck!!

Further resources:

Why take a music exam?

Magnus playing Vampire Blues by Kevin Wooding (ABRSM Grade 1 piano List C):

http://soundcloud.com/cross-eyedpianist/magnus-vampire-blues

Melanie Spanswick is a concert pianist and writer. More on Melanie at her blog ClassicalMel.