The publication of a new Piano Exam Syllabus is always (rightly or wrongly) a major event in the piano teacher’s calendar, a “big reveal” in which we learn the repertoire around which our musical curriculum might to some extent orbit for the next few years.
Judging by the response to my review of the current ABRSM Piano Syllabus, I am sure that readers will be keen to know my thoughts on the latest syllabus from their largest UK competitor, Trinity College London, published this month.
I must start with a disclaimer: as a teacher I rarely enter students for exams other than ABRSM. With that in mind, I am delighted that Karen Marshall has agreed to offer her “Second Opinion” later in the review.
Karen’s contribution will take the form of an interview following on from my own comments. She will offer the perspective of a well-regarded teacher who has used the Trinity Syllabus with her students over many years.
But first, my thoughts, essentially coming to this syllabus fresh…
The Trinity exams for piano follow a very similar path to those offered by ABRSM. There are 8 Grades preceded by a pre-Grade 1 exam: ABRSM call this the Prep Test, while Trinity opt for the more serious-sounding “Initial”, and unlike ABRSM they refresh and renew the repertoire each time the main syllabus changes (which is every three years).
The main “product” family being reviewed here comprises:
- The Syllabus Booklet (which is available free, and online)
- Nine books of repertoire, each including CD recording
- A Supplementary booklet of Teacher Notes
In each of the accompanying exams, the candidate must play three pieces. Unlike the ABRSM however, the three pieces are not selected from three separate lists of repertoire.
Instead, from Initial to Grade 5, the three can be selected freely from a list of around 20 pieces, of which nine are included in the Trinity publications, and the rest must be purchased separately from their publishers. From Grade 6-8, the pieces are split into two lists, and the candidate taking the exam must include at least one piece from each. List A focusses on Baroque and Classical keyboard repertoire, while List B features Romantic and Modern pieces.
At all grades, an original composition by the candidate can be substituted for one piece. And from Initial up to Grade 3, one piece can be a Duet, with the teacher, another adult or student playing the secondo part.
Trinity’s approach here is clearly more flexible, and this in itself will be enough to persuade some teachers to make the switch.
That said, the rationale for ABRSM’s three list approach is that it ensures a balanced programme (even though this might lead to less “exciting” selections at times). And it must be noted: looking at the new Trinity syllabus, it would be easy to take all the exams up to and including Grade 5 playing only attractive contemporary pieces, mostly in jazzy styles. Equally, it would be possible to avoid these entirely, and stick to lesser known classical pieces.
Whether this level of flexibility is a good thing is perhaps a question for another time, but suffice to say at this point that teachers using the syllabus would do well to bear in mind the benefits of teaching what ‘A Common Approach’ neatly describes as broad and balanced programmes of study.
Teachers considering a switch from ABRSM to Trinity should also take note that the Supporting Tests required by Trinity are considerably different to the ABRSM ones.
Trinity again offers far greater flexibility here – and personally I really like the options this provides – but for the purposes of this review the only specific point to note is that the new pieces books include a few pages of Exercises. These are required as part of the Technical Work at each grade – somewhat in lieu of scales and arpeggios, requirements for which are rather minimal compared to those of ABRSM.
Let me start by saying that I am really impressed by the efforts Trinity have clearly put into ensuring that each grade offers appealing music that students will enjoy learning and performing.
These really are (for the most part) pieces that will generate enthusiasm for piano playing, and in my view this is probably the strongest selling-point for the new syllabus.
