Sheet Music Review
July 7th 2016 sees the publication of the brand new ABRSM Piano Syllabus, along with Exam Pieces books for Grades 1 – 8. Review copies arrived a week or so ago, and I’ve enjoyed looking through the books, listening to the optional CDs, and trying out many of the included pieces.
The New Syllabus
The ABRSM syllabus format has remained largely unchanged for many years. There are three Lists of pieces, A B and C. Examination candidates must select one piece from each list, thus demonstrating their playing in a range of styles. List A is predominantly Baroque/Classical, List B Romantic, and List C Modern (including jazzy pieces alongside atonal ones, and anything else that’s broadly contemporary).
All other aspects of the syllabus – the scales, sight-reading and aural supporting tests – remain unchanged this year. So what we are interested in is the pieces!
For many teachers, especially here in the UK, the arrival every second year of the new ABRSM syllabus represents the biggest injection of new repertoire to their teaching programme. It isn’t (hopefully!) that they restrict repertoire to exam pieces – rather that for the most part the other music and resources they rely on are fairly well established.
Perhaps with this in mind, ABRSM have seemingly gone out of their way in recent years to unearth fresh repertoire for inclusion in the Exam Pieces books. This has included commissioning new works, arrangements of well-known classical pieces and popular songs, and bringing back into the repertoire forgotten gems from the past. The “Alternative Pieces” list also acts as a valuable signpost to some of the best recent publications.
For smaller independent publishers, inclusion in the syllabus can be a “make-or-break” moment, and this bi-annual refresh of the teaching repertoire has done much to encourage a renaissance in educational piano composition. I am particularly delighted to see that publishers Editions Musica Ferrum and Edition HH – both of whose publications have impressed me and received very positive reviews here in recent months – are both represented in the 2017-18 syllabus.
Many readers will be familiar with the ABRSM exam publications from previous years. The 2017-18 books do not significantly divert from the pattern established over the last couple of decades.
Here’s the summary:
- There is one Exam Pieces book for each of the eight grades
- The publications are beautifully presented, with a gorgeous cover illustration that will appeal to players of all ages (see above)
- While the syllabus includes 6 choices for each List, only 3 of each are included in the Exam Pieces books, making up nine pieces per publication
- The Alternative Pieces are listed inside, along with source publication details.
- Notation is clean, generously sized, and well edited.
- Sensible, appropriate fingering is included throughout all eight books, as are suggested realisations of ornamentation
- Each piece is followed by detailed notes that give historical background information, manuscript sources, editing decisions, performing notes, all written in an authoritative but accessible style
- Professional recordings of all the pieces (including the alternatives) are available, either as MP3s to purchase directly from the ABRSM website, or by purchasing the CD version of the book
- A book of “Teacher Notes” is available separately (not reviewed here)
Let me say at this point that I think the CD recordings are outstanding – teachers in particular really should invest in them, and pupils will I am sure find the exemplar performances very helpful indeed.
Before looking at each grade in more detail, I want to note some of the general trends across the syllabus.
My initial view is that the syllabus meets the expectations established in previous years. There is no radical departure here, which depending on your perspective, you may see as either a good or a bad thing.
Here are some of the more subtle trends that emerge when taking a closer look at the new syllabus:
There are rather more of these than in previous years. For example, in both the Grade 1 and 2 books for 2017-18, four of the nine pieces are arrangements, compared with two in 2015-16, and just one in 2013-14. Arrangements remain a feature up until Grade 6.
This growing inclusion of arrangements allows for pieces which introduce players to popular melodies that are perhaps more appealing than those found in pedagogical material. ABRSM do us a great service in providing this enjoyable new material for teachers and students to use in lessons and assessments, and in doing so build on the rich heritage of arrangements within the piano repertoire. And the arrangements are consistently very good, as was the case with the arrangements in ABRSM’s recently published Piano Mix series of books.
Personal favourites include Nancy Litten’s ‘La donna è mobile’ and Kenneth Bartels’ jazzy take on ‘When the saints go marching in’ (both Grade 1), David Blackwell’s ‘The Cat (Peter and the Wolf)’ (Grade 2) and Moira Hayward’s ambitious reworking of the Russian song ‘Black Eyes’ (Grade 4, but personally I would have assessed this at Grade 5).
