ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-2: The Big Review

Sheet Music Review

The launch of ABRSM’s biennial piano syllabus is always a significant event in the piano education world: particularly in the UK and Far East, where the exam board’s offerings remain hugely popular and influence much of what is taught.

For their 2021-22 syllabus ABRSM are heralding several structural changes:

  • A new Initial Grade, providing a pre-Grade 1 assessment that follows the same structure, content and marking criteria as their other graded music exams 
  • Completely revised repertoire lists and scales requirements
  • A revised list structure, with lists defined by musical characteristics rather than period of composition
  • More choice and variety of repertoire (30 pieces per grade)
  • A duet option from Initial Grade to Grade 3
  • A one-year overlap period, with the 2019 & 2020 syllabus valid until 31 December 2021.

I will review the new Scales & Arpeggios syllabus and supporting publications separately within the next few days.

ABRSM have also announced a “remote” alternative to their Practical Grades, which you can read about here. Although dubbed Performance Grades this is somewhat a misnomer; unlike the Practical Grades, where candidates must face performing live to an examiner, these new assessments take the form of a submitted recording of four pieces, including three from the Grade syllabus.

This Review

With a whopping 270 pieces included in the new syllabus, including 81 published in ABRSM’s nine Piano Exam Pieces books, even the most in-depth review can’t cover every piece, and as always I recommend readers download the full syllabus lists from ABRSM’s own site.

However, as in previous years I will look at particular trends within the syllabus, the direction of travel, highlighting those general features which will interest teachers and players alike.

I will bookend the review with a more detailed look at two specific grades: Initial and Grade 8, representing the start and end points of a student’s journey through these assessments, and in which the broader changes in the syllabus are writ large.

And finally, I will offer a personal list of some of the highlights selected from each Grade in turn.

So let’s jump in…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-2: The Big Review

ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Sheet Music Review

With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus (reviewed in full here), ABRSM have given their scales requirements a significant overhaul, also publishing new scales books and resources.

In this review I will consider three main areas of this development:

  1. The new syllabus requirements
  2. The new ABRSM Piano Scales & Arpeggios books
  3. Scale Explorer for Piano – a new series of five graded books written for ABRSM by Alan Bullard

Let’s get straight to it…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Garreth Broke: Healing, and beyond…

Sheet Music Review

Garreth Brooke is a talented English composer currently living and working in Germany. In addition to contributing guest posts here on Pianodao he has previously shared his inspiring story here, and talked to me about his excellent Upright Editions initiative in an interview here.

In this review, it’s my pleasure to review three recent publications of Garreth’s music, two of which appear under his alias Garreth Broke: Healing and Dance, both published by Editions Musica Ferrum, and thirdly Solo Piano: Selected Pieces, which Garreth has self-published via Amazon.

These publications have all appeared within the last year, but Garreth has been publishing recordings of his music on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and elsewhere for several years, gaining an appreciative audience drawn to the new-classical style and emotive qualities of his writing and playing.

Continue reading Garreth Broke: Healing, and beyond…

Denis Matsuev: Three 20th Century Concerti

Recording of the Month

This month it’s a pleasure to be shining the spotlight on a concerto recording for the first time on Pianodao: to be precise, DG’s new disc of concertante works by Shostakovich, Schnittke and Lutosławski, brought to us by Deutsche Grammophon and performed stunningly by Denis Matsuev (piano) and the Kammerorchester Wein-Berlin.


The three works included in this outstanding recording are all very much of their epoch, but rooted firmly in musical language and conventions that make them accessible to any classical music lover.

They are:

  1. Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto No.1 for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra Op.35 (1933)
  2. Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)
  3. Witold Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941)

Let’s take it for a spin…

Continue reading Denis Matsuev: Three 20th Century Concerti

Relax with Meditative Piano

Sheet Music Review

When Schott Music delivered their gorgeously presented Relax with Beautiful Piano Music series of five books back in 2016, I concluded my review:

“What excites me is that these books so brilliantly meet the demand expressed by so many of my teenage and adult students for beautiful music that can be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.”

Is it really four years? Well, I am happy to report that during that time several of my adult students have been using these marvellous collections, and without exception absolutely loving the selections of music they contain.

In most cases, having bought one book they have rushed to buy others in the series without prompting, an obvious indication of enthusiasm, and interestingly the Baroque and Classical books have proven particularly popular.

Happily for all, Schott Music are back with an encore, a sixth book again selected by British concert pianist Samantha Ward. With the title Relax with Meditative Piano, it promises to be another winning selection of great music. So come on, let’s see what’s in it…

Continue reading Relax with Meditative Piano

Evgeny Kissin: Four Pieces Op.1

photo: G. Henle Verlag

Sheet Music Review

Evgeny Kissin hardly needs any introduction to readers of Pianodao: one of the leading pianists of his generation, Kissin’s stunning performances and recordings have wowed audiences worldwide.