Karen Marshall and I have jointly selected our combined list of favourites from the publications:
Paul Harris: Spies on a Mission
Barbara Kirkby-Mason: Mango Walk (duet)
Ben Crosland: Hand in Hand
Uli Gruber: Jodler
Rainer Moers: Shepherd’s Melody
Sam Cleaver: Persian Holiday
Mike Schönmehl: Rain
Janet & Alan Bullard: Model T
Christine Donkin: Badlands
Ben Crosland: The Clown and the Ballerina
Catherine Rollin: Sunrise on the Matterhorn
Mozart: Allegretto from The London Sketchbook
Barbara Arens: Tango Passionis
Matthew Camidge: Scherzando
Michael Proksch: And Now Let’s Handel
Fishel Pustlinik: Circus Theme
Dennis Alexander: All is Calm
J.S. Bach: Prelude in D minor
Manfred Schmitz: Progression I
Howard Shore/Fran Walsh: In Dreams from The Lord of the Rings
Mendelssohn: Kinderstücke Op.72 No.2
Thomas Peter-Horas: Sarah
Rameau: Fanfarinette and Triomphante from Suite in A minor
Debussy: Minstrels from Préludes Book 1
John Ireland: Elegy from A Dowland Suite
Bartók: Allegretto from Suite Op.14
There are many other good choices peppered throughout the books, as well as a wealth of alternatives available separately. I have no doubt that any candidate looking to take a grade would find ample music here that engages their interest.
You may however have noted that we didn’t pick much from the Initial Grade for our list above. Most of the repertoire selections here are, unfortunately, rather disappointing and lacking in imagination.
Some are also rather difficult for the pre-Grade 1 player. Tickery Tockery, for example, requires five hand position changes in the RH, and thumb under technique at the end. The LH also moves out of position in this piece. Other pieces in the collection include multiple ledger lines, detailed dynamics, phrasing and articulation.
Certainly overall Trinity’s Initial Grade pieces seem to me less interesting – and more difficult – than the pieces in the new ABRSM Prep Test (review here). And to compound their considerable advantage, ABRSM also allow a free choice of pieces from their outstanding Piano Star Book 2, representing a selection that is hard to be beat at this level.
Continuing the comparison, both the ABRSM Prep Test and Piano Star books include lavishly appealing cartoon illustrations throughout (in the case of Piano Star these are in colour and often very humorous!).
Contrast Trinity’s Initial Grade, which quite simply looks like another exam book, lacking the immediate appeal that can be such a critical part of hooking in the younger child’s enthusiasm.
Progression & Standards
Considering ongoing progress through the syllabus, I have to admit that I was confused by the overlap between grades. Some pieces in each grade seem much easier than others – some are even easier than pieces in a lower grade! And I can’t deny that the inconsistency here alarms me.
Comparing the syllabus with the ABRSM one that I am more familiar with, there are pieces which I am certain they would set at a lower grade. Karen highlights a few in her comments later, but the most startling surprise for me is the inclusion in the Grade 7 syllabus of Mendelssohn’s Andante sostenuto, number 2 from his Kinderstücke Op.72.
Trinity set this piece at Grade 7 – and yet it has previously appeared as an ABRSM Grade 4 piece, and is included in one of their Keyboard Anthology books for Grade 3-4 players.
In case you are unsure which piece it is, here’s a delightful performance of the piece on YouTube, played by 11-year-old Noémi Device, a Grade 3 player (who learns with Adél Domjánné):
Given that students working for Trinity Grade 7 are highly likely to search for YouTube videos, I wonder how they will feel when discovering that music they are playing is considered elsewhere to be so much easier?
Another serious issue here is that the edexcel exam board’s GCSE, AS and A level Music Difficulty Levels Booklet – widely used by official moderators when assessing student curriculum performances – lists the Mendelssohn as a Grade 5 piece (which personally, by the way, I think is spot on!). School music teachers routinely advise students to play Grade 7 pieces for A’ level performances, and it’s a concern that this piece might be disqualified (or at least marked downwards) as too easy.
As one esteemed colleague put it to Karen:
“If the assessment is not valid then what is its purpose? We risk giving pupils (and parents) a false impression of the child’s progress and institutions such as conservatoires, secondary schools and specialist music schools will completely lose faith in the exams as a recognition of standard and progress.”
This is certainly rather perplexing.
Having considered the Syllabus and Repertoire, what of the publications themselves?
Here’s a reminder of what they look like:
Taste is subjective – but personally I think that the whole series looks superb. And the physical items are every bit as classy as they look, with soft-touch card covers, strong staple binding, good paper and excellent print quality throughout.