I am however a little perplexed that in expanding the number of arrangements, ABRSM haven’t used more tunes familiar to children. Both Trinity and LCM have ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ on their syllabus. I can’t help but think that a great arrangement of the James Bond theme tune or dare I say it ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen’ would have pulled in the student struck by the familiar. Perhaps additions like these would have given new colour and popularity to the syllabus?
Raising the Dead
The inclusion of arrangements is somewhat balanced by the apparent avoidance of core classical repertoire in favour of resurrecting forgotten rarities. Whether or not the balance between established favourites and unknown pieces is correct will be largely a matter of personal opinion, but across the eight grades I was surprised to find just one piece each from Mendelssohn, Grieg, Schumann, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Debussy.
Once again, I love to encounter new music in the syllabus publications, but it does ultimately depend on that music being good, and some pieces have been forgotten for a reason! That said, there’s some really interesting material here which I think teachers will enjoy exploring.
Also I think it is well worth reminding ourselves as teachers that it is hugely important to cover core repertoire between each grade, and not stick only to learning exam pieces!
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen
Another commendable strength of the ABRSM syllabus in recent years has been its inclusion of music from composers all over the world. And this is once again the case, with pieces by composers from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Croatia, Portugal, Venezuela, Australia, China, and Japan alongside the more “usual suspects”.
The one omission which I found disappointing is the notable absence of any music from the Spanish piano school this time around. In previous years, the pieces by Granados, Mompou and others were a consistent favourite with my students, and I will certainly miss the unique colour they have brought.
But there is only room for a fixed number of pieces, and the ABRSM syllabus is not meant to provide a comprehensive musical curriculum. The absence of some favourites is, it seems to me, an expected and worthwhile price to pay for ABRSM’s outstanding contribution to promoting new music, international and cultural understanding, diversity and enrichment.
With all that in mind, it is surprising that there is no recognition of the popularity of the minimalist and “post-minimalist” composers such as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Howard Skempton, Nils Frahm and Ludovico Einaudi.
I realise some teachers may object to the idea of the latter being included, but the fact remains that Glass and co. have contributed hugely to modern musical language, and their absence here is rather odd. This apparent boycott seems even more strange given that ABRSM have included arrangements of pop songs and tunes from 1970s TV shows in the syllabus in recent years.
Whether a matter of personal taste or an objective decision, it raises a fundamental question that every reviewer is obliged to ask when looking at a new product: who is it basically aimed at?
Crucially, the desire to play minimal pieces generally appears when players reach Grades 3 to 4, at which point they also have the ability to do so. According to ABRSM, this is precisely the point where so many of those players disappear from the exam system. Personally I don’t believe this is a coincidence.
Ultimately, it seems to me that it would do no harm for ABRSM to acknowledge this hugely popular seam of solo piano music within their syllabus, whether by including a piece in each of Grades 3-5 (if necessary in a shortened arrangement) or by offering them in the Alternative Pieces lists. I rather suspect they would find a renewed uptake for piano Grades 3 and upwards should they choose to do so the next time around!
There has been much discussion in recent years about the value of educational pieces having imaginative and stimulating titles. This is an area where ABRSM have regularly scored highly in my view, but on this occasion it seems to me that this was perhaps a lesser focus.
Taking Grade 2 List A as an example, the three pieces included in the Exam Pieces book are:
- Attwood: Allegretto from Sonatina No.3 in F
- Mozart (arr. Christopher Norton): Ein Mädcehn oder Weibchen (“For a Girl or a Woman”)
- Susato (arr. Martin White): La Mourisque (no translation or explanation of this title given)
If this seems potentially problematic in terms of engaging a young child’s interest, Grade 4 Lists A and B are even less immediately inspiring: of the 12 pieces (including Alternative List) offered, just two have imaginative titles. From the perspective of musical and educational development, the other ten pieces require the player to have a sufficiently developed musical imagination to engage with abstract artworks on their own terms. This perhaps lends the syllabus more “seriousness”, but I feel that it may concern some, even nurturing a sense that ABRSM exams are aimed at the few rather than the many.
Lastly in terms of overall “trends”, I must note that I was somewhat struck by the difficulty level of some of the material.
