ABRSM Encore! A game changer?

Sheet Music Review

Over the years ABRSM have produced a steady flow of graded piano repertoire books to supplement their exam resources, with series such as “A Keyboard Anthology” and “Short Romantic Pieces” becoming standard items in the teacher’s library. However, one could have been forgiven for wondering whether some of these selections were made up of the most obscure pieces set in previous syllabi rather than the most widely enjoyed. So when Faber Music brought out their “Best of Grade…” books a few years ago, those looking for a one-stop collection of consistently appealing and varied pieces breathed a collective sigh of relief.

This summer ABRSM have responded with the publication of “Encore”, a set of four books which, based on their own data, include the most popular pieces featured in graded exams over the last decade or so. Happily these collections include some great in-house pieces and arrangements now unavailable elsewhere. So, might these books play a central role in students learning over the next few years? Let’s take a closer look.

As with ABRSM’s various previous repertoire series, “Encore” comprises four books, each including a selection of pieces previously set at two different graded levels. So for example, “Encore Book 1” covers pieces from grades 1 to 2, “Encore Book 2” includes music from grades 3 to 4, and so on. Unlike their previous publications, the pieces are not jumbled together but instead separated by grade, so that the first half of the book is devoted specifically to music from one grade, the second half to the next. At Grade One level, there are eleven pieces, and by Grade 8 this is reduced to just seven. In spite of this the first book has 32 pages, while the fourth has 56.

The pieces themselves represent a nicely varied selection at each and every grade level; the quality and appeal is uniformly high. Credit for this must be given to Karen Marshall, who compiled the books for ABRSM.

It is worth noting that there is no audio content, either via included CD or on their website, which is a little surprising given that ABRSM has previously produced and distributed specimen recordings of all these pieces alongside their exam syllabus publications.

Many teachers will instantly want to compare these books with the Faber Music “Best of Grade…” series, and here there are some obvious pros and cons. To start with, Faber have produced a single book for each grade, meaning that their series includes a far wider selection of pieces, many of which I would certainly miss if using ABRSM Encore exclusively. On the other hand, the Faber series ends at Grade 5, and while there is a huge amount of obvious core repertoire to explore I personally feel that there is considerable mileage in producing a varied compilation of great pieces at a higher level, as ABRSM have succeeded admirably in doing here.

For me, though, the big advantage that ABRSM Encore has over the Faber books is in the quality of the editing. The Faber books seemed to me to have been produced with too little attention to detail, so that there are note misprints (e.g. in “Knight Rupert”), no explanations of ornaments, and fingering that is often less than ideal.

None of these problems afflict the ABRSM Encore series, which fully lives up to the truly outstanding benchmark standards that ABRSM has consistently set for itself in recent years. Hence, ornamentation is carefully introduced and explained where it appears, as in their actual exam books. Fingerings are helpful, with neither too many nor too few provided, and so far I haven’t noticed any misprints in the notation itself. Printing and paper quality is also exemplary.

Were this the whole story I could confidently recommend “Encore” as an ideal repertoire collection to enrich the learning of players at all levels. However, the best is yet to come.

Where these books are potentially a real game changer, unlikely though it may sound, is in the footnotes provided for each piece. These include:

  • “Background information” – a short introduction to the composer and context of the piece
  • “Key skills” – a note helping teachers identify and get to the heart of the challenges included
  • “Ideas for activities” – some tips that teachers and students might find helpful in order to branch away from the piece itself and into more creative musical activities.

The “Background Information” is sometimes embarrassingly slight, for example:

“The Danish-born pianist and composer Cornelius Gurlitt taught in Copenhagen and Hamburg. He composed a great number of works.”

… but often far more interesting and useful:

“Beethoven composed the three sonatas of Op.2 in around 1795, dedicating them to his former teacher Haydn. This first movement is more textually transparent than much of Beethoven’s later piano music.”

The “Key Skill” comments will surely be a great help to less experienced teachers, and could also prove a helpful reminder for those of us who have taught for many years but who risk becoming at all complacent.

But it is when we come to the “Ideas for Activities” that the “Encore” books are at their most radical. These “ideas” typically introduce elements of practical musicianship that are very often, sadly, overlooked in piano teaching. These include listening to varied interpretations and recordings, aural engagement, improvisation and composition. For example, this suggestion following Bach’s Little Prelude in C (Book 2, Grade 3) :

“To recognise how Bach has composed the entire piece from one motif, explore dominant 7th arpeggios beginning on C and G. Compose a different motif using these arpeggios.”

Such an instruction takes teacher and pupil a very long way away from the ABRSM piano syllabus requirements and could be a powerful way of suggesting fresh alternatives to an educator who has perhaps limited themselves to “teaching to the test” (dominant sevenths first appear in Grade 6 Theory and Grade 7 Piano Scales).

Similarly, alongside Sandré’s “Petits bateaux sur l’eau” we find suggestions for original composition alongside encouragement to further explore core classical repertoire, providing fertile territory for integrated musical exploration and learning:

“Compose your own piece with the same title, using bars 1-4 in the left hand and notes A B C D E in right as initial inspiration.
Find and listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Gondola Song” Op.30 No.6 from his Songs Without Words, and notice its similarities and differences to Sandré’s piece.”

At Grade 7 and 8 level these “ideas” turn increasingly towards comparing interpretations and analysing, for example, Fugue and Sonata Form structures.

At all levels the suggestions given are creative and highly welcome. Those who follow up on even some of these ideas are likely to find their musical experience transformed for the better.

In conclusion, the “Encore” publications are a brilliant addition to any pianist’s music collection, and can only help raise the quality and level of music making everywhere they are used. I would have loved a full eight books rather than four, but that in itself is intended as the highest praise! More please…

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

3 thoughts on “ABRSM Encore! A game changer?”

  1. Andrew – Karen Marshall here. I compiled the Encore books. Thank you so much for this review. I really appreciate it. Much of what you say is very perceptive, knowing the full background on the thinking behind the project. I spent many hours on the publications along with my ABRSM Editor, Claire Webb, who was superb. The publications always had the student at the core of their development. We wanted to provide something that would inspire more children and adults to play the piano, but also develop a greater understanding of what they were playing. I also strategically selected repertoire to develop the broadest experience for the student whilst also maximising enjoyment. I didn’t want anything that appeared too scary but also chose difficult repertoire that was so exciting students would spend the time learning it. I must of looked at several hundred pieces of music from 1980 onwards. The footnotes were developed through my own current teaching experience and mentor lessons with the late Faber Editor Christine Brown (do look out her excellent Real Repertoire series – Faber). The Background note was drawn from ABRSM’s original footnotes and expert input from another Editor. The books really were a team effort with lots of input also from teachers and students. I am very grateful to three ABRSM examiners who continually advised along with my writing partner Heather Hammond (we’ve written Get Set! piano together). The collective I think shows here. Many thanks again for your kind words. Karen

    Liked by 1 person

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