The inside covers include syllabus information listing the Alternative Pieces for the grade, and (in the rear) a summary of other requirements. After a title page it is straight to the pieces. Footnotes are minimal, and relate to exam requirements, ornament realisations and copyright information.
Might I add at this point that the Syllabus Booklet itself is a model of clarity – beautifully presented, it not only includes the repertoire information, but also the full marking scheme, detailed charts and tables, and background information about the syllabus rationale. Exemplary!
After the pieces, there is a section for the Exercises, which are part of the Technical Requirements for each Grade exam. There are six short Exercises per Grade, from which candidates pick three. These have been fully revised for the new syllabus.
Some teachers I know swear by the Exercises as a useful alternative to the more thorough testing of scales and arpeggios offered by ABRSM, but at this point I must admit I remain unconvinced – looking at the new Exercises, I find it difficult to see that they combine obvious links with the repertoire selections and specific value of their own. In my teaching, personally, I try to integrate technical and musical work as closely as possible, and tend to share Dohnányi’s view that unnecessary exercises can be simply a distraction.
Lastly, we come to the Teaching Notes, which are reproduced in full at the back of each Grade book (CD edition). For those that buy the books without the CDs, the Teaching Notes can be purchased separately in a single volume
Written by highly esteemed teachers Pamela Lidiard (up to Grade 5) and Graham Fitch (Grades 6-8), these provide a wealth of background information and expert practical advice about the music in the syllabus.
The Teaching Notes are excellent, and not to be missed!
Editing and Engraving
In previous years I have felt that the notation in Trinity publications has seemed a little smaller than in the ABRSM exam books. At the lower grades this is a particular problem for younger players – so I am really pleased to see that this time around the music is printed in a more generous size and font in the Initial, Grade 1, and where possible the Grade 2 books.
In general, the music engraving is crystal clear and very nicely presented, with adequate spacing even in the denser scores, such as the Brahms in the Grade 8 book.
However, there are two editorial issues which concern me – the first of which is that old chestnut I so often comment on: fingering…
Fingering is one of the first things I look at when reviewing a sheet music publication, and it often reveals an awful lot. It is a huge and complex subject, but in particular I think of these golden rules:
- Good fingering encourages the development of a healthy technique
- Good fingering supports the realisation of phrasing in the music
- Avoid unnecessary fingering suggestions. They are … unnecessary!
- If in doubt leave it out: it’s always good to encourage teachers and players to think for themselves about suitable fingering.
Based on these criteria, I am bound to say that some of the suggested fingerings in the new Trinity books are the oddest I have encountered in an educational publication.
In preparing this review I found several cases which illustrate the point, but for the sake of brevity I will limit myself to a couple, while encouraging teachers to take a closer look for themselves.
Firstly, here is an example of unnecessary fingering, which also necessitates a hand position change within the middle of a phrase – this comes from a Grade 1 piece:
Why not simply suggest finger three for the first C? The stretch from A (finger 2) to C (finger 3) is easily manageable , even for small hands, and is a feature of the arpeggios included at this grade. Another preferable alternative would be to use finger 2 for the G, with thumb under for the A.
Now here’s a couple of bars from Balletto, one of the best pieces included in the Grade 2 book:
While awkward, the thumb and third finger for the final chord here could be justified on the basis of the slur, which joins the semiquavers as a phrase – were it not for the fact that the slur is editorial, not written by the composer at all. And this brings me to my other concern with these books …
If examination boards wish to alter a composer’s written intentions in order to simplify the presentation, or make it easier for the examiner to assess interpretation, that’s their prerogative. But I strongly believe that editorial changes at least deserve an acknowledging footnote!
These Trinity publications include editorial dynamics, articulation, phrasing marks and other arbitrary changes without including information about specifically what is editorial and what is authentic.
I realise of course that most children learning the pieces won’t be interested in such editorial information – but teachers should be. And examiners should certainly have access to a score which makes clear the composers’ original intentions; I am sure that they are able to judge whether a candidate’s interpretation is musically convincing or otherwise!