Standardisation of real repertoire will never be an exact science, but I noticed that – especially in the early grades – the bulk of the material is pitched at, perhaps even beyond, the most challenging end of the spectrum. Many of us loudly applaud ABRSM for having set the “gold standard” in instrumental assessment, but that standard was not established simply by “raising the bar”, but through rigorous consistency.
My initial impressions may well be adjusted as I start to road test the material with my own students of all ages and abilities. And I will be very interested to hear what other teachers have to say about that once the new syllabus starts to bed in.
Regardless of the trends noted above, I don’t think that most teachers will struggle to find plenty of music in the new publications that they can “sell” to their students – there’s a lot of great new music waiting to be discovered here, and plenty of returning favourites too!
Some of my own favourites from the Exam Pieces books are listed below. This is far from a complete list of the best pieces in the syllabus – these are just some personal choices, including classics that I am pleased to see returning, and plenty of great new additions to my teaching repertoire which I particularly look forward to sharing with students over the next couple of years.
- A3. Verdi (arr. Nancy Litten): La donna è mobile
- C1. Rob Hall: Asian Tiger Prowl
- C3. Trad. (arr. Kenneth Bartels): When the saints go marching in
- B3. Stanley Wilson: The Stowaway
- C2. Prokofiev (arr. David Blackwell): The Cat (from Peter and the Wolf)
- C3. Manfred Schmitz: Gospel Flair
- A2. Mozart (arr. Clem Virgo): Romanze (from Eine kleine Nachtmusik)
- B3. Tchaikovsky: March of the Wooden Soldiers
- C1. Kabalevsky: Clowns
- C3. Nicholas Scott-Burt: Attitude!
- C2. Ben Crosland: Bow-Chicka-Wow-Wow (from Cool Beans 2)
- C3. Trad Russian (arr. Moira Hayward): Black Eyes
- A3. Weber: Waltz in A
- C1. Tan Dun: Staccato Beans
- C3. Stephen J. Wood: Cool (No.1 from Sketches for Piano book 2)
- A1. J.S.Bach: Invention in A minor
- A3. Mozart: Rondo from Sonata in C K545
- B2. Oskar Merikanto: Valse lente
- C1. Bartók: Joc cu bâta: No.1 from Rumanian Folk Dances
- C2. Melville A. Leven (arr. Pete Churchill): Cruella de Vil
- A3. Scarlatti: Sonata in B minor Kp.377
- B2. Wanghua Chu: Love Song
- C1. Ravel: Waltz No.5 from Valses nobles et sentimentales
- C2. Christopher Norton: Forcing the Pace
- C1. Miguel Astor: Adriana: No.1 from Valses venezolanos
- C3. Peixun Chen: Selling Sundry Goods
- C4. Copland: Jazzy (from Three Moods)
- C5. Debussy: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (from Children’s Corner)
As I say, these are just some of the initial “Stand Out” pieces, and I have a high expectation that as I continue living with the repertoire as a whole, many others will emerge as strong favourites!
Reviewing the new ABRSM syllabus seems to me a two-fold task. On the one hand there are the publications themselves. On the other hand, we must consider the “syllabus” as a comprehensive assessment programme.
In the case of the former, I really think that ABRSM have produced an outstanding resource. The books are lavishly presented, brilliantly edited, and provide some outstanding additions to the pianist’s repertoire across all levels of amateur and student ability.
There are excellent and enjoyable new works in all eight of the Exam Pieces books, whether or not you subscribe to the exams themselves.
In terms of the syllabus itself, however, I must admit that I have some niggling doubts. It seems to me that – albeit in subtle ways – the general direction of travel here heightens the contrast between exam pieces and “other repertoire”, and that the new syllabus is more challenging than the previous one – both technically and aesthetically.
I would really have preferred to see the opposite. And to some extent this issue is exacerbated by the List A B and C format, which seems less flexible as the included repertoire becomes increasingly – and commendably – more diverse.
I am certain that teachers will now want to explore the new ABRSM syllabus and publications for themselves, and that most will rejoice at the great new pieces on offer. And I hope that you will have as much fun doing so as I have had!
You can download all the full syllabus requirements and repertoire lists here.
And you can purchase the Exam Pieces books from all good music shops, or directly from the ABRSM Shop online.
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