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, and there are genuinely few “fillers” in the mix.
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. Their inclusion would have been the icing on the cake.
The Best of…
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, compiled by Anthony Williams and including a true treasure trove of great music. These books ultimately include a far wider selection of pieces, many of which I would certainly miss if using ABRSM Encore.
On the other hand, the Faber series ends at Grade 5 (why?), and while there is of course a huge amount of obvious core repertoire to explore I personally feel that there is considerable mileage in producing a varied compilation of pieces at a higher level, as ABRSM have done here.
I would also note that the Encore books seem to have more attentive editing. Ornamentation is carefully introduced and explained where it appears, as in ABRSM’s exam books. Fingerings are helpful, with neither too many nor too few provided.
Importantly I haven’t noticed any misprints in the notation itself in the Encore books. One minor annoyance however: several of the pieces include editorial dynamics without comment or explanation; this is never good editing practice.
Overall though, both these series are great, and teachers will undoubtedly want to dip into each for its own strengths.
Just a footnote…?
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 for ABRSM, unlikely though it may sound, is in the footnotes provided for each piece.
- 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 piano student’s music collection, and can only help raise the quality and level of music making wherever 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…
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