Given that harpsichord pieces (written with no dynamics, and little articulation) remain a strong feature of the syllabus, why not present them faithfully, allowing teacher and pupil to explore the music on its own terms and work out appropriate expressive details?
According to the sole information provided about editorial issues:
“All pieces in this volume have been edited with regard to current concepts of performance practice. Fingering, dynamics, articulation and pedalling have been suggested to assist candidates and their teachers in developing their own interpretations.”
And yet there is inconsistency here. For example in the Grade 6 collection, the J.S. Bach (1685-1750) Prelude in D minor appears without any dynamics, but with added articulation. The William Byrd (1540-1623) Coranto from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book conversely includes no articulations, but is replete with many dynamics, including crescendo markings within phrases.
The irony here is that the Trinity Syllabus book itself states:
“Candidates may perform from any reliable edition which has not been shortened or otherwise simplified. Editions containing inauthentic performance directions, for example Romantic phrasing in Baroque repertoire, are not acceptable.”
It rather seems to me that they are breaking their own rules!
Lastly we come to the CD recordings. These are included in the book in a clear plastic wallet attached to the inside of the back cover. The books can be bought with or without (at a much cheaper price) the CD.
All the pieces up to Grade 5 are performed by Pamela Lidiard, while the pieces from Grades 6-8 are shared between Yulia Chaplina, Linda Nottingham and Peter Wild.
The recordings were made at Snape Maltings on a Yamaha CFX Concert Grand Piano. Overall I found them a useful resource during the review period.
However, the recordings are quite compressed, with the piano sounding somewhat lacking in warmth and depth, and I get the impression that the pianists were somewhat holding back, avoiding giving too personal an interpretation in these demonstration versions.
Q&A with Karen Marshall
Once again I am hugely grateful for the expert input of esteemed teacher and best-selling author and composer Karen Marshall…
Andrew Eales: Karen, what is your experience of the Trinity syllabus past and present?
Karen Marshall: I have been using the Trinity syllabus since 2008 when the excellent Ben Norbury covered syllabus and my own teacher, the late Christine Brown, edited (fingered) all the lower grade music.
I have used ABRSM and LCM too (presently and in the past) but have very actively used Trinity due to the number of dyslexic students I teach. The option, since 2008, to reduce scales and omit sight reading and singing in the aural are all helpful for special needs students.
On average I have had about 20 students per year take Trinity exams.
I was also the compiler for the ABRSM Encore series where I reviewed 35 years of past exam pieces.
Before writing this I have spoken to seven other teachers for their opinions – two of which are music examiners – and also canvassed my students.
AE: What do you most like about the new Trinity Syllabus?
KM: The attractiveness of many of the pieces. Some of the repertoire pieces here, my students absolutely love. There will be no persuasion needed to play them, in fact I even think they’d pick them just to play (not for an exam). “I love it” is always a gift with an exam piece, and there are a good few here that are in that category.
A weaker candidate is provided with repertoire that they will be able to play in all Grades apart from Grade 1, Grade 4 or Grade 8.
All the other teachers I’ve spoken to also feel there are some real gems (lovely pieces) that students will want to play.
AE: What is your view of the new Exercises?
KM: Overall these are a similar standard of the previous apart from Grade 1 – many don’t fit as easily around the hand. I think 3 hand positions in 4 bars is too much for a beginner pianist.
They are mostly attractive, but certainly harder than some of the corresponding pieces.
AE: How do you think the standards and level of pieces compare to ABRSM?
KM: The Grade 1, Grade 4 and Grade 8 (List B) pieces compare to ABRSM standards.
However, I think in other Grades, due to having a freer choice you can pick pieces (in my own professional opinion, and ALL seven other teachers) which are easier than previous Trinity exam pieces. And notably in this syllabus Grade 5 overall actually appears easier than their new Grade 4.
As a whole, beyond just the pieces, I think ABRSM is more difficult.