Now he joins that highest echelon of the great pianist-composers by bringing the world his first solo piano compositions.

Kissin’s Four Piano Pieces Opus 1 were published by G. Henle Verlag late last year, joined by his Cello Sonata Op.2 and String Quartet Op.3.

And yes, this is the first time that Henle have committed to publishing the work of a living composer. Picking our jaws up from the floor, let’s find out more…

Continue reading Evgeny Kissin: Four Pieces Op.1

Adapting to Change

Change sometimes takes us by surprise, a bolt from the blue, and in the early months of 2020 we have all experienced a jolt to our way of life as countries around the world quickly followed each other into lockdown.

As the dust settles and we try to adapt to “the new normal”, many are now wondering how these changes will continue to affect us, and what they mean. We are feeling uneasy about the future, and unsure of our footing.

Here in the West, we sometimes assume change is a linear process, an ongoing narrative in which we continually face the unknown, but with no going back. We measure our success in terms of our annual growth targets, believing that unless we progress “onwards and upwards” we will fail.

For the Daoists however, change is cyclical, often understood in the natural context of the turning seasons and the rotation of day and night. There is similarly a natural expansion and contraction of all things, seen for example in the ebbing of the tides, the wax and waning of the moon.

I believe that these metaphors are really helpful; they can give us hope. They encourage us to accept life’s “ups and downs”, pliably and positively adapting to them. In contrast to western materialism, Daoism teaches that there is a rightful time to contract, consolidate, and rest: all of which are necessary for our well-being.

In this context, there really is no “new normal” because we are all on a continuing journey. Nothing in the universe stands still. But at the same time, it certainly seems that history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself. Fixed plans and linear growth targets only succeed when all else is essentially in a state of entropy, but this is historically rare and actually a bit weird.

The upheaval of 2020 presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on this. How then can we “go with the flow”, “roll with the punches”, and adapt to change?

In this article I will consider this question primarily from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, but beyond my thoughts on how to adapt our playing and teaching, there is much here that equally pertains to our living.

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Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: Wiener Urtext

Sheet Music Review

In the conclusion to my recent review of Bärenreiter’s recently published Jonathan Del Mar edition of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, I noted,

“With the appearance of Jonathan Del Mar’s new benchmark edition for Bärenreiter, we have less of an excuse than ever when it comes to understanding and interpreting the master’s intentions… This magnificent resource is surely not only a new landmark in Beethoven scholarship, but for pianists its issue is the publishing event of the decade.”

In the light of such high praise, eyebrows might be raised at the spectacle of me now reviewing an alternative edition. However, it’s only fair to admit that however definitive an edition is (and the Del Mar edition is as definitive as they come), there is still space for more than one edition of these masterpieces on our shelves.

Given the complexity of establishing an exact text of these core works, and the performance considerations they raise, I certainly welcome the option of having a couple of editions to consult, especially if they offer complementary strengths and insights.

Also last year, and with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth clearly in sight, Wiener Urtext released their own fully updated and revised urtext edition of the Sonatas in three volumes, UT 50427/8/9.

Without detracting from my enthusiasm for the Del Mar edition in any way at all, there are good reasons why some players might welcome the strengths offered by the Wiener Urtext editions, or even prefer them; this review will focus on explaining what I think those are…

Continue reading Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: Wiener Urtext

Phillip Keveren’s Circles

Sheet Music Review

American composer and arranger Phillip Keveren’s books have become increasingly popular staples in my studio, his recent collection Piano Calm (reviewed here) establishing itself as a particular favourite.

Keveren’s latest publication, brought to us as ever by Hal Leonard, is Circles: Character Etudes in 24 Keys, once again a collection of brand new original pieces aimed at intermediate pianists.

And it’s another triumph…

Continue reading Phillip Keveren’s Circles

Andrew Higgins: Seasons

Sheet Music Review

From time to time I review a music book here which subsequently establishes itself as a favourite with my students; such a book was the brilliant Birds: Études-Tableaux composed by Andrew Higgins, which I reviewed here.

I was therefore naturally pleased to receive Higgins’ latest collection, Seasons, which is again published by the forward-looking publisher EVC Music, whose many recent useful and eye-catching publications have made such a positive mark on the pedagogic repertoire in recent years.

Rather than lazily giving us more of the same, Seasons is quite a different proposition from Higgins’ last book, so let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Andrew Higgins: Seasons