In addition to releasing their 2017-18 Piano Syllabus ABRSM have just brought out a brand new “Prep Test” for piano, with assessments from January 2017.
This is actually the first time that the exam board have updated the syllabus and pieces for their piano Prep Test since January 1999, so it’s great to see that it has finally been refreshed and given a revamp.
According to ABRSM:
“The Prep Test is designed to provide an assessment for pupils after approximately six to nine months’ tuition and to encourage the building of good musical and technical foundations.”
The Prep Test is clearly aimed at younger beginners, and depending on the age and ability of the student six to nine months may be rather ambitious. These days, many beginners have quite short lessons, perhaps at school, and possibly paired with another child. I suspect that teachers will want to decide for themselves a realistic timescale, taking sufficient time to lay good foundations before working through the various materials provided by ABRSM.
The test includes four elements:
- Tunes: three short exercises played from memory
- First Piece: a solo from the Prep Test Book or other support publication
- Second Piece: any solo piece or one of the duets published by ABRSM
- Listening Games: simple aural tests
All the essential materials needed are included in the ‘Piano Prep Test’ book, although alternative repertoire is also available.
The Piano Prep Test book
This has doubled in size since the 1999 publication, from 8 to 16 pages.
The book has an attractive and colourful cover, with black-and-white illustrations throughout, all in a contemporary style that will appeal to the target age group.
Part 1 provides the three “Tunes” which are to be played from memory. ‘Cracking Open a Nut’, ‘Swinging through the Trees’, and ‘Dreaming’ are effective little studies that include gradations in dynamics as well as both staccato and legato playing.
In terms of pitch, the pieces include notes from the low G in the bass clef to fourth line D in the treble – a range that users of my prefered tutor book (Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond’s ‘Get Set! Piano’ series) would not have learnt until mid way through the second Tutor Book, at which point they would be well on their way towards Grade 1.
2: First Piece
The book includes three brand new solo pieces as follows (each of which is one page long):
‘Train Ride’ by Sarah Watts: this is a quirky and attractive piece in the D minor five note position, although the included fingering indicates a position change to avoid using weaker fingers for the RH chords.
‘Summer Fair’ by Nicholas Scott-Burt is a rather dreamy piece, with adventurous harmonies and including hand position changes. The second half rather meanders and is perhaps less memorable than the alternatives.
‘On a Bike’ by Christopher Norton includes Latin syncopations and is the most instantly enjoyable of the three pieces, but is also rather difficult.
These three pieces offer a good and varied selection, but candidates for the Prep Test are allowed to substitute any solo pieces from ‘Piano Star 2’ (part of a new series of pre-Grade 1 books expected from ABRSM later in the year), ‘Party Time! for piano’, ‘Party Time! on Holiday’ or ‘Roundabout’.
3: Second Piece
This section begins with the friendly words:
“As we want you to play something you really enjoy, the choice is entirely up to you. You can play any solo piece you like.
“If you prefer, you can play a duet: either ‘My Brass Band’ or ‘Jelly Wobble’ from this book, or any duet from ‘Piano Star 2’. Should you choose a duet, your teacher or the examiner will play it with you, so don’t forget to bring your book!”
The inclusion of a duet and, by extension the admittance of the teacher to the examination room, is a significant change which I think teachers will warmly applaud.
‘My Brass Band’ by Alan Bullard is a catchy march in D major, in which the pupil plays the lower part while the teacher plays a descant. This is an attractive and very well written piece, and a definite highlight of the book.
‘Jelly Wobble’ by jazz pianist and teacher Nikki Iles is rather more adventurous, with its “Groovy” teacher accompaniment. The pupil here takes the upper part, which is less catchy than ‘My Brass Band’ when practised in isolation – the teacher has the most fun here!
Once ‘Piano Star 2’ is available, of course, candidates and teachers will be able to explore the wider range of duet repertoire that ABRSM are offering for the Prep Test.
4: Listening Games
These prepare the way for the Grade 1 Aural tests.
- “Clapping the Beat” is essentially the same as Test A at Grade 1, joining in clapping the pulse of a piece in 2 or 3 time played by the teacher/examiner.
- “Echoes” is a ‘call and response’ clapping game in which the candidate claps back rhythms as echoes.
- “Finding the Notes” is a simple singing game in which the pupil must correctly pitch three notes (and there is an option to play instead of sing).
- Finally “What can you hear?” is an easier version of Grade 1 Test D in which the pupil must identify the dynamics or tempo (fast or slow) of a piece they hear.
To finish the book, there is a crossword similar to those found in some tutor books – the pupil will need some music theory knowledge to complete this, and I think it’s a rather nice and friendly way to encourage that within the context of early learning.
ABRSM have for a long time lagged behind competitors Trinity College and London College of Music Exams in their pre-Grade One offer, and it is great to see them address the need for better provision for children in the early stages of learning.
The “elephant in the room” here is the announcement of the forthcoming Piano Star series, about which I can tell you no more until it is released. However, it is clear that the Prep Test now no longer stands alone, but rather as an assessment element within a larger raft of educational support and music publications for players in their first years of learning.
In the meantime what we have is a vastly improved Prep Test publication – much better in terms of presentation, musical and educational content. Teachers will undoubtedly be glad to say goodbye to the old pieces and welcome the new, and the inclusion of duets is a particular joy!
It is great to see that ABRSM have once again been listening to feedback from users, and have produced a first-class publication that delights, surprises, and which more than meets expectations.