If a student planned to teach the piano, do a music degree or attend music college I would have to advise they took an ABSRM exam unless I was able to cover a wider range of repertoire, more scales and more challenging aural activities – which is unlikely due to lesson time constraints.
Some pieces are very, very easy for the Grade. A piece that particularly jumps out is in Grade 7 – the Mendelssohn Kinderstücke, which is in ABRSM’s Keyboard Anthology, Third Series, Book 2 – Grade 3 & 4 (and named ‘Christmas Piece’).
The teachers I spoke to also highlighted the Grade 6 piece from Lord of the Rings, the Grade 3 duet where hands simply play in octaves, and Grade 2, The Shepherd’s Melody (one hand position).
These are just a few examples that are simply much easier than the ABRSM repertoire current and past and also Trinity’s previous syllabi.
AE: Are there any particular holes in the repertoire list that concerns you?
KM: Trinity refers to music in their published albums as “core repertoire”. I found the term used in this context a little curious.
Core repertoire up to Grade 5 I believe to be things like Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Pieces and Bartók’s For Children amongst other things. None of this core standard piano repertoire appears in the syllabus. And to add to that, the Anna Magdalena Bach book and Schumann’s Album for the Young (again core repertoire) only appear on the alternative lists – there’s nothing in the main exam albums.
Bartók, Beethoven and Chopin – three of the most important composers for piano – only appear at Grade 8. I state again, I think it’s terribly important that this syllabus is supplemented by the teacher to include traditional repertoire content to prepare particularly for Trinity’s own Grades 4 and 8, which are much more demanding both notationally, technically and stylistically.
AE: So do you think there is perhaps a lack of balance?
KM: Is it possible to prepare a “balanced programme” from some of the lists? What is Trinity’s definition of a “balanced programme”, as the syllabus includes so much contemporary music by living composers?
According to the Trinity Syllabus page 9, Learning Outcome number 1 is this: “Perform music in a variety of styles set for the grade.”
And yet – Nowhere on the syllabus does it state that candidates are penalised for not providing balance – so what’s the incentive to do so for those simply wanting to play one genre?
AE: Any other pedagogical concerns?
KM: I think some of the fingering is unusual and not user-friendly for small hands.
Also, if a teacher goes with ‘the easiest’ pieces in a Grade the student could appear to be at a Grade higher than they really are in terms of their playing ability (especially if they don’t choose Sight Reading supporting test below Grade 6, and the teacher doesn’t cover it anyway).
In an inexperienced pair of hands who struggles to plan curriculum, the syllabus could produce some quite considerable holes.
AE: Will you be continuing to use the syllabus yourself?
KM: Yes – I will still be using the Trinity syllabus for a some of my students. It will work well for those who simply want to play pieces they like and enjoy.
AE: Thank you so much for sharing your insights Karen!
It is difficult to summarise the various strengths and weaknesses evident in this new Trinity College London piano syllabus, and to do so in a way which balances the positive and negative aspects.
I hope that Trinity College London will take on board the feedback offered in this review, and that it will feed their continued efforts towards our common aim of facilitating excellent music education and engaging more players.
There is certainly some fabulous music offered here…
As the 2017/18 ABRSM Piano Syllabus is widely deemed to be more difficult and less appealing than usual, some will undoubtedly want to explore the alternative that Trinity offer – and I think they will find that the music in the new Trinity syllabus is considerably more engaging across almost all the grades.
However, the issue of balance is an important one, and this can mean including some more “serious” pieces to balance the attractive “fun” ones. I agree with Karen’s assessment about the potential pedagogic dangers lurking here.
Teachers who adopt this syllabus need to do so with awareness of the need to plan carefully in the process. I would also encourage teachers to have the courage to abandon the fingering in the books where it doesn’t suit, and spend time with each student working out more effective alternatives if necessary.
Finally, I return (as so often in reviews here!) to my stock advice that teachers should take some time to explore this syllabus for themselves, and make up their own minds about whether the material provided, and the assessments based on it, fit comfortably alongside their own teaching ideals and their students present needs.